Today I want to look at some tips for organizing your work and getting things done on a daily level.
1. Constrain your time or your tasks
Entrepreneur Scott H. Young offers two approaches to daily organization, depending on the type of tasks you’re working on. On the one hand, Young suggests constraining your time. You might plan to work for two hours first thing in the morning, for instance, or move to a café after lunch and plan to work for four hours.
When constraining your time, you can work on any tasks you need to get done within that period. Your tasks, in other words, aren’t constrained at all.
Young says this method works best for tasks that are not well-defined, or not easily broken down into sub-tasks. You can make progress on these kind of tasks by setting a time constraint to work on them.
The biggest advantage of constraining time is that it’s always unambiguous. If you decide to work for three hours and then stop, there’s no confusion there.
If you’re working on writing an article or a book, or planning a new software project, you might not be at the stage where you can break out specific tasks. For big, sprawling projects like these, simply set yourself a time period to work for, and make as much progress as you can.
Young’s other approach is to constrain your tasks . For this approach, rather than setting a specific period of time to work for, you’d set a specific set of tasks to complete, and work for as long as it takes to get them done.
Obviously this method wouldn’t work so well for tasks that aren’t well-defined, as you would have a hard time breaking them down into actionable tasks that are achievable within a work period.
But for tasks that are well-defined, constraining yourself to working until a set of tasks are completed can be a helpful approach. Whereas constraining your time can make it easier to trick yourself into thinking you’re being productive without actually doing meaningful work, working until a specific list of tasks is complete helps you avoid that trap.
I’ve also found time constraints can encourage a sloppier attitude towards work. You might decide to spend all day studying in the library—but without tasks to constrain your productivity, you end up checking your phone or skipping hard problems to work on easier stuff.
Task constraints can be particularly useful for tasks you do often, as the more you repeat something the easier it becomes to predict how much time and effort it will require.
You might use this approach when you have a stack of monthly-repeating tasks to do. Create a to-do list including all your monthly reports and tasks, and simply work through the list until they’re all done, regardless of how long it takes.
2. Make a fixed schedule and stick to it
Productivity expert and author Cal Newport found a technique that helped him stay productive as a graduate student while keeping every evening and weekend free.
Newport calls this approach “fixed-schedule productivity.” The idea is simple, but not easy to implement.
Newport chose a work schedule and stuck to it. He planned his work to fit into this fixed schedule, and was adamant about not working outside these periods. For him, after 5pm on weekdays and all day on weekends feel outside this fixed schedule, so Newport didn’t work then.
While this may sound similar to Young’s time constraints approach, it’s actually a bit different. While you can constrain your time on the fly, deciding after lunch on Monday, for instance, that you’ll do a focused work block of two hours, Newport’s method is to set a schedule for your entire week and repeat it week after week without change.
This approach requires planning ahead, choosing the times you’re able to get meaningful work done throughout your week, and making a regular schedule you can stick to. Within that schedule you might have periods of constrained time or constrained tasks, but the schedule itself remains the framework of when you work throughout the week.
Newport says with this approach you may upset some people, as you won’t be available to chat or reply to their emails immediately, but eventually they’ll get used to it, and in the meantime you’ll be getting more work done.
Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions.
Newport also found to make his fixed schedule work he had to cut out inefficient habits, turn down more projects than he would have previously, and build habits for repetitive work so those tasks get done without question at the same time every day or week.
“Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions.”
Newport also had to work on fewer projects at once to make his fixed schedule stick. He kept two queues of potential projects: writing projects and anything related to his work as a grad student.
These queues helped Newport keep on top of upcoming work, but he only ever worked on the first project in each queue. Only bouncing between two projects at once made it easier for Newport to stick to his fixed-schedule productivity approach and not let work bleed out beyond the bounds of his schedule.
3. Always be prepared for the next hour
Productivity author Mark Forster gets even more granular in managing his daily work with an approach he calls The Next Hour of Your Life. The Next Hour uses a simple to-do list, but aims to always have enough tasks on the list to roughly fill an hour-long period.
If you have an event coming up, your to-do list carries over to the next hour after your event. And throughout the day you periodically add to the list so it always has roughly an hour’s worth of work on it.
It sounds simple, but Forster points out how powerful this method can be:
If I’d been presented with a list of 49 items long at the beginning of the day I wouldn’t have had a hope of finishing it. But writing a few tasks at a time gradually adds up…
What’s your favorite method for organizing your daily work? Let us know in the comments.
Open-plan offices are a favorite among business owners and managers, due to their low cost. In fact, open-plan offices have been shown to reduce building costs by up to 20%.
They’re also touted as being beneficial for spontaneous connections with coworkers and encouraging collaboration.
But talk to employees who work in open-plan offices and you’ll hear a different story. For workers, these spaces are noisy, lack privacy, and encourage germs to spread among colleagues.
Open-plan offices are bad for employee health
Regardless of whether employees enjoy working in open-plan spaces or not, research shows these offices can increase health risks.
A report in the Medical Journal of Australia found a man with tuberculosis put his co-workers at risk and spread the disease, partly due to working in an open-plan office and sharing a desk with others.
Other research has found when a sick employee comes to work, around half of shared surfaces such as the office fridge, photocopier, and door handles are infected with the virus by lunchtime.
Studies have also found employees working in open-plan spaces tend to take more sick leave than those working in traditional offices or from home.
Being in an open space might encourage collaboration and camaraderie, but it also makes it easier for germs to spread, costing businesses in sick leave and lack of productivity.
Employees need more privacy at work
Beyond getting sick, open-plan offices simply make employees more unhappy, on average.
A survey of employees in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Finland found those working in open-plan offices were no more satisfied with the ease of collaboration available to them, but were less satisfied with their office space in terms of privacy and comfort.
Employees also rated open-plan offices low for satisfaction related to privacy, space, and noise levels.
As Quiet author Susan Cain says, introverts in particular need to have privacy so they can be alone to recharge after spending lots of time around other people.
There’s no perfect office setup
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer to the downsides of open-plan workspaces.
They do have benefits, including increased opportunities for collaboration, increased team camaraderie, and lower building costs. But the lack of privacy, increased noise levels, more opportunities for distraction, and increased health risks make them less than perfect for employees.
According to some, the answer may be to look for a balance between open-plan and private workspaces, rather than going all-in on one or the other.
Susan Cain, working with Michigan furniture manufacturer Steelcase, has developed private spaces that can be installed in offices to give employees a better balance. Cain suggests employers find ways to allow workers to move between open spaces and smaller, private rooms for a better balance between small group collaboration, private focused work periods, and more social periods.
Donna Flynn, director of Steelcase’s Workspace Futures research group, agrees:
The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time alone—to be free from distractions, apply expertise and develop a solid point of view about the challenges at hand. People also privacy to decompress and recharge.
Finding a balance between open and closed spaces, says Flynn, is imperative for your team to achieve success:
There is no single type of optimal work setting. Instead, it’s about balance. Achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together is critical for any organization that wants to achieve innovation and advance.
Cain says removing all opportunities for small groups of workers to connect and collaborate also weakens social ties among team members by inhibiting personal bonding:
The currency of a friendship is to exchange confidences with people but if you feel like you can be overheard, it’s a lot harder to do that.
This is a problem, says Cain, because it stops us forming strong relationships with our colleagues.
Intimacy carries with it negative implications. But part of a satisfying workplace is the ability to form relationships with each other in a more relaxed, human-scale settings. [sic]
Whether your workspace is set up as open-plan or closed offices, if you’re all-in on one or the other you may be missing out. Finding a way to balance open spaces and small, private areas can bring the best of both worlds to your team.
I recently covered some tips to help you wrangle your calendar, but there’s another necessary evil many of us struggle to keep a handle on: email.
As Shani Harmon writes at HBR, “We’ll spend hours polishing our LinkedIn profiles and revising our résumés, but hastily hit send on an unintelligible missive simply because we’re in a rush.”
If you need help staying on top of your inbox, these tips are for you.
1. Make your subject clear with keywords
Kabir Sehgal, who formerly served in the military, now uses some military email tricks to craft clear, specific emails that are quick and simple for recipients to read and respond to.
One of Sehgal tips is to use keywords at the start of each email subject line, so the recipient knows at a glance what the point of your message is. Some of Sehgal’s example keywords include:
Starting with these keywords lets your recipient know if your email requires any action on their part, making it easier for them to triage and respond to your messages. And though it might seem a bit much to write these keywords in capital letters, Sehgal points out why this is so helpful:
These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized. But your email will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails. (If also forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you contribute to their inbox clutter.)
2. Write longer emails to avoid switching costs
This tip might sound counterintuitive, but it comes from a reliable source: productivity expert and frequent writer on unconventional email approaches Cal Newport .
The reason Newport’s approach works, he says, is because the biggest cost to our time from email isn’t from how much time we spend in our inboxes, but from all the context switching email requires of us. Every time we switch into our inboxes or back to our work, we’re costing ourselves time and attention.
Every time we switch into our inboxes or back to our work, we’re costing ourselves time and attention.
So to stop email taking over our workdays, Newport says we need to focus on switching to our inboxes less often, rather than spending less time there once we’ve switched:
What you’re minimizing with process-centric emailing is not the time you spend in your inbox, but the number of times you have to open it.
And the way to do this, says Newport, is to write longer, process-based emails that follow these three steps:
- Figure out the goal of the email thread
- Find a process to get to the goal with the least back-and-forth
- Explain the process in your email
Say a friend or colleague emails to ask if you want to grab a coffee sometime soon. Here’s how Newport would reply using the three-step process above:
Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell (<number>) during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.
The goal of the email thread in this example is to organize a time and date when you can meet your friend or colleague for coffee. The process to get to that goal as quickly as possible is to offer the other party several dates and times that already work from you and let them confirm one that they’re happy with.
By explaining that a reply from the recipient will be confirmation of the meeting, and offering a back-up option that doesn’t involve the email thread, Newport’s example reply explains the process to the recipient so they know exactly what to do next to reach the goal of setting up the meeting.
Newport admits he struggles with this approach sometimes, “because the urge to get out of the inbox fast is so powerful,” but that he’s always happy when he perseveres with process-centric emails.
3. Make key points stand out for quick reading
Another military-inspired tip from Sehgal is to draw attention to the most important points in your email. Like using keywords in your email subject lines, this approach is designed to help recipients quickly read your emails and understand the relevance to them.
Sehgal suggests starting your email with the most salient information, pointing it out by writing “Bottom line:” in bold to draw the reader’s eye. This helps the recipient immediately understand the point of your email and decide for themselves whether to continue reading.
Another way to use bold text to draw the reader’s eye, says Sehgal, is to bold anyone’s name where you’ve mentioned an action you need them to take. This will help those points stand out so your recipient can quickly take note of what’s needed from them and act on it, even if they’re only skimming the email.
If you’re using Newport’s tip and writing longer, process-based emails, research from email tool Boomerang shows you may be less likely to receive a response. 75-100 words seemed to be the sweet spot for getting the most replies, according to Boomerang’s research, so combining longer emails with Sehgal’s tips for making the most important points stand out could be the best approach.
One final point to remember when sending emails, thanks to Shani Harmon at HBR , is to think carefully before adding people to the CC field:
Remember that each message you send contributes to everyone’s inbox, including your own, especially when one of your recipients decides to Reply All.
What are your best tips for staying on top of your inbox? Let us know in the comments.
I recently had a chat with Brennan Banta, an interactive graphic designer, about how she organizes work, stays productive, and overcomes procrastination.
First up, can you tell us who you are and what you do?
Sure! My name is Brennan Banta and I am an Interactive Graphic Designer at the web software company TrueChoice Solutions Inc. My job primarily consists of UI/UX design and digital illustration.
What does a typical day look like for you?
After a cup of coffee, I’ll log onto my computer and check Dribbble, Behance, Awwwards and sometimes Instagram for design inspiration. That helps my brain wake up before I dive into emails. If I’m at my day job, I’ll check what assignments need to be worked on through Atlassian’s Jira software.
Otherwise, I have a small notebook outlining my freelance projects. I simply write down requirements per project and cross them out when they’re fulfilled.
Depending on the project, I usually sketch out a concept on pen and paper before translating it to digital. I work with vectors a lot, so I try to visualize how different shapes can come together to make more sophisticated ones for the design. If it’s a UI design, I also keep in mind how implementing the concept with code can be a realistically achieved.
What are your favorite tools or methods for organizing your work?
As I mentioned, Jira is something we use at my job a lot. We also use the Kanban technique to keep track of everyone’s progress. Adobe Bridge helps us organize our library of graphics making them easier to find with keywords.
How do balance collaborative work with focused solo work periods?
I work in teams at my day job, but primarily work alone when I’m freelancing. I don’t have more than one or two freelance projects going at a time, and they’re usually something like designing a logo or build a simple “brochure-style” website.
What’s the best change you’ve ever made to the way you work?
I like to make a dated folder for each day I’m working on something. For example, if I have a logo I’m working on I’ll make a folder for April 21, 2017 titled 170421. The next day I work on it, I’ll copy the folder, Adobe files and all, and title it 170422.
Many have shared the experience of a client wanting to revert to a previous iteration of something and this helps me stay up to date without losing track of my work. Once the project has been approved and completed, I comb through the dated folders and delete larger files (such as Photoshop or Illustrator files) to save space on the hard drive.
How do you avoid distractions and stay focused?
I try not to lose essence of myself in order to enjoy working. Of course your client’s opinion is paramount, but they most likely chose you to design something because they like your style. If that’s not the case, I remind myself that being pushed out of my comfort zone is the most rewarding challenge. When all else fails, there’s a motto that gets printed on sundials I try to abide by, “Use the hours, don’t count them.”
Being pushed out of my comfort zone is the most rewarding challenge.” — Brennan Banta
How do overcome procrastination?
I definitely give myself breaks here and there. If I feel like I’ve made good progress I’ll reward myself with a walk, a YouTube video, checking music blogs or a treat from the kitchen. To me, breaking up the day is essential to keeping motivated. Plus my work feels stronger when I take my eyes away from something and come back feeling somewhat refreshed.
What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?
Design is so subjective that if you really like a concept but your client or boss doesn’t approve, it’s difficult to rework it into someone else’s vision. Like I mentioned before, I remind myself that being pushed out of my comfort zone will only make me a stronger and more diverse designer.
What do you do outside work to wind down and recover?
Since I’m usually parked in front of a computer, I try to stay physically active when I’m not working. My main hobby is hula hooping, which combines gymnastics and dance. I also try to go running 3-4 times a week and recently have gotten into rock climbing.
If you could work any job in the world for a day, which job would you choose, and why?
I would love to help out designing/developing videogames for Adult Swim. To work on projects that have a sense of humor would be really fulfilling, plus I’ve always had an appreciation for game design.
Being productive, working on the right things, and not letting busywork take over your day often comes down to how you schedule your work. As productivity expert Cal Newport says, scheduling your week in advance “allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights.”
Try out these tips for improving the way you schedule your work to make sure you’re spending your time on what’s most important.
1. Categorize events
Even if you have a separate calendar for work events, you might have various types of events on that one calendar. Etsy engineering director Lara Hogan suggests creating separate event categories and using a color code to distinguish them on your calendar.
For instance, you might have:
- 1:1s with your team
- 1:1s with your manager
- team meetings
- office hours
- client meetings
By color-coding your events, you can easily glance at your calendar and get an idea of what’s coming up for the rest of the day or week.
Here’s what Hogan’s calendar looks like with her color-code in place:
Hogan also suggests grouping events from the same category whenever possible. If you have a full day of 1:1s, for instance, you can stay in the same mindset all day. But a jumbled schedule with 1:1s, office hours, and client meetings will require more context switching throughout the day.
2. Make a boilerplate daily schedule
SuperBooked CEO Dan Mall suggests starting with a full schedule, rather than an empty one waiting to be filled up with events. Mall says he picked up this idea from designer Jessica Hische :
I love the idea that she starts every week with a full calendar, as opposed to an empty calendar that needs filling. I’ve always defaulted to the idea that my main work would fit in the empty slots, after everything else has been scheduled.
As Mall says, writing down this way of thinking about your work schedule makes it obvious how silly it is. Though most of us do approach our calendars this way: we start with a blank slate, and make our most important work fit in around any appointments and events that pop up throughout the workweek.
Mall’s solution is to create a boilerplate daily schedule and update it with extra details for each day. This way, you start with a calendar full of important work, and extra events have to fit in around your work. Here’s what Mall’s schedule template looks like:
At the end of each workday, Mall spends half an hour updating the template with specifics for the next day’s work. Any calendar slot with square brackets around the event is replaced with something more specific. So “daily work” slots, for instance, get renamed to specific tasks or projects to be worked on during those times, and re-colored to orange once their details are set.
Since Mall has two possible slots for calls each day, he can confidently schedule calls knowing they won’t affect his work, and turn down call requests that don’t fit those times. And any unscheduled call slots are simply switched to daily work slots instead.
This approach means Mall always has an hour of meaningful work scheduled first thing in the morning, as well as scheduled periods of focus time for daily work. Mall also makes sure to schedule periods for checking email, Slack, and social media, and keeps those apps closed at other times so he can focus more on his work.
3. Let others do the work
Although using a calendar to schedule your work can help make sure everything important gets done, it can also create even more overhead as you end up with longer email chains to create and reschedule meetings throughout the workweek.
To avoid this, Hogan suggests blocking out periods of time on your calendar when you’re available to meet with others, and letting them book those times. You can use an app like Calendly for this, setting time blocks when you’re available and simply sharing a link to your calendar where others can book appointments. Or if you use Google Calendar with your colleagues, you can use the built-in appointment slots feature to let others book appointments on your calendar.
Hogan also suggests making events editable by attendees wherever possible, and adding a note when scheduling an event to let attendees know they’re free to make changes, as your schedule will update automatically. This way, you save the back-and-forth of email chains figuring out when everyone’s available and if it’s okay to move an event, and you leave the hassle of rescheduling to those who need to move the event in the first place.
4. Fix your Mondays
We can’t talk about schedules and calendars without talking about Mondays. They may just be the most tricky days to plan for.
Freelance designer Jessica Hische suggests avoiding setting deadlines for Mondays :
If there is a deadline on Monday, and you are prone to procrastinating/procrastiworking like me, you are most definitely working on the weekend.
Instead of setting deadlines for Mondays, Hische sets aside Mondays for doing admin work and keeping her business running. This way, she’s confident that she’ll get her admin work done every week, and she can ignore those tasks on other days when she’s doing more focused client work:
If I give myself one day to do the bulk of my emailing/interview answering/file organizing/scheduling etc, I feel WAY less guilty about ignoring all of that stuff for large periods of time during the rest of the work week.
Hogan agrees that Mondays should be treated carefully. She points out that recurring meetings that fall on Mondays tend to create a rescheduling nightmare anytime a long weekend pops up. If you have recurring team meetings or events, Hogan suggests scheduling them for other weekdays and keeping Mondays for one-off events only.
Whether you like to schedule everything, including periods of focused work, or just use your calendar for meetings involving other people, try these tips to keep your schedule under control and get more important work done.
What’s your best tip for managing your calendar? Let us know in the comments.
It wasn’t too long ago that more leisure time was seen as a sign of success. The more wealthy you were, the more you could afford to spend time relaxing or engaging in hobbies, rather than working for someone else.
The assumption was that this trend would continue, and people with more privilege and higher status would end up spending little time working and lots of time relaxing.
It hasn’t turned out that way, though. While America’s levels of overworking keep climbing, research points out that overworking is actually linked to privilege. Those of us with the highest status jobs and highest salaries are more likely to be overworked.
And overworking isn’t just bad for our hobbies or our efforts to keep up with Game of Thrones. It’s bad for our health, too. And, perhaps even worse, it doesn’t even help us get ahead.
Most of us are wasting our time working extra hours that don’t help our careers but hurt our health and keep us away from our family and friends.
Why overworking won’t help you get ahead
Perhaps the most shocking example I found of the futility of overworking was from a study that found managers couldn’t tell which of their employees worked 80 hours per week and who just pretended to work 80 hours. So if you’re overworking in the hopes of impressing your boss and landing a raise or a promotion, you may be wasting your time.
On the other hand, maybe you’re just pressed for time and your to-do list is never-ending, so you’re working long hours to get everything done. Unfortunately, even this unselfish reason for overworking is futile.
Studies have shown that working more hours increases your productivity only to a point. That point seems to be around 49 hours. So if you’re working 60-, 70-, or 80-hour weeks, it’s very unlikely your output is actually much more than you’d get done in a 50-hour week.
This is because we eventually hit the point of diminishing returns, which means everything we put in after that point results in a smaller and smaller output. Research shows if you’re working 70+ hours per week, you can reduce your hours to around 50 and get almost the same result. But on the upside, you’ll get more sleep, be less prone to burnout, and have more time to spend with friends and family.
I mentioned earlier that overworking is dangerous for our health. In case working longer and not getting more work done isn’t enough to convince you to cut back the late nights at the office, perhaps the health implications will change your mind.
While causation hasn’t been proven, research does show a link between employees who are overworked and a higher risk of both stroke and coronary heart disease. Other studies have also found working long hours is linked to an increased risk of fatigue, general poor health, and cardiovascular disease.
And since long hours tend to go hand-in-hand with fewer hours of sleep, overworking also tends to correlate with making more mistakes at work. Depending on your job, these mistakes could be costly to yourself, your company, and your customers.
Shorter working hours aren’t necessarily the answer
While it might seem like I’m arguing for shorter workdays or workweeks, that’s not necessarily the answer. Researchers are exploring the idea of shorter working hours, and a study in Sweden showed promising results in both worker happiness and health, as well as productivity. But while this experiment reduced the cost of sick pay and created new jobs, the costs of hiring more employees to cover the missing hours makes this approach somewhat prohibitive.
Dr. Aram Seddigh from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute says a six-hour workday might be best suited to particular industries:
I think the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations—such as hospitals—where you work for six hours and hten you just leave and go home.
It might be less effective for organisations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear.
Economic security could also reduce the incidence of overworking, and thus the downsides that come with it, as many people work longer hours when they’re worried about the stability of their employment. As the economy struggles with higher numbers of job seekers than available jobs, more employees feel the need to work overtime simply to keep their jobs, regardless of the health risks or lack of appreciable output that results.
But the best answer may not even be related to the actual number of hours we work.
Flexible hours could be the solution
Other options could include more flexibility in working hours, allowing employees to choose working hours that suit their lifestyles better, and to work when they’re at their mental peaks. The downside of this approach, however, is that flexible working hours and working remotely can lead to overwork just as easily as regular office hours. As freelance marketer Claire Autruong says, “the same technology and mindset that lets us stay flexible can also compel us to flex right back into work at any time.”
When she started working as a freelancer from home, Autruong found she ended up working far more than was healthy. The answer, ironically, was to schedule a regular 40-hour work week, even though she had the flexibility to work whenever she wanted:
… when I switched back to the dreaded 40 [hours], I felt like I was betraying all the workers ahead of me who blazed the trail leading to flexible work schedules and remote work.
But that’s why you’re looking for flexibility: to create the schedule that works for you.
Research has shown employees with options for flexible working arrangements show greater job satisfaction and commitment to their companies, as well as being less likely to turnover. On the other hand, flexible working arrangements have also been shown to increase the likelihood of work interfering with family commitments.
As I’ve said before, “the flexibility that allows us to be the masters of our own schedules also allows us to never fully turn off, even when it’s in our best interest to do so.”
While we might think we’d like to have more time off, when it comes down to it, we tend to spend more of our spare time working than we need to.
Whether you’re doing it to get ahead in your career, to impress your boss, or just to keep up with an ever-increasing workload, working more than 49 hours per week is unlikely to help you achieve those aims. Not only will you not get more done beyond this point, you’ll be putting your health at risk, as well.
If you have trouble heading out the door when your workday is done, keep in mind that overall you’ll be less likely to take sick days if you’re not overworked, which cost your company and put pressure on your colleagues. You’ll also be at less risk of serious health issues and you’ll be more productive in less time.
Whichever way you look at it, working a regular 40-hour week is the best approach to a productive and balanced working life.
Side projects can help you create things for the fun of it, learn new skills, or even start new streams of income. But it can be difficult to find the time and motivation to move forward on these projects in your spare time.
Try these tips to make sure your side projects don’t get lose in-between other commitments.
1. Plan the next step
Developer Gwendolyn Weston found knowing what the next step was for each of her side projects made it much easier to keep them moving along:
For every project I had, I outlined what would be the first few tasks I wanted to solve. The tasks would be limited to only the smallest possible discrete items. So instead of saying something general like, “Build the entire first screen”, it would be broken down into, “Add the screen into the view hierarchy. Turn background purple to confirm it’s been added. Add this label to the screen.” And so on.
Weston says this process made it easier to make progress on these projects, or start new projects, because she was no longer faced with big, daunting tasks or a lack of definition in what the next step should be.
By taking a few minutes to figure out what the first step for every single project on my backlog was helpful because then when motivation hit, I could very easily context switch into the project and made starting something new feel less overwhelming.
Action step: Make a list of all your side project ideas and note down the next step for each one. When it comes time to work on a project, you’ll know exactly what task to get started on.
2. Work on multiple projects at once
Another tip from Weston is to let yourself work on more than one side project at a time. While not everyone will agree this is a good idea, Weston says this approach worked well for her:
Because context switching became a lot less expensive with all the next steps written out for each project, I gave myself permission to switch between as many projects as I wanted.
Having multiple projects on-the-go means you can switch to a different one whenever you’re stuck or bored, and you can mix up the kind of work you do if each project is at a different stage or requires different skills to move forward.
Weston says this approach even helped her make more progress than if she’d made herself stick to a single project:
Having a rotating queue turned out to be super exciting, because as soon as I got stuck on one project, I just moved to another. Then by the time I got back to the original problem, my excitement was refueled by progress on another project. With that energy, I generally was able to figure out the original obstacle.
Action step: If you’ve hidden away or archived side project ideas because you thought you needed to focus on one at a time, try resurrecting those old projects. Make sure each project has a clear next step (see tip #1), and keep a few in circulation.
3. Categorize projects as commitments or experiments
Writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young believes the trick to finishing more of the projects you start is to divide them into two groups in your mind: commitments and experiments. Trying to finish everything you ever start isn’t sustainable, says Young, so it’s important to only commit to finishing some projects, and leave others open to change depending on how you feel once you get started.
Young says this approach comes down to changing how you think about your projects. You need to first decide to think about commitments as things you always finish, no matter what. Then you can start categorizing your projects as commitments only if you’re sure you want to follow through until they’re complete.
For projects you’re not sure about, you can categorize them as experiments. Experiments, according to Young, don’t always need to be completed. It’s okay to quit an experiment once you’ve discovered what you wanted to know.
Maybe you’re trying to figure out if you’re interested enough in learning a new skill, so you take up a project to test it out. Or you’re curious about a new technology so you plan a project that enables you to test that technology in interesting ways. Or maybe you think you want to write a book, but you’re not sure, so you start a project to write a book as an experiment.
The key here is that it’s okay to quit on experiments. But commitments must always be finished. Think hard about your willingness to see a project through before you categorize it, and set your expectations up front about which projects you can quit on and which ones have to be finished.
Action step: Work through your list of side projects and ask yourself whether each one should be finished no matter what. Categorize all your projects into commitments and experiments, so you’ll have the right expectations next time you get to work.
Whether you’re working on a side project for fun, as a way to upskill, or even to develop a new career, it can be hard to find the time to move your projects forward in-between other commitments. Try these tips to keep your projects organized, so you can make the most of any time you have to work on them.
What’s helped you move your side projects forward? Let us know in the comments.