James Carse wrote a book titled Finite and Infinite Games (1986). In it, he described the difference between a finite game (like football) and an infinite game. Finite games have a start and finish. They are played within a boundary. There are rules that shape the play on the field, and whoever is the most powerful at the end of the game wins.

Infinite games are ongoing. There is no start and no finish. Once you enter an infinite game, the critical asset is endurance and resilience. Instead of trying to be the most powerful within a time limit, there are only two choices a person has – to enter the game or stay out of the game. Nature is an infinite game that has been running for 3.8 billion years. In nature, if you don’t enter the game, you die. Nature has a long view in its infinite game, and it requires the players to have endurance over time to stay engaged.

Finite and infinite workflow

In human organizations, people often think of their work as finite. Here are some of the thought patterns that reflect this kind of assumption:

  • If I work more hours, I can get caught up on my work.
  • Getting ahead of my work is possible.
  • It is ok to sacrifice my home life or social life because finishing my work will give me a head start on next week’s work.
  • In any given year, there is a finite amount of work that I need to get done and if I work harder, I can finish it.

However, if we thought of our work as infinite, we would see that our workflow will continue to expand due to the complexity of our work lives. We will never catch up with work, because there will always be more. This realization shifts our assumptions about our relationship with work:

  • I can’t get caught up with work because it continues to expand.
  • I need to focus on what is essential in my work and make sure that I get those things done.
  • The overflow of what I can’t accomplish will continue to flow downstream.
  • Worries of not finishing won’t matter because it wasn’t essential in the first place.

Changing my mindset

I now see my work as infinite. When I made this shift in thinking, I realized that work would continue to flow towards me whether I can get it all done or not. Eventually, I adopted the image of a big container with an opening at the top and a hole at the bottom, representing things moving across my desk. I imagined that my work container was sitting under a waterfall filling up. In this image, the work would continue to fill up my calendar and day even if I was moving work out at a rapid pace.

This new perception helped me realize that work would continue to flow to my desk and wouldn’t stop if I work longer hours or got a large chunk of work done. If I work harder or smarter, an infinite framework will continue to generate more work and give me more work than any one person was capable of accomplishing. My best strategy is to ensure I am fit to run a long race. In an infinite game, endurance and resilience matter more than perfection.

Seeing what is essential

Nature shows us how to recognize and focus on the essential. Since nature is a living system, it will continue to move and evolve. This means that something that seems important one day has the potential to disappear the next. For instance, I live in a snowy climate, and it is currently snowing. But tomorrow is supposed to be warm enough for this snowfall to melt. In an infinite game, we would realize that we don’t need to shovel the snow if the weather will take care of it tomorrow.

If this is obvious in nature, why can’t we see it in our work environments? Consider what tasks you are doing that are filling up your time but won’t matter in the long view of things. Remember that endurance and resilience are the primary criteria to participate in an infinite game. So ask yourself, “Why am I not taking care of myself and balancing my work and personal life?” Where are you gaining your strength from – friends, family, workouts, relaxations and vacation? And why aren’t we connecting these activities to the quality of our work?