Hendrik Ewerlin

@takehomemessage

The definitive guide to not going insane about your side-projects

http://www.commitstrip.com/en/2014/11/25/west-side-project-story/

Side-projects. If you are a creator — software developer, designer, writer or whatever — you are very likely to have lots of them.

The problem is: They can drive you insane!

Here’s why:

  1. Side-projects usually take a lot of work — time and energy.
  2. You very often have multiple side-projects at once.
  3. You barely have time for them. After all, they are side-projects. If you work on something else most of your time, you can’t make much progress.

This is why your side-projects are very likely to stay unfinished for a long time, shouting at you why you can’t complete them!

I’ve felt bad about my side-projects not getting finished or making the progress I wished they made. Here’s what I discovered to help me (and you?) stay sane.

Instant help

If you feel overwhelmed, breathe, pause and fast.

When I feel overwhelmed, it feels like something heavy lies on my chest and it’s hard to breathe.

My instant help strategy: practice some mindful beathing, accept things as they are and let go. I commit to fasting on my side-projects and not doing something about them for an evening or one or two weeks. Very often, the joy comes back when you take some time off and you are itching to move on with a clear mind and fresh ideas.

Limitation

The key to successful side-projects is limitation. Both: talking about multiple projects in parallel and talking about a single project.

Select. Reject.

The first step is to select what you want to work on. Respect that your time and energy is limited and that you can only do so many things at once. What is your top priority? Your main project? How many other projects do you want to allow to suck your time? Take control of your choices and don’t let some project consume your time accidentally.

Focus.

You will have heard a lot about focus. Don’t spread your attention on too many things. Do one thing and then move on.

Reduce.

The main problem with side-project overload is that you are trying to do too much at once. Take something off your plate. Reduce the scope and functionality of your project. Start little.

Send some of your projects to sleep.

My friend Martin once said to me:

“My project is asleep, but it still breathes.”

You can’t do everything at once. It is okay to send some of your projects to sleep mode. You don’t have to cancel them. You can just come back to them later… maybe… Your other projects will be very thankful about the attention they get while that less important project is asleep.

Snooze your popup ideas.

Have you experienced popup ideas? I’m sure you know them! You are working on thing A and then — bam — some new shiny thing B pops up. It is important to not follow the urge to do that other thing right away, but continue with your A-thing. You can snooze your popup ideas and come back to them later.

Making Progress

Do you know that saying…?

“How do you eat an elephant?” — “One bite at a time…”

Think about MVPs and iterative improvements.

Very often, we tend to invent projects that do a lot of things. Then we have a hard time finishing them and maybe never even release them. It is better to think about minimum viable products — a product that is just enough to be useful and shippable. You can then release that thing and improve it with the feedback you gain in following iterations.

Personal example: I’m creating a database/storage system called KVItems. I have a huge codebase and lots of hidden documentation about it. It is brilliant, maybe (at least I hope so ;-)), but never going to be finished. The website shows a work in progress hint, hoping that some day I will judge that whole thing good enough and release it. Guess what? This is never going to happen. My new approach is to start with a minimal version and improve it in iterations. We’ll see how far this is going to get me…

Make small steps. Release early and often.

There’s a software development philosophy called Release early, release often. It basically comes down to the same idea: Try to release a minimum viable product early and improve it with feedback, taking small steps in frequent iterations.

Don’t try to be perfect on the first beat.

How often did you not release a thing because you thought it was just not good enough? Don’t get me wrong: High quality standards are a good thing. They let you improve und deliver good work. But don’t let perfectionism get in your way. Maybe your thing actually is good enough already! You can release it and improve it in the next iteration…

For more input on this topic, check out this video from John Sonmez on my reader question:

How Do I Know If My Stuff Is Good Enough? - Simple Programmer

Show off “Work in Progress” and beta content.

Sometimes, “work in progress” and beta content can be sexy.

Personal example: When I was working on my website take-home-message.de — basically a collection of quotes — I had the whole thing finished 95%. I was struggling to release it, because some quotes lacked fine-tuning. I knew that if I wanted to complete all of this, it would take days or weeks. I then introduced signs saying “Something has to be done here…”. My readers were very happy about the vast majority of complete content and also appreciated the work in progress...

Mindset

Last but not least, I have some suggestions for a more healthy mindset.

Feel comfortable in the phase of development.

In her TED talk, Bel Pesce said:

“Life is never about the goals themselves. Life is about the journey.”

I think this is absolutely true. Ask yourself that question: “What would you do, if that one project was finished?” The answer is probably: “Something else.” Life is all about development, doing, being on the way. The finish line is just a small point in time. Don’t forget all the way in between. This is life. It is absolutely okay to not be finished. Celebrate your life under construction!

Develop an “everything is on top” mindset.

Very often, we do our side-projects in our spare time and just for the fun. So why do we get so frustrated about them?! Remember that you are not doing this for survival and return to the ground of reality when you freak out. Everything is on top!

Think about your definition of success.

Talking about side-projects, what is your definition of success? Sometimes it is not about delivering and getting things done. Sometimes it is about playing, experimenting, learning and having fun. I suggest that we think about how many optimization and work ethics we want in our private lifes.

Don’t be too hard with yourself.

Also, develop a kind way to judge your own work. You are fine. Relax. Don’t be too hard with yourself.

What else?

Do something that is not a project.

I hope you liked this post.
Keep up the good work, stay sane and don’t forget to have fun!

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