How To Make Work Feel More Like Summer Camp

How to make your workplace a little more kumbaya—without the campfires.

Many of us have fond memories of summer camp. I looked forward every year to heading off into the woods for a week, eating under the fans in the screened-in mess hall, sleeping in my bunk, and swimming in the lake.

Why do people like camp so much? It’s pretty much structured for maximum human happiness. Work usually isn’t. But the good news is, it can be. Here’s how you can borrow some of the best elements of summer camp to make work more awesome.

1. Make something to look forward to every day.

At camp, the days are full of good stuff. On any given day, you don’t just go for a swim, you put on a talent show, and roast marshmallows too. At work, on the other hand, you probably spend a lot of time on auxiliary stuff before you ever get to the deep work that drew you to your profession in the first place.

To make work more fun, flip that equation around. Schedule multiple sessions of work you actually want to do through the day so the next one is only a few hours in the future. That will help keep even a boring meeting in context. It’s the equivalent of pitching your tent before enjoying your camp out. Necessary, but not the main thing.

2. Make sure your projects involve progress.

If you start a project at camp, you will finish it. You will actually put on the puppet show, or produce a friendship bracelet you can wear. This creates a great sense of autonomy and satisfaction.

This can happen at work, too. For their 2011 book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analyzed 12,000 work diary entries. They found that people were happiest when they sensed forward momentum in meaningful work.

Small wins are powerful. Progress is motivating. Unfortunately, many work projects become so diffuse as to obliterate this source of happiness. Whenever possible, try to be on a project from start to finish, and staff your teams to see projects through to completion as well.

3. Get out outside and be active.

Fresh air is a known mood booster. So is exercise. Camp features plenty of both. Work, on the other hand, can mean sitting in an artificially-lit, window-less cube all day, unless you consciously choose to change that. Instead of cruising to Facebook or checking your email when you need a break, go outside. Walk briskly around the building, and come in ten times more energized than you were before.

4. Force yourself to Socialize—in person.

On scales of human happiness, socializing and connecting with friends scores near the top. At camp, there are all kinds of opportunities for spending time with other people. You’re not even grabbing breakfast on the fly. You’re sitting down with your cabin mates and enjoying it.

At work, you don’t want to over-dictate people’s schedules, but buying your team lunch once a week can be a good way to make sure everyone has a chance to interact and get to know each other in a relaxed fashion without intruding into non-work hours. Organizing an afternoon tromp to Starbucks at tea time can make for a fun excursion, too.

5. Change your perception of time.

A final reason kids love camp: It’s separate from the long and normal school year. Precisely because you know time is limited, you’re more likely to try new things, to let down your guard and make new friends, and commit what’s happening to memory. Work has, on its surface, more in common with normal life than those magical summer months.

But if you think about it, most jobs aren’t eternal either. Chances are, you’ll move on in a few years. If you get a new job every four years, and a work year is 2000 hours, that means each job is a mere 8,000 hours of your life. Knowing that, what would you like to get out of this time? What do you hope you’ll remember? By answering that question, you increase the chances that, years hence, you look back on this job fondly—if not as fondly as camp, at least more fondly than you otherwise would.

[Image: Flickr user vastateparksstaff]

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2 Comments

  • tammi

    LOVE your story. I just chucked a 34 year TV career to take women back to sleepaway camp for the weekend for this very reason: to remind them to step outside of their heads and their air conditioned offices once in awhile, and go back to a place where exploration and creativity is encouraged. At Campowerment, we're trying to help women live better in every aspect of our lives, by remembering that productivity and happiness can improve significantly if we can just relearn to approach every challenge with the excitement of a 12 year old. Thank you Laura, for that awesome reminder that we are never too old to think like we used to. Check us out www.campowerment.com

  • LOVE your story. I just chucked a 34 year TV career to take women back to sleepaway camp for the weekend for this very reason: to remind them to step outside of their heads and their air-conditioned offices once in awhile, and go back to a place where exploration and creativity is encouraged.

    At Campowerment, we're trying to help women live better in every aspect of our lives, by remembering that productivity and happiness can improve significantly if we can just relearn to approach every challenge with the excitement of a 12-year-old.

    Thank you Laura, for the awesome reminder that we are never too old to think like we used to. Check us out www.campowerment.com!