cultivate your play ethic

This is a guest post by Hannah Kane.

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If you’re an independent artist or entrepreneur, you may have been told that you have a good work ethic. You must have pulled your share of all-nighters, worked through weekends while your friends went to the beach, or gone above and beyond in some way to please a client. In these modern times, a strong work ethic is lauded as a key to success and a sign of character.

I’m not going to make the point that we should work less. I’m sure we’re all here because we’ve made the commitment to do what we love, so working less isn’t an issue. Instead, I would like to argue for cultivating a strong play ethic to complement your work ethic.

Developing a strong play ethic not only increases our level of personal happiness, it also stretches our creativity muscles, allowing us to form a creativity habit that’s hard to break.

So, what does it mean to have a strong play ethic? It means taking the same high standards you would apply to your work and applying them to your “leisure” activities. In the same way that you would nail the details of a work project, you aim to nail the details of a surprise party you’re throwing for a friend. And just like you would exceed your client’s expectations, you exceed your partner’s expectations when planning a romantic picnic. Or you can apply the same level of perseverance you would use to overcome a professional obstacle to meeting the logistical challenges of organizing a family reunion.

Play is a skill that can be honed just like any other.

You can go as far as creating a “play practice,” intentionally incorporating play into your daily work and life routines until a habit is formed. Consider these elements of a play practice:

Game-ify everything. This strategy is often recommended in order to make everyday mundane things like housecleaning, exercising, or driving to work more tolerable. While that’s a pleasant side effect, there are other benefits, like engaging your brain in creative problem-solving. The next time you run into a problem, consider how applying game mechanics (strategy, rules, arbitrarily limited resources) might help you discover a solution. A friend of mine who edits a popular blog sometimes finds it challenging to pick photos to accompany blog entries about non-visual topics. When this happens she invites her friends to play a fast-paced free association word game in order to spark ideas.

Let’s pretend (or: purposeful repurposing). Kids know that a piece of cardboard can be used as a pirate ship’s plank, or that an empty box can serve double duty as a rocketship. We grown-ups can exercise our imaginations by repurposing just about anything – whether it’s an everyday item, a familiar tool, or a standard practice. A colleague of mine has been borrowing ideas from a common software development process to help plan her wedding. Now that’s useful repurposing!

Bring a level of “playful seriousness” to something that, upon first blush, doesn’t seem to warrant it. Another friend was recently put in charge of acquiring snacks for a short staff retreat, a task that seemed relatively simple and required nothing more than a trip to the grocery store. But she decided to treat it as “a real project,” crafting a survey full of silly questions like, “True or false – melon-based fruit salad is the biggest racket in the food industry.” She illustrated the survey results in a five-page full-color report, complete with infographics. It wasn’t necessary, but her co-workers appreciated the attention to detail and it helped set a positive tone for the retreat.

When you start incorporating the play strategies above into all aspects of your life (both work and leisure), you’ll find that you increase your brain’s flexibility, learning, and problem-solving. Play has even been linked to optimism, resilience, and happiness. Not bad for something that’s typically relegated to childhood, right?

What strategies do you employ to cultivate your play ethic?

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If Hannah could go back to college, she’d major in Theme Parties and Scavenger Hunts with a minor in Board Games, since those are the things she likes best. Hannah has 12 years of theme party and scavenger hunt planning experience, and plays a mean game of Bananagrams. She is the winner of the 2010 Pietopia: Life in a Pie essay and recipe contest, has released a record of songs about running away, and can solve a standard Rubik’s Cube in under two minutes. Most importantly, she is a Space Camp graduate. Hannah blogs at Everybody’s Invited!, tweets @evrybdysinvited, and is Facebook-able at

8 thoughts on “cultivate your play ethic

  1. A great way to have a tense business meeting – add LEGOs! Who doesn’t love building with those tiny, colorful blocks? When playing with my 5-yr-old, we have some deep and intense conversations. I can only imagine what a pile of LEGOs on the conference table might inspire in the boardroom :)

  2. Fun post. I don’t know if you’ve read Huizenga’s Homo Ludens, but though it’s “academic,” it’s seriously fun. And one of my favorite quotes by Philip Roth: “Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends.” Cheers for you posting, Hannah!

    1. Thanks, Heather. I will add Homo Ludens to my reading list. And thanks also for the Philip Roth quote – he’s one of my favorite authors!

  3. Good ideas if one wants to put as much effort into play as one does into work. Quite honestly though all I want to do when I play is “Play.” I don’t want to put that much effort into my play time. That’s not to say I don’t plan events and try to make them as fun and enjoyable as possible, but I simply cannot see myself putting the same effort into play as I do work. It will then seem too much like work which is the condition I am trying to escape.

    So, I may put a “play” date on the calendar for Saturday at the park and grab the kites or sailboats or sidewalk chalk on the way out the door I want the event to remain unstructured. If we find a puppeteer putting on a show or a workshop then the kite flying may wait for another day. If I pack a lunch, but we come across a street vendor selling something that just tickles the fancy then lunch in the basket will be served later or tomorrow.

    My “work” life is rigidly programmed and it yields results. My play time is unstructured and spontaneous and yields a different set of results. For me they are two different paradigms and I am most comfortable keeping them that way.

    Thanks for your ideas–I think it is important that we all accept our own methods of dealing with the events in our lives.

    1. Thanks, Laura, for sharing your perspective. I think you’re right on to point out that having a separation between work and play can be really healthy (and necessary for many people).

      I like bringing aspects of each to the other because it helps me to feel I’m expressing my whole self as I move through the different parts of my life, but I can appreciate the desire to treat fun as simply….fun. :)

      Thanks for reading!

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