Getting things done
Now that we’ve talked about ways to stay motivated about your work, it’s time to talk about the other side of the coin.
Motivation will always fail after some time. It is unreliable at best and totally absent at worst. While strong in the early stages of a project, it always gets weaker and weaker as a project progresses. The closer to completion you will be, the less work you will get done. What’s more, motivation varies wildly from day to day and from week to week, so unless you plan to work only during the smooth-sailing times, you need ways to get things done when the going gets tough.
What first comes to mind then is discipline and willpower. Both work, there’s no doubt about that, both both also suck. Unless you have the self-discipline of a monk and enough willpower to get yourself to do anything at any moment—and I know I am at complete opposite side of things—then you simply won’t be able to count on forcing your way through your work. They say willpower is a muscle, and there is a lot of truth to that, but I know myself, and I am a weak-willed, internet-browsing, game-playing, time-wasting lazy man.
So then, if motivation is bound to fail and discipline is too difficult to harness, how can we reliably get things done you might ask?
Habits are the home workers’ best friends as well as their mortal enemies. When most people get up in the morning, complete their little rituals and go to work, they are tapping into the power of their habits. They know that once this sequence of events begins, work is about to get done. The same mind conditioning happens by simply being at their workplace; this is where the work gets done. Once they get back home, they know just the same that this is where we take our mind off of work-related matters and relax for a bit.
When you work from home, it is all too easy to fall into old habits of browsing the internet, getting some snacks, reading a book, watching the television for a little while… All the cues are already in place; at home, we relax, play, eat and sleep. If, however, you could build work habits into your daily routine, then you wouldn’t have to rely on motivation and willpower as much. And there lies the strength of habits:
Once an action becomes a habit, it requires little to no motivation nor willpower to complete.
Let us go back to the “person going to work” example for a second. Ever noticed how in many cases it is the very first few steps which demands the most from us? Like getting out of bed and not hitting the snooze button for the third time is much, much harder than to keep on working once you’re at it? That is because we know, or rather we’ve convinced ourselves that once this series of events starts happening, the rest is just automatic. Once we get up, it’s morning routine, then commute, then work; that’s just how things have always worked!
It’s lying in bed that we think about how hard it is to start the day, and it’s before we even move out of bed that we think most about calling off for the day. But once it’s all set in motion? Well most people just roll with it.
So how do we use habits to get things done exactly?
Step 1: Building a habit
The first step in getting a routine going is to determine what it will be. Be it getting more regular exercise, eating healthy or getting work done, you have to take a moment and decide exactly what will be done. And it’s at this very first step that many people fail at building a new habit.
You see, a lot of people aim big right off the start thinking having a great objective will get them motivated; or they think they’re being reasonable when they pick a goal that they already know will take some discipline to maintain.
Here’s the secret: it has to cost you nothing.
I’m not talking about money here—though it can be the case—but about anything that is viewed as a negative impact in your mind. It frequently is simply a cost in willpower; going to the gym every other day, getting up at 6AM, getting 8 hours of productive work done every day… If your first goal is one that requires you to give something up for it, if your first step makes you think it’ll be even just slightly hard to accomplish, well you’ve greatly reduced your chances of this new habit taking roots.
If instead you took it to the other extreme, a habit so ridiculously simple it wouldn’t even require an ounce of strength to do, then how could you fail?
You want to work more and more on game development? Don’t aim for hours of work at the beginning. Instead, give yourself a ridiculous goal like “Getting 30 minutes of work done each week” or “Working on game development for at least 10 minutes every Sunday”. It can be as ridiculous as “coding for 1 minute every morning”. Sounds too easy? It is, and that’s the idea.
Step 2: Making it second nature
Once you’ve selected your new super simple goal, it’s time to get it done. The trick here is to get it done 100% reliably. We’ve selected a goal that is so easy to do it’s not even the least painful to complete, so the only discipline you need is to not skip days. It generally takes between 1-2 months to truly make a habit of something, but a good sign that something has found it’s place in your life is when you find yourself doing it without even having to think about it or having to remind yourself that it should be done.
Step 3: Taking it up a notch
So your ridiculously easy goal has become natural for you and you don’t need any discipline to get it done reliably? Well it’s time to take it to the next step. Remember how there was basically no resistance to doing the actions required to reach your goal? Well all you have to do is repeat that process anytime you feel like stepping things up wouldn’t cost you anything—or at least that the level of willpower required is something that you are 100% confident you could pull of.
Now that the habit has found its place into your schedule, it won’t take any extra discipline to turn 5 minutes of work into 10, 15 or even 30 minutes. And from there it’s only about raising your goals in small increments until you are happy with the results. It’s worth stating that, should you aim too high, it’s always better to take things down a notch than it is to completely give up the habit. Progressing slowly is still progress. Taking a huge step one day and skipping the next 2 isn’t.
Step 4: Profit!
And there you go. There is no step 4, at least nothing that requires any action. Step 4 is to revert back to “doing nothing” because your new habit is now nothing more than part of your daily routine. You don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to force yourself to do it; it just happens.
Before we move to tips and tricks you can use to make things easier for you, it’s worth noting that while reading this, some of you probably thought: “Work 30 minutes a week for 2 months. Yeah sure, that’ll pay the bills nicely.” You’re not wrong either. That ridiculous starting goal is there for you to apply a new habit 100% reliably, but it doesn’t mean your work should end there! If you decide working 10 minutes every day is your goal, I certainly hope you’ll be working more than that! But if you don’t feel like working at all at one point, well 10 minutes is all it will take for you to reinforce this new habit. This is how you use simple goals.
Here are a few extra tips and tricks which might help you create and nurture new habits until you no longer have to think about them.
One way to easily and reliably insert a new habit into your schedule is to “anchor” it. Anchoring a habit is the process of simply adding tasks to an existing routine or ritual you have. Example would be to work an hour right after your morning coffee. It’s simply a matter of finding an existing habit that happens at a desirable frequency in your life and duct-taping your new habit to it.
Concentrate your efforts
The goal here is to make it really easy to take up new habits. You might however feel like this is too easy and think about adding multiple habits to your life in one go…
Don’t do it.
Habits are best picked up one at a time, and what frequently happens while trying to learn multiple habits at a time is that you will take too much and begin to feel resistance about it. Once you start feeling resistance, it’ll take extra discipline to get things done, and chances are you will end up skipping days, eventually giving up your habits and wasting your efforts.
I’ll say it again, the number 1 rule to forming a new habit is to do it reliably. This is why ridiculously simple goals work so well and why starting with a challenging goal or trying to form multiple new habits is such a bad idea.
There is however one exception to this rule: tasks that can be grouped. If the routine you want to learn is composed of many very small elements—elements which can easily be grouped and executed one after the other—it might not make sense to pick up only the first microscopic action for 2 months. If a group of actions can be grouped up together in a way that makes sense and still be a very easy goal to achieve, the feel free to learn them all at once.
It’s rare for 2 months to go by without a single exceptional event happening, and since it is crucial for habit-making that your actions be done reliably, you should plan ahead what should be done in case of the unexpected. It can be simple enough, but it has to be followed as you decided it would so that you don’t encourage skipping your new routine.
An example might be “If I skip 1 day of work, I’ll work an extra hour for the following 2 days. If I skip 2, I’ll work an extra hour for 4 days…” or simply “If I can’t get it done in the morning, it has to be done before I go to bed.” You get the idea.
It could also only be that for every unexpected day on which you couldn’t reach your goal, you add 2 days to the amount of time you planned to pick up this new habit.
Whatever your plan is, it has to be applied correctly. It also has to motivate you to not skip days because the consequence is too small nor should it completely discourage you after you skip once because the punishment is too harsh.
Create an identity
While a bit less concrete than other advice so far, this one can make a huge difference in your level of commitment towards taking up new habits. The trick is to wish to become “the kind of person who”, for example you could say that “a game developer is the kind of person who can work at least an hour a day on their game, so if I want to become one, I have to act like it.” It doesn’t have to be a specific identity, it can simply be along the lines of “I want to be the kind of person who does…”
It may not seem like much, but it can have a profound effect on some people to try and change as an individual rather that putting the focus on the actions themselves.
Other methods of getting things done
While I believe habits to be the number one method of getting work done reliably, there are many other methods you can use to get yourself moving. Since everyone is different, maybe habits won’t do it for you but some other trick will.
This is a method I use frequently and it can be applied to habit-taking. The trick, just like getting out of bed is the hardest part of the day, is to commit to doing only the first step of any task. On days where I find it particularly hard to get to work, I’ll frequently tell myself “All I have to do today is get 10 minutes of work done in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening.” Anyone can muster the willpower to sit down and get 10 minutes of work done, and what happens then is nothing short of a magic trick for your brain. Work suddenly doesn’t feel as hard once you’re already doing it. Those 10 minutes turn into hours of work for which you needed no discipline at all. I’ve frequently worked 8-10 hours by simply committing to a 10-minutes task, and believe me it’s much easier to get yourself to work when you commit to 10 minutes than when you commit to 10 hours.
Sometimes those few minutes is all you’ll produce however. You simply can’t seem get in the zone. That’s perfectly fine, go do something else, clear your mind, and as soon as you feel ready, come back for another small burst. Keep repeating this until you start working without paying it any mind. It won’t work every time, but it’s an easy way to get yourself to work and be productive on really tough days. Of course, if it doesn’t work you should be fair and give yourself the right to get off the computer after the required 10 minutes—or whatever goal you set for yourself. Worst case you can try another method, tell yourself you’ll do another 10 minutes of work in an hour, or use sheer willpower to get things done on days where it simply won’t work.
The pomodoro technique
Many freelancers and students will already have heard of this one, and while I don’t find it particularly useful personally, it might just do the trick for you.
The pomodoro technique is a time management method created by Francesco Cirillo that revolves around using a small timer to divide your time into short work and break periods. Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian, and the name comes from kitchen timers which are frequently shape like tomatoes.
There are 5 steps to this technique:
1. Decide which task should be done
2. Set the timer to a certain amount of time, generally 25 minutes
3. Work until the timer rings (no distractions allowed)
4. Take a timed short break, generally 3-5 minutes
5. Repeat. After 4 periods of work, take a longer break (15-30 minutes)
It can be useful for your motivation to track down tasks to be done, tasks completed and work-periods done. Each short burst gives you a sense of accomplishement, and taking the next 25 minutes doesn’t feel like an unsurmountable task.
The goal of this technique is to reduce the effect of distractions and interruptions on your focus and flow. Any 25-minutes of work that is interrupted will not be counted to reinforce the idea that work has to be focused and uninterrupted.
The good ole planning your work hours like you had a regular job. I personally found it completely useless as I never could force myself to work at fixed hours no matter the motivation/inspiration, nor stay organized enough to pull it off.
Still, it is very much worth considering to lay down your work hours in a more or less strict fashion.
First, it’ll give you some structure which many people need to work on something. Second, it’ll let you easily see how much you are working on your project, how many hours went into the final product and it lets you adjust those working hours to suit your needs. And finally, it give you an “excuse” to work.
Now let me explain that last part.
When you work at home “any time you want”, people around you will have a tendency to decide your schedule for you. You get a few “We should do this on Monday”, “We have to go shopping” or “Let’s go out tonight” and suddenly you’re left with a schedule you didn’t have a say in. I’ve seen it happen with my wife and family to a certain degree where they always said “Well you decide your own schedule so you’re always free in the end.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, and having an actual schedule would allow you to say “I can’t, I work at that time.”
A new twist on an old classic, the unschedule is exactly what it sounds like; the opposite of a regular schedule.
What this means is that instead of laying down fixed work hours, you lay down time for sleep, meals, meetings, play, reading, leisure, social activities, exercise… but you leave blanks for work! We aren’t used to this radically different approach towards our time and our responsibilities, but for some people this can create a much healthier lifestyle while still helping you stay motivated.
In the holes left in your schedule, you concentrate on producing short bursts of quality work and note each “work block” you do. Sort of like the pomodoro technique. Block should be between 15-60 minutes long and should really be focused, uninterrupted work. The key is to put the focus on STARTING work, fitting as many blocks of quality work as you can in the unscheduled times in your day. Just as with the “humble beginnings” trick, what will frequently happen is those 15-60 minutes block will turn into hours of good work when the timing is right, and when motivation isn’t there well you’ll still get many block of good, focused work done through the day.
The reverse workweek
The simpler cousin of the unschedule, for the unorganized developer. It’s simple really; anything you generally tell yourself about work and leisure has to be reversed.
“I have to work 8 hours a day”
“I mustn’t work more than 6 hours a day”
Working less is perfectly fine, working extra is prohibited—at least for the first few weeks.
“I don’t have time to go out with friends or play video games”
“I have to go out with friends or play video games at least 1 hour a day”
Again, one of the goals here is to push you to produce quality work over a large quantity of not-so-productive work that quickly turns into mindless web-browsing. The reduced work hours and the planned and required leisure should leave you refreshed and give you a bit of extra willpower to get good work done.
A word of warning about the reverse workweek and the unschedule; both can turn out to be a disaster or your productivity and turn you into a completely lazy individual. These little psychological tricks won’t work for everyone. I found out myself that beyond a certain point, I got so little work done that I completely lost any momentum I had; the fact that things were progressing so slowly made me feel like work was worthless and made it extra hard for me to get things done. For a time however, I was working MORE than what I used to, and during that time I was on a motivation high with all the job that was being accomplished and the safe time for social activities and leisure. Just be objective and realistic about it and give up if it doesn’t seem to be working out for you.
The sloppy job
More of a psychological barrier crusher than a time management trick, this has however been a real eye-opener for me in how I approached work. The goal here isn’t to encourage you to do crappy work, but instead to initially approach work without any fear of doing things wrong or not finding the single best answer to all your problems.
When you start any task or any work block, aim for a perfectly human effort, like you would expect from someone else or perhaps even from someone who is kind of new to the job. Literally and intentionally aim for imperfection; just work and get things moving. Get things working even though you really feel like there would be a better or cleaner solution to the problems at hand. It may end up being a messy job—it often is even when you don’t intend to—but you can always clean up the mess another time.
This is especially important for the perfectionists out there who get discouraged without having even started the first minute of work of the day. You’ll never have the perfect solution to anything, and approaching your work thinking you should have that solution—or else things will go bad or your work will be totally wasted—is no way to get yourself motivated about your work.
First get things done, get things to work, and then clean up and make things nice.
Be easy on yourself. Perfection isn’t a one-shot effort; it’s an iterative progression towards your goal.
This one is a double-edged sword; the idea is to speak out your goals or your deadlines to others—fans, friend, family—in order to create a sense of urgency and accountability for yourself. You’ll feel like you can’t break those promises or else you’ll be a liar.
Telling others about your progress, your next tasks and your deadlines is a great source of feedback that will definitely boost your motivation. This strategy however has a darker side to it…
By using this technique, you get the reward before the job gets done. Telling people that “This feature will be ready by next week” feels great! It FEELS like you’re making progress, like things are moving; and that’s exactly the trap you must not fall into.
Feeling good about work you haven’t done takes away part of the reward of actually doing it. The tasks becomes less rewarding, and you’ll turn to promise-making to get your next “fix” of mental reward. From here you’ll be less and less motivated and make bigger and bigger promises, until you’re completely trapped and you either disappear from the surface of the earth or you get busy and start pumping weeks of work day and night until you work finally catches up with your talk.
As with many things, my advice if you plan to use this strategy is to start small and see how it works for you. If the technique gets your worked up and your get more work done, great! If you see yourself slowly falling into the empty promises trap, then it’s best for you and your games that you stop talking and start trying other methods.
Burn your boat
Similar to the speaking out, this idea is also about creating accountability; more precisely about making sure you don’t have the options of slacking off or backing out.
The expression supposedly comes from Alexander the Great and Hernando Cortes, whose armies were fighting uphill battles, and yet ordered that their boats be burned so that the men would not have the option of retreating. The choice was between victory or death.
Our figurative boat burning doesn’t having to be nearly as dramatic to be effective. The goal is to put something in your way that will ensure you don’t have a choice in getting the job done, that you will have some punishment for missing your deadline. It can range from telling a publisher about a fixed deadline, to having team members that are relying on your ability to get the job delivered in time or even simply giving yourself a sanction if you don’t meet your goals (e.g. “Can’t buy that game that comes out next week if I don’t finish the job”).
Obviously, having someone or something depend on you is a better way than relying on yourself to apply punishment upon yourself, especially if you have a tendency to let these kind of things slip.
The best way to ensure that something gets done is to make it so that failure is not an option. It’s incredible to see what we can do when we don’t have any other choice.
A pretty simple way to get someone to do something is to promise a reward upon its completion. It is true for dogs, it is true for kids, and it is just as true when trying to get a developer to pump out code. The trick here is to plan ahead your milestones and their rewards and to have your goal clearly stated so that you cannot twist the facts just to get your reward sooner.
The rewards can be anything from allowing yourself to spend certain amounts of money to letting yourself play video games for a few hours or taking a day off to visit some friends. The size of the reward should correspond to the size of the milestone, and it is crucially important that the reward be something that you desire. If you know yourself to be too weak-willed to not grant yourself the reward until the job is done, it can be a very good idea to have a friend or significant other be the judge of when you deserve it.
I myself have turned to giving myself a salary for every work hour completed. I tend to be a very reasonable person when it come to money, and while I always have a safety cushion, I rarely allowed myself to buy anything “for fun.” What I did was simply allow myself to spend $1 on anything I want for every hour worked. I then made a lit of stupid stuff I’d like to buy, and working and adding the hours now feels like a kid counting the days to Christmas. Works for me!
Rewards have a time and a place to be used to make them as efficient as they can be. Creative or “fun” work should not be rewarded most of the time, while boring, hard or repetitive tasks will GREATLY benefit from the “carrot on a stick” approach. Just try different approaches and see what works best for you!
Worth tracking is worth doing
Another useful psychological trick you can use on yourself to ensure that the job gets done and that the right tasks get completed too. In short, all you have to do for something to be given the attention and work it should be getting is to have an easy and clear way to view and track its progress. The good old to-do list is a prime example of using tracking as a way to increase motivation and productivity.
If you track every tasks that have to be done, you’ll distinctly see the progress being made, you will always have clear list of the tasks that remains and you will get a boost of motivation every time you get to check something off the list.
Just the same, if you neatly track your working hours, your design hours, your email hours, you will quickly notice if you are wasting your time or not spending enough time on the actual job you wish to do. It’s easy to lie to ourselves about work when there’s no concrete proof whatsoever, and without even being dishonest about it it can be strangely difficult to make a decent estimate of how much time went into our projects if we’re not tracking any of it.
If you’re not the type to make lists and keep track of everything yourself, there are some very useful tools out there to help you keep track of how you are spending your time at the computer. Programs like RescueTime, Manic Time or Time Doctor are invaluable assets to help you track the time and resources that are going into your projects, but also help you track activities that may be sapping your productivity. It’s easy to just tell yourself you’ll take a short break and browse the internet for a few minutes before you get back to work, but sometimes those few minutes turn into hours, and if that happens frequently then it would be in your best interest to take action and limit your ability to be distracted from your job.
And in all honesty, whether you intend to actively use it or not, I recommend anyone thinking about doing creative work on the computer to install such tools on their computer just to have the data handy should they need it at some point. It’ll give you a far better estimate of how many hours went into a certain project, and you may be surprised to discover what you are actually doing with your time when you’re sitting at your desk.
Almost all of us, when doing a to-do list, go for what we could call “results goals”. That is we write down the results we want to achieve, like “complete task X”. This is a useful practice and it makes a lot of sense, but it can be discouraging, especially when tackling bigger tasks of making little progress because of problems we ran into while trying to complete a particular task.
The solution then is to give yourself actions goals.
Actions goals, in contrast to results goals, are objective that imply certain actions instead of certain results; it’s focusing on the journey rather than on the destination. This approach is less useful when trying to track the progress of your work, but it is a great motivation-booster when facing tough tasks.
The idea is that instead of telling yourself you should “complete task X”, you set your objective on “working 6 hours on task X”. Instead of trying to complete “Build running cycle for main character”, you make a series of small actions like “Make 3 frames of animation”.
The results is tasks that can always be completed within a work-day, and that is an undeniable advantage to your morale. Sitting at your desk for the 5th day trying to do some progress on the same item you’ve been working on can feel like things aren’t moving at all. Being able to check items of the list and starting off knowing that, no matter what, you’ll be able to meet the requirements of the day is way more motivating than working hours on stuff that doesn’t give any appreciable value—at least on a daily scale.
Another advantage of this technique is that you will avoid mental failure. Say you start a task that looks simple enough. You tell yourself that it’ll be over by this evening and you’ll even be able to start working on the next item on the list. But then things don’t go nearly as smooth as you predicted they would, and by midnight you’re still struggling on the same item. Even worst, you’re only about halfway through. These kind of days can really take a toll on your motivation and your confidence.
Just the same, you will sometimes take on tasks that look like they’ll take a lot of work, only to find out you could reuse some older material and suddenly they’re finished in a fraction of the time you thought it’d take. Don’t get me wrong, this is great, but they can give you a false sense of accomplishment and you’ll wrongfully feel like you deserve a break or like you’ve suddenly jumped ahead of schedule and can slow things down.
In both cases, having actions goals would prevent any negative impact. Longer than expected tasks are no problem, because your goal for the day wasn’t to finish but simply to invest 8 hours into your project. Easier-than-expected tasks will give you a motivation boost, but you’ll know that your goal wasn’t to check a certain item on the list, but rather to work for 3 hours on that particular evening.
Action goals will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed, will give you extra momentum, will save you from perceived failures and false sense of progress.
Just do it
One final piece of advice that can be said about getting yourself to do the job is one that shouldn’t have to be said, but I still feel like we need to have someone remind us from time to time. Sometimes, to best way to get yourself to get something done… is to get yourself to do something.
All of the existing tips and tools to help you feel motivated, to trick you into getting to work, to have you make a habit of working from home, they’re nothing but tools. They’re the hammer that helps you drive nails, but you still need the arm and muscles to pick up said hammer and swing it. It’s smart in my opinion to equip yourself with the best tools available to you, but in the end it is not the methods or techniques that will have you sit down in front of your computer and work.
Without at least a tiny bit of discipline and willpower, nothing will ever get done. You can’t just count on those wonderful moments where motivation abounds and work doesn’t feel like work at all. Well maybe you could, but if you’re like me you’d probably work about 1 or 2 days a month; not very efficient for someone who’s trying to make something happen. In reality, you’ll probably have to force yourself to do a lot of things, a lot of times. One could make an entire project on discipline alone, I have no doubts about it; but I also know myself well enough to get me some tools and a few backup plans for days where work requires a bit more willpower than I can muster.
All in all, tools and techniques will greatly diminish the determination it takes to get yourself to work as much as you should, but it always starts with a spark—or sometimes a whole explosion—of discipline. After all, it’s a job like any others, and few people rejoice every morning while getting out of bed to get ready to go to work. The difference is your boss won’t fire you if you slack all day, so it takes that much more discipline to get yourself moving!