The Indie Challenge – Retrospective for a New Year

Explores the question: “Why is it easy for me to motivate, focus and do excellent work for clients but so difficult to do the same for my own projects?”

And asks: “If you are an Indie dev, what do you use to pick which project to work on next? How do you decide?”


I’m using “Indie” here to refer to an independent software development and publishing venture.  I’m also an “Indie” in the sense that I run my own freelance contract software design and development business and have for 20 years.  But for the sake of this discussion, think of “Indie” in the former sense – a small business owner creating products to publish.

This week with Geek & the Mom being gone, I’ve had a lot of time alone and there’s also been a break in client work until the new year. This should have been a perfect time to make a bunch of progress on entrepreneurial projects!  In particular, I should have spent this time working on the current game project.  Sadly, I haven’t done much – it’s been just impossible to sit down and get productive! Grrrrr.

Thinking about it, I realized that this situation describes much of the last year:  ideas, desire to build them, not that much progress.  Now there are some complicating factors and I’ve been letting myself off easy because of them, but it’s been a while now and surely I should be ready to get back into the game by now

So, given this failure to be productive this week, I spent some time yesterday and today doing some self-analysis and trying to figure out what’s going on. The question I wanted to answer:

Why is it easy for me to motivate, focus and do excellent work for clients but so difficult to do the same for my own projects?

If it weren’t for how effective I am for clients, I might worry that I’m just lazy.  But I rock-n-roll for my clients and they are super happy with the work I do.  Ok, so it’s not that.   Maybe I’m sick of programming after 20+ years at it and it’s time to find something else to do?  Then I think about how much fun I had on the client project I just finished two weeks ago and how much I feel like I want to go program; so I don’t think that’s what’s going on.  What could it be?

Then I remembered something I read in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath that really struck me at the time and seems 100% applicable to the indie situation I’m in.  In this book the Heath brothers use the terms Elephant and Rider for the two sides of our brain: emotional and rational, respectively.  These terms are from  The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt (which I haven’t read).

“Elephant” refers to the emotional side – it’s big and strong and can overpower the rational but it’s also “lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick pay-off (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin).”  The “Rider” is “perched atop the Elephant and holds the reins and seems to be the leader.”  Unlike the Elephant, the Rider thinks long-term,  plans and thinks beyond the moment.

That said, the Elephant has some enormous strengths and the Rider some crippling weaknesses.  As they say in the book, The power of emotion (love, compassion, sympathy and loyalty) are powerful forces – “the Elephant is the one who gets things done.  To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant.”   The Rider’s weaknesses center mostly around the problem of over-thinking, or spinning one’s wheels.  The Rider tends to over analyze and have trouble making decisions despite hours of contemplation.

As an aside, I think that the Elephant echos what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” and a lot of the things the Heath brothers talk about in Switch match up with things Seth Godin says in his books and on his blog.

In any case, back to the Indie Challenge.  In chapter 3 of Switch, the Heath brothers talk about how “the status quo (or what you’re used to) feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice as been squeezed out.”   To me this maps to client work.  The client is making the decision to do a particular product/project, they often have a vision of what they want and the only decisions I generally have to face have to do with the best way to implement their vision – the kinds of decisions I’ve been making for client projects for more than twenty years; generally easy stuff for me to do.

In this next quote from Switch they are talking about how to make change which for me is the change from doing less client work to more Indie effort (bold emphasis mine):

Change brings new choices that create uncertainty … and ambiguity is exhausting the Rider, because the Rider is tugging on the reins of the Elephant, trying to direct the Elephant down a new path.  But when the road is uncertain the Elephant will insist on taking the default path, the most familiar path.  Why?  Because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious.  And that’s why decision paralysis can be deadly for change – because the most familiar path is always the status quo.

Without going into the entire Switch book (I recommend it – very interesting), the point is that as an Indie developer, I have tons of ideas – way more than I can possibly do – and I think that’s the problem.   The Rider doesn’t know which of them will be most successful, or even which will be successful at all!   And thus, I’m effectively in the situation in the quote above:  the Rider is completely exhausted by the uncertainty and ambiguity and the Elephant takes over and says, well, client work is the path that’s fed us for so long, it’s the status quo, the one that will have a check arrive soonest and most certainly – that’s the path we’re taking.

So, what I as an Indie need is a way to accurately evaluate which idea to work on and remove or reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity of the situation.

So initially I thought, well, maybe I just need to pick one and somehow force myself to finish it before I allow myself to work on anything else.   That’s what I’ve been trying for a few months now, and this has sort of worked; I’ve been able to not start any other projects, but the one I picked isn’t moving along very well (painfully slowly in fact).

So I need a new plan.  Maybe find a mentor – someone whose opinion I respect and who has done software products before successfully – and ask them to listen to a menu of ideas and help guide me in the selection of which one to do next.  I have one guy in mind, but don’t know if he’s interested.  We’ll see what happens.

Well, if you didn’t get bored by all this self-analysis and got this far and are an Indie dev, what do you use to pick which project to work on next?  How do you decide?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or write a blog post on it and add a comment here pointing to it!

Good fortune to you all in the coming new year.


One thought on “The Indie Challenge – Retrospective for a New Year”

  1. I totally identify with everything in this post! I’ve broken my status quo twice in the last 5 years, firstly by giving up a steady and well paid day job as a development lead, and then last year by taking less contract work and trying to work on my own projects (SourceTree being the first). In both cases, my wife was instrumental in helping me override my conservative instincts.

    But choosing what project to work on is tough. My approach is a mixture of analysis and blind faith – I’ll do a bit of market research to estimate how successful a product *might* be (within huge margins of error obviously), which mostly just serves to rule out the obvious outliers, it never really comes out with a sure winner (or maybe I’m doing it wrong). How I choose between what’s left is pure gut – no rational analysis, I just pick the one that resonates with me personally, right now.

    There is actually some rationale behind it – when things get difficult and go off the rails a bit, which they will because it happens in every project, personal commitment and passion is far more likely to get you through it than a cast-iron business case. Sure you need the business case, but it’s not very motivating. When the chips are down, you’ll probably pick holes in all the points you made in the business case anyway, but your personal faith & passion are more resilient – which is not to say they won’t take a knock, but they tend to bounce back better. That’s reason enough to favour one project over another IMO.

    I found the most important thing for motivation is to concentrate on finishing a Minimum Viable Product, and having a ‘burn down’ on that much like a Scrum (it might be a series of Scrums, but always try to keep it as low as possible). We always want a product to have everything we have in our head, but getting a MVP out and in the hands of others does wonders for motivation and also for focus – what do I *need* to include here, being totally ruthless? What minimum feature set will set my product apart? You can always add the ‘nice to have’ things later, and by then, you already have a little momentum. The first release is the hardest.

    That’s my random thoughts anyway! Happy New Year!

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