Trouble Staying Focused? Maybe Your Workspace Setup is Bad.

May 27, 2014

Some people trying to get into videogame making believe that they simply have trouble focusing. It’s as though focus must just come more naturally for others. More often than not I suspect that work environment plays a much larger factor than we notice.

There are countless tasks that can be done on a computer that need less attention than videogame development: reading link bait “news” articles online, watching gifs, or playing games made by others. If you’re in a crummy working setup that makes it harder than necessary to keep your attention on what you’re learning or doing, you may find yourself wandering into doing those kinds of things.

Think of it this way: if you physically had one hand tied behind your back, you’d find yourself doing things that only require one hand, ignoring whatever requires both. Having a bad workspace setup is like having one half of your possible attention tied behind your back, leaving you squirming to do what you can with half attention.

What exactly do I mean by a bad workspace setup? We could turn this into a piece on workplace ergonomics – angles, heights, knees and elbows – but that’s really the last 15% of getting things right. Let’s focus instead on the more severe things that might be wrong.

First: using a table and chair goes a long way. Any table and chair! It doesn’t need to be anything expensive. If you’re using a desktop machine anyway this may sound nuts, but a very real downside of ever-lighter laptops becoming common is people increasingly doing their computing while sitting up in bed, laying on a couch, or in all kinds of other less-than-ideal positions. Those positions can work fine for certain kinds of computer usage, like clicking through top 10 lists or checking Facebook, and even in short bursts for things like responding to emails. For developing software and creating the related game assets, a flat surface above your lap will help.

There are good reasons why offices are still overwhelmingly filled with desks and chairs instead of couches. If you want to achieve productivity on personal projects in your own evening or weekend hours comparable to the level of productivity experienced at a workplace’s daytime hours, try emulating what’s known to work.

Speaking of that flat surface and bad laptop routines: if you’re in the habit of using the trackpad I’d suggest investing in a USB mouse. It’s quicker and more precise. It’s lower fatigue. Much like sitting on a couch, the trackpad is fine for certain kinds of light computer usage. However for videogame development it’s not a good primary setup to use day after day, month after month, year after year.

And, as Six Echo suggests and and Spencer mentioned earlier, taking a little time to clean up your workspace can help minimize distraction. I’ll take it one further, and suggest that not only physically cleaning your desk can help, but also cleaning the area around your desk, even your machine’s virtual desktop, can help keep attention from splitting into different directions. It doesn’t need to be spotless, but if your machine and immediate environment are a disorganized mess you’re really setting your brain up to fight an uphill battle just to stay focused.

If where you’re working for your videogame making isn’t working out, and just getting it in order hasn’t helped, one quick fix may simply be finding a change of setting.

I’ve lived in places where the temperature always seemed too cold, or where we didn’t have AC, even in very old buildings where the air seemed stagnant and difficult to breathe fully. As a place to keep my things and sleep, that was fine. When needing to get things done for work, heading to a coffee shop and paying the $1.75 for a cheap drink as an excuse to work there generally resulted in a lot more actual work getting done.

Or try working in a library, or if you can find a comfortable book store that has free wifi, that works too. Some grocery stores with a dining area in front even work alright. If you’re a student, those study areas work just as well for videogame programming as they do for class assignments.

(Breathable air sounds like something extreme, but it really can be a problem in an old building.)

Background noise is probably an obvious issue to consider, but one thing I’ll point out for it is that whether background music helps or hinders what you’re doing can vary by context. When learning new things I turn the music off to concentrate. When hammering something out I’ve done many times before non-vocal music seems fine. For Robert Utter, he prefers to change up which music he listens to while debugging:


As JL Evans points out, room to pace can also be helpful:

Sometimes going for a short walk, just moving around a bit, can help us untangle what we’re stuck on. I’m currently staying in a place where we don’t have much room inside for pacing, but I instead occasionally go for a quick walk around the block if getting restless, then get right back to it.

For awhile I found that my limiting factor was lower back discomfort, due to hunching over a laptop screen. I picked up a cheap bluetooth keyboard to use with my mouse, and now whenever I can I simply prop my laptop screen up closer to eye-level while working, enabling me to work for longer periods of time more comfortably. It sounds a little silly, and I’ve had a few people tell me it looks a little silly, but it works. It helps me get things done.

Some people work best when others are around who are also focused, amplifying our conscience about strangers catching us browsing social networks. Others work best when completely alone. Experiment a bit and find what works for you.

Some people like to use multiple monitors – your mileage may vary. It can be helpful for certain kinds of tasks, but adds considerable temptation to others, especially when/if working alone at home. In my experience the type of development work that I’m doing often only needs a single display, and in those cases a second sometimes becomes too tempting to use for unproductive internet browsing, thinking I’ll just keep it separate from my main productivity screen, or (worse!) putting on a show in the background. While I think that we all may like to tell ourselves that having on background television helps, or at least doesn’t slow us down… at least in my own personal experiments I’m fairly sure that it generally gets in the way more than it helps. Any time that I don’t absolutely need a second display, I prefer to stick to just one.

When I’m doing work I can handle while offline I’ll often completely disable my internet, or run something like Freedom, and set my smartphone charging across the room where I’m not tempted to pick it up and fiddle with it.

If your current work setup isn’t working out well for you, and you’ve been having trouble concentrating while learning or practicing for videogame development, mix things up. Don’t just assume your brain’s to blame and the most limiting factor in holding focus, look for ways to change your setup to give it a fighting chance to do its best work.

Anything is difficult without full concentration, and nobody can commit and sustain full concentration in a difficult environment or troubled workspace setup.

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  1. This is exactly the problem I’ve been going through lately. With my wife and 3 kids at home it’s just far to distracting to work most of the time. I’ve looked around the area for a good place to retreat to but I haven’t found one yet where I’ll feel comfortable 🙁 I really feel like I need Wi-Fi and I need a place where I can feel like I’m not completely mooching off of their stuff which means that I’d want to go in and buy something cheap but not unhealthy. It feels like a lose lose situation in a lot of ways.

  2. Will play the devil’s advocate here, and maybe try to defend my bad habit here of working on the couch. I’m using a desktop pc and have made it work through ridiculously long cables and a tall coffee table where the monitor goes.

    To me, it’s all about privacy, and not being constantly interrupted while you’re already on to something and the wheels are turning inside your head. In the previous company I worked for, there were days were I literally worked for 30-60 minutes a day, since every 5 minutes the big boss would call me about something, a PR person wanted clarifications for our product, a co-worker would ask a question and the website guy would request an screenshot of the product to put to the website. Every time I returned to the office, it was done, I had no idea what I was working on… There were times I stayed over time just because it was the only hours of the day I witnessed myself actually writing code and thinking productively. Now that I work from home, when I’m on a huge deadline I’ll usually change my schedule so I can work all night (ambient low volume music, dark room, warm coffee, silence, and beautiful tranquility…) and sleep all day.. like a bat. Girlfriends/wives aren’t very keen on this, but if it’s an emergency then you will be excused, just this once 😉

    Everything else is less important.. There’s even studies promoting a messy desk because it enhances productivity. And the next time your boss harasses you about your desk, give him the old Einstein quote: “If a cluttered desk a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”


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