Design, Motivation and the Anxiety Curve

"Where d="Oh crap it's midnight I better write something or I'll feel like crap"

The Anxiety Curve: It Hates You

We all know getting started is hard. We all know keeping going is hard. And we all know there’s a lot of cliches said about it. There’s an old, old writing joke (and everything joke) which runs along the lines that first chapters are hard, so I start all my books with the second chapter.

But this kind of falls into the same problem as the other cliches, like “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” or “it’ll be easier once you get started”. We all know that waiting around to find motivation is a bad idea, but the idea that once you start you’ll suddenly get motivation is false, and like anything false, it’s dangerous if you believe it. Dangerous to your output, that is.

To explain, let’s go back in time to when humans were some kind of scurrying creatures that lived in burrows. Now, sticking your head out of the burrow was a dangerous thing. First guy out the burrow was usually eaten. So scurrying towards the burrow made us anxious. Then bam, we were out and there were no eagles or lions. And then BAM we got eaten.

Because the lions and eagles had already learnt that when we’re still in the hole, we can easily duck back inside to safety. So instead, we had to evolve a new approach. Instead of going get nervous – > pop out of hole – > feel fine, we had to try this model: get nervous -> pop of out hole – > get REALLY nervous -> feel fine. That way we could avoid the lions a bit better.

Of course, now it’s a million years later, but the curve is still there. Only now, popping out of the hole is starting something new or big, or even returning to it. We’ve been told that once we start, it’ll get easier, but that’s not how we work.

Look at the graph at the top there. The curve is what psychologists sometimes call the Anxiety Curve. The higher it is, the more anxious you are. The point d? That’s the second your fingers hit the keyboard. You see, you’re already anxious, but that’s an anxiety we know about and know how to deal with. We can get past it with passion and brainstorming and that rush of creativity you get when you just had a really great idea (or awesome playtest session or fantastic discussion with a fellow designer).

Thing is, those bursts will only give you so much energy. For the first while, you can ignore the steep hill. Except it keeps climbing and climbing and climbing. Eventually, you run out of the creative boost, and look around to discover you’re now peaking in anxiety. Your body and mind think a lion must be about to attack. Naturally, this makes you cautious. You double check things. You re-evaluate. And you make yourself small so the lion takes the next guy.

In short, you kill your ideas.

Even if you don’t suddenly decide everything you just wrote sucks or doesn’t add up to much, your brain is so busy trying to avoid lions you clamp your creativity down hard so everything you write NEXT does start to suck or the good comes much slower than it used to. Which makes you think that burst before was a fluke. Time to go back and have another playtest session or discussion or spa bath with your rubber duckie or whatever it is that gave you your burst. Except if you do that, you reset the curve, and it happens all over again.

Instead, you need to push OVER that curve until it starts dropping. Not that that is easy. It hurts like hell. It’s like eating glass. But if it wasn’t, everyone would do it. So eat your damn glass when you can.

This isn’t a perfect model, it doesn’t explain everything. But if you find yourself writing in stops and starts, in having to constantly shift projects to stay interested, in getting half an RPG built but never completing one, it could be that you’re running hard and fast into the Anxiety Curve. But now you know it’s there, maybe you can wrestle with it a bit better.

As for myself, being a depressive, I hit the curve with everything I do, from getting up in the morning to eating a sandwich. So I know it well. And I loathe it. But it doesn’t surprise me so much anymore. And neither do the lions.

4 thoughts on “Design, Motivation and the Anxiety Curve

  1. This was a great post, it is giving me hope that I can push my way through my own Anxiety Curve which I have recently hit the point of, Now all I need to do is take a big bite of the glass and start chewing like there is no tomorrow.

    • Happy to help a fellower Stockader. So far, the Stockade seems to be Michael and Nathan kicking ass and the rest of us adding nothing to the mix…here’s hoping more of us can break the curve and change the equation!

  2. Pingback: Game Chef 2011 Diary Day Three: Eating Glass | D-Constructions

  3. Pingback: Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One | D-Constructions

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