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Work constraints can be your friend, if you learn how to use them

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We're constantly putting constraints on ourselves. Whether it's in work, our personal lives or everything in between, we find ways to talk ourselves out of achieving our true potential. But instead of using those constraints as excuses, we should learn how to work with them, said developer Adriel Wallick during a Game Developers Conference talk.

In "A Year of Constraints: How Limitations Improved My Development Process," Wallick — creator of the annual game jam Train Jam — discussed her year-long endeavor to create a new game every week. Although she previously worked as a weather satellite programmer and later a AAA dev, she quit to pursue her goals as an independent developer. Wallick says she spent her time traveling or working on personal projects with more freedom than ever before. However, she soon learned that even this ideal-sounding state was not without its own kind of price.

"I spent months, months just being completely paralyzed by this freedom, this indirection and this inability to do anything because everything's so large," Wallick said.

The truth is, she explained, freedom is "really, really scary." When we're given the chance to work on anything we want, we lose the push to put ourselves out there. And suddenly, the excuses we used to make don't make as much sense as they used to.

"I finally had a deadline that I had to meet."

"We tend to use all the constraints around us as these convenient scapegoats, as ways to excuse any mistakes that we make, or as a way to excuse why we're not living up to our total potential," Wallick said. "Once we take those away, we're faced with this realization that if you're not working to your full potential, you really have nobody to blame but yourself."

Wallick fell into this trap, too. But after a fellow indie dev urged her to try working on a game for a week — and then giving it up — the idea to pursue a year of one-week game making clicked. She decided to release her games ever Sunday. Wallick's constraints, such as sharing her work publicly or writing a post-mortem, held her accountable.

"I finally had a deadline that I had to meet," she said. "It was really, really motivating."

Wallick has found motivation and inspiration in other kinds of work constraints as well, like those present in game jams. Working with new people or under time limits can act as its own kind of motivation.

"When they're done right, [constraints] are so awesome," she said. "They make you focus, they make you be able to work and to do be able to do things."

Of course, there's a fine line between personal limitations and the constraints we use to help ourselves. The trick is to find that balance, whatever it may be.

"Find a little happy medium, and your own little personal medium," she concluded.