How to have a productive projects night

Balancing work, life and your own creative projects is tricky. I’ve got some tips around how I achieve it.

For those trying to achieve a work-life balance, it takes careful consideration when taking on hobbies that end up being a lot of work. My main hobby project is my game The Day After. While I haven’t perfected the practice, I think I’ve gotten a decent discipline when it comes time to hit Projects Night.

Projects Night

Since early undergrad I’ve had a constant stream of creative and technical projects on the boil. Writing, programming, game design, animation, web design, maths… In the last decade I’ve taken on real projects with a clearer scope than ‘muck about’ and have also found my time more and more precious.

For years I tried just making an effort every so often on my projects. My novel slipped into a coma after I had to balance work-headspace and the headspace for the novel. Previously I was blessed with a writing mentor, and numerous chances to visit a writing retreat in the Blue Mountains. But life isn’t all good luck and retreats. I had to find a way to make my projects work in the war zone.

I ran into some life problems a few years back. I had a weird symbiotic relationship between my projects and my situation. I sporadically worked on projects, which meant they didn’t progress quickly enough. I’d then ditch the “too complex” project for something “simpler” which eventually mutated into something complex as I grew frustrated or too enthusiastic with the project. So then it wouldn’t progress and we were back at the start. It was a spiral of unhappiness that then bounced over to real life, impacting that.

This was a bad dynamic so I tried to fix that. My primary fix was Projects Night. Every Tuesday and Thursday is dedicated to working on my hobby projects. Other days were my own so I could play games or laze about or be social without the angst of not progressing my projects. If I wanted to work on my projects at other times, that was fine.

Part of the balance required was keeping Projects Nights sacred, but not immutable. If I had something on, then I could just slide the Project Night a day forward or back. Or, at a pinch, cancel the Project Night, but feel safe that there would be another coming up soon, and I’d gotten a few “freebies” that it was okay.

Tips

I’m constantly trying to improve my discipline, but here’s some tips that work for me.

Fixed days

I found fixing the days was much better than a quota a week. Fixing the days helps set your expectations, as well as those of your friends. If it’s arbitrary, then your friends might feel like you’re using your hobbies as an excuse. Or just have no idea how to plan around it.

Also if you have a quota, you might hit the end of the week and be below quota!

Firmness but flexibility

It’s a good idea to fix the days, but not make them immovable. Maybe you have a thing you have to go to. Or a friend who really needs a multiplayer pick-me-up after a rough day. Or you’ve had a killer day and just can’t give your project the required energy.

It’s okay to cancel or reschedule Project Nights. Make sure you can do it without regret.

A good heuristic is to make the value judgment explicit. Say it out loud. “I want to care for my friend more than code tonight.” Or “I have social obligations more important than this bit of project.” You don’t have to become a full-blown utilitarian, but explicitly stating the priorities reinforces the obvious things in life: the goodness of friends, family and fun.

Off days

Nights that are not Project Nights are your own, not your project’s. Do a course. Look after your family. Have a regular date night. It’s important to make have the two phases of Projects and not-Projects. Otherwise you might find yourself having “Project Nights” and “lesser Project Nights with interruptions”. That’s a sure-fire way to burn out.

The Ceremony of it

On a Projects Night, I tend to follow a completely separate schedule. I detach from the day differently (I put my bag away and the TV isn’t automatically turned on). I take the time to make dinner. I take deliberate steps to unwind and settle. I consciously prepare a drink to last me an hour or so.

The trick is to not make the entire night the Ceremony. Some aspiring writers Just Can’t Write unless they have the perfect paper, pens, everything is aligned, a cup of chamomile tea at exactly 87 degrees… They spend their entire allocated time preparing to do things and not doing them. If you’re a writer, you have to bloody write!

Some distractions but not all

On normal nights, I usually have a TV on in the background just for some noise (while I watch actual shows on my PC). On Projects Night, I don’t even turn on the TV. Facebook is shut down. No instant messaging is available. Gmail is checked quickly and then closed for the night. For the most part I don’t do things rather than preparing. It’s easier to disconnect from the static of Facebook by not even opening it in the first place.

I don’t have a complete Zen bubble, though. I tend to play my favourite music – mostly instrumental or electronic music, turned down to a specific volume (audible but not primary in my senses). There’s enough to keep my brain fizzing away, but not enough to distract me. Every time I’ve tried to use podcasts, stand-up comedy on Pandora or streaming TV, I’ve had a very unproductive Projects Night.

I also tend to not drink alcohol – I find it fuzzes everything a little too much and encourages procrastination. Though a daybreaker at the start of the night sometimes works wonders. Your mileage may vary.

Have the tools ready

I primarily program nowadays so preparing my toolset is not so hard. If I was doing woodwork, I’d like everything to be in its place so I could just leap straight in. I use Emacs for most of my work, which provides me with a great toolset, so long as I leave it the hell alone (you can spend an infinite amount of time “sharpening your chisels” in Emacs, so to speak).

The point here is to make your tools an enabler rather than obstacle. To this end, I’ve found putting an Agile development framework around my work challenging. The tools just seem to want to get in the way. This may disappear with discipline and strengthened muscle-memory.

Keep friends and fans informed

I find it’s good to relay your successes via blogs, regardless of how minor. I frequently find myself thinking, “Man I didn’t do much this fortnight… except A and B… oh C as well… Hmmm maybe I did do some good work!” Explaining it to interested parties helps you understand what you’re doing.

It’s also great when friends are invested. Your enthusiasm might wane over time, but friends can boost you (so long as you don’t turn it into guilt!) Telling them about what you’ve been playing with can help shake loose ideas or point out future problems. Don’t exhaust your friendship with a long recap of what you’re doing. Share the energy and experience, but remember that you are more than your projects to your friends.

Other tips?

If you have any tips for working on your own creative projects, I’d love to hear them.