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Staying Focused and Motivated as an Indie Developer Working Alone.

I've spent the past year working out of my home office on projects and side project and other hare brained ideas. Lately I’ve been struggling a little with focus and motivation, and I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what the problem is.

(This article is cross posted on my website

I’ve spent the past year working out of my home office on projects and side project and other hare brained ideas.  Sounds like a dream come true, and it is for the most part.  I know I’m a lucky guy to be in a position where I can afford to pursue this insanity, but I’m beginning to realize that there is a very real downside and danger to “going it alone”.

Before I went independent, I worked in a busy studio in the thick of everything.  Every day was a high energy rollercoaster ride full of drama and challenges.  I was surrounded by a large team of energetic people all pulling in the same direction towards a shared goal, and I loved that aspect of making games.  And now, after a year of working alone, I’m beginning to understand how important having that shared experience and energy around you as you make and create, really is.

Lately I’ve been struggling a little with focus and motivation, and I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what the problem is, and why I’m stuck in this uncharacteristic funk and rut.

I’ve pretty much identified two main problems with being an independent developer and working alone.  Maybe these problems are unique to me and down to my personality, but I’m guessing this isn’t the case.  I’m pretty sure these problems are fairly common and experienced by other indies out there.

The first problem I have is lack of focus and my susceptibility to distraction.  Having freedom to work on my own stuff is a double edged sword.  It’s great to have that freedom, but without discipline, it can turn into a real curse.  It always goes down the same way; I’ll be cranking out code on my latest game, and then I’ll have a bright idea and I’ll go and spend a week pursuing it, making a prototype or a web site or even something that isn’t game related.  After spending a few days distracted like this, I find I’ve completely lost the thread of what I was doing on the game, and then it takes some time to get back into the flow again.  I’m constantly distracted by shiny things going on around me, and even simple day to day things like watching a movie or catching up on a favorite TV show, or hanging out with my Wife or Son, will intrude into my work day.

The second problem, which is more insidious and way more negative than the first, is staying motivated.  I find myself slipping into periods of almost stasis, where I’ll try my damndest to do anything but work on my game projects.  I’ll procrastinate and waste days not accomplishing anything in particular, and then I’ll beat myself up about it.  I suspect my first problem of focus is just a symptom of the second problem of motivation.

I’m pretty sure I understand the psychology at work here.  Working alone, at least for me, is actually pretty tough.  I miss having other people to sound out ideas against, or to share something cool or exciting that I’ve done with.  I miss the shared energy and atmosphere of a studio work environment.

It may sound like I’m painting a pretty grim picture here.  A personal, miserable hell or something, but I’m not.  These problems aren’t constant or debilitating, they just get in the way from time to time, and mess with my productivity. 

I recently posed the question of focus and motivation to some of my online friends and colleagues, and the reaction was not so surprising.  Many of them experience the same challenges day-to-day, and they all have various and similar ways they combat the problem.  It was interesting to get different yet similar perspectives, so I decided to compile a list of things that I personally employ or find helpful to get through those occasional periods of stagnation, apathy or distraction.  Here they are in no particular order.

Make “to do” lists.  I make lists all the time.  I have a master list of all the stuff I need to do to make my game, and that list is broken down into smaller, more detailed daily lists of tasks that I set myself to accomplish.  I find that checking things off those lists gives me a good frame for measuring progress, and a sense of achievement.  The lists change and grow and shrink, but they always reflect the state of the project overall, and where I am in it.

Set some formal structure and routine for your day.  Separating work form real life is important, particularly if you live and work in the same space or place.  It’s important to go to work.  Have times where you’re off limits to family or you’re focused only on an hour or two of solid work.  Close the door if you have one, put on some music and get your head down.

Have lunch with your real life friends.  I personally find this one really useful and important.  I try to have lunch with old work buddies a couple of times a week, and usually meet a friend for coffee and a natter most Sundays.  We’ll usually talk about our projects and what we’ve done over the last week or so, and share crazy ideas for games or marketing the ones we’re working on.  By the end of these get togethers, I usually feel energized and pumped up.  In a short hour or so, it’s easy to capture some of that studio energy and recharge your social batteries.

Get involved with a local indie group or the IGDA, or if there isn’t one near you, organize a meetup or something at the pub.  These events and meetings are a really great way to meet new people, network and stay in touch with developer friends and acquaintances, and generally keep up with what’s going on in the indie development scene.  The great thing about getting involved with this sort of group is that you know that everyone is interested in the same things as you.  Everyone is interested and vested and wants to get something out of them.

Work somewhere other than your home office.  Get out of the house occasionally.  Take your laptop to the beach or park and do some coding in the sunshine (or rain, depending where you live).  If you need something a little more formal, find a shared works space like Oficio, Grind, The Creative Space or other.  There are lots of them around and they offer cheap comfortable shared co-working spaces, typically full of energetic and entrepreneurially minded people.  They can be great for networking and finding new collaborators.

If you’re suffering a mental block or just can’t get to grips with something that’s really hard, walk away for awhile.  Give yourself permission to go and play a game or go for a walk, or bust out your favorite musical instrument.  You can even work on something else for awhile, maybe that prototype you’ve been mulling over in the shower. The main thing is to have a break and come back to it later.  I find this really helps to refocus sometimes.

Share your game early and often.  Not only is this a good, general marketing strategy, but it gets you out of your bubble and gives you some much needed perspective on your work.  You may worry that someone will steal your idea, but that won’t happen.  People are invested in and working on their own games, and are generally too lazy to go and steal yours.  Regardless, any risk is far outweighed by the benefit of sharing.

These are just a few ideas, and some of the things I do myself to get through these rough patches.  Working alone or in a bubble can be great sometimes, but isolation can really undermine you if you’re not careful.  Stay sociable, stay connected to your friends and peers, and look for feedback and perspective on your work.  Only good can come out of that.

Now get back to work!

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