I work on many personal projects concurrently. I love doing this, as it keeps me in a constant mode of creation, but it can become a delicate balancing act. In order to keep everything moving forward, I have set up some guidelines for myself. Guidelines such as these differ for everyone, so it’s important to consider the words of Thich Nhat Hahn: “Don’t follow someone else’s map.” However, I have been asked a number of times how I order my work and I thought it would be beneficial to write about it in case someone else can benefit from pieces of my process.
Every 3 months or so, I compile a list of all of my projects. The projects that have time parameters go first in line (but do not always come first as sometimes my passion is elsewhere). For each one I break down the tasks I need to perform in order to get them done. I prefer software like Wunderlist which makes a simple list that I can then reorganize. I also find gridded Moleskins useful for organizing myself. I focus on actionable items, and often place the smallest ones first so that I can get them out of the way. I love the feeling of checking things off, so this is positive re-enforcement for me. I make a schedule of due dates for items that have no due dates; having a particular day that I need to be done by helps me push forward.
Involve other people
I often tell people I’m working on something or actively engage them by inviting critique or collaboration. Being held accountable is great, especially by friends you respect. The slight embarrassment you feel when they ask you about a stalled project will help kick you into gear. Talking to them about the project early on also helps as they have some context for where you’re coming from when you come close to completing it. Don’t be selfish in the project-sharing, either. Pick friends you know who are working on interesting things and offer your help as well. Critique is nice because this is the way that you can actually improve. It’s very difficult to work in a bubble and simultaneously push yourself out of the bounds where you feel comfortable. Get critique from someone that you know will give it constructively but without reserve.
Only stop when you know what happens next
This a really simple and useful trick. If you stop when you are exhausted and frustrated, chances are that project will never see the light of day again. This point is not always possible, sometimes you work late into the night, sometimes you hit your head on something. But if you can help it, try to only stop working when you know what the next actionable item. You will arrive back at the project with bright eyes every time.
Even backwards work is forward progress
Allow yourself mistakes. Make them. I used to tell my drawing students that it takes two bad drawings to make a good one. Never compare yourself to what others show you — their final output is often the result of many failed attempts. Make a lot and then edit down. Don’t get discouraged if you spend a day or two messing up. You’ll likely learn more from those mistakes than if you had done everything perfectly. Forge ahead.
Push outside of your comfort zone, but slowly.
Work on a few things that you know and understand, and a few things you don’t. We should foster personal growth in our projects, but without some semblance of comfort, it’s easy to get discouraged. Push the limits of your boundaries with your projects, but don’t go overboard. Give yourself a foundation to spring off, before floating into space.
Figure out your “studio commandments”
What do you need to work? Do you need music? Do you need water? Do you need isolation? Do you work better in a cafe? Maybe you need a certain monitor, or you concentrate better if you have scheduled breaks. Do you work better if you have a snack in your bag in case you get hungry? Study yourself. Write down 10 things you need in order to be productive and try to sort them out before you get going so that you give yourself less excuses to stop.
Make the time
I usually break up my time so that I have nights, like appointments, where I work on each project. However, sometimes you get rolling on something and you should just keep going and not worry about the other projects. Sometimes if you work 15 hours more continuously you gain traction in a way that you can’t if you break it up over several weeks. However…
Break your own rules
Do you have a consistent schedule and you can’t possibly do X because of Y? Double and triple check that you aren’t setting up guidelines for yourself that give you excuses. Something that worked last week might not work this week, take the time to re-evaluate your own rules. Be adaptive.
Do things for other people
Make one of the projects something that benefits others. This guideline might sound strange, but if you continuously work on things just for yourself it can get a little dreary. I’m not talking about your job, either. It needn’t be overkill, but simply donating a few hours of help here or there to people who need it will help you think more broadly about the world around you.
Research is productive time
Reading about what you find interesting or doing a little bit of digging about your interests can save you time in process. Find heroes in the field in which you are working and follow them. Poke around at other things. Reverse engineer something. All of this time, though not time in production, is important for development.
Make it fun
Personal projects are fun because you want to do them, right? Enjoy yourself. I really like mimosas on the weekends so every Saturday morning I go to my window and try out new code with a mimosa. It’s a very simple trick. It’s not drudgery, it’s pure enjoyment. I turn down other plans to do this because I love it. Find ways to make the work in itself a reward. Maybe you only get to listen to that one album you like while you work in Canvas. Maybe you have a nice fuzzy blanket that you get to wrap yourself in while you draw. Maybe you get to go to the park after you get that last custom post type in. You know the difference between something you genuinely are excited about doing or not — use this to your advantage.