The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival. But, of course, survival and success are not the same thing. The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

I’ve adapted a guest post I wrote over at becoming minimalist to speak more to game development. Thanks to Joshua Becker for the opportunity to write for his blog and his help with the original post.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to single tasking, focus and distractions in my professional and personal life. Here is what I believe to be the four biggest factors contributing to distracting us from doing great creative work. By the way “creative work” to me means art, code, design, music you name it. Many facets and roles in gamedev are creative, perhaps not at first glance, but any creative problem solving applies, in my humble opinion.

#1 We’re distracted by notifications
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 chats. Instant notifications are being pushed from everywhere to wherever we are at the moment, sitting at our desktops or walking about with our phones. Most of us are on digital leashes of some kind even when we don’t need to be. We’re in a state of constant multiple deliverables or actionable tasks as well as completely open to distractions. How do we get anything done?

Some studies even propose that people can be addicted to the micro-endorphin rush we get when we get an email or a tweet. That’s why we can’t stop checking our phones when we’re away from work or even when we’re driving. Most folks agree that these short bursts of interruptions are changing our brains.

Can you read through this entire 1500 hundred word post without a notification going off?

#2 We’re distracted by geography
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. The constant interruptions hinder our productivity. What’s the tradeoff? Does the immediate communication outweigh the lack of focus?

Interruptions are hurting productivity, not helping it.

#3 We can’t focus
In this land of distractions, how do we concentrate long enough on a creative task to produce quality? Mental context switching is hard to quantify as there are so many variables. However, I have heard that switching between 3 tasks costs a person 40% of their available work time. You can just throw (at least) one of those tasks out the window, I hope it wasn’t important.

Does your company have a lot of meetings? Meetings in the middle of the day can be a drastic productivity and creativity killer.

Multi-tasking just doesn’t work. Is there a “sweet spot” in your workday that you can work uninterrupted for more than an hour on a single task?

#4 We’re comfortable and afraid
Our lizard brains want us to be stuck in a rut. Safety is the Lizard Brain’s primary objective. Safe is free of conflicts and challenges. Safe is the same thing over and over again. Safe is not standing out in the crowd. Safe, as the lizard brain defines it, is not good for your creativity and thereby the projects you work on.


Image courtesy of Alex Moore

Here are some of the things that I’m using or trying out to combat the lizard brain, distractions and multi-tasking.

Control your time.
Batch processing your email can be effective. Once at the beginning of the day and again at the end. This is more efficient than shifting to outlook with each new notification and processing each single email. If you think that is too long to be out of contact, do the email dance for 10 minutes every two hours. Or whatever works for you, just try to keep the notifications off. If there truly is an emergency you will know, someone will come find you.

Turn off your work IM. Same rules as above. Maybe you’re available and on IM only in the afternoon. Or set your status to do not disturb and teach people politely what that means. Try things and see how they work for you.

Do one thing at a time. Make a list of the 3 or 5 most important things for that day. Do them as early in the day as you can. You’ll accomplish the “big things” early and everything else after that is icing on the cake.

All of this can be tricky at first if your culture wants you to respond immediately, but I think it pays off in the end. You have more uninterrupted time to do something good. Talk to your manager if you need to before implementing a radical change.

Have the good kind of meetings.
The morning standup with your team is probably the best type of meeting. It’s early, not in the middle of the day. Everyone says what they are working on, if anything is blocking them and what they’ll do next. Preferably everyone stands. It is called a stand up after all. This is a bold choice, but decline any meeting that you think is a waste of time. Reply that you can’t make it and ask for a recap. Meeting Agendas and Recaps are such a great tool for meetings, we seem to forget about them.

The Agenda: When booking the meeting provide a list of what topics to discuss, who is responsible for talking for each topic and a guesstimate on how long they’ll have to talk. Send the agenda out a couple of days beforehand and make it known that the attendees are expected to be prepared. Simon Cooke suggests formulating the agenda as questions to get people thinking and vested.

During the meeting, stick to the schedule. Get in, do good stuff, get out.

The Recap: briefly state what was discussed.

Here’s a sample meeting agenda:

Todays Date, Galactic Domination Meeting Agenda

  • Overview, Palpatine, 15 minutes
  • Death Star #2 construction status, Tarkin, 5 minutes
  • Various disturbances in the force, Vader, 10 minutes

And the recap:

Overview, Palpatine, 15 minutes
Squash rebellion by destroying secret base.
Eliminate Galactic Senate via political maneuvering.
Death Star #2 construction status, Tarkin, 5 minutes
We fixed the exhaust port / proton torpedo bug
Various disturbances in the force, Vader, 10 minutes
Obi-Wan is dead, but no one is sure why he just disappeared.
Follow up on plan to turn Son of Skywalker to the dark side.

Wait.
Can you wait a while to talk to the artist? Look at him, he has 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 and 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.

Get people on board.
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. Find a way of signaling people and teach them to recognize and respect it. Work it out with your team so you can be efficient together.

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. Do what you can to help reduce roadblocks and ask your Manager for support.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I’m trying to communicate with one person at a time, handle one problem at a time, and work on one idea at a time. All as a part of my effort to bring the principles of minimalism, simplicity and single tasking into my personal and professional life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these topics.