Work, Life And Side Projects To Work On

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Paul is a leader in conversion rate optimisation and user experience design thinking. He has over 25 years experience working with clients such as Doctors … More about Paul ↬

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Paul Boag believes we can have side projects, a life beyond computers, and get the job done. He believes personal projects can be fun, good for the career, and also facilitate a life beyond the Web. To understand how this is possible, we must first establish why a work/life balance is essential and what role side projects play. Let’s begin by asking ourselves why it is important to have a life beyond our computers, even when we love what we do.

There is no doubt about it. I am a hypocrite. Fortunately, nobody has noticed… until now. Here’s the thing. On one hand, I talk about the importance of having a good work/life balance, and yet on the other, I prefer to hire people who do personal projects in their spare time.

Do you see the problem with this scenario? How can one person possibly juggle work, life and the odd side project? It would appear there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Being the arrogant and stubborn individual I am, when this hypocrisy was pointed out to me, my immediate reaction was to endeavor to justify my position. A less opinionated individual would probably have selected one or the other, but I propose these two supposedly contradictory viewpoints can sit harmoniously together.

A picture of many pieces of a puzzle of words showing the composition of the sentence the cake is a lie.
Can you have your cake and eat it by working on side projects, holding down a job, and still having a life beyond your computer? (Image credit: GuySie)

To understand how this is possible, we must first establish why a work/life balance is important and what role side projects play. Let’s begin by asking ourselves why it is important to have a life beyond our computers, even when we love what we do.

Why We Should Have A Life Beyond The Web

Generally speaking, Web designers love their job. In many cases, our job is also our hobby. We love nothing more than experimenting with new technology and techniques. When we aren’t working on websites, we are tinkering with gadgets and spending a much higher than average time online. Although in our job this single-mindedness is useful, it is ultimately damaging both for our personal wellbeing and career.

In the early days of my career, when I was young, I used to happily work long hours and regularly pull all-nighters. It was fun, and I enjoyed my job. However, this set a habit in my working life that continued far longer than was healthy. Eventually, I became stressed and fell ill. In the end, things became so bad that I was completely unproductive.

This high-intensity working also sets a baseline for the whole industry, where it becomes the norm to work at this accelerated speed. No longer are we working long hours because we want to, but rather because there is an expectation we should. This kind of work/life balance can only end one way, in burnout. This damages us personally, our clients, and the industry as a whole. It is in our own interest and those of our clients to look after our health.

This means we cannot spend our lives sitting in front of a screen. It simply isn’t healthy. Instead, we need to participate in activities beyond our desks. Preferably activities that involve at least some exercise. A healthy diet wouldn’t hurt either. Getting away from the Web (and Web community) offers other benefits too. It is an opportunity for us to interact with non Web people. Whether you are helping a charity or joining a rock climbing club, the people you meet will provide a much more realistic view of how ‘normal’ people lead their lives.

This will inform our work. I often think that, as Web designers, we live in a bubble in which everybody is on Twitter all day and understands that typing a URL into Google isn’t the best way to reach a website. Not that this is all we will learn from others. We can also learn from other people’s jobs. For example, there is a lot we can learn from architects, psychologists, marketeers and countless other professions. We can learn from their processes, techniques, expertise and outlook. All of this can be applied to our own role.

As somebody who attends a church (with a reasonable cross section of people) and used to run a youth group, I can testify that mixing with non-Web people will transform your view of what we do. Furthermore, the activities you undertake will shape how you do work. Reading a non-Web book, visiting an art gallery, or even taking a walk in the countryside, can all inform and inspire your Web work. There is no doubt, that stepping away from the computer at the end of a working day will benefit you personally and professionally. Does this, therefore, mean you should shelve your side projects? Not at all. These are just as important.

Why We Should All Have Side Projects

I love to hire people who have side projects. Take, for example, Rob Borley who works at Headscape. He runs a takeaway ordering site, has his own mobile app business, and has just launched an iPad app. These projects have been hugely beneficial to Headscape. Rob has become our mobile expert, has a good handle on what it takes to launch a successful Web app, and puts his entrepreneurial enthusiasm into everything he does for us.

A screenshot of
Rob’s side projects such as iTakeout has broadened his experience and made him an indispensable employee.

But side projects don’t just benefit your employer, they benefit your personal career. They provide you with a chance to experiment and learn new techniques that your day job may not allow. They also provide you with the opportunity to widen your skills into new areas and roles. Maybe in your day job you are a designer, but your side project might provide the perfect opportunity to learn some PHP. Finally, side projects allow you to work without constraints. This is something many of us crave, and being able to set our own agenda is freeing. However, it is also a challenge. We have to learn how to deliver when there is nobody sitting over our shoulder pushing us to launch.

All of this knowledge from personal projects has a transformative effect that will change your career. It will increase your chance of getting a job and show your employer how valuable you are. It may also convince your employer to create a job that better utilizes your skills, as we did for Rob. Rob used to be a project manager, but when we saw his passion and knowledge for mobile we created a new role focusing on that. Of course, this leads us to the obvious question: how can we have time away from the computer if we should also be working on side projects?

Is Hustling The Answer?

If you listen to Gary Vaynerchuk or read Jason Calacanis, you may be forgiven for thinking the answer is to ‘hustle;’ to work harder. They proclaim we should cut out TV, dump the xbox and focus single-mindedly on achieving our goals. There is certainly a grain of truth in this. We often fritter away huge amounts of time, largely unaware of where it is going. We need to be much more conscious about how we are spending our time and ensure we are making a choice about where it goes.

I don’t think working harder is the long term solution, however. We can work hard for short periods of time, but as we have already established this can’t continue indefinitely. We need downtime. We need time lounging in front of the TV or mindlessly shooting our friends in Halo. If we don’t have that, we never allow our brain the chance to recuperate, and we end up undermining our efficiency. I don’t believe the answer is “work hard, play hard.” I believe the answer is “work smarter.”

We Can Do Everything If We Work Smarter

Working smarter is about three things:

  • Combining interests,
  • Creating structure,
  • Knowing yourself.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Combine Interests

A good starting point when it comes to working smarter is to look for commonalities between the three aspects of your life (work, life, and side projects). You can often achieve a lot by coming up with things that have a positive impact in each of those areas. Take, for example, the choice of your personal project. If you look at most personal projects out there, they are aimed at a technical audience. We are encouraged to “build for people like us,” which has led to an endless plethora of HTML frameworks and Wordpress plugins.

A screenshot of an article that states 33+ best jQuery carousel plugins, tutorials and examples + 13 new excellent sliders.
Maybe if we got out more there would be a wider range of personal projects and fewer of near identical jQuery plugins!

If, however, we have built up interests outside of the Web, suddenly, it opens up a new world of possibilities for side projects.

I wanted to get to know more people at my church. There are so many I have never spoken to. I also wanted to keep my hand in with code (as I don’t get to code a lot anymore), so I decided to build a new church website in my spare time. This involved talking to lots of people from the church, and also gave me the chance to experiment with new ways of coding. What is more, some of the things I learned have been valuable at work too.

Look for ways of combining personal projects with outside activities. Alternatively, identify side projects that could make your working life easier. This kind of crossover lets you get more done. However, by itself that is not enough. We need some structure too.

Create Structure

If we want to get the balance right between personal projects, work, and life we need some structure to work in.

For a start, take control of your working hours. I know this isn’t easy if you have a slave driver of a boss, but most of us have at least some control over how long we work. You will be surprised, limiting your hours won’t damage your productivity as much as you think. You will probably get as much done in less time. Work tends to expand to take as much time as you are willing to give it. Next, stop fluttering from one thing to another. When you are “having a life” don’t check work email or answer calls. There is a growing expectation we should be available 247. Resist it.

One method to keep you focused is the Pomodoro technique. This simple approach breaks your day into a series of 30 minute chunks. You work for 25 minutes on a single task free from interruption and then have a 5 minute break. Similar tasks are grouped together so that you spend 25 minutes answering email rather than allowing email to interupt other blocks of work.

A screenshot of Pomodoro Technique webpage.
The is a simple way of staying focus on the task in hand. (Image credit: Pomodoro technique) (Large preview)

Set specific time for working on personal projects and stick to them. Don’t allow that time to expand into your free time. Equally, don’t allow work to distract you from your side project. Set boundaries. If you need to, set an alarm for each activity. Nothing will focus your mind on a personal project like having only 30 minutes until your alarm goes off. You will inevitably try and squeeze just one more thing in. These artificial deadlines can be very motivating.

Finally, make sure work, personal projects and recreation all have equal priority in your mind. One way to do this is to use a task manager like Omnifocus, Things, or to keep all your tasks in one place. Often we have a task list for our work but not for other aspects of our life. This means that work is always prioritized over other activities. It is just as important to have a task to “finish that book” you are reading as “debug IE7.” Providing structure won’t just help with your side projects. It will also help with your sanity.

Know Yourself

Remember, the goal here is to have fun on side projects, broaden your horizon with outside activities and recharge with downtime. You therefore must be vigilant in keeping the balance and ensure that all these competing priorities don’t drain you.

Part of the problem is that we spend too much time on activities that we are just not suited to. It’s important to recognize your weaknesses and avoid them. If you don’t, you waste time doing things you hate and doing them badly. For example, I just am no good at DIY. I used to waste hours trying to put up shelves and fix plumbing. Because I was trying to do something I was weak at, it would take forever and leave me too tired to do other things.

My solution to this problem was to delegate. I employed people to do my DIY. People that could do it much quicker and to a higher quality than me. How did I pay for this? I did what I was good at, building websites. I would work on the odd freelance site, which I could turn around quickly and enjoy doing. This applies to the side projects we take on too. Learning new skills is one thing, but if it stops being fun because you are just not suited to it, move on. Working on stuff you are not suited to will just leave you demoralized and tired.

Talking of being tired, I would recommend not working on personal projects immediately after getting home from work. Give yourself time to unwind and allow your brain to recover. Equally, don’t work on side projects right up until you go to bed. This will play havoc with your sleep patterns and undermine your productivity.

Finally, remember that side projects are meant to be fun. Don’t undertake anything too large because not seeing regular results will undermine your enthusiasm. If you want to work on something large, I suggest working with others. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities. Alternatively, try breaking up the project into smaller sub-projects each with a functioning deliverable.

Am I Asking For The Impossible?

So there you have it. My attempt to have my cake and eat it. I believe you can have side projects, a life beyond computers, and get the day job done. It’s not always easy, and if I had to pick, I would choose to have a life over side projects. However, I believe that personal projects can be fun, good for our careers, and also facilitate a life beyond the Web.

So do you agree? Am I being unrealistic? What challenges do you find in striking the balance or what advice do you have for others? These are just my thoughts and I am sure you can add a lot to the discussion in the comments.

Further Reading on Smashing Magazine

Smashing Editorial (jc, nl)