On finding the balance between side-projects and headspace.
At the end of last year I took a 3 1/2 week holiday to road trip around Arizona. No laptop, no code, limited mobile connectivity and a great friend in a pretty isolated place of America. This is where I managed to begin slipping out of a habit that had unknowingly become unhealthy for me.
I tend to finish work between 4:00 and 5:30PM, depending on what time I start in the morning. Come the time to go home, I’d close my laptop and set off home in my car. After 25 minutes of “headspace” whilst driving home I’d get home and eat dinner, open up my laptop and start working on a side-project — be it a little app I was making or article I was writing. After this I’d go for a run around 10:00 PM and then try to sleep straight after, which was never really the case as I still needed that time to switch off. This habit allowed me to squeeze 3–4 hours of side-project time into my day. My weekends didn’t differ too greatly, side-projects in the day and socialising in the evening. This all seems pretty pro-active, right?
At the time, it’s really quite difficult to notice just how unhealthy this really was for myself. I had slipped into this routine of work followed by more work — with no real time to enjoy other things around me. Yes I was learning, yes I was building a portfolio for myself and yes I did enjoy it. So if I enjoyed it, then what’s the problem? 😅
Reflection & Self Improvement
To begin with, there was no time for reflection. How could I improve myself or my work if I was always busy creating and not thinking? Taking a step back and distancing yourself from something allows you to reflect on what you’ve done, improving it for next time around.
Without this headspace in place, you never really get the time to look back on your mistakes because you’re too tied up in the work you’re doing. For me it was either:
- “I need to finish feature X so I can start feature Y”
- “I need to finish side-project X so I can start side-project Y”
This often caused lost time for both reflection on project features and the way in which they were built, as well as a project as a whole. Instead for example, I probably should’ve been thinking:
- “This should be a widget, i’ll move it to a custom view so I can decouple it’s logic from the activity that it’s being used in”
- “Hmm, this structure felt a bit messy at some point for the project. Class X got a bit large, maybe next time I should split it out into separate X classes based on related functionality.”
And at the end of the day it ties back to that age old saying,
Quality over Quantity.
Rather than trying to stack up a portfolio or work through a number of different side-project ideas (no matter how excited you are to get things made and out there 🙈), take your time and iterate your approach each time around. What worked and what didn’t? What could you do better next time? Why are you building what you’re building?
I want to create things because they’re worthwhile and to help others learn, not just for the sake of it.
Another important factor is that there was never any time for me to engage in other activities. To begin with, it couldn’t be healthy with my only focus outside of work also being what I do for my job. As passionate as I am with what I do for a living and how much I love the work I do, it began to feel like a dangerous habit. Whilst company culture does play a huge part in tying in work with your life, you still need your own space and separation from work to get the work-life balance right.
Freeing a lot of my time off from side projects has given me more time to spend with family / girlfriend & friends, run, go to the gym, play music, watch TV, play games, have days out and so on. Getting away from a screen allows me to do more of the things I enjoy, spreading my focus across interests — which also ties back to reflecting upon myself.
However, this may not be the case for everyone and you may be perfectly happy with what you do at work as your hobby. Even so, making time for other things has given me the time to improve myself both mentally and physically — which is something that isn’t exactly bad for you 😄
So as of the New Year, I made the conscious decision to cut back on the amount of time I invested in side-projects outside of work. Since then, not only do I feel healthier in both my mind and body, but having this real headspace has helped me to learn better from my work.
But, am i still learning? Yes, even more so. I’m still writing and still open-sourcing projects — whilst these may take me slightly longer to put out there, I’m feeling more positive about the content itself. And for me, this has been a learning in self improvement in many ways — not only to reflect upon things, but to better manage my time and how it is spent.
As I previously mentioned, my evenings and weekends now involve much less code, and instead I’m spending more time doing other things I love. I do still allocate time which I use to focus on side-projects — and I’ll admit that I still get the odd moment of “Shit, I haven’t posted any work online in a few weeks”, but it’s easy to ignore when you realise where / how much better your time is can be spent and the good that it’s doing you.
I’m only 26 and I’m in no real rush – it’s not only important to take a step back and slow down. Experimenting with my way of working has helped me to achieve this and there’s obviously still room for improvement!
Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense to strive to be your best and pursue your passion. But I sometimes fear we live in this culture where your commitment to your work is often judged by the hours you put in and much you put out — which is an unnecessary pressure. We don’t have to be rockstars to prove we’re good at what we do. Our passion, attitude and the skills we have should together be enough.
Whilst this may not be the same for everyone, at least for me anyway I cannot express how much this has both opened my eyes, helped me grow and feel better in mind. You don’t want to burn out in what you do, so if you feel like sometimes you’re doing too much then it’s worth thinking about you may be able to improve your work balance too 😊
Maybe you’ve faced similar things or have other ways of preventing burn-out — either way, I’d love to hear.
Like I said, I still work on side-projects! Check them out at hitherejoe.com