“Promise Small, Deliver Big”: The Art of Project Balance

During Metatopia, a discussion came up at one of the panels regarding best practices for freelance writers and game designers. The question had developed out of a talk about how to pitch for work on other people’s projects and how to develop a reputation for being a freelancer people want to work with. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, reputation really becomes your currency when dealing with a small industry like gaming. And I don’t mean that in a calculating sort of way. No, the kind of writer you are and the practices you’re known for really does impact what work you may get in the future.

One of the things that was mentioned at the talk was the expectations that freelancers put forward to their bosses. It can be a temptation to promise that you can do a whole lot and then, when the chips are down, fall short of deadlines. Why? Because there is a temptation as a freelancer to want to do more, to show that you can handle more, and then struggle to produce all those checks your body can barely cash. When someone brought that up, I had a thudding moment in my stomach and realized: holy cow, I do that all the time. In my excitement to get involved with great projects, I tell myself that it’s okay to take on ‘just one more thing’ because the opportunity might not come up again. And I do this, even when I know that I don’t have time to take on one more thing because I’m already struggling with what’s on my plate. But the urge to impress, the urge to be involved with all the cool things, is difficult to ignore. It’s also a bad practice I’m working on breaking, and here’s what I discovered in the process: nobody is going to think you’re better if you break your head to produce one more piece of work.

During the talk, Clark Valentine (an awesome writer and game designer) said something I really liked: “Promise small, deliver big.” And it resonated with me very deeply. I think it’s built into a lot of our culture to be performance driven, and one of the keys to performance is seemingly how much can you get done. It’s a very rat-race kind of thought process: how much work can I chug through per day, per week, per month, how much can I put on my resume. Yet by promising smaller – taking on fewer projects with perhaps less ambitious goals – you get to impress by delivering solid, well-considered work that you didn’t have to rush to produce. With less on your plate, you give your talent room to move and have a better chance of delivering on time than if you were stacked to the rafters with projects.

I speak in this case from personal experience. Over the last few years, I’ve fallen into the habit of saying yes to projects even when I knew I was vastly stretching my work load capacity. I figured ‘I can get it done by sacrificing some extra TV time or hang-out time’ and that work was more important. It took Hurricane Sandy proving to me that this kind of intense schedule-packing is dangerous. When I had no ability to work for one week, my schedule went into catastrophic meltdown and I’m forced to play catch-up on lots of things. Why? Because I packed my schedule so tight there was no room for error. That was my mistake, and one I don’t plan on making again.

So what did I learn from all this? A fundamental skill at being a writer or game designer or artist of any kind is knowing your limits. You may believe you’ll have all the time for the half dozen things on your plate, but it takes a combination of diligence, discipline and some handy time management to make sure you get it all done. Overbooking yourself will only take away the time you have to dedicate to each of your individual goals and ultimately water down what you have to offer. Plus, if you run into any snags, you need to have built-in time to still meet deadline and not lose control of the situation because of a single snafu. Then, if you have that extra time, you can deliver early and bigger than promised and THAT can be impressive all on it’s own.

This is how I’m planning on adjusting my work ethic from now on to be a more responsible freelancer, both to those I’m working for and to myself. Because in the end, I could sacrifice my TV time or friend time to work, but all work and no play makes Shoshana a disheveled, grouchy cat. And in the end, I want to enjoy my work and not resent it. By cultivating best practices, that’s how I’m going to keep writing and game design fun, which is one of the major reasons I chose this career.

Live and learn, they say. So here’s to a lesson learned.

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