When the Mood Strikes

My mental model for how I should finish Project Serpent is that I shouldn’t bother too much with forcing myself to work on it when I don’t feel like it, because that will just make me miserable. My ultimate goal is to develop the ability to finish projects that I can exercise for the rest of my life, so it’s pretty important that whatever procedure I end up with is not one that tends to make me miserable. So according to this model, I should wait until I am in the mood for programming, and only then should I program.

This actually worked pretty well for about a week after I started working for pay. After that, my programming moods seemed to slow down significantly — I haven’t felt up to programming in a week or two at this point. And so I’ve done no work.

While waiting until I can program without stress would seem to be the ideal strategy if it would get me to my goal… it’s clear at this point that completionism is more difficult than that. If I actually want to finish this, it will take some discipline: I’m going to need to force myself to start working even when I don’t feel like it, at least sometimes.

I would love to instantly become my ideal self, who can be perfectly comfortable at all times and still produce interesting, finished things. But that’s not an option. The only way forward is incremental improvement, and it seems that the most productive incremental improvement is to learn to finish things, even if it hurts.

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The Skill of Finishing Things

In my last post I mentioned that one of the reasons I did my little game jam was social pressure: I felt my programming skills and ideology were under fire, and wished to renew my confidence in them.

But there’s another motivation behind the game jam, one that has been stewing at the edges of my mind for much longer. It’s about the Skill of Finishing Things.

One of my favorite things to do in my free time is to just play with ideas. I just sit around and mull over something in my mind: maybe a game idea, or a mathematical curiosity, or an imagined scenario of the future, or a conlang idea, or some fictional setting or conceit or sometimes even a plot. But (and this seems to be a very common problem) I have a hard time seeing these things through to completion. I realize that it’s okay not to turn every cool idea into a finished product; that would be impossible. But I really wish I could pick, say, one idea per month, or even every six months or every year, and stick with it (even if I consider other things in my free time) until I have something to show for it.

And my Pong jam was one small step in that direction. I had done game jams in the past, but never finished one before — I’ve always been too ambitious. I just desperately needed to have something to my name that I could call complete, so I set my sights as low as possible and gave myself a deadline short enough that I could stand to spend almost every waking hour working until it was done. And that worked, and now I have a shiny thing to show off that’s actually complete. Great!

But where does this leave me? I found a way to finish small, unambitious things. That’s better than nothing. Certainly it’s a hugely important symbolic step — the pride and confidence I felt when I finished were immense, and now if I ever want to develop any small ideas I know a way to do it. But setting a close deadline and spending every waking moment working is not a scalable approach. I can neither repeat this procedure to finish many small projects in rapid succession, nor can I extend the deadline to finish a larger project in this way — that’s just too much strain, especially since I’ll be starting work at an actual job soon. So I need to find another way.

I think the next step is to try to find a way to extend this “game jam” model to a slightly longer project: commit to dedicating at least a particular proportion of my time to the project, and set a deadline after which I’ll call the project finished. This will be inherently more difficult with a longer deadline, but sometimes there’s no way around difficulty — I’ll just have to develop the discipline to do it.

I think my next attempt will be “work four hours a day and finish in a week”. I’ll post again when I decide what to work on and when to begin.