Ugh, a post about motivation.
I know what you’re thinking. Probably a bunch of fluffy tips on “thinking positive” or “never giving up.” I think that’s hogwash.
Ask any professional successful developer, and they’ll tell you their secret to being incredibly productive.
Are you ready for that secret?
It usually goes something like this.
Do “the thing.”
Complete “the thing.”
Go to sleep.
Short and simple.
And it’s information everyone sort of knows.
But information isn’t everything.
Entrepreneur Derek Sivers said it best:
“If information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
Last I checked, we’re not.
You can probably do it for a few days, or maybe even weeks. But at some point, life’s unexpected challenges hit you in the face, you fall apart, and you wake up burnt out or completely demotivated and unable to continue.
I’ve been guilty of it. Halfway through a project, when things aren’t going my way, my brain convinces itself that my project was a bad idea to begin with. Then I burn out and sink into a Skyrim marathon before finally calling it quits and chasing after something new.
What do you do to motivate yourself? To get you back on that horse?
Yeah… get this crap away from me.
My Lifelong Journey to Understand Motivation
Over the past decade, I’ve been exploring different methods to understanding motivation, and how to get ourselves to do things.
I’ve connected with executive coaches who work with high-powered CEOs. I’ve read books upon books to find something that can help. I’ve studied the methods of fitness trainers, Olympic athletes and even special forces who are in intensive situations on how to fight through the suck.
I treated myself like a guinea pig, testing out theories and seeing if there are any common threads.
In this post, I’m going to share four mechanisms you can use to uncover the barriers stopping you from creating good art and how to keep yourself motivated.
What the Heck Is a Mechanism?
I hate posts about motivation that try to shoehorn you into one path, like “eat healthy” or “stay focused.”
Motivation strategies are akin to weight loss. You might lose a lot of weight while you diet. But the moment you’re finished that diet, you’ll gain all of your weight back. Similar to motivation, once you tried that “hot new motivational thing,” you’ll forget and fall back into the sadness spiral.
Rather than give you “steps” or “tricks” or “methods,” I’m giving you a mechanism.
The Definition of Mechanism: “A system of parts working together in a machine.”
This post will have four mechanisms that you will use in unison. You’ll find that each mechanism feeds into the others.
And when you’re feeling like your work has lost all meaning, gently revisit each mechanism and start the machine again.
Before We Jump into the Mechanisms
First, everyone is different.
Although I made fun of positive quotes, they DO work for some people (sometimes people just need a tiny boost to get back on their feet. Nothing like watching a episode of Bob Ross to remember that life isn’t so bad).
As you’re exploring these mechanisms, I might give you an example that won’t exactly mesh with you 100% of the way. Rather than have a kneejerk reaction and complain that it doesn’t work for you, focus on the intention and figure out HOW to make it work for you.
Second, it’s important to understand yourself—and what motivates you.
One system that helped me know who I was is StrengthsFinder. You can take the official Gallups test (which is $20) and get this thick PDF of your results, or take the test for free with a purchase of a new StrengthsFinder book.
I do encourage you to check it out. I did this test years ago and still look at my results from time to time. I continue to discover correlations to what motivates me, what kind of work I’m good at, and what kind of work I would prefer to put to the side.
(image via Gallup)
If you feel like StrengthsFinder is just an amped up pseudoscience personality test (I definitely did prior to taking it), I highly recommend you check out the Quora post of others who use StrengthsFinders.
The key takeaway is knowing what makes you tick. The more you know about yourself, the more likely you can find the root of your motivation issues, and nip it in the bud. And trust me: You won’t learn much about yourself without investing time and resources.
Finally, know the difference between being demotivated and being burnt out (and you definitely shouldn’t be crunching and end up burnt out).
- People who recover from being burnt out often return to their projects and goals
- People who recover from being demotivated often leave their projects for good
If you’re suffering burn out, take care of yourself.
This post is covering motivation. Let’s jump right into it.
Mechanism 1: Understanding Why You Procrastinate
STORY: Meet Me Halfway
A guy named Joe finds himself in dire trouble.
His business has gone bust and he’s in serious financial trouble. He’s so desperate he decides to ask God for help.
He begins to pray . . . “God, please help me. I’ve lost my business and if I don’t get some money, I’m going to lose my house as well. Please let me win the lottery.”
Lottery night comes and somebody else wins it.
Joe prays again . . .
“God, please let me win the lottery! I’ve lost my business, my house, and I’m going to lose my car as well.”
Lotto night comes and Joe still has no luck.
Once again, he prays . . .
“My God, why have you forsaken me? I’ve lost my business, my house, and my car. My wife and children are starving. I don’t often ask you for help and I have always been a good servant to you. PLEASE just let me win the lottery this one time so I can get my life back in order.”
Suddenly there is a blinding flash of light as the heavens open and Joe is confronted by the voice of God Himself: “Joe, meet me halfway on this. Buy a ticket.”
Insights from the Story
First, I think this is a funny story. Joe notices all the problems but doesn’t do anything about it.
But dig deeper: this is like your situation.
Your brain hates change. Because to your brain, change may lead to negative feelings like pain and worry. To stop you, your brain tosses mental barriers like “procrastination” and “worry” in your direction.
Your brain is wired to save you from negative feelings. It’s your natural instincts that kick in, wanting you to be safe and stay boring.
But we’re game developers, and we’re anything BUT boring.
Plus, your brain is kind of a jerk.
What You Can Do
So how do you understand why you procrastinate?
Finding the root cause.
If you ever find yourself procrastinating or de-motivated, there was a reason.
Ask yourself: Why am I not working on my project?
Once you get to an answer, dig deeper. Try to get 3-4 layers deep.
For example: Is it really because you have no time? Or is it because you spend an hour on Reddit arguing with trolls? Is it really because that unity plugin is too expensive? Or is it because you can’t figure it out yourself?
And take into consideration that again, your brain is a scumbag and wants to spare your feelings.
Using the What-If Table
Maybe the root cause is that you’re afraid that you’re going to waste all this time building a kick-butt game, only to be mocked online and get zero returns.
In this situation, use a What-If Table to figure out if your fear is real, or just your imagination. I took this idea from Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Workweek.
Here’s how it works: Draw 3 columns.
Column 1 – Understand: What is the fear?
Column 2 – Alleviate: What are some steps you can do to reduce that problem?
Column 3 – Recover: If the worse-case scenario happened, what can you do to get back up?
Let’s use the What-If table on the example above.
Column 1 – Understand: You make a game, and it fails.
Column 2 – Alleviate: Validating the idea early in the development cycle is a start. Or Marketing early is also an option. Maybe it’s building a tribe of fans before you create a release date.
Column 3 – Recover: You worry that you launch and it still fails. How do you get back up? It might be salvageable—if there was a lot of attention to the idea, but it failed on the execution. Maybe you can rip the resources and framework and build a new game. Or use what you made as a “proof of concept” and join a small team.
Mechanism 2: Define Your Goal
STORY: The 4-Minute Mile
According to legend, experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of a 4-minute mile. It wasn’t just dangerous: it was downright impossible.
Further legends hold that people had tried for over a thousand years to break the barrier, even tying bulls behind them to increase the incentive to do the impossible.
In the 1940s, the mile record was pushed to 4:01, where it stood for nine years, as runners struggled with the idea that, just maybe, the experts had it right. Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.
The breakthrough… On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, running the distance in 3:59.4. As part of his training, he relentlessly visualized the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body.
Barely a year after Bannister’s accomplishment, someone else ran a mile in under 4 minutes. Then some more runners did. Now, it’s almost routine. Even strong high-schoolers today run 4-minute miles.
As a survival mechanism, the human body does not like to operate outside of its comfort zone. To guard against discomfort and fear, the brain often places doubt as roadblock to success, including mental and physical limitations
You’re afraid to do something, so you find excuses. You start to make up stories about why you can’t do it or how you need to feel inspired.
But you know it’s possible. There are many solo developers out there – coding, making music, animating, and polishing.
What You Can Do
Define a goal.
There are a lot of different strategies for defining goals (one method is SMART goals). But remember that you may have dozens of different “goals.”
There’s your business goal, your professional goal, your milestones in a project, and even your daily goals.
Defining those goals lets you know where you’re going.
The age old addage of “What isn’t measured cannot be managed” applies here.
Break down your project.
The easiest way to eat an elephant is to take one bite at a time. Breaking your tasks into manageable chunks makes it easier to see progress.
See the milestones and what needs to happen to get there convinces your brain that whatever you’re doing is possible. It’s how marathon runners remind themselves “Just 15 miles left,” “Just 30 more minutes,” and, “Just one more long stretch of road.”
How you do this will vary. I get much more gratification in completing a handful of tiny tasks a day, than focusing on one project for a week. While friends of mine prefer focusing on a goal and sprinting towards completion before the deadline.
We can’t multi-task. Science has proven that time and time again.
In order to produce our highest quality work, we need laser-focus. No distractions.
(Image from Sniper Elite 4)
One technique is using sprints, such as using a pomodoro clock to work for 25 minutes straight and rest for five minutes. I’m fond of using Brain.fm to boost attention and reduce mind-wandering. I find myself focusing for a full 1 hour session, working all the way until the music stops. I often do it 2-3 times a day.
Note: Counterpoint to this, I find that being super laser-focused helps me write better code, but listening to a podcast or half-watching YouTube helps me when I’m drawing or creating artwork. Remember how I say everyone is different?
Mechanism 3: Persevere
STORY: Cornered at All Sides
A young man was speaking in front of a group of older businessmen. They had outdated ideas about how they wanted to run their marketing campaign.
The young man told them their ideas were horrible. He was a marketing expert and had a crystal clear vision in his head of what they should do.
But when he tried to articulate it to the group of older businessmen . . . they stonewalled him.
It was maddening.
Here he was, telling them how he’d succeeded, and no one was listening. They scoffed at every idea he brought up. The young man grew angry and didn’t back down. The conversation devolved into angry shouts—it was one against twelve. The older businessmen couldn’t believe it. Nobody told them what to do, but here was this young guy who wasn’t just telling . . . he was yelling.
The young man’s tirade paused when a stern hand fell on his shoulder. It was the founder of the non-profit who had invited him to speak and accepted his donation. He told the young man to shut up and leave.
That was a story about one of the greatest marketers in the world.
And that marketer’s name? Steve Jobs.
You can read the whole story here.
In our space as game developers, it’s an endurance match, not a race.
It’s hard not to feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Gamers can be brutal with their feedback. And your pocket may be emptier than when you first started.
But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
The developer Scott Cawthorn was making silly games before someone pointed out his kid-friendly characters look scary. That lead him to make the hit Five Nights at Freddy’s.
The company Tiny Speck launched an MMO called Glitch, which was a massive failure. They later bounced back with the chat platform Slack, making $64 million dollars in revenue in 2016.
Some call it grit. Others call it perseverance. Whatever you call it, that ability to keep going in spite of the suck is important.
What You Can Do
Measure your progress.
Something I discovered about myself through StrengthsFinders was one of my key motivators is making sure that I’m always making forward movement. Personally, I need to craft plans and check things off. And when I feel lost, I can fall back on my checklist.
The two tools I use for my to-do are:
- Workflowy for checking things off
- The 5 minute journal to document my day. (I actually use a homemade IFTTT 5-minute journal connected to Evernote rather than the book)
Step back and look for clues.
Take a moment to review your work and see if you’re going in the right track. If you aren’t, course correct.
Some people prefer monthly reviews, other prefer 3 month reviews. I do six weeks.
The goal is to look over your life, and ask yourself “Am I doing good work?” If you are, great! Keep going. If not, strip it. Remove everything that isn’t helping you get to the finish line. Unsubscribe from newsletters. Clean your desk. Change your schedule. Be ruthless in shedding any bad habits.
Mechanism 4: Frequent Positive Reinforcement
STORY: Left to Die by Healthcare
I have a type of muscular dystrophy called SMA that slowly makes you weaker and weaker until you can’t move at all. In my early 20s, I lost the ability to move anything but my face, and I was totally dependent on welfare to survive. Even the simplest dreams like getting a job, taking a vacation, or renting my own apartment seemed as impossible as walking on the moon or circling the stars.
And yet . . . years later, I’ve accomplished each and every one of those things.
But I did it. Not through luck or genius or powerful connections, but by learning to use my brain in a way that few people do . . .
Most people in wheelchairs believe it’s impossible for them to get a job, travel, or support themselves. It’s not that they don’t want it—they are aching to do all those things—but no one they know has ever done it, everyone around them assumes they will never do it, and so any time hope starts to kindle inside them, they ruthlessly crush it because, in their world, it’s not realistic . . . .
For several years leading up to starting my own business, I ruthlessly eliminated anything that even suggested I was powerless and replaced it with concrete proof that I wasn’t. In other words, I deliberately “brainwashed” myself into believing I could do the impossible.
For the full blog post . . .
If the first three mechanisms are separate components of a car, this last mechanism is the gasoline that fuels everything.
While it’s easy to assume that everyone successful just happened to get lucky, the more you dig into the history of successful people, the more you realize that there was a lot of hard challenges and difficult sacrifices.
I’m sure, as you’re going through your journey, you’ll be facing those challenges—and making sacrifices left and right.
What You Can Do:
The board of inspiration.
As a creator, you probably get comments thanking you or giving you appreciation. Those people who were kind enough to say such a thing are awesome.
I take my time and print them out, and post on my wall.
Whenever I’m feeling down, I look at that wall and remember all those amazing words that people say.
(Apparently I’m not the only one! I shared this post with some former bosses, and they do the same thing!)
Connect with people who get what you’re doing.
When I’m feeling down, the last thing I want is to talk to somebody. Which makes it even MORE important to schedule a talk with somebody.
I prefer face to face (or Skype) than a text chat. It’s faster and builds better rapport. Your mileage and shyness may vary.
If you’re not sure how to start that conversation, do this:
1) Visit a game developer Slack or Desura.
2) Say something along the lines of, “I’m currently stuck on my project and would love someone who’s been through the process of [problem here]. Any help?”
3) Engage in a conversation.
It doesn’t even have to be about a problem. It can just be to ask them what they’re working on. I have never had someone say no when I asked to chat about their game.
Read and remind yourself.
I prefer books over short digestible content.
Books are people’s lives compressed and neatly organized into a couple hundred pages. You need that space to really dive into their thoughts.
Out of the hundreds I can recommend, here are some:
Secrets of the Millionaire Mind – which gives you the mental framework to react to problems and see the world in a world-changing light.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – the self-help book for people who hate self-help books. Written in a humorous way, and focused on inspiring change.
The Last Lecture – The last two years of a Carnegie Mellon Professor who discovered his cancer gave him two years to live, and how he made his last moments impactful.
While working on your projects and you’re starting to feel the burn, remember the four mechanisms:
- Understanding Why You Procrastinate
- Define Your Goal
- Frequent Positive Reinforcement
Remember that motivation works differently for everyone – so find your own path to getting yourself out of the funk.
We’re rooting for you!