I am a big fan of side projects. I write, a lot. I sketch, daily. I design apps for kicks because I like to. I have a long-running list of skills I’d like to develop, classes I’d like to take, and habits I’d like to build into my daily routine. Month by month and bit by bit, I’m getting through them (and learning a lot along the way).
People sometimes ask how I have time for side projects and work, dating, and maintaining a social life: “I’m jealous of your creative time,” a friend of mine said. “Do you not watch TV?” another asked. “How are you so…prolific?” another asked.
I’m flattered, but the truth is it’s actually quite simple. I don’t have more hours in the day than anyone else: I just make time for things that are important to me. My side projects make me happy, and that makes them worth making time for.
People say we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. I’d say that we’re the average of the five activities we spend the most time on, too.
If who we surround ourselves with informs who we are and who we become, so too does how we spend our solo time. Hobbies, side projects, our day to day activities: these are reflections of our selves that add up to form our life experiences over time. If how we spend our time says a lot about who we are, would you be happy with what that says about you?
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
Consider for a minute: outside of work, where do you spend your time, and to what end? Are you on social media because you’re fascinated by technology, building a competitor, or simply wasting time? Do you watch TV because you want to be an actor, director, or screenwriter, or are you avoiding a more interesting but perhaps more difficult project? Does your time add up to building mastery and expertise, or avoiding it? If you were to evaluate, would you be satisfied with how you spend your time?
Making time is about deciding what matters. There is only room for distractions if you let there be.
When someone tells me about a side project they’re thinking about, I get excited. Have you started? How’s it going? When’s launch day? Sometimes my questions make people feel guilty, though that isn’t my intention. “I haven’t really had much time for it,” they respond. “I’m waiting a few months before starting; I need to quit my job first.” “I’m going to take a vacation first to clear my mind, and then start it afterwards.”
The truth is, these are excuses. You can crank away at an idea without making it a full time gig, if you commit to it. More time is not the answer; dedicated time is.
“If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. And if it’s not, you’ll find an excuse.”
When you decide you are committed to something, it becomes easy to find time for it. I still watch TV. I still hang out with friends. I still get sleep at night. I still get my work done, call home, go to happy hours and meet ups. But I’m aware of where my time is spent, with whom, and on what, and I calibrate accordingly.
Making the best use of dedicated time.
No passion project blooms overnight on its own, but pruning and structuring your dedicated time can go a long way. Consider the following a practical guidebook to getting started:
Look for pre-existing pockets of time you can convert into dedicated project time. I dedicate my daily commute (1 hour each way) to personal project time. Many of my co-workers work on the shuttle to and from the office, but my shuttle ride is strictly Me time. I write, I sketch, I read, I work on my project goal for the week. This takes discipline but is worth it. It helps to have dedicated time to commit to projects on a daily basis.
Decide when you are consuming and when you are creating, and do not mix the two. That means jotting down ideas in a spark file while consuming content, but saving creation for a more focused time later. That means no Internet research while writing (but lots of placeholders). That means no multi-tasking.
Set simple, achievable deadlines and goals. Don’t try to do everything at once: aim for reasonable. For me that’s one publishable sketch or blog post a week. I alternate between the two because some weeks are busier than others, but I can always get one of the two out.
Don’t push it: know when you work best on which types of projects, and honor your natural productivity cycle. I’ve learned that mornings my mind is freshest for creative, strategic thinking. My mornings are great for writing. Evenings I’m worn from the day and have less mental energy, so it’s the perfect time to wrap up sketches already in progress. Find what works for you and focus efforts there.
Most importantly, pick projects that energize you. For me it’s creative projects that keep me motivated and fulfilled. For someone else it might be starting a family or building a business, exercising or undertaking culinary pursuits. Whatever it is, don’t force it if you don’t like it: it’s supposed to be fun. If it isn’t, switch gears.
When you do find it, grab it, and hold on tight. Make time, not excuses. It all counts. Start now.