How do you find the time?

When I decided to sell Sifter there was one question that haunted me.

Would I ever be able to do it again?

There’s a lot of subtlety baked into that question. Was I lucky with Sifter? Would the market and/or world be different enough in the future that all of my experience wouldn’t help? What would I build? Would my skills atrophy to the point where I’m not skilled enough to build something people would want?

But there was one question that really haunted me. With a completely different life and more responsibility than when I started Sifter…

Where would I find the time to work on a side project?

Well. I guess I’m going to find out.

For me, time and energy are constrained from having a family with two small kids. For others it might be taking care of aging parents or dealing with chronic illness. Let’s not focus on the specific contexts, though. There are simply too many. Instead, let’s focus on the shared fact that those obligations put significant constraints on time and energy.

I’ve spent some time lately thinking of ways to improve my situation and create space. I’m going to extremes by setting out on my own, but there’s plenty of less extreme options.

In a perfect world, each of these would be valid and relevant for everyone, but of course, they won’t be. The thing to remember is that this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Each of these is independent of the others and may have an outsized impact for you.

  1. Focus on your strengths. Free time may not be one of your strengths. For me, it isn’t. However, with hindsight, I spent a month building Sifter’s billing system. With Stripe and other modern integrations, that would be significantly less this time around. That simple realization reframed everything in a way that provided hope. I know more now and can be more efficient with how I spend my time. This doesn’t necessarily save time, but it can really help make the situation feel less intimidating.
  2. Find alignment with your 9-to-5. If you don’t have free time, see if you can find a way to make your primary job align more closely with the work you’d like to be doing on your side project. I was spending my weekends catching up on Rails and front-end development because I wasn’t writing code at work any longer. So my main priority was returning to writing code regularly again. The alignment doesn’t have to be perfect. It only needs to help you move in the right direction.
  3. Turn your computer into a sewing machine/table saw. I can’t take credit for this one. Chris Nagele, the co-founder and CTO of Wildbit suggested this. The goal is to think of your computer as a specialized tool for performing specific tasks. Instead of sitting down and waiting for it to entertain us, you only turn to it with specific tasks. In my case, I’ve removed all non-creation tools like email, social media, and news off my computer and onto an iPad. (And I blocked those sites on my computer in my hosts file too.) I also moved my computer off to the side of my desk so it’s more of an accessory tool rather than the primary purpose for being at my desk. This separation helps make it easier to compartmentalize my work, and I end up spending a lot more time with pen and paper or just letting myself think. The end result is more focused work with less distraction.
  4. Design for getting into the zone. We all know how difficult it can be to get into the zone. I used to feel that if I didn’t have two uninterrupted hours for a side project that I couldn’t work on it. So I missed quite a few opportunities. These days, I try to think differently about it. It’s not all-or-nothing. I also try to keep my computer in a state where sitting down and immediately getting to work is easier. (Treating it like a sewing machine helps.) When I have a block of 15-30 minutes, I don’t dismiss it, I make an effort to think of smaller tasks that need to be done and can help me make progress.
  5. Embrace constraints and reduce scope. When you only have a handful of hours to build something, be more realistic about what you build. Recognize that you may not have time to write as much. Even though you have fewer hours, thinking in terms of what you can ship in a week or a month can help you reframe which part of that side project is truly important. Find a core idea you can focus on, and start there.
  6. Ignore the shiny new technology. There will always be a new technology or tool. With slivers of time, you can’t waste it exploring and tinkering with things that aren’t directly helping you make progress. That’s not to say you shouldn’t explore these things. Just do it at the beginning of a project. Then commit. Searching for a new tool to provide slightly more efficiency is counter-productive and often more of a procrastination tactic. Use the tools you know and focus on shipping.
  7. Stay excited, but maintain balance. Slow and steady wins the race. Only you’re not in a race with anybody but yourself. When time is already tight, it’s easy to put too much pressure on ourselves to “find” more time by working later, sleeping less, or generally beating ourselves up about it. If I’ve figured out anything, though, it’s that being in bed at a reasonable hour does more for my productivity than squeezing in an extra hour of work at night. Moreover, if I stop working while I’m still excited about something rather than waiting until I’m exhausted, I’m a lot quicker to get out of bad and hack on it for an extra hour in the morning.
  8. Reduce the commute. Working remotely and/or changing jobs isn’t always possible for a variety of reasons, but there’s often more available time there than you might realize. You don’t always have to changes jobs to work remotely, and you don’t have to work remotely every day to reduce time spent on a commute. See if you can work from home at least a day each week to reduce the commute. Or, if you’ve been thinking about changing jobs, focus on a shorter commute to free up time each day. Even if you don’t free up enough time to use it directly on a side project, maybe an extra 15 minutes every day makes it easier to handle chores so you have more free time on the weekend.
  9. Plan your time. When money is tight, you make a budget. When time is tight, it works the same way. I’ve found that explicitly scheduling time for some chores or blocking off time to handle a collection of unrelated fragmented tasks can create those bigger blocks of uninterrupted time later. Whether you block off negative space for removing distractions or block off dedicated work time, find the tactic that works for you. You’ll end up more acutely aware of your time, and you’ll likely be more proactive about spending it well.
  10. Shift your entertainment. At night, I switched from watching TV to listening to books and podcasts. I fall asleep faster, and I can more easily substitute education for entertainment. I can still listen to fiction so my brain can have a break, but by alternating in interesting educational material, I get a lot more out of my entertainment downtime. On a related note, for me, the key to getting this habit to stick was getting wireless earbuds. Fighting with wires in bed didn’t do much for getting comfortable. Once I made that switch, I found myself more frequently keeping my headphones charged and handy and listening more as a result. Short walk? Listen to a book. Making dinner? Listen to a book. It’s not all of the time, but the convenience helped uncover more time to squeeze it in since I don’t have a daily commute.
  11. Outsource. Too many of us try to do way too much ourselves, and we can be rather inefficient about it. Can you outsource some of your work? For instance, if you can make $100 or $150 per hour consulting with your primary skills and pay someone $15 or $20 per hour for your less complex work, working one hour can potentially free up 5-10 hours of other tasks. You just have to be on the lookout for these opportunities. When you first try it, you’re invariably going to be inefficient. Don’t let that deter you. It’s like any skill, and it will take some practice.

One important detail to remember is that if you really don’t have the time, don’t beat yourself up about it. Sometimes, you have to wait for life to evolve a bit.

In my case, recovering from amputation, selling our house, moving to a new state (including four times in two years), and getting settled in a new home completely consumed us for the better part of four years. The second edition of Starting & Sustaining took me two years when I expected it to take me a few months. I had to accept that it was going to take longer. There’s simply going to be times where it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to create at the speed you’d like. Give yourself the time and space you need. That side project isn’t going anywhere.

Again, these are just some tactics that have worked for me. With side projects, there’s no magical solution, but being more deliberate with your time works. However, you don’t want to ruthlessly manage your time to the point that you’re miserable. Instead, just be on the look out for opportunities.