How to balance work, life and side-projects

Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

A couple of years ago I wrote one my most popular posts — suggesting that spending one hour a day on side projects would be a good New Year’s resolution. I still believe in that, but I also understand just how difficult it actually is. This post is all about the overall conflict between work, life and side projects that makes accomplishing goals like this one seem almost impossible.

The problem

This recent Human Parts post, The Riddle of the Well-Paying, Pointless Job had a line that resonated:

The desire to improve ourselves is not spread across the entirety of our lives. It’s mainly contained to a few areas that we want to actively pursue, sometimes to the detriment of other important areas in life.

It’s saying that while we may do well in one area, like work, we may correspondingly do bad in another — like our home life. Or sport, or side-projects, or whatever.

Here are a few areas I’d quite like to be amazing at:

  • Family
  • Work
  • Side-projects
  • Health & Exercise
  • Friends

That list doesn’t even include any of the other random things I’d quite like to do like play the piano or be fluent in French. There’s about much chance as me becoming an astronaut as there is me finding time to learn how to play the piano.

Ever feel just a little lost in space? Source

The truth is that family and work take precedence over everything else. Family of course is non-negotiable; everyone (or they should at least!) wants to be the best parent and/or partner they can be, and provide the best life possible for their family. That ties in nicely with work — if we work really hard, then we’ll hopefully have enough resources (i.e. $$$) to help our family have that life.

The danger is of course that we work too much and see less of our families. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic job which allows me to be flexible — I can work at home when needed, taking time off to go see school plays or choir concerts is perfectly cool, but I know not everyone has the same privilege. I do however put much more into the job than the traditional 9–5. Even though I tell my team not be working late at home, I still find myself some nights working past midnight on an interesting problem or solution. Not because I have to, but because I want to; because I want to do the best I can in work, for myself, my teammates, and our customers.

Where does that leave side-projects then?

One question to ask yourself is — which is more important, your day job that pays you, or the side-project that may eventually generate revenue and ideally, let you move to it full-time? There’s no one answer to that, it really relates to your own circumstances and desires for the future.

If you have a job that you can leave at the office until the next day, great, otherwise you’re going to have to try to do like I do and compromise with your ‘spare’ time at home.

With that, here’s a few tips that may help:

Only work on one side-project at a time

This is probably the most important piece of advice — only work on one side-project at a time. If you happen to be one of human-kind’s most organised and disciplined multitaskers, then be my guest and spin as many plates as you want, but if you’re like the rest of us you need to focus on one thing at a time.

Any developer / creator could tell you of the many projects they’ve started but never finished, of the domain names they’ve bought and never used, or of the online hackathons they registered for but never managed to complete. I personally have several domains that may never see the light of day but that just might get me that convertible red Ferrari I’ve always wanted! Or (more likely) that may at least cover the cost of the buying the domains!

Yes, I do own “thepinkblur.com”. One day you’ll hopefully find out why! As will I!

It can be difficult to park projects, and even more difficult to decide on which ones to park, but it’s worth it when you do. One of the best feelings you can have as a creator is when you actually deliver / publish a project — when it goes live in the App Store, or when your customers are actually using it; it’s a great feeling of accomplishment that is difficult to achieve if you’re trying to balance four different ideas at the same time.

Currently I’m finishing off a project for a homeless charity in Dublin, Ireland (that some of my colleagues are also helping me with, which is awesome) and as soon as that is done, I have to finish off a new Android app for my kids’ school. I have a huge list of other projects I want to do, but I’m not touching them until the first two are complete, one after another!

If possible, work on something to benefit the other parts of your life

My next project is probably going to be an Augmented Reality game, mainly because I love the potential of AR, but also because it’s something my kids can get involved in. I’m slowly trying to teach them to code, and getting them to help write some of the game, or to help design the characters, levels etc. or to just play the game to test it, is a fun part of that.

Likewise, if a side-project can help my work life, even better. I’ve built Alexa Skills at home, mainly for AWS hackathons, but what I’ve learned I’ve used in work. Likewise with Lex chatbots, my first use of Lex was for an online hackathon on Devpost, and I’m now I’m currently building a new one in work.

What about that one hour a day?

The key to side-projects, or any other part of your life that you think needs more attention is that you have to keep working on them as often as possible, even if only for short bursts of time.

For side-projects I think the ideal time is actually 2 hours a day, but I think that’s more or less impossible if you have a busy job and family. I try to do a little bit every day — some days it’s 20 minutes on the train to work, some days it’s 3 hours while NFL Redzone is on in the background.

The worst thing is to think “I’ll spend all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights on it” because when they roll around you may be too busy or just too tired. You’re better off just trying to do a bit everyday, and you’ll find some days you can surprise yourself and get lots done.

This is the hardest part of achieving some level of work, life & side-project balance — the willpower and discipline to not let certain aspects falter. It’s tough staying up late to write a long blog post, just like it’s tough to make yourself go for a run before work, or to muster the energy after work to pretend to be a cat for your 4 year old … ok, maybe that one is just me!

My wife recently started spending 30 mins each night with one of our daughters who we realised needed more attention — rather than try to do something large like a trip somewhere some weekend, a little bit extra one-on-one time everyday has made a huge difference.

Finally, know when to close the MacBook

Burnout is always a danger when you’re trying to push things at home as well as work. I usually have a “no cleaning, no coding” policy on Fridays — I don’t clean the house on a Friday evening and I don’t write any code.

Likewise, some days you just need to unplug and do something that doesn’t involve the words git, commit or merge-conflict!

If you’ve any thoughts or comments, please let me know below, I’d love to hear other stories of trying to balance it all!

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Andy O'Sullivan

Andy O'Sullivan

Creator of Boxapopa, the iOS game for young kids with zero ads, just fun! https://apps.apple.com/ie/app/boxapopa/id1550536188