5 Strategies For Making Progress on Side Projects

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I get asked on a regular basis how I manage to maintain a blog (and other side projects) on top of my job, especially since I almost never write anything specifically about my job. I actually wish I was better at and more productive on my side-projects, but that might be step zero – to let go of trying to be perfect and just focus on achieving something.

Schedule

I don’t have a social media strategy as much as I have a schedule. I use Buffer to schedule interesting articles I find to my Twitter feed to share 3 a day (the limit of 10 on a personal account is sometimes annoying, but I use it as a barrier on batching up too far in advance). This is one of the least important things, and one it is very hard to measure the ROI of, but has the side effect of capturing interesting things I find and making it easier to locate them again. If I’m too busy, the buffer empties out and don’t have anything to share, I don’t really mind. I read a lot, so this will typically sort itself out pretty quickly.

My blog has the far more important schedule. After about 6 months of posting 3x a week and building up some leeway in posts that are written but haven’t gone out yet, I was able to move to a schedule of Monday: travel and personal, Wednesday: tech-related, alternating general tech and more women-focused ones, Friday: reviews, notes from talks I’ve attended, the odd how-to (like this one). Sundays I post a weekly round up which serves partly as a way to collect all the interesting things I’ve shared on Twitter.

The leeway of having at least an extra week’s worth of content is really helpful, and for the last few months this has meant that I can write about pretty much whatever I wanted at any point, and then just slot it in, as it would eventually balance out.

The schedule is king, not the content. I think producing something on this regular a basis is more important than how good I think any of it actually is. Firstly, because you only get better with practise. Secondly, I am a poor judge of what people will actually relate to – some of my most popular posts I was convinced would have no value to anyone else.

Lists

My side project TODO lists is much more fine grained than the TODO list that fits on one postit at work, and includes incredibly minor things, like “change colour of X”, and “add section for Y”. It is also broken down by project. This is because the gaps between things are bigger, and returning to something really easy will get me started, and hopefully moving on to bigger things as I get into it. Also because I have no-one else to catch anything that I miss. If I forget to change the colour of X, no UX designer will ever file a bug against me.

It doesn’t matter how you do it, but when something isn’t your primary focus, you need a clear record of next steps. The hardest thing is accepting you need to document what is next when you’ve been so absorbed that you are convinced you will remember. You won’t.

Ship Small and Often

I think we can be afraid to launch our half-finished thoughts out into the world. But for side projects, I think it’s important to chill out about that and just ship where we are at. If you look through my image filter posts, you can see it building up bit by bit (including failed ideas). My Distractedly Intimate talk (and writing) builds on this and this and this and this.

Share, and iterate. Let go of perfection. Keep going. If you’ve learned something, or created something (even if it doesn’t have unit tests, or isn’t production ready) put it out there. I believe in execution over ideas, and I think being precious about keeping ideas to yourself in case someone else gets there first is pointless.

One By One

This comes back to execution over ideas. I’m not short on ideas, and being “inspired” can be a really effective procrastination technique. I document my ideas, if they are exciting enough that I might want to pursue them later, but stay focused on one project at a time modulo urgency (i.e. I might take some time away from my “main” project to focus on a talk I’m prepping).

The hardest thing is finishing. Finishing doesn’t even mean launching – it means got what I wanted to out of this project. For my image filter project, I did my experiments and learned what I wanted to but didn’t feel the need to make it into an “app”. I’d achieved my goal, and wanted to focus on something else. So I moved on to other things, but came back to it and turned it into an app when something else came up that built on it – a thing with an external deadline, so it pushed other projects out due to urgency. When that is over, I’ll go back to my next closest-to-finished-thing.

The point is – it’s hard to do side projects, making it a side project makes it far more possible. Limiting myself to one also means that I define what “finished” is.

Strategic Saturdays

It’s really easy for me to write a blog post, at most it will take a couple of hours. 30 minutes before work is will product a first draft at least, or between dinner and the gym in the evening.

It’s harder to find the time for things like coding, or longer-form writing, things that I feel like I need space in which to complete and focus on them. This is what I describe as “strategic” time. I don’t expect to find this during the week, my goal is to carve out 4 hours of strategic time over the weekend. This should also be a peak working time, which for me is the afternoon. So ideally I’ll do some smaller things or something fun in the morning, hit my stride after an early lunch, and head to the gym in the evening. Or start with a shorter workout, have brunch, and then focus time.

I call these “Strategic Saturdays” after a course I took in December, because I also sometimes use this for work-work. When I step outside my day-to-day and put together a proposal for something longer term, this is often a small focused 2-4 hour block that I carve out of my weekend. But I’ve found that unlike allowing my day-to-day job to bleed into my weekend, this has a much better ROI.

I can find one such block in a weekend, and not every weekend. So it’s important to use it well. Really focus on that most important project, whatever it happens to be, and really get in the groove. If I’ve used it well, I can often make incremental progress during the week, but if I’ve used it really well then I don’t need to.

So What?

I think side projects are helpful for a number of reasons: raising my profile externally (and sometimes internally), learning things that I’m interested in but not doing day-to-day, managing burnout by spending some time on things that I have more control over.

They are a luxury. I can make this time because I don’t need to work insane hours at my actual job, and because I have no dependants. So, I don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone should have one or that it’s some kind of measure of anyone’s ability to do a technical job.

But, I do think if you have something you really want to build, or write about, or both, you can do it without giving up your entire non-work life to it. This is how I manage that. Your results may vary.

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