Finding a way to stay focused and be productive is easily the most challenging aspect of game design for me. There are so many things that sidetrack me from writing, editing, and testing. I own a comic book store which requires a large amount of my attention and mental bandwidth. Social media, gaming, and Netflix are fun distractions, and when you work from home are far too easy to get sucked into for extended periods of time. I currently have 11 projects which I consider to be “active”. Just the sheer number of things I have to work on can be a discouragement from plowing through and getting them accomplished. “The list of to-dos never ends, so why bother?”. Here’s a few tips to help you (and me!) stay on task.
Schedule time to design
I know this sounds crazy, but do you actually block out time in your schedule, or do you just have an ongoing to-do type list? Scheduling time to work on your games is a great first step to holding yourself accountable to getting work done. Even if you’re not feeling inspired or have hit a writer’s block, use this time to watch some game reviews or read design related articles. You never know where inspiration will come from.
Try to reduce distractions
I’ve got a terrible habit of leaving 6 to 10 tabs open in my browser. Facebook, Twitter, two different emails, Pandora, a game news RSS feed, Reddit, plus anything pertaining to what I’m currently researching for a game. Just now, while I was typing this paragraph, I checked to see which tabs I had open and started paging through each of them to see if there was anything new to read and lost about 10 minutes. Try to limit how many tabs you have open and limit the numbers of times or how often you check them. If it helps, set a timer for an hour and only stop to check these other tabs when it goes off. Spend 5 minutes looking for anything important to address, then reset the timer for an hour and get back to work.
It almost sounds counterproductive to walk away from the work you’re doing and take a break. However, spending a few minutes to stretch and move around will help to get your blood flowing and keep you refreshed. The better you feel, the better your work will be. My most common break activity is to take the dogs on a 10-minute walk around the block. The fresh air and light exercise can help to clear out the cobwebs.
Write a clear list of small goals
Don’t work without purpose and don’t work with too broad of a goal. One of my bad habits is just to list the macro goals like: edit game X, edit game Y, and edit game Z. There could actually be 2 or 3 tasks for each of those games you want to get done. If you break it down and check each of them off as you go, not only will it keep you better focused, it’ll break up the day a bit and help you feel a bit more accomplished to see 8 or 9 items checked off instead of 2 or 3.
This is a tough one. A lot of people telecommute, but they still have a company and a boss which they’re reporting to. As game designers, we follow a very lonely path with no one but ourselves to hold us accountable. During those times when you get unfocused, it’s very easy to finish one of your smaller sub-tasks and think, “I deserve a reward”. 2 hours later, I’m ripping myself away from a game of Heroes of the Storm wondering where the time went.
Back in September of 2015, I realized that this was one of my biggest problems. There was no one holding me accountable, so I kept putting things off. I didn’t feel any immediacy to what I was doing. I reached out to one of my closest friends, shared my goals, and asked if he would be willing to be my “project manager”. After lots of discussion, he was kind enough to join in on my crazy adventure. Once a week we have an hour long Skype meeting. I update him on what I’ve gotten done since our last talk, pitch new game ideas, discuss blog topics, what we’ve been playing, new Kickstarter projects we’ve looked at, and set goals for the next week. Doing this has made an immense difference in how I approach my week. I know that by Friday, I have to accomplish what I said that I’d do. No, he can’t write me up, or punish me in any way, but I would be letting him down if I didn’t accomplish what I said that I would. I hate letting people down.
One other thing that has helped me in this area was something Eric Lang said in a design panel at Dice Tower Con 2015. Schedule a playtest EVERY WEEK, whether you want to or not. I started by having one every other week, but it has evolved into a weekly occurrence. When you see that test on the calendar, you’ve got a hard date by which you need to have your editing done and new version of your game printed. Doing this has been great for keeping the pressure on to continue evolving designs through playtest feedback.
Don’t overdo it
Yet another one of my own tips that I find it hard to follow. There’s just too much to do and not enough time in the day, but I try to do it all. We all need to find ways to relax. Spend time with family and friends. Go see a movie. Play games (!). Just don’t work so long and so hard that you get too stressed out to enjoy the process of designing games.
What are your tips and tricks to stay focused and productive?