Motivation Alone is Never Enough. Pace Yourself!

Nov 30, 2014

People who aren’t making the progress that they’d like on their projects often blame a lack of motivation or willpower, as though having energy to follow through on the things that we mean to do is some innate character trait.

It’s as if the people who are more productive on their projects have more motivation or willpower to draw upon. Meanwhile those with less of it are doomed to get less done.

My message today is that those T-1000 Terminator robots who perform their work endlessly, consistently producing results over extended periods of time without ever tiring…

…do not exist!

That robot is of course a fictional concept, one that exists only as a shared illusion through special effects and exhausting short takes. It cannot and does not exist in the real world.

You’re not like that.

I’m not like that.

No human has ever been like that.

That whole way of framing the situation is a myth. It gets used as a handy excuse by people having trouble getting started – because hey, if you’re just not cut out for it, then there’s nothing you can or should do differently, right? It’s also a trope shared by documentary makers and press writers who are trying to tell a more memorable and engaging story to win more festivals or eyeballs. The tale even gets adopted from time-to-time by successful creators as a strategy to appear larger than life, legendary, coming maybe as close as anyone can who shares in our nerdy, creative field of practice.

But let’s be clear about this: as surely as all people require food and sleep, as surely as we’re all fragile to harm from automobile accidents and terminal illnesses, all of us squishy bags of meat and electrochemical reactions will quickly exhaust if over worked or improperly worked. Beyond that exhausted state we’ll make too many mistakes, or be too easily distracted, doing more harm than good until we have a chance and way to recover.

Making videogames involves many vastly different kinds of pieces, very different kinds of creative and technical challenges. Unless you’re hacking out a prototype for a game jam or some similar stunt, compressed into an unsustainable binge simply for its own sake and the bond-forging glory of doing so, making even one decent videogame is more like a marathon than it is like a sprint.

You’ve got to pace yourself, not only within each project, but even on the scale of the current undertaking. Someone isn’t instantly ready to wake up tomorrow morning and take on the hardest level simply due to having decided to do it. You’ve still got to put in the weeks and months of training up to that point by doing smaller goals and working your way up to bigger challenges.

If someone who hadn’t been training at all decided to try running in a marathon on short notice, they’re likely to wind up pretty discouraged. There’s not something wrong with them though, other than a lack of preparation.

The same is true when beginning game developers tend to quickly get in over their heads by trying to skip steps. The problem isn’t a lack of motivation, or a flaw in the person, but is instead a flaw in the plan being followed.

You can find ways to use what limited energy you’ve got more effectively. Beyond that you’ve got to practice, practice, practice.

Like a runner’s muscles though it will never be so mighty that you won’t need to think about how to manage and sustain it at a competitive level. Energy will never be a non-issue.

Speaking of marathons and the Terminator robot, though: here’s a crazy fact about our ancient Homo sapien ancestors that I enjoy because it makes us as a species seem a little less fragile. 2 million years ago, before the development of ranged weapons, one method of hunting used by humans involved running longer than the prey could.

Early hunters could chase large animals to the point of exhaustion.

Many animals are capable of moving a lot faster than a human, but only in comparatively short bursts. There are few creatures on land that can sustain a fit human’s running pace over a span of hours if necessary.

Humans can occasionally even beat horseback riders (!) over marathon distances, particularly on hilly, rough ground on a hot day.

The point is that the advantage we have as humans isn’t limited intelligence, it’s also tied up our ability to train and discipline ourselves to overcome challenges over very long spans. We can’t and won’t achieve the same goals by merely running as hard as we can until we pass out.

It’s not about motivation, it’s about sustaining continuous forward progress. We are uniquely well adapted for relentless persistence in following through on a well-paced plan. There are no tireless robots, but we ordinary humans, when determined and patient, are at least the closest approximation in nature.

We can maximize what little energy we have, strengthen it bit by bit through modest goals, and stick to a smart plan for how often we should and shouldn’t push ourselves to make progress without risk of strain, injury, or quitting.

We do it only by spreading out the work into an intensity that we can sustain for the long haul.

Then we do it one step at a time.

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