Artificial Deadlines

pure fear

Pure fear.

人工的な〆切

As opposed to real deadlines? Sounds morbid.

The Problem With Creative Types

I hesitate to call myself creative. There’s a tendency among people who are knee-deep in their field to see themselves as cut from weaker cloth or perhaps plainly different cloth than other people. A game maker compares themselves to Shigeru Miyamoto and Jonathan Blow and Tim Schafer, and in most cases, falls short.

Sure, I’m creative. But not that creative. And perhaps that sentiment is part of the problem too.

But, if I suppose I am creative based on the fact that I write novels and blogs and make video games, then the real problem I encounter is in getting stuff done. Some people call this “perfection paralysis”. They won’t do something until they’re sure they can do it without any problems. Or, they won’t stop working on a single component until they can see nothing wrong with it. Work is never finished, only abandoned, right? There’s always more to add. Even if, as it turns out, adding more could be worse.

How is adding more worse, you don’t ask? See, in all works, there is a balance. There is a minimum to getting something made. When is enough words a short story? When does it cross the line into book territory? So, we have to establish something as the base. In a story sense, it’s probably making sure there’s a plot. Okay, so the basic plot is there. Then you add more so that the world is fleshed out and interesting. Add some mental gravitas to what’s happening. That’s good. Add too much however, and the plot gets lost. Some people like stories like that. But, it’s not for everyone.

We imagine the plot of the first Star Wars. Imagine if when we first met Luke, we get to see him hanging out with friends and farming and living daily life for 5 hours straight. I’m sure some people would be into it. But I can imagine most people would think it was a slog at best and a reason to leave the theater at worst. Yes, it’s more. But it’s not better. That’s why most movies have cut scenes. When the plot finally returned to C3PO and R2D2 getting bought, you’d forget there was even a war going on.

Problem Solving

So how to we solve the problem? Many solve it by imposing deadlines. Certainly it’s how most companies work. This keeps people with a focus. If they have 10 things to do, and thing #1 took 30% of their time, they need to make sure the other 9 things get done much faster.

I do this myself, and I find it useful. Get a blog post done by the end of Friday, preferably earlier. Get these fifteen things made in the game by 1/30. I try to set the deadline with enough leeway that failing to make the date means I still have some buffer room to finish.

But these artificial deadlines are most useful when there are other bigger deadlines that can’t be changed. My game, for instance, has to get to the middle school by about 3/1 and definitely by 3/8. While the game doesn’t have to have a million side things in there, it should have the plot finishable and the majority of the characters in the game. That hard deadline is the best thing for my artificial deadlines. Even if, realistically, nothing bad will happen if I don’t finish it on time. Other than kicking myself in the face.

Imposing deadlines is certainly not the only way of finishing things. Another solution is to have a “minimum viable product”. Make a checklist where once something is basically complete, it’s fully complete until you are done with everything else. In other words, don’t start polishing something until the whole thing is there. I do this with my level design, for instance. First, I sketch out a path. Maybe add some encounters or an event. And then it’s done. I’ll come back and polish it once I’m feeling less creative or I have everything else done. This can be problematic if you’re not up to the task of setting aside time for “boring work”, instead wishing to mix it into the fun stuff. But, it’s an option for those aware of the best times to work on specific tasks. I can be creative when I’m drunk, but that’s not an optimal state for polishing.

Then there are techniques like timeboxing, where you set aside a very limited amount of time to work to your heart’s content, but limit your work to that small time. Like a mini-deadline. Once the time is up, you’re done for the moment. These are especially effective with things like studying (Japanese) and improving a craft (writing), but I find they don’t work for getting bigger projects done in a reasonable time frame.

Other Solutions?

I’m pretty curious. Aside from personal deadlines that you make yourself and imposed deadlines from other people, are there any other techniques out there to get stuff done in a timely manner? If you know, I’d love to hear them.

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