There are two things I have that make being a creative person more difficult than it might otherwise be: legendarily poor self-discipline, and clinical depression. It’s a shitty, crippling combination that turns many things into a downright crapshoot, from working on personal projects to getting out of bed at all some days. I have struggled for years and years to maintain good creative habits. I’m still struggling. However, recently I’ve managed to stay more productive by keeping a few things in mind. If you’re at all like me, hopefully this can help you. FWIW these tips apply mostly to game design, but with tweaking you could likely apply them to any creative endeavor.
1. START WITH A PLAN
I used to get so jealous thinking of all of those passionate creators out there who could sit down at their notebooks, laptops, typewriters, DAW’s or whatever and just make. It was a romantic ideal, and one I wanted desperately to embody. More often than not this resulted in me crashing and burning, leaving a long trail of abandoned half-starts. I decided to take a new approach the other night when I sat down to start a new game: I started with a notebook and a pen, and I listed every texture I thought I might need, all of the models I could imagine using that I needed to make, all of the characters that might appear, all the different areas of the world. As soon as I did that I proceeded to sit at my laptop, notebook beside me, finding and optimizing texture after texture, crossing each one off until that entire portion of my project was done. In one night. Don’t be afraid to do a little planning; it doesn’t make you less inspired or imaginative. Even just a few simple notes can be invaluable in providing you direction, and crossing things off the list is a rewardingly visible measure of your own progress. It might just keep you going when you’d otherwise stop.
2. SET A QUOTA FOR YOURSELF AND STRIVE TO MEET IT
A while ago I watched a talk that Nifflas , creator of the beloved Knytt series, gave about how he stays productive (sorry I can’t remember it or I’d link it here). One of the things that stuck with me was this idea of creating a ‘points’ system for himself. Here’s the idea: everything you create is worth points. A sprite or prop might be a few points, a sound effect might be a couple, a full level or piece of music might be a half-dozen each. Come up with a system of values for each thing you need to make, more points for more time-intensive or difficult assets. Then tell yourself that every day you will gain no fewer than X points. A quota can be an exceedingly rewarding way of keeping yourself on-track. Also importantly, meeting but not exceeding your quota each day can keep you from burning yourself out and leave you with things to work on the next day. Of course there are simpler ones; 1000 words a day, two hours of work a day, a short story a week, whatever. But game devs (presumably) love games, and what gamer doesn’t want points? Experiment is key. If a quota doesn’t work or stresses you out, try another one.
3. REMOVE DISTRACTIONS
A tired cliché as far as ‘how to get more done’ tips go, but nevertheless an important one. Distraction is the greatest enemy of poor self-discipline. Being a game maker is especially difficult, because we rely on our computers which, most of the time, are connected to the internet. That means you’re never more than a second away from email, twitter, tumblr, youtube, Steam, whatever. That makes it more important than ever that you get good at removing those distractions. Exit Steam. Close your browser. Tell your twitter followers and facebook friends that you’ll be working for a while. This last serves a double-purpose for me, as fear of disappointing others is a big personal motivator. If I communicate to people I care about that I’ll be working for the evening, I’m more inclined to follow through for fear of reneging on my quasi-promise. “Hey Twitter followers, if you see me tweeting at all in the next few hours, tell me to get back to work.” Who knows, you might even end up with people cheering you on, and that’s always an ego boost.
4. MAKE YOURSELF AS COMFORTABLE AS POSSIBLE
Unfortunately something of a black art, particularly if you’re dealing with a less-than-ideal living situation. It is impossible to overstate the value of being comfortable while you work. Experiment with everything within your power to control: the lights in the room, the position of your laptop, the amount of covers on your bed, the angle of your pillows, the tilt of your monitor. The more comfortable you are, the less distracted you’ll be by petty physical nuisances.
Something else that might help here, particularly if you’re as scatterbrained as I am, is to use a white noise generator like http://simplynoise.com (with headphones, obv). I used to think I was a “works best with music” type, but this has proved completely false. However, stark silence doesn’t help either. White noise is an excellent middle-ground that’s surprisingly helpful in increasing concentration. Play around and find what configuration feels the most natural and comfortable; I’m partial to low-volume brown noise with a weak oscillation.
5. OPEN THE PROGRAM IMMEDIATELY
As soon as you decide to start working on something, open the program. Be it Unity, GameMaker, a word processor, FL Studio, Photoshop, whatever open it as soon as you think of it. I’ve lost count of the nights I got some wild creative urge, told myself I’d work on it later, and proceeded to spend a week not working on anything. If you open the program before you talk yourself out of it, you’ll be less likely to close it. With most people, but especially in people with depression, beginning to work is the hardest part. But if you can do that, continuing to work is comparatively easy. But you can’t start to work if the program is closed.
6. REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU COULD BE WORKING
Often, despite our best efforts, distraction finds a way. Many times I’ll work an hour, hit a block or find myself fatigued, and without thinking I’m suddenly watching YouTube videos or scrolling up and down my Steam library. However, as is the way with depression, most of those times I don’t end up really doing anything. I don’t play games, I just think about playing them. I don’t really pay attention to the videos, I’m just clicking on them. At those times I find it helpful to remind myself that I could be working right then, that even if I don’t think I have the energy, I might as well have the program open and be toying around, because I’m not doing anything else anyway. There’s nothing wrong with leaving a youtube playlist on in the background if that helps you tune out, but try to catch yourself in these moments of ennui and tell yourself “you won’t hate yourself as much if you fuck around in Unity for twenty minutes. Not like you’re doing anything better.” Sometimes you’ll just end up staring at your program, and that’s okay. But think back to step 5. You have a better chance of getting something done if it’s open than if it’s closed.
7. DEVELOP A HABIT
Similar to setting a quota, turning productivity into a habit is an important part of staying creative. Unfortunately, this is also probably the most difficult step for people with depression. Many non-depressed people are capable of getting ‘addicted’ to creation; writers will write every day for long enough that if they go a few days without writing, they start to get twitchy. By contrast, depressed people operate based on rare flashes of pathos and inspiration; this can mean two-day islands of productivity punctuated by whole weeks of nothingness. Do not beat yourself up about this. Do not compare yourself against those people who can work every day; you will only make yourself miserable. Instead, try to follow their example, but in your own way. The quota thing might help, but even setting aside a particular time each day to try and be creative can help. You might not always meet a quota. Sometimes you’ll just stare at your monitor and come up dry. That’s okay; those nights will happen. But if you can make a habit of attempting, you’ll be in a much better position. For whatever it’s worth, I can say from personal experience that it’s nothing short of stupefying how much easier it becomes to stay productive if you can keep it going for the first few days. Try your hardest not to break your streak, even if you’re not getting something big done every single night.
8. BE WILLING TO ABANDON PROJECTS
Here’s where we start to get into the more psychological stuff. Often when dealing with creativity, particularly self-motivated creativity, depressed people will lack the energy to finish a project. This is fine, this is natural, but we tend to internalize this as a surrender, a defeat, proof of our weakness, proof that we are failures as creative people.
Knock that shit off.
There’s nothing at all wrong with abandoning a project. Sometimes an idea seems amazing at first, but you get halfway through and run out of energy, or realize there’s nothing you can do to salvage it, or real-life stresses derail your creative impetus. This happens to everyone, I imagine. The important thing is, it’s work you did. If you still love the idea, keep trying; but learn to pick your battles and don’t be afraid to cut your losses. Besides, at the very least, it will remain on your hard-drive for you to return to if inspiration ever strikes again.
9. REWARD YOURSELF
I used to get so jealous and self-deprecating when I would read about creators who experience nothing but joy whenever they sit down to do whatever it is they do. It made me feel like maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer, or a game dev, or a musician, or whatever, because I rarely feel joy when creating. Satisfaction, certainly, and yes, sometimes it’s a lot of fun, but just as often it’s strenuous, sometimes even agonizing. Yet I’m still compelled to keep making things. If you feel the same compulsion even despite feeling the same apprehension, you are a creative person.
So what does that mean for us, people who need to create but don’t always want to? One possible solution is to establish a reward for yourself. Try to stick to intangibles for sake of your health (i.e. avoid thinking of smoke breaks as rewards if that’s already a problem you have). For instance, if you find yourself playing video games more often than making them, tell yourself that for every two hours you work on something, you’ll take an hour break to play something. Be careful with this though, because you could just end up inviting distraction. Put the work before the reward in any case. Giving yourself an incentive is a good way to ease those nights when your work truly feels like work.
10. FORGIVE YOURSELF
It’s okay if you miss a night. It’s okay if don’t quite meet your quota. It’s okay if you don’t have as much fun with your work as everyone else seems to. It’s okay if some nights you just can’t make it happen. It’s okay to have unfinished projects. It’s okay to work slowly. It’s okay to struggle to find inspiration. It’s okay if you don’t fly out of bed every morning and hit the keyboard with the thunder of the gods in your fingertips. You can still create. Having depression does not make you a failure, or passionless, or uninspired. The most important thing you can do is remind yourself of these things. Forgive yourself of your faults and defeats. Sometimes it can be impossible to see them as anything else, but they are going to happen, and the best thing you can do is wash your hands of them and move on. Depression is a parasite that saps us of our will and our drive, but we are never truly without those things. Forgive yourself for the things you can’t control, and remember the things that you can.
You can be productive. You can create. You are capable, no matter how it feels sometimes. Each hour you spend in creation is further proof of that. Don’t ever tell yourself otherwise.