How To Find The Time And Energy To Work On Your Side Projects

Ten Minutes Is All It Takes

When I had moved to Japan after graduation, it was my plan to make a little money and work on my novel. I’d teach English classes during the day and hammer out a few pages at night.  By the year’s end I’d have a finished draft, good to go.

Instead, by the time I got home from work most every day I basically said “Fuck it. I’m tired,” and cracked open a beer.

Sound familiar?

“It’s Hard to Find the Time”

When you have side projects, be they in writing, photography, or an entrepreneurial venture, it can be difficult to put in the time or muster the energy needed to make them cook.  The problem was that you used to have all the time in the world.  You went to classes, did your homework, and worked on your passion projects afterwards.  Sometimes your homework was your passion project, as it was for me as a creative writing major.

Then you graduate, and before you know it your get your first job and eight hours knocked out of your day. If you haven’t developed enough self-discipline, you’ll find yourself going to the bar instead of going home and working on that project of yours.

That was pretty much what I did when I lived in Tokyo.  It took me five years to write five chapters of my novel.  Most of that writing was done on the weekend when the guilt from not doing anything had pushed me so far that I forced myself to squeeze a few paragraphs out of my brain. My passion project, that thing that was supposed to be “fun,” turned into a form of torture.

But you gotta eat, right?  You can’t slack off at your job and be working on your passion project on the side, can you? You’ve already spent eight hours working. There’s no way that you’re going to spend another two or three hours working on your novel (or whatever it may be). You want to blow off steam.  Have a drink. Veg in front of the TV. You worked hard. You deserve it.  Besides, you’re tired now, how good is your writing (painting, coding, etc.) going to be when you’re as exhausted as you are? You’d best wait for the time for when you feel inspired.

If the above paragraph sounds anything like your internal monologue when you come home from work, I recommend that you read this blog post twice, maybe three times so that you can catch yourself rationalizing as it happens. Inspiration isn’t going to come if you just wait for it.  You must make the time for Inspiration to come forth.  If you don’t, you might as well resign yourself the fact that you’re never going to work on your project again–that way you’ll at least feel better about not doing it.

My (failed) Attempts to Make the Time

I’ve tried many methods to motivate myself to work on my side projects.  One of them was the “break the big goal into mini-goals” method that Stephen Covey often talks about.  I tried that, and placed deadlines for each chapter until, one year later, I’d have a finished novel.

That didn’t work. For some reason all the mini-goals just made me think more about all those chapters that I had to write. Also, the arbitrary deadlines that I imposed upon myself for how much I should have gotten done by what date had no power on me.  The moment I fell behind in my schedule I was too demotivated to continue.

I also tried the “one page a day” method. There was a problem here too. Some days I came home so tired that I collapsed on to the bed.  I couldn’t write a page to save my life. When two or three days passed with nothing written, I abandoned this resolution altogether.

When I started working full-time last September, I had another side project, goldhat.org, that I had spent the better part of 7 months putting together. I wasn’t writing a novel any more, but I was (and am) just as passionate about the web app as I was the the novel I was writing.

When I was self-employed with no fixed income (a term which I believe should replace the term “unemployed”), I could spend every waking hour of the day coding for the app. When working for TeachStreet, I found that, like before, I was spending no time at all on my side project.

I justified the 2-3 months not working on Goldhat based on the fact that I was getting used to the new job and I had a three hour commute to Seattle twice a week.  When I finally found an apartment and and was getting into a smooth workflow, however, I realized that I had no more excuses. I had to make time for Goldhat right away or it would fizzle and die.

The Ten Minute Rule

I reflected upon my failures to make time for my novel in the past and realized what I had lacked: momentum. I would whip myself up in a motivational frenzy and then sputter out a week later.  What I needed was a commitment, even a small one, that I would make every day for my project.

This was my resolution: No matter what happened or how exhausted I was, I would devote ten minutes a day to one of my side projects, be it this blog, goldhat, or both.  If I felt like continuing after the ten minutes that was fine, but I had to spend 10 minutes minimum.

This took away all my excuses because no matter how busy or tired I got, there was no way that I couldn’t spend at least ten minutes.  Most days I ended up spending much more then the minimum ten minutes and often worked for two hours or more.  There was one day where I had come back from the gym ready to collapse, but I forced myself to spend at least ten minutes staring at the code for Goldhat’s WordPress plugin.  I don’t think I wrote a single line of code in those ten minutes, but the next day I was bursting with ideas on how to make the plugin work.  Because I was anxious to try those ideas out, I went straight to coding that day and probably spent more than three hours on the project.  This was on a weekday, mind you!

In the two weeks or so since I’ve imposed this 10 minute rule I’ve completed a stable version of the Goldhat WordPress Plugin, wrote an announcement for it on the Goldhat Blog, and also wrote the blog post preceding this one about writing out of your niche.  I probably could have done more If I committed myself to these projects full-time, but I’m still very happy with my progress.

This blog post itself is a product of the 10 minute rule. At 6:00PM yesterday I felt mentally exhausted. All I wanted to do was have a slice a pizza and a nice big glass of wine.  I remembered, however, that I hadn’t yet put in my 10 minutes and got to typing. I started writing at 6:00, and found myself at the end of this 1300+ word blog post at 8:09PM.  All I needed was those first ten minutes to get over a bit of inertia, and then I was good to go.

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  • http://www.thinkingspirit.com Travis W-B

    I LOVE this rule. Reminds me of David Allen’s (of GTD) 2-minute go-and-do-a-task rule, but more appropriate for side projects. I particularly like how you arrived at this rule after much trial and error with other approaches. I really think that this rule (as opposed to Covey’s approach) is perfect for handling side projects.

    Thanks for adding a tool to my repertoire.

  • Kenji

    @Travis

    Thanks! This rule has really helped me so far. I should have added an addendum to this rule that you should put your ten minutes in BEFORE you do anything mind numbing like watching episodes on hulu. I made that mistake today and the quality of work that I put into my “ten minutes” (actually about 1.5 hours) after about 2-3 hours of episode watching was seriously lacking to say the least.

  • http://www.chrismweb.com Chris Moeller

    Good article!
    I’ve been reflecting on this for some time as well, trying to come up with the best strategies to handle being able to work full time +3-6hrs a night on personal projects.

    I started reading the free kindle book ‘how to live on 24hrs in a day’- from the 1900s, but insightful so far.

    In general though, the best thing I’ve been able to do is try to not pack too much into one night – if we need to shop, skip the gym day. Try and only commit to one “have to do” before getting home to have project time. Another thing is “I won’t allow myself to relax until it’s dark or X time’. The only problem then is staying up to late “trying to relax”.

    But yeah- but me and my fiancée have found that if you can get into a project- you can go for hours without realizing it, the trouble being just starting and getting to that point.

    I’ll start applying the “10 minute rule” at least once a day after work from now on! Once I get coding, I don’t stop until I get distracted :D

    Thanks!

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  • Casey

    Thank you so much for writing this up. Gives me inspiration and of course, I will do with the 10 minute plan and hope it works great for me. I’ve been putting off my project as you had. It’s time to restart them and get them completed… Finally.

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