Lighten the List

There is generally always a long to-do list of things you need to implement when you’re working on something. While a little knowledge of what remains can help direct your efforts, my own experience has been that to-do lists can actually be detrimental to progress.

While I don’t deny that lists can help you focus your efforts and assist you in determining what to tackle next, I find them to be incredibly demotivating. Whenever I make a to-do list (regardless of how close I am to finishing a project), the sheer number of outstanding tasks inevitably makes me want to roll over and give up. In a previous post, I mentioned that individuals tend to overestimate the amount of work they can accomplish in any given length of time, and this optimism is a great motivator. Making a long list of what I need to do tends to curb this optimism, and makes it hard to enjoy what I’m working on.

Another thing worth mentioning is the “grass is always greener” syndrome. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve looked at a continuously growing list of tasks and caught myself thinking, “You know, I have another idea for a game that would be much easier than this.” Of course, I know better now — any game is going to have a to-do list just as long as the last.

My solution to this problem is actually very simple, and is comprised of two parts. First, I’ll outline a set of immediate tasks that I want to tackle within the next week or so. I’m not talking about goals like “Finish the damn game”, I’m talking about (very-)short-term goals and milestones. This is usually a brief list of 2-4 small features. Here’s an example of what such a list might look like:

  • Refactor to read player settings from file
  • Correct missile material and LOD settings
  • Implement sonic push cannon ordnance

In addition, I’ll maintain a second list that describes in detail all of the things that I’ve completed, even if the items on that list weren’t originally on my list of things to do. This allows me to see my progress (which is, surprisingly, very easy to forget) and keeps me highly motivated. I have a very long list of things I’ve accomplished with Gateway, and it makes me feel good to read it.

If you’re worried that by not enumerating every minor outstanding task you’ll somehow make a mistake or forget something, you should direct your concerns elsewhere. You should already have a feature list that you’re sticking to, and this is good enough. You won’t help yourself by breaking everything down and realizing how much work is actually remaining. So, trick your brain into being optimistic by making a short list, and enforce that optimism by keeping those goals attainable and documented.



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