The Art (and Hard Work) of Finishing Things

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Shawn Delahunty's picture
Illuminatus EyeIlluminatus Eye Greetings once more to all my fellow Armchair Arcadians! Yet again, I've found my blogging schedule horribly delayed by "Life, The Universe, and Everything". If I weren't such a chipper and optimistic guy, I'd begin to think that it was some kind of Secret Illuminati Conspiracy, trying to derail the "Great Things" I want to accomplish in my life. Sadly, it's nothing so dramatic or interesting. I know all too well what the real causes are:
  • Overwork at my Engineering day job.
  • The need to show my wife that I actually, you know, CARE about her. Which means spending time with her, doing non-computery things like; movies, talking, buying groceries, etc.
  • Trying desperately to complete the writing of my new book.
  • A foolish tendency to over-commit my time to FAR too many side-projects.
  • That pesky need to sleep.
  • Good, old-fashioned, 100% down-to-Earth.... PROCRASTINATION. (Boo. Hiss.)

Interestingly, being this overwhelmed proved fortuitous: it gave me the topic for this week's blog posting! (Yes, I said, "...this week's.." Try not to giggle--I'm going to do my best here to stick to this new weekly schedule.) So without further ado (adieu? a-doo-doo?) let's get to it:

How to FINISH THINGS in the midst of a FRENETIC LIFE.
How organizing your life, your goals, and your efforts, is an awful lot like running a game-development studio.

Like many folks, I find myself wishing that I could get a lot more done, MUCH more quickly. What do I want to do?

  1. Complete the writing of my Programming Design book
  2. Complete the repair of my vintage retro-computing systems
  3. Complete version 2 of Retro-ZAP!, the neo-retro BASIC game I wrote and placed HERE on Armchair Arcade last year. (This new version has some Assembly code in it, making it play much more like an actual.. you know... GAME, and less like a stop-motion parody of a game.)
  4. Complete the construction of my electronics lab.
  5. Complete the repair/overhaul of the Stargate: Defender arcade cabinet I bought two months ago
  6. Complete the design & finally construct my MAME arcade cabinets
  7. Find some time to actually PLAY and maybe, just maybe, Finish some of the games sitting on my pile!

I could go on, as I have a myriad of other projects heaped about shamefully on my various TODO piles. But those aren't so gaming-related, so I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say, it's a pretty darn big "Pile 'O Stuff" that I'm trying to get through. So where to begin finding/making the time I need to get to all the delicious, fun, game-ry goodness?

Eliminating The Obvious

As I mentioned in the blurb, my life has been nuts lately. There just aren't enough hours in the day. And before anyone points me at "Time Management" books or websites, forget it. I honestly do not waste much time during any given week. In point of fact, I continually try to multi-task and minimize "pointless stuff" as much as sanely possible:

  • I read books and magazines in snippets while in the bathroom, waiting in line, at appointments, and so forth.
  • I do not idly surf the internet for hours. (Usually.)
  • I watch a grand total of about 3 hours of TV per week, all with my wife, because we enjoy discussing the shows; the plotlines, the acting, and the writing:
    1. -- Downton Abbey (This show is awesome. Seriously. Check it out.)
    2. -- Elementary
    3. -- Castle (My wife and I are seriously hard-core Firefly fans.)

    As such, I can double- or triple-count this time; it's time spent indulging in a little mental fantasy and entertainment, time spent with my wife talking and enjoying each other's company, and (arguably) time spent improving my writing skills by studying and analyzing the work of others.

So, all of the "obvious and easy" things to fix in my time-management schedule are already being done. (Hint: If you are watching more than a couple hours of TV a week, you really need to turn off that endlessly quacking idiot-box.)

Crafting The Idea

You'll note that I wrote, "THE Idea", and not "Ideas". The distinction is important. In my own life, as with game-development studios, there is a great temptation to, "Sit around thinking up stuff that sounds cool." That seems great, but in truth you'll probably end up chasing the chimera of "The Perfect/Best Idea". There is simply not enough time in a single life to get to all that. You ultimately have to pick and choose--so choose carefully.

And when making the choice of "The Idea", it's far better to pick 1 Really GOOD idea, which you know you can accomplish, and then, make that Idea a Reality by doing the actual work. Sitting around, trying to find or hone several AWESOME IDEAS, will just use up all the time you have, and leave you with nothing to show for it.

In my case, the idea(s) are fairly clearly defined. (I know, I know. I said "1" idea. But let's be realistic here. I'm not talking about an 18-month game development effort here, upon which hinges the fate of a studio and the salaries of 4 dozen people.) My difficulty is in prioritizing my choices. Which one is the MOST important to me? Which one is the EASIEST to complete? Which one will be the MOST FUN?

Get Organized: Finding the Low-Hanging Fruit

The next step is a direct application of the 80/20 rule-of-thumb: 80 percent of "the work" can be done in 20 percent of the time. The remainig 20 percent of the work is going to be the monster. So, in the interests of sanity and energy, do the 80% first, even if the actual bits are a little boring.

My train of thinking on this topic comes from the last few issues of Game Developer Magazine. In the pages of that publication, one of my favorite recurring features is "The Post-Mortem". This is an article, written by the game developers themselves, covering the Good and Bad issues they encountered during the development process of a given game. The one recurring theme in every article? Time.

Invariably, the developers complain about:

  • Not enough time for building the tech/innards/tools. Or at least not enough time to make them easily usable by non-techie folks like artists, level-designers, and audio-designers.
  • Not enough time for playtesting, to make sure the game is FUN.
  • Not enough time for QA, to prevent the horrible launch-day bugs which haunted them.
  • Not enough time near end of dev-cycle to properly coordinate marketing & release PR
  • Not enough time AFTER cycle for bug-fixing because of need to keep up the PR blitz
  • Mismanagement of time during various phases of the project:
    • Chasing tech/engine/competitor changes, and always playing catch-up to an endlessly moving target.
    • Chasing down "the look" of the game, or iterating too long on level-design and art-design.

In nearly every case, the designers are able, with the stunning clarity which 20/20 Hindsight affords us, to spot the areas where they "should have" done something different. And nearly every time, that boils down to a handful of items... easily completed items. So, the moral here? If you have something that is boring, or makes you feel icky to think about, but which you know is simple---well, just DO the darn thing. Put on some high-energy music, do it while on the phone with a funny friend, heck do it naked if you must! But find some way to make it less distasteful, and cross that bugger off your list.

So, applying this logic to me, I think I need to get some of the less fun things done quickly over the next few weeks. I shall:

  • Clean out my garage. This will give me the space to:
  • Finish putting my shop tools together. This will allow me to:
  • Build the benches & shelving I need for my electronics & test equipment. This will allow me to:
  • Begin working on the "Fun Stuff"... i.e. Fixing my Stargate arcade game, repairing my vintage 8-bit computers, and so on.

Setting the Priorities and Schedule

Some people work well with deadlines. Some people do not. Some people don't know how to spell deadline. Others (certain managers come to mind) think of them as a fun tool to beat people with.

Regardless of how you might personally feel about them, setting a deadline, and forcing yourself to stick to it, does have one guaranteed upside: IT ENSURES THAT YOU GET SOMETHING DONE, IN A FINITE AMOUNT OF TIME.

That something might not be great, it may not work 100% correctly, but at least it will be there; present, real, tangible. You have something to work with, to evaluate. And you have a much better idea of what features are there, what are missing, what took the longest amounts of time, and what was "easy".

From that point, you can narrow down the scope of things, set secondary deadlines, and have the helpful impetus of ACTUALLY ACCOMPLISHING SOMETHING. It's unbelievable how much that can help your mental and emotional well-being, especially on a difficult project.

For my part, I have to re-organize a couple of my personal deadlines. Just thinking about them, as I wrote this article, has been enormously helpful. I've been jotting down ideas and "Must Do" items in a separate document as I wrote and revised these words. May I humbly suggest the same kind of thing to you in your game-design efforts. Thinking will only get you so far before things stall out. The act of physically writing something down, can really help you get moving.

Now comes the uncomfortable bit.

Nose to the Grindstone

This is where I disagree profoundly with a great many folks, especially Jane McGonigal in her book Reality Is Broken. (I couldn't finish the thing, I found it hideously unreadable in every way.) In the book, McGonigal talks endlessly about how, "Life would be better if it were set up like a game, with achievements, and scaling rewards." In short: "Everything would be great if it were always FUN, always like A GAME."

Every time someone brings up that book, or a similar line of thinking, I feel like yelling, "McGonigal is Broken! Stop sticking your head in the sand!" Speaking from personal experience, even the job of designing as coding and creating a game... isn't as fun as playing the game. Yet without one, we cannot have the other.

(Please note I said nothing about "how rewarding" the work is. The creation and effort put into making a game, are actually MORE rewarding than the playing, in many, many ways.)

Life is messy
Life is unfair.
Life is hard.


The problem with the world, the real problem? It's US--how we approach it, how we think about it, how we react (or don't) to situations in it and to situations we create. Humans don't do well without struggle to teach us, mold us, toughen us. To quote Sci-Fi novelist Robert A. Heinlein:

Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.

(I warned you that this was the uncomfortable bit.)

So what do we do? In short: Get on with it. Pick up your hands, and do something. Even if you don't want to. In my case, this means a couple things:

  • Forcing myself to keep working on this article, even though I already stared at screens and code for 10+ hours today as part of my job.
  • Forcing myself to re-read this article many times, editing out the really horrible and boring bits. And then going back over it AGAIN and editing out the merely slightly horrible and boring bits.
  • Forcing myself to do a little bit of editing and writing work on my programming design book. (Despite the fact that the idea of spending one more nanosecond on programming makes me want to run screaming madly through the neighborhood, waving my arms and drooling a bit.)
  • Make myself work out a schedule for the next few weeks, setting aside time for all the scut-work and dirty work and downright boring crap that I must get done.
  • Setting aside short bursts of time to work on fun stuff, even just a little bit each day, to stay encouraged and sane.

There are far too many things in my life right now, all clamoring for attention. I'm only going to really enjoy the "FUN PARTS" if I don't have the "HARD PARTS" still hanging over me, like the Sword of Damocles.

However, rather than complain, or make some really pathetic mea culpa excuses, I'm going to use this as, "A Bold, Grand Opportunity!"(TM)(R)(c)(mouse) (That's my new mantra... and I'm sticking to it. Hey, it already netted me a halfway decent blog article!)

So, until next time folks. Good luck with your own schedules, your own plans, and your own TODO pile. Pick up those "New Years Resolutions", dust them off, and tape them to the fridge or bathroom mirror. Start checking those suckers off. You'll feel a whole lot better; trust me.


Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Great stuff as always, Shawn.

Great stuff as always, Shawn. I'm definitely over-committed and overextended, with the full-time job, family, and three concurrent books. To add to the pile - though luckily this no longer requires a great deal of time (mostly corrections) - the documentary is now officially in the home stretch. Christina is in the same boat, with two books and a teaching assignment, in addition to her full-time job and said family. We both plan on taking as long of a break as we possibly can after August of this year when things should slow down. Things may pick up again in November, but I can't think about that right now. At this point, it's a live and learn thing... Learn not to take on too more than you can possibly handle. It's not easy, of course, but I'm officially using all your same buzzwords - overworked, overextended, etc. That's better than not being challenge and/or being bored, but it's not better than BALANCED.

Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy's picture
Joined: 08/31/2008

Great stuff, Shawn.

Life seems a little crazy for me as well. Time seems so random, now. I do get free time, but it just sort of appears at random. My wife will be entering her residency this year. This means that we will match with a school (quite soon, actually) and then move somewhere in the United States. The concept of not knowing where you are going to live until a computer tells you just blows my mind - especially since I always figured that I was going to be born and die in the same city.

Needless to say, each few weeks brings a new milestone on the road to sudden change. I have lots of projects that are somewhat on hold, and most of my free time is spent chilling out & keeping my mind off of it.

In a way, it will be fun to get a fresh start on things, but I am not someone that handles change very well! Ha!

Chipsilver (not verified)

Excellent article, thank you. Written with spirit, and it has given me some good ideas to try.

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