Clear Goals or Trivial Pursuits

Useless Fountain

It has been over a month since I gave up the steady paycheck of the day job and pursued GBGames as a full-time business. Between moving, settling into my new home and office, and watching the World Cup, I’ve decided not to hit the ground running. Basically, I was taking a small break. I decided that I was fine with using up some of my savings to take a vacation from work and to get my head clear. After all, working for years at a day job, you are bound to pick up bad habits, right? B-)

As a game developer, though, there’s only so much time I can stay away, and I’ve been looking forward to starting work. The problem was that each day I would find myself feeling a bit anxious whenever I sat at my computer.

What makes me a bit anxious, however, isn’t just the knowledge that I’ll need to start working in earnest on my business. Yes, getting income and soon is very important and will be urgent sooner rather than later. If I don’t start earning money soon, my burn rate will eat through my savings more quickly than I’d like. But I knew that fact before, and I’m not worried about it yet.

What makes me feel anxious is that I didn’t know what to do. Not that I didn’t know what I COULD do. I had lots of projects and items on lists. I know what I wanted to do. The question is: what SPECIFICALLY should I do? What do I dedicate my time and effort to, and what do I put off until later? What should I do today, this week, this month, this year?

A good question to ask

I got a lot of insight into how to answer those questions by asking another one: “What would a successful day look like?” On its own, a day can mean nothing, but together with lots of other days, it could mean the difference between a life well-spent or a life wasted. So how do you know what a successful day looks like?

The answer is simple: if it was spent getting you to a successful week!

Of course, that begs another question: how do you know what a successful week is? The answer to this one is also simple. If that week was spent getting you to a successful month, then it was a good week!

And you can recurse all the way through successful quarters, years, decades, and life. Once you know what a successful year looks like, it’s easier to break it down into what successful quarters look like, and then it is easier to see what successful months look like, and so on. The long view sharpens the short view.

In My 16 Answers, question #16 asks “What does busy look like?” and part of my answer is as follows:

But, if I can identify goals I want to accomplish, and if I make sure to do those activities that will help me accomplish those goals, then I can know whether I’m being busy or wasting time.

Science fiction author Robert Heinlein is credited with the following statement:

In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.

When you work a day job, someone else gives you your goals. The company has already determined what products and services to offer, and you get to help create them. Easy.

When you are an indie, you’re the one who has to determine what products and services to offer. And it isn’t as simple as saying “I know how to program in Java, so I’ll create Java games.” It’s also not as simple as “Lots of people are playing farm simulations on Facebook. I’ll make a farm simulation for Facebook.” Besides doing an assessment of your own skills, you need to determine what the market wants. And in the end, if you expect to be fulfilled in any way, you have to know that what you’re doing is in line with your own purpose or mission.

Let’s say you want to educate children with games. Without knowing your goals or purpose, you could be sitting at your computer and randomly deciding between reading child psychology blogs, checking email, studying a game development article, chatting online, blogging, or programming. And from day to day, you wouldn’t have a sustained focus, so by the end of five years, you might not have even one game finished.

Now let’s say that your goals include creating five educational games over the course of the next five years. You know you need to create roughly one game per year to accomplish this goal. Before you create your first game, you want to do market research. Perhaps today would be the day to do some market research to find out what educational games are already offered to potential customers. Tomorrow you’ll play and analyze a few of those games. The next day, you’ll research the competition. At the end of the week, you’ll have a lot of information about your market. And perhaps that week was part of an overall month dedicated to determining what your first project should be.

In order to know what a successful day or any other time period is, you need to know what your goals are. Once you’ve set goals, it becomes much easier to know what you should focus your attention on at any given moment. Otherwise, you’re spending your time performing daily trivia. What’s worse, you won’t even know you’re wasting your time since you feel busy.

Do you find yourself busy without purpose? Have you found goal-setting helps give you a sense of direction in your daily activities?

(Photo: Useless Fountain by Milestoned | CC-BY-2.0)

3 comments to Clear Goals or Trivial Pursuits

  • Chris Milan

    That’s a pretty difficult question.
    Some short term goals are useful, but the trick is to not end up doing stuff that doesn’t have any possibility for helping you out in the long run.
    I had a sort of problem like that at the end of last year. I was waiting for my permit to start my dissertation project so I wrote two articles which are no big deal.
    I had this really rambling conference paper I gave in 2008 and I split it in two. There really wasn’t that much to the paper to begin with, but I split it into two parts that made sense, so that things would be less meandering. And they were short and insignificant articles. And they’re being published in journals that no one will ever read. But you know, I’ve got two publications. That is never bad.
    Another plus is that after I finished the two articles they kind of guided my work since then. I have a clearer idea of where my research is going, what I’m arguing. So two crappy articles later and I’m already planning a large arc for my research
    I don’t know if that helps. But I guess I’d say short term goals can have payoffs. Just don’t get bogged down in them. Have a vague idea of the big picture.

  • Thanks, Chris! And you’re right. It’s not like you have to have a very specific long-term goal. A general one is fine.

    You mentioned that your early work has helped guide your current work. I definitely want to make sure my early stuff fits into a larger plan. I could hack out a game or two and see how things lead, but I’d rather make sure that my early efforts are part of a long-term vision.

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