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 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.
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: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/10/27/procrastination/