This time last year, I had just gotten my first break, and was bouncing up and down with excitement. I couldn't wait to get started, and dreamed of getting my foot in the door to really be involved in a career around writing and game design.
Now, at this time this year, I've got some fantastic products in the oven, which I think are really going to be game-changing, both in their fields and for my own life. But I'm in that awkward stage where I have all of the work but--not yet--any of the rewards. Once some of these things come out... well, I probably won't be able to quit my day job, but it should at least provide a little flexibility, something to invest in the next go round.
Yet I find myself in the unexpected situation of working on the most exciting projects of my life so far, but struggling with motivation. What's the cause? I ask myself.
In short, the adrenaline has worn off.
I'm not actually any less excited about any of the projects I'm doing. But projects like these are big. They're time consuming. They require sustained effort over time, and basically, you can't sprint a 100 K run.
Over the last few months, I've had to find creative ways to tackle this issue. Sometimes I haven't tackled it effectively, and let days, or even weeks, pass without getting much done. But I'm starting to put together a little bag of tricks to help me deal with this problem. Writing these out is a way for me to clarify it in my own mind. But also, hopefully, to give something useful to you.
1) Consistency, not Sprints: I've always had a tendency to work in bursts of high-octane energy. Consistency is a challenge for me. But what I'm finding is that one day of work, no matter how enthusiastic, can never match what can be done in a week. And a week's sprint, no matter how determined, can never match what can be done in a month, not if you keep a moderate, but steady pace over that whole time. Furthermore, if you run on maximum burn, you're going to burn out your fuel sooner or later. I'm a person with a lot of enthusiasm and determination. I've never been burned out before. It took me months of sprinting to get there, but it happened, and when it did, it shocked me. I didn't know what to do. Only over the last few months have I been tackling this problem and learning that I need to pace myself to accomplish something as big as what I'm building. It's not worth burning my energy out in one high-productivity week, if it then takes me two weeks to recover from it.
2) Plan Rest: According to an internet anectode*, a woman giving a speech at a conference lifted up a glass before her audience that was filled exactly to the halfway point. Quirking a smile, she asked, "how heavy is this glass?" The audience, expecting a different question, was taken aback for only a moment before they starting throwing out weights. After a moment she said, "Sure, it's not that heavy, right now. I can lift it easily. But if I hold it here for five minute? For an hour? All day? My arm would start shaking. Eventually I would drop it." IT'S SO TRUE. You have to put the weight down from time to time. No matter how excited you are to be carrying whatever it is you're carrying, you've still got to stop and rest from time to time. This doesn't mean you have free license to slack off whenever you want. That's why you plan the rest. Make time for you to set the burden down. My schedule for the moment: First, 10 minutes before bed each night, I stop work, take a deep breath, and consciously set it down. The temptation to just stay up working is strong, but I take that energy and remind myself to use it to stay focused the next day, rather than burning it out on not sleeping and then being exhausted the next day. Second: I've scheduled Sunday nights, past six, as a time for no work. A time for me to rest, to sit down, to watch a movie or play a game, or whatever I want that doesn't involve writing. What I find is that if I don't stick to this, then I find those activities creeping into my writing time when I get exhausted, and my overall productivity drops. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: Plan Rest.
3) Hours, Hours, Hours: This doesn't necessarily bear repeating, but it's the flip side of the above. When you're not resting, stay focused. Usually, when I start to feel like a project is taking forever, if I look back over the way I've spent my time, not much of it is actually going in to that project. Make sure to schedule time to rest, but make sure to schedule time to work, also.
4) Write Down Your Goals: I find this especially useful right at the beginning of a chunk of time that I have available for work. For myself, and I'm probably not alone with this, I often find myself incredibly excited at times when I'm not free to work on the project, but when I do have time, my mind is on other things and it's an effort to even remember what I need to do. If I've got two hours available, I find that by taking five minutes at the start of that time to do a quick brainstorm/freewrite thing about what my goals are and what the next steps for me are, it helps me A) get focused, B) remember why I want to do whatever it is I'm sitting down to do, and C) Clarify exactly what my immediate tasks are. This way, I can get started after five minutes, instead of after 45 minutes on facebook.
5) Sleep: Seriously! It's important. See Steps 1 and 2, above. We each have our own limits, and you know yours best, but when you think about it, the extra hour that makes the difference between enough sleep and not enough sleep really isn't that much time. How much are you really going to get done in that hour? Is it worth being at half-power for all 16 hours of the following day? Beyond which, if you happen to be struggling emotionally at all, being rested really helps with morale.
6) Keep a few Projects Going: Keep a few pots on the fire. Keep your options open. This may be just me, but I find that if I have only one project that I'm focusing on, especially if I feel obligated to work on that to the exclusion of other things, it dramatically increases my sense of exhaustion and frustration. I *always* keep two to three projects spinning at once. It helps me a lot to be able to jump to something else when one thing starts getting old. When your creative muscles start getting tired, you can turn to something new to get a breath of fresh air and re-invigorate that excitement.
7) Exercise: This is one that I'm still struggling with in practice, but I've clearly identified it as a priority. Like it or not, we live in these bodies for the duration of our stay here on earth. All of the energy we have comes from our bodies. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, exercise actually increases your body's level of energy. Bodies are like the machines in that old sci-fi book The Practice Effect. They get better at whatever you use them for. If you don't use it for anything except staying awake late at night typing, it's going to start to break down, and that's no kind of platform to work from. Not to mention, not a pleasant way to live. I'm not surprised at all when I hear about famous authors who run every morning.
8) Harness your "Slack Off" Time: We're all going to slack off to some degree or another, despite the best laid plans of mice and men. It's just a fact of the internet. It sucks you in. But it doesn't have to be wasted time. If you get in the habit of zoning out by keeping up with social media and reading articles or blog posts related to your area of expertise, well, that's actually pretty important to keep up with to stay connected.
In conclusion, it's been my observation that you have two basic resources: time, and focus. And both of these need to be managed. I'm excited about all the things I'm doing, but doing so much runs a very real risk of exhaustion. Making time to work is important, but if you don't have the focus to use that time effectively, it doesn't do any good.
It's challenging, but the most fun and worthwhile things always are. Honestly, this is the most fun I've had in years, exhaustion and all. Happy creating!
*Sorry, I don't remember the source! If you recognize the story, let me know!