My summer job as a teenager was tending to plants at a nursery.
A hot summer day to prune roses is not pleasant — it takes a lot of sweat and blood. But there’s a very real sense of accomplishment when you’re done. You turn around and see the hundreds of plants you just cleaned, and you know for sure that you did something. It’s a tangible sense of progress.
I believe that humanity has always craved that kind of achievement. The desk job doesn’t provide it.
That’s why my coworker is building LEGO rockets at his home office.
Yield of brick by brick
Fokke Zandbergen, a senior engineer at Zapier, contacted me because he was inspired by an article I wrote in 2014.
It’s about how I put together a simple LEGO brick set with a Pomodoro timer. I would work for 25 minutes, put a brick on the pedestal, then take a five-minute break. The idea was that, at the end of the workday, I would have a physical manifestation of the day’s work to review. I’ll grant you, it’s not a hoop house full of tidy rose plants, but it’s something—and it works well for me.
Fokke tried the same system, with a few tweaks. First, he places blocks across the room, so he’ll have to get up and walk to them after completing the quest. “I wanted to force myself to get out of my chair, get up and look out the window for a bit,” he told me.
Second, he doesn’t use the Pomodoro timer. “The 25-minute timeline doesn’t fit my workflow,” he says. “So instead, I force myself to decide on a specific task to do, actually get to work on it, record what I did, then take a break.”
And there’s one more tweak: Fokke color-codes his bricks.
“I used different colors to represent how I feel about spending my time,” he tells me. The red boxes represent a waste of time, the yellow represents a good session, and the blue indicates a very productive session (he is less green).
This setup worked—when he used it.
For days, he forgot to use the system, and those days were consistently less productive. Fokke tried placing his snacks next to the bricks, thinking he would be more likely to get up if there was food, but even that wasn’t motivating enough.
So Fokke decided to take things to the next level.
Fokke concludes that the problem with bricks is that there is no progress over time. The date ends, then you reset. For a while, he leaves a single brick on the board, so that he starts the next day with some progress. It helped, but it still doesn’t do the trick.
So he started building an entire LEGO set.
“My wife and kids bought me a Saturn V, so I’m building that car,” he told me. “Every time I complete a task, I take a step in the tutorial.”
Fokke estimates this unique set will last for a while. “The rocket has 330 steps, but there are a lot of steps that you have to repeat,” he said. “So I’ll be busy for quite a while.”
There’s something about seeing clear progress, day in and day out, that drives Fokke in a way that lists to-dos and time-tracking doesn’t.
“Unless a time management app is blocking part of my screen, it’s easy to ignore it,” he says. “However, a LEGO set? I can’t ignore that.”
As odd as it may seem, building LEGO sets in your office. But digital work doesn’t give you much indication…
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