Productivity and Side Projects

As I’m sure you know by now, I’m a huge believer in side projects.  They stimulate the mind, they open up new opportunities, they give you time to express a different type of creativity.  They also have less at stake, so you can build things that don’t have to be profitable right away (or ever).  I use Music-Alerts and Z.ips.ME every single day.  They might not make us much money, but they were well worth the learning experience and the reward of letting other people in on a solution to a problem I experienced.

Over the past few months I’ve begun working on our next web venture.  I’m really excited about it.  My partners are too, although the development hasn’t reached a point yet where everyone else is involved.  I’m not sure when it will be complete, probably sometime in mid 2010.  When it gets closer I’ll delve into details a bit.

Because we’re really busy gearing up for the holidays, I don’t have very much time to work on it.  I’ve been trying to keep my Tuesday nights free to work on it for a few hours, and most of the time I’ve been able to do so.  Otherwise it’s been an hour here or an hour there, mostly on the weekends.  I’ve probably averaged 4 hours per week for the past few months.  For arguments sake, let’s say I’ve worked 40 hours on it so far.

What can someone get done in 40 hours of work?  A lot.  A real lot.  A lot more than I thought I would.  If you told me when I was starting that I’d only have 4 hours per week, I might not have started because I wouldn’t have thought it to be enough time.  I was shooting for 5 – 10 hours each week.

My goal was a working demo to show my partners by the end of the year, and I’m well on my way to getting there despite the fact that I’m working less than half of the hours I thought I’d need.  At this point, I’m pretty good at estimating my development hours.  I almost never finish twice as fast as I thought I would.  Then again, I work on most of my projects straight through from start to finish.  I don’t break them up into little chunks.

I’ve been thinking lately:  what is the main advantage of breaking up the project into these tiny little 1 – 2 hour work windows?

  • My mind is subconsciously thinking about the project in the background.  When I’m working, when I’m sleeping, when I’m relaxing, when I’m at the gym.  Ideas come to me at all sorts of times.  By having gaps of a few days between working on it, I allow my brain an adequate amount of time to process all of information from my previous session and begin to tackle the main issues for the next session.  If I was working nonstop through the project that wouldn’t happen.  Tom Kelly of IDEO talks about this during his Stanford lecture.  He claims that background thinking is better at problem solving than our cognitive problem solving skills.
  • I talk about the project to my partners and to a few close business friends.  In turn, they’re always thinking about it and mentioning ideas to me.
  • When I read all of my business/tech/web2.0 feeds in my Google Reader, I’m constantly thinking about how this new technology or that new API could be applied to the project.
  • Most importantly, when I do get to work, I’m super motivated to make the most out of my hour or two.  I realize that if I’m lazy I won’t have another shot to work on it for another few days or maybe even a week.

Granted, while I’m starting to think that my per-hour productivity may be higher when I’m working on side projects, it’s not necessarily the desired way to develop anything. It has the really really big downside of taking more time.

But it works really well if you run a business with a core that takes up most of your time, whether it’s a client business like web design or SEO, or an e-commerce business like us.  This also works really well if you work a regular 9-5 type of job and only have a few nights per week to work on something.  You still have enough time to make it worth your while.  I know a lot of people who have profitable side businesses that started out with just a few hours of work per week.

2 comments on Productivity and Side Projects

  1. Dale Ting says:

    Hey Adam, totally with you. This especially is good for people who have creativity in them, it allows you to use that side of the brain.

    Your post makes me feel better about how I only get 2-3 hours of work done a day during my leave of abscence. And for me to improve to my goal of 4 hours a day of work done isn’t that much, but could provide a ton of productivity.

  2. Oke says:

    Good post, Adam. I’m in a similar situation with my craft and side hustle business.

    With writing: I write everyday and this month I’m writing in my novel the whole month. When I write that morning or whenever, I get more ideas about the next part and get so much help from all things around me. So when it is time to write the next day I write without thinking about what is next and so on. As I continue to write, the story gets develop, the word count increases, and before I know it I have a novel.

    The photography website: I just wrote down a go-by on how I’m going to get everything accomplish by the end of the month. I can’t really give everyday to it, but will set a couple of times per week towards it. It is quite amazing what can be done in an hour or a short time period. As long as the time is focused with little distractions as possible, anything can get accomplished.

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