How I keep my side project moving forward

If you’ve tried it, you know that it’s hard to keep the side project on track while working full time and raising a family. It took me over a decade to figure out how to do it well, and I’m finally seeing the results pay off as I’m working on Maesure. In short, the system involves:

  • Keeping a simple journal, where I track my output and factors that contributed to it
  • Reviewing it weekly to find improvement opportunities,
  • Acting on some of them the following week.

This helped me stay on track and get something done every week while still having time for my family and delivering at work.

The system is still not perfect, but at this point, it should be worth sharing.

The journal

My current journal layout in Excel. Limited space forces you to write short statements instead of essays.

For a side project, I found the two most scarce resources are time and energy (there’s also money, but with a full-time Technical Lead job, money is not my main constraint). So the things I track and try to improve are:

  • How much time I’ve spent on Maesure each day,
  • My energy level,
  • The factors that contribute to that.

I track these in an Excel workbook, with each row representing an individual day. I use Excel as the journal because I like it, but lots of other mediums will work too: a physical notebook, a text file, Google Docs, or whatever else that works for you.

The journal also has some space for the weekly goals, as well as the end-of-day and end-of-week review notes. This space is purposefully limited to prevent you from writing an essay and to keep the process as light as possible. It takes about a minute to make the entry at the end of the day, which makes you a lot more likely to do it when you’re tired and not feeling like it.

The review

About once a week, usually on Sunday afternoons, I review how I did in the past week and what I need to change next week to do better. Like the rest of the process, the reviews are short; most of them take 3-10 min, though sometimes I take a deeper dive into my overall goals, or into a specific area like the morning routine.

Everything can be in the scope of the review, including the project plan, the meals, and even the journal itself - over time I have added and removed columns when I need to focus on specific areas.

The outcome of the process is a set of up to three action items for the next week that I think will help me move the project farther. Many of the reviews focused on removing the biggest obstacles:

  • Limited time
  • Limited energy

Managing the time

Before I started Maesure (my current time tracking side project), I used to make rough guesstimates how I spend the time. With Maesure that became a lot easier, and more precise.

Soon after, I made one of the most impactful improvement actions: ruthless prioritization, which freed up six hours a week by removing the hobbies, habits, and pastimes that I didn’t care about that much anymore. It also helped me consolidate/reorganize some household chores, and keep random minor things from intruding into the time I set aside for the project.

(Though that didn’t keep random major things from intruding, as the chart below shows.)

A year of tracking how much time I spent on Maesure per week.

As I got more consistent at managing the time, I switched from using time tracking to find improvement opportunities to using it to keep myself accountable by measuring the total hours spent on the side project. It also helps that Maesure’s popups keep reminding me that I should be doing something productive instead of watching YouTube.

Managing the energy

Between time and energy, the latter turned out to be harder to manage. Just because I freed up 15 hours to work on something, doesn’t mean that I’d actually do it. YouTube, news, Netflix, and other procrastinators always somehow find their way into the time I set aside for the side project.

This is a typical scenario that still occurs: I wake up groggy and tired on a Saturday morning, waste the first half of the day on random stuff, and when the second half comes around, it’s too hard to get into the flow since I was never in it.

Here, the journalling process helped me to:

  • Run the experiments to find what improves the productivity, get the measurements, and pick the winning approach; and
  • Avoid drifting away from the right habits over time

I still don’t do well in this area, but the current best formula is:

  • Sleep: both plentiful and at consistent times.
  • Food: stable intake every day. Keep it simple, but make sure to throw in some veggies.
  • Caffeine: reserved for emergencies only.
  • Exercise: Ideally a light workout a few times per week, but with my new job I can’t find the time.

Last words

Anyway, before we dwell too much on my life, here are the points I’m hoping you’ll take away:

  • Get the data on how you’re doing,
  • See what you can do to improve,
  • Do it.

A journal is a nice tool to keep that process organized.