Inspiration & Motivation: Breaking free of a slog

As usual, I've gone a bit overboard with the word count.  To save some of you poor souls the anguish, this is a break down of how I look at overcoming a lull in motivation:

  1. Get rid of your distractions.  Reddit, youtube, getting up from your desk, all of that.  These are easier and more enjoyable than facing the problem, so you need to cut them off.
  2. Remind yourself of your vision.  Step back, thoroughly picture your end goal and remember why it matters.
  3. Balance things you've mastered vs. new challenges.  We always need a thread of something new to explore to stay interested, just manage risks and responsibilities as you seek it out.
  4. Break down everything you need to do into small actions.  Turn everything into a checklist and work on one thing at a time.  This way you always have an easy option to move forward.
  5. Separate the complex from the simple.  Making decisions, brainstorming, and planning are complex.  Separate them from the rest of the work and do them when you're most focused.
  6. Involve others.  Other people give us valuable advice and perspective, and interacting with them makes us feel responsible to not disappoint, driving us forward.
  7. At some point, it's time for something new.  We all eventually need a change of setting and focus to stay engaged.  If it's time for change and you can't do it yet, plan when you can so you have something to look forward to.

The rest of this blog is a semi-colorful elaboration on this, so if you read on, consider yourself opted-in to wordiness.


Breaking free of a slog:

At first I didn't notice, because it happened gradually.  It got a little slower, it got a little more difficult day by day, but I kept going like I always had because the work has always had hard points.  The realization came well after it had already been dragging me down for a while, as I transitioned into a new task with new challenges.  I became suddenly aware that this wasn't just another hard point, the struggle was in me, not in the work.  I started to notice that lack of desire to push forward.  I'd let myself fall into distractions, some well-disguised as other productive work.  I questioned whether it was all even worth the struggle anymore.  I was deep in a hole that was very difficult to climb out of.

That's the problem with motivation.  It's obvious when it's there in droves, and it's obvious when it's fully absent, but that slowly rising tide is almost imperceptible.  It happens so slowly that by the time you notice it, it's already stripped away some of your will to even fix it.

In an ideal world of creative work, you're shifting focus and working on new ideas or challenges often enough that you never get caught up in that whirlpool of diminishing drive.  In reality though, sometimes you stay with a singular focus well beyond that point, or necessity places you in a role where drive is just hard to find.  In spending 9 years focused on a single continuing project, I've experienced this drastic drop in motivation a few times, and I've worked out some methods of pulling myself out of it that I'd like to share.

At it's core, a lack for drive typically happens because the vision of what you're working towards isn't clear, you don't believe in it, or the amount of hardship on the way towards it is too much for you to grapple with.  From there, messy processes and a host of distractions can obscure where the fault really lies, so you often have to strip away at those too.

What it takes to break free from that heavy blanket of disinterest has been different for me each time.  Sometimes it's about digging deep into why I'm making a thing until I believe in it again.  Sometimes it's about finding a the right way to give myself the little challenges I need.  Other times it's just about finding the most effective way to push through until I reach the thing I'm excited about on the other side.

While I can't claim one solve-it-all solution, I do think that if you convince yourself of the need for change, follow some of the mix-and-match advice below, and really attack the problem, you can absolutely will yourself past these struggles before they slow you down much and before anyone else even notices them affect your work.

So with that, read through, take what you think fits, and I hope it helps.

1. Get rid of distractions.  There's no magic in this, but before you can really dig into finding that drive again, you need to get rid of all of the things that are stealing your attention.

Some of these things will be obvious but habitual, like regularly browsing reddit or watching youtube videos.  Some will gently disguise themselves as productive, like checking your e-mail every 5 minutes or starting conversations with your office-mates a bit too regularly.  These are coping mechanisms.  You use them to avoid the work you're feeling uncertain about, and then they turn into habits that are harder to break.

You don't necessarily need to go cold-turkey on all of these things, but you do need to make a firm agreement with yourself about when and how they are allowed to happen.  Perhaps save web-browsing for your lunch break, even if you work a job where you have to wait for the code to compile or a server to start up sometimes.  Perhaps once you notice that you've already had a couple office conversations that day, you draw the line and make yourself stay at your computer with headphones on.  Or perhaps you come in earlier so you can have some guaranteed hours without other people around.  Whatever it takes to make sure you have solid chunks of time where you're facing up to the real tasks at hand rather than avoiding them.

It may be hard to admit it to yourself, but when you're feeling unmotivated, you can no longer trust your moment-to-moment judgement about what is a good use of your time.  When you're at a high and love your work, it may have been no big deal for you to browse the web while your programs started up, because you were plenty eager to jump back over to the work when it was ready.  But when you're in a motivation lull, you can no longer trust in that same judgement, so you have to set rules and boundaries for yourself and hold to them.

2. Find your vision.  Or remind yourself of it.  You're not going to want to work on something unless you believe in the end goal, so sometimes you need to put down what you're doing and take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

I can usually get to what really matters with these 2 questions:
 - What does the final version of this project look like?
 - Why is it awesome?

This is a moment to shake yourself free of the little problems of building something and remember the big 'whys' behind the work.

Sometimes in doing this, you'll realize you don't actually know the answers to these questions because you never gave them much thought.  If so, now's the time to answer them, because they are all key to believing in what you're doing and wanting to do it.  Who are you making this for?  What makes it unique?  What makes it great?

When you're working on a big project where you aren't particularly involved in setting the grand vision, you may find it valuable to find the more isolated vision that you CAN make yours.  On a 300-person team working on a huge game, it may or may not be particularly important that you understand or believe in all of the systems being developed, but you should absolutely have a vision for how your particular portion is going to look and feel when it's done.  Similarly, if you're 1 of 20 content designers on your team, the vision you can believe in may simply be the one for your particular story or dungeon.  The more of the project you believe in, the better, but not everyone is afforded that luxury depending on their circumstances.  Figure out what you can make yours and how you can make it sing.

Sometimes in going through this exercise, you'll realize that that you simply don't believe in the project or think that it matters.  If so, then you need to remind yourself why you ARE there.  Experience?  Money for your family?  If so, those motivations are equally important to know, because they change the definition of how you accomplish your work.  In working in games, I tend to just assume we're all working on something we can genuinely believe in, but much of the following advice should still apply even if your particular vision is that the project you're working on is just a stepping stone.

3. Balance new challenges vs. things you've already mastered.  If you're not facing up against new challenges and growing in some way, you'll likely get bored, and your motivation will dip.  If you're tackling something far too challenging, you can eventually find yourself avoiding the work or questioning your own ability, and your motivation will dip.  Lean on the things you've mastered for all the advantages they give you, but always find isolated challenges that you can take on, particularly ones that you're easily curious and excited about.

Sometimes you're in a position where you have the luxury of setting all of your own tasks and goals, but often you are not.  When some amount of your work is being decided by others, embracing this balance of challenge and mastery is all about finding effective ways to turn the task direction into a conversation.  Strive to understand the goals and key elements that matter to the perception of the task's success, and in the process identify the other elements that you can mold to fit your needs as a creator.  Use this make the task yours, built in a way only you would build it, and in the process find that right balance of new challenges you can take on within it.

Every so often, you'll encounter a task that has so many eyes on it or that is so time-constrained that finding your own creative space with-in it feels near impossible.  Sometimes this can prove surprisingly valuable in that it forces you outside your comfort-zone in a way you wouldn't have pursued otherwise, but other times the constraints can make it difficult to strike that ideal mastery vs. challenge balance.

If a constrained task is landing too much on the challenging side, then you need to very clearly and assertively ask for help.  It may be tempting to avoid this for fear of leaving a bad impression, but I promise you that asking for help looks far better than failing.  Sometimes it even impresses people as it shows confident awareness that is all too often absent in design.

If a constrained task isn't providing you any room to challenge yourself and pursue something new, then sometimes it can help to push your creativity against your process instead of your content.  Try building things in different orders, in new ways, or with new tools.  This will allow you to still challenge yourself and learn without taking any significant creative design risks.

Creative work can't be turned into a treadmill in the way that many other jobs can, at least not without a severe drop in motivation, and therefor quality.  It's important to remember that finding that right amount of creative challenge (while isolating risk) is entirely on you.  You can't depend on anyone else to know your needs well enough to do it for you.


4. Break down everything you need to do into discrete actions.  When you leave things ambiguous, the shear volume of considerations can scare you away from moving forward.  To keep moving when you're not feeling it, it helps a lot to get organized.

When you're at your best, full of energy and highly motivated, you'll tackle exhausting things more willingly, and fight through the inefficiency regardless of process.  When you're motivation is low, it becomes that much more important that you give yourself better footing against the hardships that come with creating.  Hard is discouraging, so make things easy.

Planning things out isn't about having the perfect answers to everything ahead of time--you won't--it's about being sure what you know and what you still need to figure out, and knwing how you're going to keep moving forward on both fronts.

To start this process, break down your larger project into as many sections as necessary until they're easy to wrap your head around.  How and where you do this doesn't particularly matter as long as it's logical to you.  Some things are hard to comprehend without a good Visio flowchart, but most can be described sufficiently in a text document.

From there, separate brainstorming and decision-making from actions that simply require effort (regardless of whether they are long are short).  Making decisions and coming up with new ideas require complex thought, and we're not always in a good mental state for taking on those challenges, especially when motivation is at a low.  Those types of items are best handled at the start of a day, or when you have others to bounce things off of, or otherwise when your energy-levels are high.

Take the other actions that require less complex thought and break down them into their simplest actionable forms, providing yourself with a sort of satisfying checklist that you can make visible progress on regardless of your energy-level.  From there, you can switch back and forth between these 2 types of actions based on how you're feeling at the time.  Complex considerations when you're fresh and have help, simple ones when you're feeling drained or particularly unmotivated.

Sometimes breaking free of a slog is simply about momentum or finding your way to the next thing.  Those are the times when giving yourself a checklist works best.

5. At some point, it's time for something new.  It's natural to have waning interest in something the longer you work on it.  It you've been on the same project for 5 years and nothing is restoring your interest in it, it may simply be time for something new.

Realizing this isn't necessarily about immediately running for the hills though.  You can take your time and avoid burning bridges.  You can plan ahead for how to transition into something new gracefully.  Just having the certainty of a refreshing change coming in the future is often enough to help drive you through to meet it.

I hope some of this proves helpful.  If you have different strategies for fighting through or overcoming a steep drop in motivation, I'd love to hear them.  I'm sure there's a lot we can all learn from each other on this subject.