For this week’s iDevBlogADay entry, I’m going to write about how to stay focused on making your game by eliminating distractions and procrastination. This stuff helped me a ton while I was working on Trainyard, so I hope you’ll find it useful too.


When I was young I had Attention Deficit Disorder. Not the fake kind of ADD that everyone likes to think they have, but real, Ritalin taking, psychiatrist visiting ADD. When I was in grade four, my parents gave me a calendar where I would get a star sticker for every day that I didn’t get sent out of class. There are months in that calendar where I only earned a single star.

I still have ADD, but thankfully I’ve left the Ritalin and the psychiatrist visits behind. At times I find it almost impossible to focus and concentrate on my work (as I bet my co-workers could tell you). It sucks, but it’s just the way things are, so I’ve had to come up with some strategies for dealing with it so that I can get work done anyway.

I’m telling you this because even if you don’t have ADD, you’ve no doubt had times when it’s been incredibly hard to get work done without being distracted. I’ve come up with a few things that help me stay focused, and I figure if they can help me, there’s a good chance they can help you too. This is especially important for those of you who, like me, are trying to develop games in your spare time. Every wasted minute is time you could have been spending on your game.

Stop playing games

Stop playing games. Seriously. Not fun little indie games or iPhone games, but the soul-sucking, time-stealing, life-owning games like World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Counter-Strike. As a general rule, if it has online multiplayer, a strong social aspect and isn’t free, you’ve got the recipe for a life-owning game.

I am a HUGE Starcraft fan. I spent well over 500 hours in high school playing it, and even spent 50 hours playing the Starcraft 2 beta a few months ago.  When Starcraft 2 was released on July 27th and my preordered Collector’s Edition arrived, it happened to be at the same time I was putting the finishing touches on Trainyard Express. I gave myself an ultimatum: no Starcraft 2 until Trainyard Express got submitted to the App Store. To this date, three months after the game arrived and one month after submitting Trainyard Express, I still haven’t played the game. I finally learned my lesson, and I’m getting more work done now than I ever did.

Before Starcraft 2, it was Team Fortress 2, before TF2, it was Day of Defeat, before that, it was World of Warcraft. The list of my game addictions goes on. I know there are some people that don’t play these kind of games, but I’d say those people should consider themselves lucky. It’s incredibly hard to play this sort of game only “sometimes”. They become your go-to distraction when you’re even a tiny bit unsure about what you should be working on. Ultimately, they get in the way of you completing your game.

I wish I could say “you should cut down on your World of Warcraft playing” and it would magically help, but in reality, even if you cut down on your WOW playing now, it’ll just start up again when Cataclysm comes out or when one of your real life friends asks what realm you’re on, or whatever. I can only suggest what worked for me, which was to quit cold turkey.


Email and Twitter are two huge sources of distraction for me, but I’ve learned to make them into active distractions rather than passive ones. I give myself specific windows of time where it’s ok to check my email or go on Twitter, and the rest of the time, they’re completely closed and gone from my mind. This means I don’t keep Outlook or TweetDeck open, and I definitely don’t have my phone set to send me notifications for my email.

Some people will have other sources of distraction like message boards, instant messaging and IRC. All of these are fine in moderation, but it’s good to keep track of just how much of your time they take. If they’re eating into your game-making time, you make have to take some steps to reduce their impact on your lifestyle. If you’re still not convinced that IRC is dangerous, you should probably watch the video below.


I’m sure everyone has dealt with procrastination at some point (maybe you’re even doing it right now). It’s basically when you put off the things you should be doing by doing something else. In my case, it’s lead to many late nights in the final few days of projects because I waited till the very last second to do most of the work.

It wasn’t until I read a Newsweek article titled The Lure of Tomorrow that I really began to understand the causes of procrastination. It’s not as simple as just “delaying stuff that has to be done”. Instead, it really comes down to the difference between abstract and concrete tasks. Abstract tasks are those that are slightly nebulous and unknown, whereas concrete tasks are things that are obvious and cut-and-dry.

Think about the difference between these two questions: “Tell me a type of dog?” and “Tell me why humans have a strong bond with dogs?”. The first question would be easy to answer, and the second would take a lot more thought.

In game development, there are lots of uncertain tasks. You’ve got to think about everything from how the game engine will be structured to what colour to make the enemy hats. Sometimes it can be fun, so you’ll just do it, but other times, you’ll suddenly find yourself getting distracted much more easily.

The antidote

The best cure for procrastination I’ve found is to turn abstract tasks into concrete ones. A lot of this can be done with careful planning. If you know exactly what you’re going to be doing, tasks become less mysterious and more achievable.

I’ve also found it helps to make incredibly granular todo lists. Separate every task into subtasks, and then separate those subtasks into sub-subtasks. It may seem crazy, but it works.

Wrapping up

This post is missing a section on motivation, but that’s only because it’s such a big and complex topic I decided I should write about it in a future post. In the meantime, I hope you found these tips helpful. If they worked for me, they can work for you too.

Tomorrow (Oct 27th), I’ll be doing a presentation at FlashInTO here in Toronto about the Trainyard “story so far”. It’ll be based on the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago, but with a bit more of a Flash slant. Feel free to drop by and say hi if you’re in the area!

A month after I wrote this post, I discovered pretty much the best post on procrastination ever:

This entry was posted in iDevBlogADay, Workflow. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Focus

  1. Bobby says:

    Well said. This is exactly why I didn’t buy Starcraft 2 and I am trying to get a lot done before Diablo 3.

    The secret is putting that secret sauce into your own game so that people keep coming back to it and hopefully getting their friends hooked.

    I also find that listening to music without words helps me. If I know the words, my brain starts singing them and I lose my line of thought.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Focus | --

  3. ron says:

    Distractions are a huge problem in the workplace today. I don’t wanna think about how many billions of dollars are lost annually because of them – and in turn, lots of jobs, particularly.

    I have worked in so many (game development) offices where people play wow, poker, or watch full movies/TV shows (or just chat online) while they are supposed to be dedicated to working. It’s ridiculous and it makes one aware why some games get so delayed or improperly planned to begin with. I can only see this getting worse before it gets better.

    It’s definitely hard to maintain that structure working independently as well. When I get a paid gig, it’s easy to tear thru it because “the sooner I get this done, the sooner I get paid and in turn possibly get more work” – but when there’s a lull and I am working on my own stuff, it does tend to go all over the place at times (especially when other parts of my team aren’t waiting on me for anything).

    Self-discipline and structure (no pun intended.. well, kinda) are of utmost importance in any kind of work, great blog post!

  4. Hey, great post!

    I don’t think you have to completely give up playing games (I play StarCraft 2 myself). I actually find it very inspiring and a large chunk of the success of TowerMadness I attribute to my experience with Blizzard games.

    What helped me a lot was to log down the work hours (we’ve got an spreadsheet for that) and set myself a goal of working 8 hours a day on average (like on a normal job). It really pushes me further to just spend a little more time on this and that.

    Also, I really force myself to do all the tasks ASAP. If there is a mail that needs answering, do it right away. If there is a little fix to apply, do it right away. That really helps not generating an overwhelmingly huge backlog of tasks.

    Finally, your “antidote” is such an important thing. The most times I’m not productive, it’s because I have not understood the problem and I don’t know how to tackle it. In that case, it’s easy to drift away and distract yourself with other things. Creating a very detailed plan and populate your ticket tracker really, really helps.


    • Matt says:

      Yeah I should point out that super-addictive games are probably a bit more manageable if you’re making games full time, but they’re the death of productivity when you’re working part time (at least in my experience, hah).

      • Alex O says:

        I can vouch for this. When I was part time I literally have to give up gaming to get anything done. Because I worked on our games in the evenings. It was tough, because I played similar games (SC2, QuakeLive, Bad Company 2) that were all online and all my friends were egging me to join them. It is tough!

  5. Leon says:

    Oh god, yes. World of Warcraft destroyed so much of my time it’s almost criminal. Someone should sue Blizzard for making such addictive games. (Note: Usually I’m not that hardcore gamer type who gets hooked up on playing for hours – but it’s different with Blizzard’s heroin games.)

  6. Raveen says:

    Brilliantly written. I’d just like to say, over the last couple of years I’ve been struggling with the very same issues you’re talking about here and although I’ve read a lot of articles or studies on it. They didn’t get me thinking quite like what you’ve said here.
    For one, I did stop playing MMO’s. Which used to suck the blood out of me back in the day.

    Another thing that I have not really tried out well is writing a detailed ToDo list and keeping to it. I’ve tried simple ones before and worked on a few things (and this is on something I love doing, working on animation) on it and then somehow trailed off. *Shame*

    I’ll try out some of the things you mentioned! :D

    Thank you for taking your time to write that article. :)

  7. cyberbum says:

    Great article!! I have done many of the same things. The more there are things in your life (in my case my awesome family and kids), the more you have to be structured and disciplined. I haven’t played major console games in well over a year, I only play iPhone games. Of course I agonize over not being to play God of War 3, Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, but if I play these, I have no time left for development.

    One awesome application I have found is Rescue Time ( You tell it which applications/websites are “productive” and time wasters, and it tracks time for you. So I can easily tell that last week on average I spent X hours per day in Xcode for example. It’s something more concrete that can help motivate you to do more efficient work!

  8. Brett Hamlin says:

    Matt, nice post, I enjoyed reading it. What you say is all too true…

    Does reading this blog fall under distractions ;-) j/k

  9. Luke Mildenhall-Ward says:

    I recently discovered some great advice from Merlin Mann of on how to get past procrastination in a much easier, and more natural way. In fact, for me, it ended up making boring tasks fun.

    It’s called scheduling your breaks. Not only do you allow yourself a 15 min break every hour (or whatever combination you want; I usually do 10 mins every half an hour), but you force yourself to take those breaks, and for the allotted amount of time. Make yourself check your email or you check that website for updates. Incredibly, as soon as I start scheduling enforced breaks, the work starts to become fun, and I often can’t wait to get back to it when I’m on my break; instead of counting down the minutes to taking a break, you end up counting the minutes to get back to whatever you were working on. But the break has given space to release any procrastinative urges, but also time to think about the task you’re currently working on, and so I often find myself working much faster when get back to work.

    I wish I could find the original link, as it went into much more detail about this. But the basic idea is to stop scheduling your tasks, and schedule breaks instead.


    • Matt says:

      Yeah that’s a great technique, I’ve done “48s” where you work 48 minutes and break for 12. It works really well when you do it, but it’s tricky because once you get into “programming flow” I feel like it’s not always good to take a break, sometimes you need to just plow away at something.

      The pomodoro technique is also similar, but with different timing, I think 25+5.

  10. Wade says:

    This is a great post Matt. I really enjoyed The Lure of Tomorrow article. This is something I battle with constantly. Understanding the problem was a big help. I also had to quit WoW cold turkey. “Hello. My name is Wade and I am a WoW addict. It has been 2 years since my last raid.”

  11. kn00tcn says:

    hey, maybe you should have touched upon this at your flashinto presentation, though it was already very insightful & inspiring

    i’ve kept a log of the past 2 years of what games i play, how much music i make, how much photoshop, etc… but i’ve been procrastinating those very games & personal projects, putting them off due to distractions or not knowing which to start/resume (especially if they’re long or RPGs, which coincidentally i’m not much of a blizzard fan at all, even less with activision being their partner now)

    i’m not one to stick or get addicted to 1, let’s say i have 10-20 that are barely touched for just 3 hours total, a few up to 20hrs, & a bunch that havent even been started, again this being a span of over 2 years

    sounds just like the uncertain tasks you mentioned

    the october unreal development kit came out today, i’d better get cracking on it tomorrow since i’m excited about development these days

  12. Very inspiring reading. Shutting down IMs and splitting task into small, concrete pieces really works! If you don’t know what to focus on, it’s impossible to focus.

    And games… Few years back I used to play a lot of games, and that really took its toll on productivity. Now I’ve been mostly away from games for 2-3 years, but after getting iPhone, some addictive games sometimes slip through… Like few days back when I gave Trainyard a try, it wasted few hours of my time in one sitting!! But it’s very fun and original game, so I forgive you ;) Congratulations on your success!

    I’ve been using Pomodoro technique, but I often find 25 mins too short because of the “flow” and sometimes skip the break completely without noticing. The 48/12 you mentioned in other comment sounds interesting idea so I’ll give it a try. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Excellent post!
    I would say my biggest distractions are blogs (no disrespect lol), and IM. Because a lot of the blogs I read are current events and update multiple times a day I can find myself losing hours reading articles, news stories, and/or watching videos.

    I as of lately kept this under a little control, but really detailing out my latest project, and what I should do everyday. This (like you said) gives me a concrete objective that is hard to miss, compared to scenarios where I try to keep my ambiguous goals for the day in my head, and end up jumping around not completing tasks and ultimately losing productiveness.

    Keep the great posts going!

  14. Josh says:

    Thank you for sharing, i found deleting facebook helped loads, it is such a waste of time. And all you do is look at other people the whole day.

  15. byteblock says:

    I too am blessed with ADD, so naturally I’m a sucker for all the generic ‘ “N” Ways to Increase Concentration!’ articles. Most are shamelessly insulting. I can’t help but resent the author for wasting 5 minutes of my life explaining why a quiet place to study is best. And of course each one hashes it out like they are really diggin deep to bring you these precious gems. Anyway, I liked yours. Sure some of it is pretty basic, but the part about reducing the unknowns involved in a task is very true. There are also many non-obvious benefits from doing this. Last but not least, sub-task and LISTS. Oh where would I be with out my lists? Hell, make lists of lists, if nothing else…you’ll feel like your getting things accomplished. = )

  16. Jove says:

    You took the article right out of my mouth.

    It is a great post, and the comments reflect that people have sought out and found what works for them (instrumental music in the background–definitely!–timed sprints, et cetera).

    However, this is where it falls short: Very few people are going to read this, and even less are going to act upon it. I imagine for most, the pomodoro technique only works once they have kicked the habit and started getting things done, but now need to manage their time a little better.

    For me personally, I had to grow out of it. I have been playing CS, DoD, Starcraft, and Ultima Online as a kid. Most gamers–I assume–start at the early age(5..6?) which is where the tendency to just waste time playing games sinks in, and it becomes harder and harder to break out of it as you grow older.

    One way to help yourself(might be worth adding to the article?) is to surround yourself with people who have already broken the habit and get things done. Working with others who are laser-focused is a good motivation boost, I find in experience.

    Nowadays I tell myself out loud “Get the fuck back to work.” Seems to work :) .

    Cheers from Toronto

  17. joachim says:


    I guess that you are aware that the method you describe with things like breaking down abstract task to concrete tasks are basically Getting Things Done (GTD):

    I don’t follow GTD strictly but have adopted granular tasks (one specific item in each task, trying to avoid words like “investigate” “fix” etc) and use the iPhone app Things as a simple placeholder. Works wonders.

    Another thing to look at is Pomodoro Technique (which you might have heard about too). Basically it is: Try to focus, really focus on a single task for 25 min. No sidetrack into Twitter, mail etc. It is really, really, REALLY hard even for a person not with ADD. Here are some good links:

    Basically GTD is how you plan what activities to do and when. And Pomodoro is how you execute the planned activities.

    Great post BTW.


  18. Pingback: I ♥ Digitalyn Dot Net : The Wordslinger » Focus & stop playing games

  19. Pingback: Productivity vs. The Internet – Andrew Russell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>