Leveling Up My Single-Tasking

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Chad Moore. He is an author, technical art director in the video game business, and aspiring minimalist.

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“Creativity… requires limits, for the creative act rises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” - Rollo May

I work in an industry that is by nature counter-intuitive for single-tasking and minimalism– both in the products we make and how we make them.

In most video games the goal is to amass as many items as possible and through various mechanisms “level them up.” Leveling-up refers to enhancing a quality of an item: the distance of arrows fired from your bow, the strength of your armor, or unlocking the bird that drops bombs are some examples of this. More and more. Bigger and faster. Everything from Angry Birds on your phone to the biggest deepest multi-player games out there follow this model. It’s what keeps the player engaged in the game.

Video Games are made by talented people pushing the limits of technology, art and design often without enough time to do it properly. From the smallest start-ups to the largest publisher, game development is a collaborative, creative and technical endeavor. This is the great part about the business… and the reason I stay with it.

But the way video games are made can be unfriendly towards simplicity. Most of the game developers I know are people that “need to multitask,” both by their own admission and because it’s expected in the video game culture.

First, most folks have headphones on. They’re listening to music, pod-casts, or audio-books. Some people even watch movies in small windows on their second monitor for “background noise.” As a manager, it’s my responsibility to make sure each member of the team is efficient and effective. From the outside, it doesn’t seem that productivity or efficiency is suffering… but I have begun running several experiments to see if quality does increase when the movie watching, music listening crowd is “unplugged.” The results are still being compiled as I write these words.

Second, office geography has the entire team sitting in cube farms. These close knit cubes are designed to “enhance communication.” For example, artists can quickly look over the half-wall and ask a programmer a question. This is great for immediate problem solving, however, the creative tasks we perform require dedicated and focused work in order to be fully realized.  And the constant interruptions hinder our productivity.

Third, everyone is “always on.” We have our email open all day and internal instant messaging clients humming – not to mention the external social networks and IM clients. In video games that are persistent worlds, dedicated staff is needed around the clock to keep everything running. If the server goes down, people can’t play. If they can’t play, they’ll look to play another game. So I see “always on” being needed in those roles. But most of us are on digital leashes of some kind even when we don’t need to be. Remote access into the office from home, work email on your phone. IM open all day. And all this multi-tasking is being proven to be actually bad for business, and maybe our brains too.

Some studies even postulate that people can be addicted to the micro-endorphin rush we get when we get an email or tweet notification. That’s why we can’t stop checking our phones when we’re away from work or when we’re driving. Most folks agree that these short bursts of interruptions are even changing our brains. Interruptions are a reflection of today’s corporate culture where we create emergencies that aren’t really serious. While most of this is unconscious, and not malicious, it is still a distraction nonetheless.

As an aspiring minimalist in both my personal and professional life, I have begun asking myself the following question: How can we level up single-tasking in the video game industry? And if we can do it in our industry, how does that translate to yours? 

Consider these three immediately practical solutions applicable to almost every industry:

#1 Wait your turn. Can you wait a while to talk to the artist? Look at him, does he have his headphones on (game developer code for “Do Not Disturb”) and is obviously “in the zone” sculpting in the 3D modeling application with a ton of reference images on the other monitor. Don’t interrupt him asking for his hours spent this week on his tasks. Let him do his job. That User Interface Engineer who’s sliding her chair back in forth from her development kit and her two-screen computer rig? She’s fixing a bug in the UI on her computer, testing it on the kit, and she’s obviously busy. Do not walk over and ask her how it’s going right now. Let her do her job. Your opportunity to ask your question will come… but you may need to wait your turn to ask it.

#2 Use team signals to tell others “do not disturb.” I’ve seen flags put up by artists to denote when they are in the zone and to please come back later. I’ve also seen tech teams have one team member wear a hat signaling that he/she is the person on call for help that day. Workers in other industries may close their door, work off-site, or tell their secretaries to hold their calls. But the signal has been made and we should learn to recognize them and respect them.

#3 Protect your industry’s most valuable asset. The most valuable asset any company has are its people.  People make the art, tech and design of a game. They support the game or the other people making the games. There are certain parts of the day when creativity runs wild and other parts of the day that are more suitable for less creative tasks. As a manager, I need to balance the need for creatives to not be disturbed with my duties as a manager. I have to talk to those people at some point about management issues. But what’s the best time of the day to do that? How do I best protect their creative time while still accomplishing my needs as a manager?

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But in my pursuit of both minimalism and my commitment to the video game industry, I’ll be communicating with one person at a time, handling one problem at a time, or working on one idea at a time. All as a part of my effort to bring the principles of minimalism and simplicity into my personal and professional life. And if we can accomplish simplicity in this industry, you can certainly accomplish it in yours.

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You can find out more about Chad at his website, Chad Moore.net or by following him on Twitter.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    Love the idea of single-tasking. If only it were realistic in my current full-time job as mother. Unfortunately, if I choose to single-task, it means another child is being ignored and probably causing mischief of some kind. However, the single-tasking IS necessary at times as each child needs undivided attention in order to feel loved and secure. I’m just trying to find the balance between the two. Definitely great suggestions!

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    One note on the silence versus background noise experiment. Be sure you measure a few times and maintain a control group. Are you familiar with a book called Peopleware by DeMarco?

    He shares a story about a factory where they measured the impact of increased light level on productivity. They increased the light and productivity went up. They increased the levels even more and productivity went up further. Then they decreased the light levels and productivity went up further still! As it turns out, productivity was being impacted not by light levels but because it was being measured.

    Consider your experiment and be sure it doesn’t have a similar bias.

    Thanks, again for the reminder to be mindful of a the little distractions and interruptions that happen in the office.

  3. says

    Thanks for the blog post. It was really helpful. I work in the videogame industry as well and I can definitely relate to the workflow scenarios above, particularly because I also work for a company that develops online games and persistent worlds and because I am a community manager–I need to be in touch with the player base outside the office moreso than a programmer, for example.

    I’ve been trying to adopt single-tasking and the “Most Important Things” daily task list at work, and it’s actually helped quite a lot with my productivity.

    I haven’t made a lot of changes to other parts of how I interact with my computer, but to further increase my productivity, I do feel that I might have to more rigorously enforce batch-checking my emails, better ignore instant messages, or at least disable notifications so I can focus on one task at a time and deal with the others when I can focus on those completely.

  4. says

    Thanks for the post, Chad!

    I work as a developer in the tech industry, so most of your post resonates with me.

    It seems like some days are filled from start to finish with distractions and “emergencies”. On those days, I often find myself questioning “what have I even accomplished today?!” when 5pm rolls around. I was superficially busy all day, but didn’t do any real productive work.

    I don’t understand how people can listen to podcasts or watch movies while working (unless they’re doing really boring work), but I do use ear buds to listen to music (usually no words, like electronic or classical) and they double as ear plugs to keep the noise out.

    Matt

  5. Debs says

    Sitting in a hallway near the copy machine has presented many challenges for me. I have a flag that I put up in front of my monitor and everyone in the office knows that when the flag is up, I will only acknowledge a quick nod, or hello. Anything in our office can be relayed by email and to cut down interruptions, I’ve asked people to email me instead. It has definitely slowed down the, “I was thinking” drawn out conversations while people are passing my desk during the day.

  6. says

    This is actually really relevant to me even as I am, right now, looking for work. I live at my parents’ home while looking for work, and am constantly interrupted by people coming in and out, asking me to help with such and such, hugs and Nerf bullets from a 7-year-old. And I love being part of the family life that way- when I can, I work with my door open. But productivity goes way down some days, where I start a task and get asked a million things…I need to come up with a “do not disturb, I need all my brain cells” signal that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

  7. says

    As a writer/blogger/business owner who works from home, I find that most of my distractions come from myself or my computer. No one else is home during the day, it is just me and my laptop. However, if I have multiple pages open, constantly checking email, twitter, facebook, reader, as well as researching and reading AND trying to write, I spend a lot of time transitioning from task to task. I find for me, that if I really need to focus on a certain category of tasks, I will close all social media down. I do not have notifications to pop up, and I do not have them on my phone. This allows me to more effectively single task, focus, and get more work done in less time. Which allows me to move on to something more relaxing or fun.
    Great post from a perspective I am not familiar with!
    Bernice
    Is your life a roller coaster ride?

  8. O. says

    What an interesting post, thank you for your thoughts and thoughtfulness. Like many commentators, I also work in the IT industry and the post resonates with me a lot. However, I’d like to add another point of view – one reason people may use headphones is to actually block out all the outside noises that prevent them in carrying on with their tasks. My office is open-plan and when I have headphones on it means I only listen to music (only one source of sound), instead of cacophony that really affects my productivity.

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