4 Lessons on How to Get Things Done

I recently read an interesting article titled Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem. It tells the story of how 3D Realms, a video game company in Texas, developed Duke Nukem Forever, a 3D first-person-shooter game that they hoped would set new standards for the industry.

The development was started in 1997, just a year after the company released the wildly successful Duke Nukem 3D. Sadly, the company eventually shut down the project in… 2009. That’s 12 years of failed development! It sounds like a nightmare project to be in. Devoting so much time to a single project (as compared to the typical two to four years for game development) and yet ended up in failure. This is not to mention the estimated 20 million dollars wasted on the project.

But why did it happen? What turned the project into such a nightmare? The story contains a lot of lessons on what not to do to get results. These are expensive lessons for those involved, so hopefully we don’t need to go through such experiences to learn them.

Taking the moral of the story, here are four lessons I learn on how to get things done (along with relevant quotes from the story):

1. Avoid perfectionism

Broussard simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of Duke Nukem Forever coming out with anything other than the latest and greatest technology and awe-inspiring gameplay. He didn’t just want it to be good. It had to surpass every other game that had ever existed, the same way the original Duke Nukem 3D had.

But because the technology kept getting better, Broussard was on a treadmill.

You, of course, should try to be the best that you can be. But there’s a difference between wanting to be as good as possible and being obsessed with perfection. The truth is, you may never achieve the level of perfection you want. This is especially true in the story because technology keeps getting better all the time. By the time 3D Realms got close to the perfection they wanted, technology already evolved that raised the standard once again. This, at the end, turned the project into a never-ending one.

You should be careful not to let perfectionism get into the way of delivering results. Be as good as possible, but understand that you can never be perfect. At some point, you need to sacrifice something in order to get the product done. Don’t forget that your responsibility is to deliver results.

2. Have realistic expectations

Mike Wilson, a former games marketer with id Software and 15-year veteran of the industry, suspects that Broussard was paralyzed by the massive success of Duke Nukem 3D. “When Duke came out, they were kings of the world for a minute,” Wilson says. “And how often does that happen? How often does someone have the best thing in their field, absolutely? They basically got frozen in that moment.”

So you had been successful before and you want to reach the same level of success in the future. That’s good, except for the fact that it could give you unrealistic expectations.

The truth is, you can’t always be successful. Even the best athletes in the world still lose every now and then. Is it realistic for an athlete to expect to always win the competitions he participates in? No, of course. So you need to have realistic expectations. Don’t let your past success paralyzes you.

3. Change the way you work

But in the years that Broussard had spent tweaking Duke Nukem Forever, games had become bigger and bigger…

They were still designing “with a 1995 mentality,” as one former employee told me ”” trying to produce a modern, massive game with a stripped-down little group.

Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it works in the present. The world changes, and if you don’t change you risk being obsolete.

The problem is many people expect the same level of success they had before but don’t change the way they work to match the world around them. How can they expect to get the same level of success if they work with five-year-ago mentality? How can you expect it if you don’t keep up with the rest of the world?

4. Set limits

“When it’s done” became their defiant reply whenever someone asked when Duke Nukem Forever would be finished.

The story is an extreme example of Parkinson’s law at work. Parkinson’s law states that:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

In the story, there is no deadline which means that there is unlimited amount of time available. According to Parkinson’s law, it means that the work will expand infinitely.

The situation was made even worse by the fact that the company had so much money in the bank.

Broussard was also cursed with money.

Normally, game developers don’t have much cash… 3D Realms was flush with cash.

Yet the truth is, Broussard’s financial freedom had cut him off from all discipline. He could delay making the tough calls, seemingly forever. “One day, Broussard came in and said, ‘We could go another five years without shipping a game’” because 3D Realms still had so much money in the bank

When you have practically unlimited resources for a project, you have a lot of room to waste them. So, if you want to deliver results, set limits. Give yourself a short deadline and a tight budget. That’s how you get things done.

Photo by blupics


  1. Perfection – the cousin of Procrastination – we got a divorce a few years back and I have never looked back.

    It is debatable whether Microsoft offer the best software – but there is not denying they dominated the market.

    Which proves what Mike Litman always says…“You don’t have to get it right, you just have to get going”



  2. Perfection sounds good, but in reality the bench mark need’s a personal element, something to measure Mr perfect against. I liked… Duke Nukem on the nes

  3. Boundaries, deadlines and self imposed rules are a huge help to getting things done particularly with a creative project. When we lay out the definition of what we want to accomplish and include a time frame to accomplish it in we are much more productive and able to focus. Setting aside the neat ideas that don;t fit for latter consideration.

    I my self am horrible about letting things grow to big and then having them fail or move slowly because i want them to be to much of a good thing. Thanks for reminding me to stay focused.

  4. Donald, that was an excellent read. Thank you very much.

    “Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it works in the present. The world changes, and if you don’t change you risk being obsolete.”

    I love this quote. It shows that you really need to be on alert every single day. Too many people get attached to old ideas, and try to make their old key fit into the brand new lock.

    Thanks again!
    Josh Lipovetsky.

  5. “The world changes, and if you don’t change you risk being obsolete.” This is so true. Bill Gates once remarked that the key to succeed in business is to innovate and make yourself obsolete. If you don’t make yourself obsolete, your competitors will make you obsolete.



  6. Ah, yes, as a perfectionist in recovery I absolutely understand how frustrating and never ending that cycle can be.

    I discovered that my “good enough” is actually much better than I had thought during my perfection years. What a great Aha! moment that was. Then I needed to “try it on for size”, you know, actually just do “good enough” and see the results.

    Thank you for your article. Ironically I’ve been writing about perfection today myself.

    🙂 Susan

  7. I give myself 30mins to really focus in and now also realise done is good enough for now!
    Great post

  8. phenomenal advice. thank you very much and all the best in the new year..


  9. Ade,
    Nice quote 🙂

    I’ve never seen Duke Nukem on the NES. Is it good?

    Yes, creative projects especially need to have limits.

    Being on alert every single day is important – as you say – but it’s

    not easy, unfortunately. People often forget how important change is.

    That’s a great remark from Bill Gates.

    What a coincidence 🙂

    I also like to set 30-minute sessions for myself.

    I wish all the best for you too.

  10. I enjoyed reading the last two of your four points. Parkinson’s law and changing the way you work are two critical success factors to focus on as you experience success. Thanks for the pointers!

  11. Great post. From your post, it sounds like they didn’t have a project. They had a never ending quest with an ever-increasing scope.

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  13. Hello Donald, nice article, here are my quick observations…

    1. Avoid perfectionism – totally agree with this, perfectionism can kill growth and development of human beings..

    2. Have realistic expectations – I agree with those you can not always have great results, but I do not understand how past success can paralyze me? Sometimes you succeed, sometimes not, it’s part of life.

    3. Change the way you work – With this I agreed, we should always experiment with new ways to do things

    4. Set limits – Of course, setting time limits is the basis of achievement…

  14. They seem obvious points, but the fact that it happened to an important company, remembers me the importance of all of them. Two of them I always care about are defining short goals (realistic expectations) to be able to reach them and go on; and changing with the environment.

  15. Thanks this is an amazing article. I’ve always struggled with finishing projects and being a Developer myself this hits home for me.

    all points mentioned are all problem areas for me, but perfectionism and limits are probably the biggest problems. especially these days the pressure to create something special has actually become so massive that it’s impossible because there’s so many other great applications out there, therefore one feels it’s important that we achieve perfection.

    we think if we can achieve perfection then it must be superb for the world.

    but now that I think of it, it doesn’t make sense because how does one measure perfection, because what is perfection. Therefore perfection can’t really be reached because perfection is different for everyone! So I might be correct by saying there is no perfection! It’s almost like an illusion! therefore no one has ever created perfection people have only created things which have been superb for that time!

    I like Ade’s comment about what Mike Litman always says…“You don’t have to get it right, you just have to get going”

    that’s what I have to do, just develop and ship it, will sort out the rest later!

  16. Just wanted to say how much I appreciate this article. I have a new website that I’m launching for a spin-off business. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had a due date. Now it does.

  17. Donald,
    This is a great post for all us who are procrastinators and trying to figure out the best way to manage our time. We must give our self permission to control the clock and avoid the time constraints that consume our lives. I will end with a fitting quote from Albert Einstein “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

  18. Thanks much for these great lessons 🙂

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  21. I specifically like number 3: change the way you work! Good reminder for me!

  22. This was a great article. This 4 simple steps are really helpful to motivate people to accomplish what they need to do, and therefore be more productive. I think we gain and aquire new knowledge from difficult challenges. In my opinion, that is usually reason enough to move forward if it’s something that I desire.

    I always tell myself that the only surefire way to fail at something is to not try. After all, nobody every accomplished anything without getting started.

  23. I really appreciate this post! Very thoughtful, well written and just with the puurfect (oops!) tinge of pointers. Two thumbs for the writer and the post!

  24. May I add a simple yet powerful thing here to getting things done? It is this… just start, here, now! Don’t wait, don’t prepare another second, just start. One small little action towards your goal, even if it is tiny. It creates momentum. Just start, here, NOW.

  25. Another one to add might be to set small goals that are just the bare essentials and focus your mind on them totally. Set yourself clear and short deadlines too. Enjoyed this post.

  26. Some great pointers here Donald. Time management is very much something that im dealing with at the moment. Thanks for the article

  27. To get things done, you have to find your source of inspiration whether it be financial rewards, personal success, etc. This will drive you, and help you to get more and more motivated.

    If you believe that you cannot do it, then you will be limited by your beliefs. However, if you put your heart and mind into something, you can turn your doubts into self-help motivation.

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