You've got a career, friends, family and a mountain of other responsibilities that have a monopoly on your time. So how, amidst all those time-consuming responsibilities, do you find time to learn something new or tackle a passion project?
Photo by blodgett esq.
There's little I love more than a good passion project, and I've generally got at least one outside-of-work project that I'm dedicating time to. (Lately, most of these projects involve programming, like learning to build a website with no experience; right now I'm working on an open-source, cross-platform, note-taking application.) My writers have on occasion marvelled at everything I appear to accomplish outside of the daily grind involved in keeping the wheels from falling off here at Lifehacker. While I think they have an overly inflated sense of just how much I get done, I've also promised them that I'd do my best to explain how I find time to learn new things and take on rather large projects. So here goes.
NOTE: While a silver bullet for getting more done is always enticing, there's not much any of us can do about squeezing more than 24 hours into any day. As with most productivity advice, what follows probably falls into the category of common sense, but sometimes it's helpful to get a little common sense reminder from time to time.
Grout Your Days With What Your Want To Accomplish
Last year at a Twitter conference here in Los Angeles, nerd, comedian, tech lover, frequent tweeter and friend of Lifehacker Chris Hardwick addressed criticisms that using Twitter was a big, narcissistic waste of time. In making his point, Hardwick offered an analogy that stuck with me. He explained that it's not as though he's spending hour after hour devising and composing his next tweet, and Twitter's not taking time away from anything else he'd already be doing. Rather, he grouts his days with Twitter. He's got a free moment here and there, he's got a thought/idea/link/joke he wants to share, and he shares it.
Say what you will about Twitter, but you can extend Hardwick's analogy beyond Twitter to things you may want to learn or projects you may want to tackle. And because I like his analogy so much, I'll be using it throughout this little post.
Most of your days are composed of big tiles of immovable time — time that's completely filled with obligations you can't and often shouldn't ignore. For most of us, that's unavoidable. But no tiles fit perfectly together, and you've got all kinds of gaps of free time that you can fill — or, rather, grout — with whatever you like.
Choose Your Grout
Fact is, you're already grouting your days with all kinds of things. At work, it may be the occasional, relaxing internet surfing session where you peek at what's been happening on Facebook/Twitter/your favourite blog. After work, maybe you're catching up on a great TV show or playing a video game. In general, I consider grout to be those things that you fill your day with that aren't immovable, tile-y responsibilities.
Am I saying you're wasting too much time watching TV, playing video games and surfing the internet? Definitely not. This is a judgment-free conversation, and whatever you choose to grout your days is just fine. (I love TV, video games and the internet!) But what you need to keep in mind is that you've only got so much extra time to fill, and often you're in control of what you choose to fill that extra time with. If you really want to learn something new, or get into a new personal project you're excited about, you may have to cut down on some of that other grout and start grouting your days with that passion.
Ideally it's something you're excited to do. For example: I'm not an avid gamer, but I do enjoy playing video games occasionally. And when I really get into a video game, I can find myself thinking about it when I'm not playing it, or getting excited for the next chance I'll have to play it. And when that's the case, I generally will make it a point to use that form of entertainment as my grout whenever I get the chance.
My point isn't that video games are addictive. Instead I'm leading to this: I experience the same feelings of excitement and anticipation when I'm in the midst of learning about something or taking on a project I'm really into. And I doubt I'm alone. Once you get started grouting your days with something you're passionate about, you'll start finding more time and more ways to grout your day with it.
Now for a hard truth: If you've made it this far, but you're thinking, "Yeah, that sounds great, except I've got a full-time job, a family and plenty of other responsibilities that even my grout time is spoken for", then none of this may be particularly helpful. As I said at the top of the post, I don't have any magical tricks for squeezing more than 24 hours into any day, and the last thing I'd recommend is stealing your extra time from the Sandman. That said, there are some things you can do to make it easier to grout your day with the stuff you're passionate about.
Make It Easy
I'm no social scientist, but it would seem that at least part of the reason Facebook — or internet "time-wasting" in general — is so prevalent at the workspace is that it's so accessible. Finding out what your friends are up to is just one quick click away. It's extremely easy to grout your workday with Facebook. So if you want to start filling your free time with something else, you need to make it just as easy — or at least as easy as possible — to do so.
Accomplishing that may vary significantly based on what it is you're doing, but my toolkit for making it easy to grout spare time with my passion projects looks a little like this:
- Ubiquitous capture: Last week I explained my holy grail of ubiquitous plain-text capture, essentially describing how I can take notes on any computer, any iOS device and any Android phone, and they'll all stay in perfect sync. A major part of the appeal of this system is that, whenever I have an idea related to a project, I can simply pull up my notes application, dash off a quick note and get back to what I was doing. When I've got more than a tiny sliver of time to grout, I've got all my ideas waiting for me, again, accessible from my desktop, my phone or my tablet.
- A good bookmarking tool for reading things later: I'm a big, big fan of Instapaper, and a lot of other Lifehacker folks love Read It Later. Use whatever you prefer, but I employ these smart bookmarking tools extensively when I'm researching a passion project. If I stumble onto a link that looks worth reading, I simply click my Read Later Instapaper bookmarklet, and when I've got a sufficiently large enough chunk of time to grout, I don't have to go looking for something to research or learn — it's waiting there for me.
The point is that you want to make it as easy as possible to switch into project or learning mode whenever the opportunity arises. What you don't want is to waste your precious grout time looking around for things to do related to your passion project. Likewise, depending on what it is you're interested in, you want to make it as easy as possible to dive right into working on your project. When I'm doing programming projects, for example, that also involves having my text editor ready to roll at a drop of a hat and a to-do list ready to be done.
Beyond The Grout
Grout's a nice idea and all, and you can probably imagine several ways you could better grout your days if you're interested in learning something new or making progress on a project you're excited about, but: Can you ever really learn something new or crank out a big old project by simply filling cracks in your day?
As much as I'd like the answer to be "Yes", that's probably unrealistic. (This is also probably the point at which I stray a bit from the intention of Hardwick's analogy. I'm sure he won't mind.) For me, most projects start as grout. I generally start off with an idea that I need to learn more about before I know whether or not I can realistically turn it into a full-fledged project. So I start grouting my days with notes and articles and tutorials and reference materials. My ubiquitous capture setup and Instapaper help me enormously at this point.
Then I start working on the project every chance I get. I stop playing as many video games or watching as much television (at least actively — I still sometimes enjoy having a TV show in the background I'm only half paying attention to). Eventually, what started out as grout often ends up transforming into more of a tile — a regular part of my day that I make a point to find dedicated time for. I still have family. I still have my job. I still have a social life. But I've also got my project, and sometimes, it's the most exciting work I'm doing.
As I said, there's no silver bullet here. If you really want to learn something new, or take on a new project that you're excited about, you may want to start by examining how you grout your days. You may have more time to tackle that passion project than you ever thought.