I first wrote this post four years ago. I put it on a blog that no longer exists. Funnily enough, I still refer to it myself, so I figured it might be best served in a place where other people can see it. I’ve made only a few minor tweaks to the original content. A lot about how I work has changed, but most of these pieces have not.
I work on many personal projects concurrently. I love doing this, as it keeps me in a constant mode of creation. At the same time, it can become a delicate balancing act. In order to keep everything moving forward, I have set up some guidelines for myself and I’m going to share them with you in this post. However, it’s more important to understand what works best for you and consider the sage words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Don’t follow someone else’s map.”
What works for me might not work for you. However, hearing about how other people set up their workflow might help you reconsider your own, so hopefully this is a useful mental exercise.
Every three months or so, I compile a list of all my projects. The projects that have time parameters go first in line (but do not always come first if my passion lies elsewhere). For each project, I break down the tasks I need to perform in order to get them done. I try to make each one as small and actionable as possible.
I actually write out the same list multiple ways — some digital, some paper. I find the repetition helps me reinforce and recall what my priorities are. I also find large gridded Moleskine sketchbooks useful for organizing myself. It’s important to me that they’re large enough to have enough space to write notes, draw terrible sketches, or generally spread out.
Unless they must be done in order, I often place the easiest and quickest tasks first so I can get them out of the way. I love the feeling of checking things off my list because it serves as positive re-enforcement. I make a schedule of due dates for items that have no due dates; having a specific deadline helps me push forward.
Only stop when you know what happens next
This a really simple and useful trick. If you stop when your plan is veering or meandering, then chances are that project will never see the light of day again. If you can help it, try to only stop working when you know what the next actionable item is. You will arrive back at the project with brighter eyes than before.
Of course, this one doesn’t work when you’ve smacked your head on a problem forever and ever. Sometimes you need a break and just leaving it for a little while or coming back to it the next day will help you solve it. Generally speaking though, you still still know what comes next even before you come to a solution. It’s more the feeling of malaise that I’m warning against. Stop while you still have a plan.
Even backwards work is forward progress
Allow yourself to make mistakes. Seriously, make them. I used to tell my students that it takes two bad projects to make a good one. Never compare yourself to what others show you — their final output is often the result of many failed attempts. Make a lot and then edit down. Try not to get discouraged if you spend a day or two messing up. You’ll likely learn more from those mistakes than if you had done everything perfectly. Forge ahead.
Push outside of your comfort zone, but slowly
Work on a few things that you know and understand, and a few things you don’t. We should foster personal growth in our projects, but without some semblance of comfort, it’s easy to get discouraged. Let your projects push the limits of your boundaries, but don’t go overboard. Give yourself a foundation to spring off before floating into space.
Figure out your “studio commandments”
What do you need to work? Do you need music? Do you need water? Do you need isolation? Do you work better in a cafe? Maybe you need a certain monitor. Perhaps you concentrate better if you have scheduled breaks? Do you work better if you have a snack in your bag in case you get hungry? Study yourself. Write down 10 things you need in order to be productive and try to sort them out before you get going so that you give yourself fewer excuses to stop making progress. I wrote another post about this on SuperYesMore, posted here.
Make the time
I usually break up my time so that I have certain nights, like appointments, where I work on each project. There are times, however, where you should keep on going and not worry about other outstanding projects. Sometimes working 15 or more continuous hours will gain you traction in a way that you can’t if you break it up over several weeks. However…
Break your own rules
Do you have a consistent schedule and you can’t possibly do X because of Y? Double and triple check that you aren’t setting up guidelines for yourself that give you excuses for not get things done. Something that worked last week might not work this week, so take the time to re-evaluate your own rules. In other words: be adaptive.
Do things for other people
Make one of your projects something that benefits others. This guideline might sound strange, but if you continuously work on things just for yourself, work starts to feel a little dreary. I’m not talking about your job, either. It needn’t be overkill. Even donating a few hours here or there to people who need it will help you think more broadly about the world around you.
Bonus: If you build a community and reach the point where you’re ready to launch that donated project, you might just have other people around you who to share the excitement of a job well done.
Research is productive time
Reading about what you find interesting or doing a little bit of digging about your interests can save you time in process. Find heroes in the field in which you are working and follow them. I have so many.
Poke around at other things. Reverse engineer something. I have a giant private collection on CodePen called “To reverse engineer.” When I’m bored at an airport, or sitting on hold, or have an hour to kill, I’m usually poking around in that folder: breaking things, changing things, finding the boundaries of how everything works.
Read a book, read some docs, watch some talks, do a workshop, watch some anime, go to a museum, listen to some music with your eyes closed, play a video game. Need a starting point? CodePen Challenges are good for that. There are all kinds of things that can feed your work. All of this spent time — while it won’t make your GitHub contribution graph greener — is important for development.
Make it fun
Personal projects are fun because you want to do them, right? Enjoy yourself. I really like mimosas on the weekends so I enjoy one by my window every Saturday morning while writing code. It’s a very simple trick. It’s not drudgery; it’s pure enjoyment. I turn down other plans to do this because I love it. Find ways to make the work a reward in and of itself. Maybe you only get to listen to that one album you like while you work on a side project. Maybe you have a nice fuzzy blanket that you get to wrap yourself in while you read that programming book. Maybe you get to go to the park after you get that last component in. You know the difference between something that genuinely excites you to work or not — use this to your advantage.
I also imagine how I might feel when something is done. This particularly works when the only thing keeping me from finishing something is a bit of drudgery. I imagine it’s done and feel the little dopamine rush from accomplishing something and not letting it sit. Then I chase that feeling.
This is actually some great advice and nice reminders – particularly the piece about Backwards work and long stretches of work.
I’m currently strung between multiple projects and it can be hard to find real balance!
I really needed to hear this. Thanks for sharing, Sarah!
Thanks for sharing Sarah, I have a number of projects on the go and struggle with what to focus on, this helped clarify a few things for me.
And when you are stuck trying to resolve the complicated but then finally return to a better and simpler answer… you have reached your goal. Your simpler answer will have considered the more complex variations. Your solution will appear ‘obvious’ but it is hard won. It is a state of mind when you have reached your understanding of your subject and can master it.
I’ve found that I am a lot more focused when work on side projects for other people, rather than my own personal ones. I guess because I have to account to them for progress and I can give myself a pass for my own projects. It is also easier to make time for other people’s projects with family and friends, as in ‘I can’t do that this evening because I am working on x for y’.