Rachel Andrew on the Business of Web Dev: Making Time for Side Projects

Last time, I encouraged you to think about creating side projects as a way to diversify your income. Yet with a busy job or freelance business, a family, friends, and other activities, it can seem incredibly hard to make time for these additional projects. This time I’m going to share some tactics for finding time to dedicate to additional projects, and the motivation to actually work on them.

Defining your goals

There is power in setting a goal, writing it down, and putting a date on it. We can all spend a lot of time musing over that book we would like to write or that product we would like to build. Until we actually draw a line in the sand and commit to launching it, it will likely remain as a thing we pick away at when we “have the time.”

Choose your goal, define exactly what it is you are going to create, then decide on your launch date.

Planning the steps to reach that goal on that date

Once you have a goal with a date, you can start to plan your time working back from that end date to today. If your goal is quite chunky and your end date some months in the future, break down the tasks into monthly phases of work. Check out Brian Casel’s concept of the Cascading To Do List for a description of how to break down a large goal into smaller sections.

This is where you need to be realistic. You are going to have limited hours to work on a side project. I’ll get to some of the ways you can maximize the time you have available, but first, as you make your plan, ensure you are committing yourself to something that is actually possible. Launching in a reasonable timeframe is likely to mean working hard, but you still need to sleep and eat. A surefire way to lose motivation on a project is to feel that you are falling behind on your expected progress. Don’t set yourself up to fail with unrealistic timeframes.

If, on breaking down the tasks needed to meet your goal, you realize that you don’t have enough time to do everything and meet that goal date, you have a choice. Can you remove some elements of the project, putting them into a post-launch phase? Or do you need to allow more time to complete the project, moving your completion date?

I would always favor the first approach where possible. Be as ruthless as you can in cutting any features from your product that can wait until a phase two. I’ve written in more detail on the importance of starting small and developing your product based on user feedback over on Smashing Magazine. That method won’t necessarily work for all products; however, remember that you can also simplify the other tasks you need to get to launch—for example, using a service that delivers your software (such as Gumroad) rather than building your own payment and delivery solution.

Finding the time

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.
Life’s Little Instruction Book, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

We find the time for those things we place importance on. “Finding the time” often relies upon having a goal that is meaningful and important to you; a goal that is valuable enough to make a priority. If you consistently don’t have time to make progress on your project, take a reality check: is this something you really want to achieve? If you feel it really is a priority for you, move forward by fitting it in with the priorities you share with the people in your life.

Explain your workload to family and friends

The additional work required to launch a side project can be hard to understand if your family and friends aren’t in the same business as you. They may resent the extra work you are doing, or feel you are using it as an excuse to get out of social engagements or spending time with them.

Having a realistic end date and schedule can really help here. Share your goal with friends and family, explain the launch date and show that the project isn’t designed to endlessly burn up all your free time. Having your friends and family on board will help you to assign time to your project and may even help you gain a sense of accountability to use your time as you told them you would. You will want to be able to let people know your progress toward your launch date.

Schedule in the time each week

I believe it is very important that our own projects become first class citizens alongside the other work that we do. If you are a freelancer working for clients, your own product should be given the same attention you give a client project. Even if it can only be assigned half a day a week, or time that would normally be your free time, ensuring it is given the same priority means it will not be pushed out.

As much as is possible for you, set aside time each week to work on the project. A regular slot works very well if you are able to schedule that. Plan in advance the tasks you will tackle during this time in order to make best use of it.

Use down time

Several years ago I earned a degree with the Open University in the United Kingdom, via distance learning. I did all of the reading for my courses while waiting outside my daughter’s ballet classes. You can make great use of downtime as long as you prepare for it. A good to do list of tasks is the best way to ensure you are prepared to make best use of time that appears in your schedule. If you are working on the side project alongside client work and you suddenly find yourself with a spare morning due to a canceled meeting, you can jump on the next available task on your list. Some tasks may be well suited to working on while traveling. When I have travel planned, I make sure I have any documents I need saved offline, and any reading sent to my Kindle so I can make best use of the disconnected time in the airplane.

Outsource to create time

If you can afford to, outsourcing some tasks can help to move your project forward or free up time to work on it. You don’t even need to outsource the actual work of the project. If you currently spend every Saturday morning doing housework, could you get a cleaner? Have you considered using a service such as FancyHands to do time-intensive but easy tasks such as getting quotes for services? Make sure that you don’t get involved with busywork, making yourself feel as if you are moving forward but instead just filling your time with tasks.

Optimize your working environment

By their very nature, side projects are often worked on in short periods of time: a few hours on a Saturday morning, an hour or so each evening. You need to make sure that when you sit down to work, your tools are all there and ready and you don’t burn through the time just setting up your IDE, or downloading some software. Spend some time at the start setting up a great workflow for the project, sign up for any API access you need, install any software. Make sure that those short bursts of activity on the project can be used to drive it forward.

Avoid spending too much time creating a productivity system

The tools you use and the systems you follow are likely to be very personal to you. I follow a fairly standard Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, and use OmniFocus. I do think that writing goals and tasks down in some form is important; how you do that is up to you. You might like to create your schedule and daily task lists on paper, or just in a text editor. It does not matter.

Say no to things that do not move you toward your goal

In order to meet your goal it is likely that you will have to pass up some other opportunities. Learn to say no to things that will not help your progress. Will attending that event, making that business trip, or reading that book get you closer to where you need to be?

I find it’s often easier to say no to unrelated things than things that might be useful. When working toward a goal, I will be happy to say no to a social engagement; a conference related to my target audience, however, sounds like it might be a good thing to attend. The question I ask myself then is what will attending that conference do to my end date—is it worth delaying my launch date?

Don’t be distracted by post-launch tasks

Something I see happen a lot is that, instead of focusing on the steps to launch a product, people start researching and reading around things that only matter after launch. A very common theme is to spend a lot of time worrying about analytics. Leave those things until after you have launched. If you worry that you will forget a great idea, then start making a list of things to investigate later. You can add items to that list and revisit it post launch to plan your next phase.

Realistic schedules and good planning are the silver bullet

When people ask me how I get so much stuff done, I think they assume I have some kind of magic trick up my sleeve to share. However the only real answer is that I do the work. That said, whenever I start to feel as if work is taking over all of my time or end dates are drifting, poor time management is usually to blame.

When I am working to focused goals, on a well planned schedule, I find that there is usually time to get everything done. I’m also happy to do other things, as I know that the right amount of progress is being made towards my goal. As Getting Things Done guru David Allen says,

You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing.

Unless you have a clear schedule taking you from today to launch, you will either drift along and never launch or constantly worry and feel bad about any time you spend not working on your product. Define your goal, and create a plan to get from here to there today. Then roll up your sleeves and work.

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