I still fondly remember what it feels like to be a hobbyist game developer, it wasn’t that long ago after all. I created games for the purpose of fun and learning and not much more. There was no pressure whatsoever. That all changed when I decided to take my hobby and turn it into a business.
The key difference between self-employment and a typical 9-5 is that you have complete control of your fate. If you succeed, it’s because you succeeded and if you fail, it’s because you failed. There’s a special kind of fear knowing that the result is an absolute reflection of yourself.
Even though I’ve been working as a self-employed game developer since April 2012, I actually spent a year preparing for the transition. It was obvious to me that I’d have to adapt an entirely new mindset to succeed, so that’s what I did. I’m not entirely sure that I’ve succeeded as an indie yet, but things are certainly going well. I transformed myself from a lazy kid to a dedicated worker bee.
Now I find myself eagerly waiting for the next episode of “Breaking Bad” to air. Watching TV shows for hours on end was by far my worst habit before the transition from hobbyist to full-time indie, but my situation has changed. Breaking Bad is now my reward, not my restraint.
As I’m sure many of you know, the task of kicking time-consuming habits is one of the hardest parts of becoming a productive indie. You always need more hours in the day and bad habits are always holding you back. Whether those bad habits involve television or video games or internet addiction, they all have to go if you want to succeed. During my transition I gradually removed all of these distractions from my life. I canceled my subscriptions, disconnected the Xbox, and uninstalled every single game on my PC. I’m looking at you, Minecraft!
Physically removing your distractions is vital but giving this act value requires a certain mental focus too. There’s no point in freeing hours in your day if you can’t fill that time with solid work. And that’s no easy task in itself.
Some bad habits don’t need to be completely removed from your life though. Turning them into a reward on a smaller scale can actually be valuable. I watch TV after my work day has ended, but only if I’ve worked a solid 8 hours. Otherwise, I have to wait until I’ve filled that quota. If you’d like to become more productive try to manipulate your own personality and discover how you can better focus your time. I use rewards, guilt, and more all to great effect.
The important part here is that you need to actually want to be productive. This applies to hobbyist developers as well. You know which bad habits are holding you back, now you just need the willpower to eliminate them.
Not all habits are bad, though. Some habits will actually make you more productive.
Getting into the habit of only working in a predefined area can be huge boost to productivity. Whether you setup an office in a whole new room or decide to only work from a specific desk, having your own space can be hugely beneficial. You’ll instinctively feel like working when you’re in your own dedicated work area.
I’ve set up my own office with good lighting, a quality chair, and an outside view. Make sure your work area is comfortable and ergonomic so you don’t strain your body too much. If you’re working in the one place every day you should put some effort into making it a enjoyable environment.
An invaluable tip from Cliff Harris of Positech Games is to surround yourself with inspiration. I have a mug from YoYoGames, the creators of my game development engine. I always have my morning coffee in that mug at the start of each work day. I also play music that reflects the game I’m currently working on, which helps me stay focused. Silly habits like this reinforce my work environment and make it a more inviting space to be in.
Remember to only work in your work environment. If you start using it as a leisure space then it will quickly lose any motivational benefits.
Define a portion of your day to work and define chunks to break it into. Don’t stretch yourself too far…it’s not realistic to work 12 or more hours every day and maintain your sanity! You need free time after a long day, and you need hourly breaks so you don’t become restless.
Your work routine has to be consistent. Start and finish work at the exact same time every day.
Be sure to schedule at least one full-day break per week. I sleep in on Sundays and force myself not to work at all. This valuable recovery period has become just as much a part of my routine as any other.
In order to abide by your defined work period you should establish a proper sleep cycle. There is a lot of debate about the most efficient way to become rested. You can establish a simple monophastic routine where you go to bed at a certain time and wake at a certain time until eventually your body syncs itself to this cycle. Or you can try an aggressive approach where you sleep for only 4 hours a day, forcing your body to enter the REM deep sleep period faster than usual while providing you with more hours to your day.
Whatever your choice, a habitual sleeping cycle will provide you with mental clarity and ensure that you maintain your work routine each and every day.
Creating a visualization of your work load and achievements can be very helpful. I have to-do lists that are hundreds of lines long and I keep records of my work throughout each day.
Both of these habits serve different purposes. To-do lists allow you to easily move from task to task efficiently without having to balance your work load in your head. For larger projects they are particularly useful as well.
Recording your work acts to reinforce your efforts at the end of each day. Sometimes you can work for hours and feel like nothing was achieved, or like you wasted the day. But if you record your achievements you’ll be able to see all of the individual actions that you forgot about, and that you really did achieve something. Well, unless you really were lazy!
The most valuable habit that I’ve gotten into is making myself accountable. I like to publicly announce my work, my progress, and my failings. It keeps me honest and this blog is part of that. Accountability is an excellent motivator when used correctly.
I don’t build my social network for fame…I build it so that people I respect can hold me accountable if I don’t follow through on a project.
For serious and important projects, I tend to involve money for added motivation. My major project Myriad Online has received over $1000 in donations from many different supporters. I can literally never quit work on that game knowing that so many people are vested in my project. The same applies to my upcoming eBook Making Money With HTML5. I’ve accepted over $500 in pre-orders so I have to deliver on it now.
My personal use of accountability as a motivational tool is just something that works for me, it may not be suitable for everyone. In which case, find some other part of your personality that can be manipulated to your benefit. Guilting yourself into working is better than not working at all!
The Big Picture
During my journey to becoming a productive indie, the most important element has been the mental transition. I’ve had to stop and recognize what was holding me back, then have the strength to remove it, and then have the willpower to utilize the results. It’s not an easy task to work 8+ hours a day when you have the option not to, or to stay focused on the big picture when it seems like you’ll never achieve it…
But it does ultimately come down to that big picture. That one goal that makes everything about being a self-made indie developer worth the effort, worth the time, and worth the sacrifices. It’s not all about skill, and there’s no luck involved…
All you need to do is be willing to make the effort.