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  • Pragmatic And Philosophical Tips For Content Creators

    [03.13.18]
    - Michael Heron
  •  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.

    This is a modified version of an article that first appeared on Meeple Like Us.

    Introduction

    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.

    The Nuts and Bolts of Content Production

    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.

    Set a schedule and stick to It

    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.

    Your effort is spent from a budget

    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.

    Don't be overly rigid in what you do

    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

    There are diminishing returns that come from polishing content

    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.

    Build yourself a buffer of content

    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.

    Time management is a state of mind, not a task on a todo list

    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.

    Reuse and repurpose content

    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.

    You don't have to do this alone

    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.

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