What Speedrunning Gamers Teach Us About Being More Productive at Work

Illustration of worker speedrunning tasks and checking his times

Lots of people still think that video games are the drug of choice for procrastinators. They drain productivity, they certainly don’t fuel it.

“Bollocks,” a speedrunner would say.

Speedrunning is literally the opposite of laziness. In a speedrun, gamers set out to complete a video game (already an impressive feat) in the shortest amount of time possible. They do this by carefully planning gameplay routes, taking clever shortcuts using sequence breaking, and exploiting tips and tricks not known to all gamers.

Basically, they’re trying to find a faster and more efficient way of achieving an end goal. Something we all want to do when we’re at work. There’s nothing worse than administrative tedium slowing down our progress on a project.

So, what tips can we take from speedrunners that could help us be more productive at work?

Speedrunning life: from memorizing traffic lights to peeing in the shower

If you’re a speedrunner, you’re probably already speedrunning certain aspects of your life. You might even be doing it subconsciously. While researching for this article, I found examples of people employing all kinds of little optimizations to get stuff done faster, from the silly to the funny to actually-that’s-rather-clever.

One person memorized the traffic light cycles on their walk to work to determine whether to wait for the lights at the intersection or go through the subway tunnel underneath it. Another said that it’s quicker to press the “door close” button on the elevator before selecting the floor. One man pees in the shower to shorten his morning routine. Actually, I found two peeing optimizations. The other was peeing and flushing at the same time.

A letter carrier for the USPS explained that she does her daily route in a speedrunning frame of mind. She gets the mail ready for each house differently, depending on the type of mailbox. She does large parcel drops in one go before parking up to do the mail drops. She carefully times her restroom stops, scans parcels on the way to the door so she can put them down, complete the scan, and knock on the door in one seamless motion… I felt like I was speedrunning with her just reading it!

And the sense I get from these speedrunners of life is that they’re loving it.* There are, I’d imagine, two reasons for this. Speedrunners get a kick out of finishing tasks as quickly as possible, but in streamlining routine and repetitive aspects of your day, the bigger reward comes from freeing up time for more valuable or enjoyable ventures.

*Apart from the girlfriend of the man who started speedrunning their sex sessions. Note that there are some things in life you shouldn’t speedrun!

Speedrunning techniques at work

From what I can see, there are three fundamental characteristics of video game speedrunning that could be ported over to the workplace:

  • Time pressure
  • Well-defined goals
  • Having a “gamer attitude”

Let’s look at what each of these mean and how they could apply to the work environment.

Time pressure

Speedrunning a video game is all about time pressure: you have to finish it as fast as possible.

There is time pressure in the office, but it’s usually motivated by deadlines, which make for an entirely different sort of time pressure. Although deadlines can be useful, they also promote procrastination. Many people will leave work till the last minute and procrastinate till the deadline looms and they have no choice but to get on with it.

In speedrunning, there are no deadlines and no procrastination. You have to finish the game not by a certain date or time, but as quickly as possible from the moment you start it. You can’t wait; waiting hurts you.

By speedrunning certain tasks in the workplace, you change the time pressure you’re under from externally motivated to internally motivated. You’re equally as productive, but the overall experience can be more positive and rewarding. Deadlines can lead to resentment because they’re imposed by someone else and have the potential to be unreasonable (which typically happens if the person imposing it doesn’t understand how much work is really involved). This, in turn, can result in undue stress. By virtue of the fact that speedrunning-style time pressure comes entirely from within, you’re less likely to experience stress and more likely to enjoy it. You’re not doing it because someone’s on your back about it. You’re doing it to challenge yourself.

Sure, we’ll never be able escape deadlines, but if your work is dominated by them, you can still adopt a speedrunning state of mind to cope with them better.

Well-defined goals

The goal of a speedrun is to complete a video game as fast as possible. How you complete it is usually well-defined by the game itself, and this is key. In order to cross a finish line, you need to know where it is.

Completion of a video game will typically involve one overarching goal and a series of mini goals, such as collecting a bunch of items or completing a level. In Minecraft, the overarching goal is to kill the Ender Dragon. You also have to find diamonds along the way: the mini goals. The mini goals or “checkpoints” serve as dopamine boosts that keep the gamer’s motivation high as they work towards the overarching goal.

Then there’s the “as quickly as possible” part. This involves setting another goal, namely a “challenge” goal. It’s similar to the mini goals or “checkpoints” in that it helps maintain motivation.

At work, you might have a project you’re working on, like the release of a new feature, product, or campaign. Completing this project is your overarching goal. In order to complete it, you’ll need to complete a number of smaller tasks, which are your mini goals. Then, you and your team can set yourselves a challenge goal to release said feature or campaign as quickly as possible.

Scrum teams already have something of a speedrunning mentality. Their challenge goal comes in the form of sprints, which are 2-4 week stints where they try and get a certain amount of work completed as quickly as they can.

They’ll also organize their work according to a hierarchy of goals. If they use Jira, which many agile teams do, their overarching goal could be to complete a large body of work called an epic, which gets broken down into smaller tasks or stories. Alternatively, the overarching goal could be to complete a story that is broken down into sub-tasks. Advanced Roadmaps for Jira users can also make their overarching goal an initiative, which is a collection of epics that drive towards the high-level priorities of the organization.

Whatever hierarchy of goals you have, the important thing is that the work required to complete each goal is defined well. This is why good planning is needed. People need clarity on what they’re supposed to do on a task, which requires healthy communication and a strong commitment to the work management tools you’re using. For example, if you’re using Jira, you need to make sure that your tickets have clear and detailed instructions for the people you’re assigning them to. And no more meetings where team members come out with more questions than answers. (There are some great apps if bad planning is getting in the way of having well-defined goals in your organization.)

It also means celebrating the mini goals or “checkpoints” as you complete them. Agile teams have the potential to get these dopamine boosts every time they move a ticket to the “Done” column of their agile board, and then again at the end of the sprint when they get to review their completed tasks at the sprint retrospective.

Gamer attitude

Gamers choose which games to play and will speedrun a game because they want to. It won’t feel like a chore because they go in with a “gamer attitude”. They’re positive about playing, excited for the challenges ahead, and hopeful they’ll do well. They don’t see the obstacles of the game as obstacles but as opportunities to overcome problems.

Workers don’t always choose the individual tasks they have to do. There will be times when we don’t feel like doing the work, and our tasks will feel like chores. However, most of us did choose our jobs, generally because we thought we would enjoy it or find it rewarding. And if we choose to speedrun a particular task, we’re choosing to put other things on pause for the sake of getting this particular task done faster.

At work, we often feel frustrated when a challenge arises. But if a video game had no challenges, it wouldn’t sell. Gamers love them. That’s the whole point. And although on the face of it, a challenge at work might not seem as fun to overcome, a lot of it has to do with attitude. Adopt a gamer attitude and you might just start enjoying your work more.

Conclusion

The TL;DR is that there are three main characteristics of video game speedrunning that can help us be more productive in life and work. These are the time pressure of trying to complete something as fast as possible; having well-defined overarching and mini goals; and having a “gamer attitude” to what we’re doing.

So, start doing your work under the time pressure of an internally motivated challenge rather than an externally motivated deadline. Make sure that by the end of your planning sessions you know exactly what your goals are and how to achieve them. And remember that you’ve chosen to speedrun this particular task, so go in with a positive attitude and enjoy it.

Oh, and remember, not every task is appropriate for speedrunning, like sex. :wink:

Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.