Hobby projects are a good thing. They give you an opportunity to do something different without the pressures of employment.
When you start involving other people in your endeavour, though, you’re turning it into something much more than a hobby project.
You could be building websites for friends, painting for an art show, volunteering with an organization – whatever.
As soon as other people are relying on you to do something, expectations are set, and your credibility+reputation is at stake.
The keener’s problem: biting off more than you can chew.
This has been an issue of mine for quite a while. I have a compulsive tendency – a relentless urge – to take part in things.
If someone is looking for volunteers, I’ll raise my hand. If there’s an issue that I think I can help with, my mind starts churning with possible solutions. Even if it’s not my strong point, even if I’d do better to keep my head down and my mouth shut, my gut reaction is to volunteer first and ask questions later.
There are two big problems with this sort of behaviour:
Time is a finite resource; there are only so many hours in a day. When you start making promises to do X and Y and Z, and find yourself staying up til 3am every morning to get things done, you’re gonna have a bad time. You burn out, your quality of work suffers, and your general attitude takes a nosedive.
This happened to me more times than I care to admit, especially when I first came out of college. I was taking hold of every opportunity that popped up without first thinking it through.
2. Dropping the ball.
It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. If you keep committing yourself to a bunch of projects, you’re going to slip.
Quality work and respect for deadlines are usually the first to go. Once that neglect becomes a habit, it’s a race to the bottom. Suddenly doing a half-baked job doesn’t seem to be such a big deal; deadlines are no longer deadlines, but merely “suggestions”.
As I committed more and more of my time to new projects, my personal standards were deteriorating as I struggled to do everything.
In the end, the ball was dropped numerous times, resulting in friends and acquaintances getting frustrated with my broken promises.
A good number of relationships, both personal and professional, took a hit, and that guilt will stick with me for years.
How do you get out of this doom spiral?
I tried stopping all projects cold turkey, but it didn’t work.
Dropping everything made me feel lazy, so I started taking on projects again. And it wasn’t long before I was once again committing to more than I could handle.
So, earlier this year, I made a resolution to stop the over-commitment to projects.
I would still pursue projects, but I would be smarter about it.
It went like this:
- Out of all the projects that I was working on, I chose to continue with only three: the Toronto WordPress Group, GTANet, and my personal blog. Any new ideas would need to be tied back to those three projects.
- Contract work was wrapped up. I told my clients that I was done doing freelance, and introduced them to other WordPress developers in the area.
- Folks that approached me about new side projects were (and continue to be) referred to other individuals in my network.
Most of these steps kicked in around January/February.
More recently, I took the additional step of moving away from web development, focusing instead on marketing, business, and communications.
What have I learned?
By being more selective about projects, I can afford to focus on fewer things at a time. This focus improves the quality of my work, and it keeps me from getting distracted. As a result, the people I work with are generally happier, because I’m actually completing things.
I can also tackle more personal activities – things that I do for myself, without involving anyone else. The beautiful thing about these personal hobbies is that, because no-one else is relying on me, there’s very little pressure. I can work at my own pace and set my own expectations.
Do I wish that I learned this lesson sooner? Absolutely. I wish that I didn’t have to sacrifice friendships and relationships for it.
But those troubles did play a big role in motivating me to figure things out, and I don’t think that I would have learned this lesson without experiencing that first.