22 Apr

When you can’t create – Ways to beat Procrastination

Procrastination posterI have moments when I really want to design but I can’t manage to force myself to sit down and do the work. I putter around, surf, read BoardGameGeek, Wikipedia, webcomics, news sites. I try to think about my design but I do it half-heartedly, my mind wandering off to how glorious my game is going to be rather than working on how it is now. I sit, I stare and I waste time until I realize that I’m procrastinating and have to do something about it.

I used to think that procrastination was a sign that my ability was blocked, my muse gone on vacation. Then I thought that it was because I feared success or failure, that I couldn’t stand the idea of showing my work to somebody. I read and read, going through the self-help shelf at the library the way a drug addict goes through strings of cocaine. It’d help for a while but once the euphoria of Eureka! had worn off I’d be back in the old cycle of productivity-procrastination.

Until I did find the answer almost simultaneously in two sources: David Allen’s Getting Things Done and the Writing Excuses podcast by Howard Tayler, Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells (“Fifteen minutes long, cause you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” – dudes, you are that smart!).

What struck home for me was the idea that when I don’t know what to do my mind blanks out. Instead of forging ahead it stops at the cliff and asks itself “what, jump? how high is it?”. Knowing the height is what makes me able to jump.

Dave Allen Amazon formulates it as: write down the single, smallest, concrete starting point for your next action. If you need to know the probabilities for a set of die rolls it’s not “find out probabilities”. That’s too large, a project in and of itself. The mind can’t see the beginning of the thread.

“Learn probabilities” is too large as well. So is “Find out the possible die rolls”. You need something that’s so clear it can’t be mistaken. I go with either “google XYZ” (Googling something is good, it’s a concrete starting point and it’s easy) or “post question on XYZ forum” (also concrete and easy), or possibly “write die roll matrix”. Those actions are self-contained but open ended. They start with an action (google, post, write) and a concrete point (what to google, post or write). That’s something the mind can latch on to. It’s like the tinny buttered roll you get before dinner at fine restaurants, something to take you in hand that leads you to the meal: you can eat it in one go but you know that there’s more if you want to keep going.

Tayler, Sanderson and Wells say it slightly differently. Howard Tayler’s example was “Before I could continue writing I had to find out how fast a space station must rotate in order to create the gravity I wanted.” A silly piece of information that was only a single part of a one-panel gag stopped him cold.

Same with me: if I don’t know something it stops me cold. It could be something as complex as “I want 200 cards and I don’t know what they’ll do” to something as simple as “it’d be cool to use the Alice-Bob cryptography personae for my examples but I don’t know that the C and D names are” (they’re Carol and Dave by the way). Once I figure out what I need to know I can usually move on without too much trouble and get the work done.

That helps me with my procrastination but it’s only half the cure. The other half consists of writing down everything, and I do mean everything. I’ve mentioned it before, when I started my Bagdad designer diary, and I’ll write up a complete post on it someday, but for now it’s enough to know that not having to keep a whole lot of loose thoughts in my head clears up my thinking. And since I’ve got everything written down and searchable I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything: everything I need to do is waiting for me in my Evernote projects folder.

About once a week I go through it and generate starting actions, those easy to begin with things that lead on to greater stuff. “Google something” a great one – it’s easy, just sit down and type in the browser. The follow up action is just as easy: decide what link to click on. And the follow up action for that is just as easy as is the next one and the next and so on and so forth. Lots of easy steps means lots of work done.

It doesn’t cure me from procrastination or turn me into some sort of super-producing design monster. I’ve still got days when I’m just too tired or too sick or too busy or just plain too worn out to do anything. But when I’m not, I’ve found it very easy to start my next task. And that keeps my procrastinating way down.

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