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Productivity and the Starcraft Effect

Three key skills for "pwning" the world

May 2, 2016

I’m a big fan of the game Starcraft 2. I don’t have a Twitch.tv channel and I’m not that great, but, even in the short time span since I began, Starcraft taught me a lot about optimizing my tasks and time. For those who don’t know, Starcraft is a real-time strategy game where the goal is to aggregate resources and build troops as quickly as possible to engage and destroy an opponent. For a demonstration of just how fast you strive to produce units and execute tactics in the game, look no further:

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This example is based on the first version of Starcraft, but same idea.

People get insanely good at Starcraft because they’re able to master three key skills: Mechanics/speed, total knowledge of the game, and processing information quickly. See here.

These skills help you “pwn” in the video game world, but they also help you in life more generally. Approaching life like a Starcraft match means optimizing anything you can. Here are some specific, practical ways to do that:

Mechanics and Speed

Use hotkeys.

This is both literal and figurative. If you work on a computer like me (I develop software), using your keyboard to do things is essential to getting digital tasks done more efficiently.

Literal hotkeys.

If you’re navigating Google Chrome, for example, it pays big dividends to learn the keyboard commands for repetitive actions: opening a new tab, closing a tab, viewing the developer console, looking at history, selecting the url, going back, going forward, etc. See: Chrome keyboard shortcuts.

If you’re using a text editor or IDE to write code, there are obvious benefits to learning key commands to quicken your workflow.

Mousing over to things just stacks up to a lot of wasted seconds over a year.

The cool thing is, many key commands carry over from app to app, so learning key commands can stack and snowball. You eventually get to a point with muscle memory that you may not even be aware of how you navigate your device. You become one with your machine.

Figurative hotkeys.

There’s a statistic in Starcraft called APM (“Actions Per Minute”) which indicates how fast you do things (the YouTube link I posted in the third paragraph explains this). APM doesn’t always mean victory, but it sure helps if you can do more things faster than your opposition. When developing software, where you may not be so directly competing with people, the goal is producing things quickly to make more money. Either you want to show your boss that you’re a fast and efficient worker, or you want to release an effective product to market quicker so that your company makes money.

You reach a high APM by finding faster, more efficient ways to do the same tasks. Undoubtedly, there are more efficient ways to do nearly everything, and there are lots of apps that can help you achieve a higher APM score in life. For example, I use Toggl to track my time in Pomodoro cycles to force a constraint on the amount of time I spend on tasks, because, as is natural, tasks tend to expand to the time allotted to them. I also use Rescuetime to track where I’m spending my time on my computer. It gives you a “Productivity Pulse” score of which applications and websites you spend time on while using your computer. I check it every so often to make sure I’m on track.

Really, it’s just an attitude: Strive to find the “hotkeys” in your everyday life.

Do one thing at a time.

The arguments against multi-tasking have been around for a long time. But I think Starcraft really distills the concept for me: You can’t win a competitive game if you’re not 100% focused on actively managing your economic and military resources. You can’t turn away for even 10 seconds or else something bad happens in the game: you can’t respond to enemy attacks, economic units aren’t producing efficiently, etc.

Gain a Total Knowledge of Something

Depth is better than breadth.

In Starcraft, you can play as one of three “races”: Terran (humans), Zerg (really scary, gross aliens), and Protoss (Predator-esque, high-tech elves). Each race implies a different strategy because they each have their own units, strengths and weaknesses. The most elite players know how to play every race pretty damn well, but they tend to specialize in one. They get so good by developing micro strategies via repetitively playing games with the same race. They know every nuance of themselves and the potential strategies of their opponents.

More generally, if you have the opportunity to make an advancement in your career or another area of your life by learning something, try to isolate the knowledge set you have to learn to something as small as possible.

The job market tends to favor highly specialized individuals, so do your best to go deep on one thing.

Even if you think you’re a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ type, like a people manager, there are ways to specialize in the skill of management. Pick one or two key metrics that you can strive to improve and optimize, such as Employee Happiness, or Revenue, or Cost Savings. Pick one thing, go deep, and win.

Learn to Process Information Very Quickly

Cognitive flexibility is something to strive for.

Keep your brain fit, healthy and able to adapt to new circumstances as they arise. Here’s an article that shows how playing Starcraft, and probably games like it, helps in that regard: "Playing Starcraft 2 Might Make You Smarter"

Conclusion

Play Starcraft to get a deeper sense of what I mean, and then treat your life like you’re playing it.

Written by Nick Roberts