The 10-hour side-project challenge

31 October 2012

One recent meme has been the one advocating people take on side-projects to better focus their energies, especially to help recharge post-day job batteries. I think these are also called ‘hobbies’. I am of two minds on this topic. One, I like the challenge of setting out a goal to achieve that utilises my skills and helps me learn new ones. But on the other hand there is a pressure to always be busy and productive, even when not at work, which doesn’t allow for relaxing down time.

Now the idea of a side-project has been trending for sometime and has been in the zeitgeist recently, but it was only in a recent email newsletter from Sacha Greif that called on readers to take the side-project challenge with a set time-limit. Mercifully when he outlines his definition of a side-project he suggests finding something that can be achieved in 10 hours. This is a bit like Google’s 20% time perk. Limit yourself and the theory goes you will be more productive in your other work hours. And work hours may be the key here.

Sacha suggests we find the 10 hours by cutting out some gym visits, eating lunch at our desks or calling in sick one day. The last time I called in sick, I split my day actually trying to rest (because I was genuinely under the weather) and being pinged with work requests; I certainly wasn’t about to complete a side-project. We already have trouble shutting work out of our personal time, but I doubt there are many employers who’d be happy for their workers to use work hours for personal projects to make up for the hours out of the office answering emails. Well, except at Google.

Luckily I’m blessed with a fair amount of holiday time thanks to the European standards that out pace North American minimums. This makes it easy to take off the odd day with the objective of getting something done. This is where Sacha’s challenge makes most sense. One day is enough to start and finish one of these 10-hour side projects.

But what about the pressures of everyday life. One blogger responded to Sacha’s challenge by playing the family card. Yes the pressures of life make it impossible to find spare time. It’s absolutely fair to say that your family is not your side-project, and the same should be for your life outside work regardless of your family make-up. We tend to view our work / life balance in rather unhealthy ways when we should remember that work is a means to live not the reason. (However I’ve been blessed with a number of jobs/workplaces where there’s an environment and project worth devoting more time to; it’s not about punching in for the minimum but giving it your all. And as designers we need break time to become re-inspired.)

Luca Redwood embarked on a side-project that took most of one-year; he created an iPhone game. A developer by day, Luca spend his limited free time coding his app after making a deal with his wife—he had to sacrifice time usually allotted to playing games. The result, he completed his side-project. But that was a big side-project. A 10-hour project is a one off requiring a small sacrifice. This is where one argument against Sacha’s challenge falls apart. He’s not advocating calling in sick one day every week, or permanently giving up the gym to fit in a side-project. But on the flip side, having a large side-project does take commitment and just may not be for everyone.

In many ways my take on this challenge has been not because I’m reflecting on the idea but because I’ve attempted to take the challenge (see above mention of spare holidays). However my most recent project, as well-defined, structured and minimal a product as I could handle, has quickly grown beyond the 10-hour limit. And it’s not done. Actually I’ve probably spent several hours searching for the right domain name. I’m not concerned though (well I am about the domain), as the time is being well spent and I’m developing my coding skills while learning new solutions and techniques. In truth I could probably design a small website within 10-hours, however it would take another 10 to build the app. I’ve made a few web apps before and I often return to each some evening to tidy up the code or add a little new function. And eventually my latest project will be released. I’m sure one or two people might even find it useful.

Finally as a point comparing freelancers versus full-timers, those working for themselves and likely having to sell their services often need projects that can show clients their skills and thinking, especially if other work is covered under non-disclosure agreements. Creating simple one off websites, artwork or experiments is a form of learning and self-promotion. This might not be the same for full-timers, unless they are looking for a new job. I on the other hand don’t get the opportunity to prototype or code at work so my side projects are about continuous learning or skills upkeep.

With luck I hope to complete the current ‘wishlist’ project and release it, then on a future day-off I fully intend to keep to a strick time-limit; my own personal hackday. Of course a few past projects I’ve built are web tools that don’t necessarily have front-ends yet or the need for one (my own url shortener, or a very simple wordpress plugin not quite good enough to share yet). Watch this space for the next big thing. Of course this space keeps changing; another distraction from finding 10-hours.