Lessons From StarCraft: Gaming Your Personal Productivity

When you play a game like StarCraft, the online computer game where the goal is intergalactic domination, you learn a few things about success and getting to the top.

1. Practice is key

The first thing you learn is that practice is key. Before you can actually call yourself a gamer you must learn the ropes, and this takes months even years to accomplish. That’s the first thing—anything worth having takes time and commitment. There are no easy ways out. But you knew that.

2. Macro Strategies

The second thing is what's known as macro strategies — what you need to do to survive. In StarCraft there are three different species a player can represent. Each utilizes different resources and skill sets to compete. In order to survive, even for a few minutes in the game, a player must learn how to use their resources effectively, must learn build orders and execution flows to a tee. A Zerg player, for example, can advance successfully by producing units and structures quickly without much overhead. While the units are not built-to-last, sheer numbers can overwhelm a competitor quite easily. Think fast-fashion companies like H&M or Topshop.

A Protoss player, on the other hand, does not have this option. The technology Protoss employ is expensive and takes much longer to put together. Their strength is in quality over quantity. If made well and executed correctly, their units often prove superior. A good example of this might be a luxury vehicle brand like Tesla or BMW.

Both strategies illuminate the importance of understanding your natural strengths, and rightfully executing them consistently. It’s using what you have, and it’s using it well. Spend as much of your time as possible doing what you're good at.

3. Micro Strategies

Micro strategies — how well you execute each minute you're plugged into the game — are the real separation between good and great, in Starcraft and productivity in general.

It’s the kind of insight that occurs when you’ve long-since made the jump from amateur to professional in your field. At this point, you know very well how to survive the game. The insight comes when now you’re looking to do more than just survive — you’re looking to win.

Sean Plott, a professional StarCraft gamer notes, "When you start doing any activity at the absolute highest level— and you're being competitive—you start to ask yourself: 'Where does my edge lie?'“ He continues, "At the high levels, everyone knows every strategy. A 'new strategy' is very often useless, because there just aren't that many permutations. Players know what's coming.”

When you’ve maxed out your macro-level strategies it might be time to go micro. In StarCraft this comes in the form of improving mechanical prowess using actions-per-minute, or APM.

How many actions can you accomplish in 1 minute?

Top players can achieve, between 300-600 actions per minute, or about 10 actions every second. Now, these actions aren’t random, they are very intentional and effective. It’s insane and rather beautiful to witness. It also works.

Starcraft interview screenshot.

The top-ranking players not only master the skills needed to stay in the game, they also outperform (quite literally) their opponents via actions per minute.

The big insight

Practice and strategy can get you far, but there comes a certain point in life when your key advantage is actions per minute. How fast can you execute without losing efficiency? How quickly can you push through emails—opening up room for more pressing items? How swiftly can you lock in lines of code for an upcoming product launch? If it gets boring for a moment, can you keep going without getting distracted? These are counter-intuitive moments, when actually turning down your mental capacity and focusing on your physical quickness becomes key.

If it gets boring, can you keep going without getting distracted?

When you’re competing with the best, this is where your edge lies: pushing yourself faster with precision.

That big success comes when you’ve maximized your productivity with minimum wasted effort, and you yield winning results. It’s an aggressive approach—a figurative footrace to the finish. The difference between you and your competitor is that you are mentally prepared AND physically capable to compete and to win.

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