You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
Last night, a topic came up on Twitter about which I felt compelled to write up a short (for me) thread – the issue of managing time and stress and expectation when you’re working as a content creator (urgh – I hate that term but there really is nothing else equivalently encompassing). It doesn’t matter whether you’re making videos, podcasts, games, blog entries, houses for Sims or even just making trouble. I am like the vast majority of people in this area – I fit the work of Meeple Like Us into what I used to call my ‘free time’, and I’m fitting that in turn around a demanding real life job with fixed and unmoving obligations. Even those creators that are generating an income from their work are likely also in the same position – there are vanishingly few of us that can do this full time. The thread I tweeted seemed to resonate a bit with people, so I thought I’d write it up as a post for others that may be interested.
I’m going to split this up into two parts. The first of these are my tips for managing the nuts and bolts of content production. The other part is for managing the emotional weight that comes from the work. Both are vital if you really want to accomplish anything because the night is dark and full of terrors, and having a blog post ready to go doesn't always calm the raging storm of your recalcitrant psyche.
As a disclaimer, I’m not claiming here I have any great or unique insight. I'm not guaranteeing that these tips are going to solve your problems or even ease them in any way. They work for me, but that doesn't mean they'll work for you. All I can say is that I have been doing hobbyist content creation for the whole of my adult life and as such I’ve got a fair bit of my own flawed experience to pass on. I spent a good chunk of my twenties as a developer on Discworld MUD. Then I started my own MUD. And now I also do this blog. In between I’ve had lots of projects that consumed substantial amounts of my time for no financial remuneration – I’ve written prototype game engines, the world's worst novel, bespoke teaching tools, and a whole pile of other things that time has all but erased from my memory. Meeple Like Us may have been running for only about twenty months but I’ve got a healthy collection of psychological war wounds that have left me hopefully a little wiser.
I hope you find this advice useful, but I won’t be offended if you don’t.
These are the practical tips – the things that let you turn your often precious and erratic free-time into a semi-professional approach to your project.
It is important to be consistent in your release schedule. It matters less what the schedule is and more how reliably you stick to it. If you say you’re going to release once a week, then release once a week. Consider what you can realistically do, and build a schedule around that. Make it so when people check in on your project they have the content you promised them would be there. Don't reward loyalty with disappointment.
Humans are naturally effort averse. You spend a currency of your available effort when you create because there are always easier things you could spend your time doing. Importantly, that budget isn’t always the same day to day and hour to hour. It gets used up and refilled on an unpredictable basis. It's like having a salary where you get paid on a random day of the week, and the amount is decide by a die roll. Tackle the difficult jobs when your effort surplus is high, and the small ones when it’s low. Remember too – you’re not just spending this effort on your creative outlet. It’s being spent freely everywhere in your life. Give yourself permission to ‘slack’ if it's necessary to deal with the other things going on in the background.
It’s a good idea to have a list of things that you plan to do – when an idea comes to you, write it down in a notepad. When it comes time to create then you have at least some ideas for on what you could work. There are few things as discouraging as the empty page that intersects with a dearth of ideas from which it can be filled. It’s also important not to be too rigid here – flexibility is important because it allows you to spend enthusiasm wisely. I once did a reading challenge that had the effect of making me read less rather than more - when I had time to read I felt I should be progressing the challenge, but often I didn't fancy any of the books I had selected. If you're especially interested in something that wasn't part of your list, focus on that anyway (although be mindful of feature creep). It's a list, not a Gantt chart
The time your content takes to produce will expand to fill the time you have available. Your first draft of the content will get you about half the way there. A second draft will get you about 75% of the way there. A third, maybe 90%. The time taken for redrafting doesn’t really change, but the effect it has on the end product diminishes sharply. Decide when ‘good enough’ is good enough, and work out whether you could more profitably spend your time on new content instead of refining that which is already done. You can come back to it later, but progress is always more encouraging than repetition.
Setting a schedule to which you rigorously adhere is dangerous given the fact your enthusiasm is a spendable currency that you don’t have in limitless amounts. If there was one major tip I’d give people it’s ‘reduce the psychological weight of downtime’. It's one thing to say 'give yourself permission to slack', but another to follow it when you have posts to write, game systems to develop and podcasts to record. You lower the psychological barrier to relaxation by building up a buffer of content that gives you breathing room. Create content a week, two weeks, a month in advance. Replace units of content at approximately the pace you use them up. When your enthusiasm and time availability is high, write a post for later publication. When it’s low, use up your buffer of previously completed work. This smooths out the volatility of life and psychology that you’ll be dealing with. The worst way to approach this kind of job is with 'just in time' content production. That'll use your up and spit you out.
Looking beyond the immediate tasks on your project is vital if you’re going to adopt the necessary mind-set for regular content production. You need to look at the time you spend on your project in terms of months, not in terms of days. You need to see where you’re going to be busy and when you’re going to be relatively free. Instead of thinking ‘All this to do this week and a blog post’ you can think ‘All this to do this week so I’ll use up a buffer post. I can replace that post in two weeks time when my immediate stresses are over’. Time management can’t solve your problems in the short-term regardless of the tool or technique you adopt. Time management is ‘fix the roof when the sun is shining’. That won't help you deal with the pressures now, but it will help considerably in the future if you're disciplined about it.
Did you do a tweet-storm that people seemed to respond to? Turn it into a blog post. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. Did you have an interesting discussion with someone on a Facebook page? Salvage your thoughts from there, forge them into a podcast. Did you do a little proof of concept chunk of code for work? Make it yours for your hobby. Scavenge your scattered contributions for your own insights and be relentless about drafting them into repeated service. Anything you can do to lower the creative cost of content production means you have more effort to invest elsewhere.
Invite people to write guest posts for your blog, or record interviews for your podcast, or whatever. Their contributions can be part of your buffer provided people know roughly when they’re going to be published. Not only do you get their content in front of a (hopefully) interested audience you might even get a portion of their audience coming by to check out what they wrote. If you’re lucky, some of them might even stay. This can give you some breathing space in your own content production schedule for disproportionate value to your blog. Just also be prepared to reciprocate - perhaps think of this as a taking on a kind of content loan. You'll likely be asked to repay it with a guest contribution of your own in the future. Future you though will have more slack in their schedule because they've worked hard on building up a buffer. Seriously - build up that buffer.
The problem with all the pragmatic tips above is that they ignore a hugely important part of the whole thing – the psychological war your mind will be constantly waging against you. Your mind wants you to sit on the couch watching repeats of Only Fools and Horses (I know, because that’s what it’s been making me do for a while). Your mind doesn’t fight fair and it knows exactly where to kick you in order to bring you to your knees. Your only realistic response is to protect your voonerables and fight back.
You get to define what success looks like for your project. Others might have a view, but their views don’t matter. You might have goals that are alien to the general population. You need to know what you want to achieve from your creative endeavours. Be realistic - you're probably not doing this full-time and you need to scale your ambitions to your availability. You’ll sometimes lose sight of your initial goals – if you’re looking at what you’ve done and feeling unsatisfied it’s not a bad idea to calibrate. Why are you trying to achieve the what, and is it the same why and the same what that you had at the start?
It’s incredibly easy to become discouraged at what you’ve done, especially when you start comparing your success to that of others. Regardless of how successful you become, there’s always someone that seems to have done better, in less time, with less effort. Many of them in turn are looking at other people and feeling inferior. Nobody feels happy all the time about what they’re achieving, and in the end you might even be comparing apples and oranges. They might be covetous of what you have achieved because that's what they wanted.
You might not have as big an audience as you like, and they might not be as vocal in their appreciation as you would desire Maybe your core audience is only one person off in a far off country that you’ve never met. Regardless of the size of your audience there is someone out there that is having their life enriched by what you’re doing. If you’re just starting out and haven’t yet found that person, they’ll find you. That's only the start! At first it’s this one person you don’t know. Not long after that it’s that one person and their best friend.
This is why a content surplus is so important. It’s okay to feel like you’re unproductive. Importantly, it’s also okay to be unproductive. Nobody can fire on all cylinders all the time – burnout is a real thing and you need to be prepared to recognise it heading your way. Sometimes the solution to a dearth of productivity is to lean into it – your mind isn’t always lying to you. Sometimes you really do need to take a step back from the work and just watch some crappy TV for a bit. Sometimes you might need to do that for a full month of extended downtime. If you recognise the symptoms of burnout in advance and deal with them in a focused way you’ll come back stronger. Don't try to power through it - it only takes one day of firing on all five cylinders to make up for five days of firing on only one.
Don’t think the fact that people often don’t talk about the problems they have with creation means people aren’t having problems. Saying ‘I’m having a hard time with this’ is a disclosure of vulnerability. Many people (myself included) aren’t comfortable with doing that - especially in a public forum.
Your favourite creators and role models are almost certainly wracked with impostor syndrome on a day to day basis. Even the ones that make a living doing it. In fact, especially the ones making a living doing it. We’re all worried about being outed as a fraud. We're all concerned about what happens when everyone finally realises we have no idea what's going on. We all lie awake wondering what happens when someone finally works it out and tells everyone. It’s not just you that feels like an impostor. We almost all do. It's not true. Be honest about who you are, what you know, and what you can authoritatively accomplish. Freely admit all the weaknesses and biases and limitations in the work you do. You don't have to pretend to be infallible - nobody believes you are and nobody will care that you're not.
So much of what happens to you is going to be outside your control. So much of it is going to be chance. The difference between hitting the big-time and not might be that a casual email you sent ended up in front of the right person when they were in an unusually receptive mood. You can’t take responsibility over the things that are genuinely outside your control. You only ever have control over how you respond to them.
This comes from Reinhold Niebuhr. ‘Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’. Sometimes it looks like you can change things when you can’t, or that you can’t when you can. Learning to make peace with that which you cannot change is, in my view, the greatest life skill anyone can ever learn. Knowing when that's truly the case is the cheat code to living a peaceful life. Work at it - when stressing about a problem identify the parts you can influence. Worrying won't change the other things, but in fixing the things you can you might find the icy chill of those worries melting away under the heat of productive activity.
Unless someone is actually paying you for what you do, you are the boss of your own output. The only real asset you have in this world is authenticity – don’t change what you create for an audience. They’ll recognise it and resent you for it. You won't win over those that don't like what you like and you'll alienate the ones that do.
You’re the protagonist in your own life story. Perhaps a strong supporting character in some others. For most people you’re a bit player. Understanding that can take off a lot of the pressure you’re putting on yourself. The Spotlight Effect distorts a clear understanding of how impactful your mistakes will be. People probably won't notice, and the ones that do likely won't remember.
Lots of people are going to give you their opinion on what you do. You get to decide which opinions matter. Like a rollercoaster ride, accepting ‘critical feedback’ can come with an height requirement. It doesn’t have to be ‘any yahoo with a keyboard and an opinion’. You don't owe anyone your time, and while it's important to be receptive to useful feedback it doesn't follow that all feedback is useful. Negative people exist, and they will needle you with their negativity. Unless you value their insight, you don't have to succumb.
If there aren’t people out there that would prefer you weren’t doing what you were doing, then something may have gone wrong somewhere. No matter who you are or what you stand for, there are assholes out there that are opposed to your work on a genetic level. Truman once asked ‘Why is it only sons of bitches that know how to lick a stamp?’. The people that quietly appreciate your work often won’t speak up. The ones that aggressively hate you absolutely will. You’re not getting a properly balanced sample when you google your own name, when you find the Reddit threads about your work, or even read the comments on your website.
It’s just in our evolutionary firmware to feel loss more than we feel gain. If you find ten pounds in the street, it feels like you found ten pounds. If you lose ten, it feels like you lost twenty. You’ll feel the sting of rejection more than the balm of positivity. That doesn’t mean it’s more real – it just means you’re more sensitive to it. Knowing that can take a lot of the sting out of negativity - your first response is a literal overreaction.
When what you do is no longer bringing you joy, it’s okay to say, ‘Now I’m done with this’. At the final reckoning the best any of us can ask for is a good end on our own terms in circumstances of our own choosing. Saying ‘no’ to project you no longer love will clear up your time for you to move on to a project that you do. Sometimes the healthiest word is 'goodbye'.
If reading the tip above made you feel a little sad, it’s probably not time to end. In my experience, saying ‘no’ to a project that has reached its end will bring relief, not sadness. Perhaps some melancholy, a little wistfulness, but if you feel genuinely sad it’s probably worth digging a bit deeper into the real problems you’re having. It might be that you need to shake things up rather than wind things down.
There are no gatekeepers in life that get to tell you what you’re worth to a community. There are people that will try, but they are to be ignored. You should feel compelled to create because of something in you, not because of what you feel reflected back. If you feel that your right to contribute to a community is based on your perceived standing then find better people in that community with which to interact. A simple expression of shared love and appreciation is more than enough. It doesn't matter how many readers you have, listeners you reach, players you recruit, or eyeballs your content touches. You can be the smallest fish in the biggest pond - the water is still just as much yours as it is anyone else's.
Meeple Like Us is about boardgames, and hey – they’re pretty great. It’s a good idea to spend time doing what you love without wondering if you can get anything productive out of it. You loved your subject at one point or you wouldn’t have poured your heart and soul into your creative projects. Reconnecting with that can be the most genuinely invigorating thing you ever do.
We’ve all looked at what we’ve done and thought our entire body of work was absolute bollocks. We’ve all felt down, or unappreciated. We’ve all felt like we’re yelling into an uncaring void. We’ve all seen the work we do go unacknowledged, the effort we invested unrewarded. You are not alone. We’ve all thought about packing it in at one point or another. Thoughts like this don’t make you a failure. They just make you human.
I honestly don't know if this is useful, helpful, or just a pointless attempt to write the world's most long-winded version of 'Everyone's Free to Wear Sunscreen'. It's not really in scope for the site, even in editorial form. It's a good deal more autobiographical than much of the content we put up here. Given that a number of people on twitter seemed to find the brief, offhand version of this worthwhile I thought it would be a good idea to throw it up into a post just in case. Do you have tips of your own? Thoughts on my tips? Some experience to share, or a worry that needs dispelled? Please get in touch!
You are not alone.