Making Progress on Personal Projects


Sometimes I wonder how many people consider personal projects, but never even get started because they feel they don’t have the time? How many amazing and interesting ideas lie unrealized due to day-to-day commitments?

While my project is neither amazing nor all that interesting, I too spent a period of time thinking I just didn’t have the time to work on it. My wife and I happily welcomed our daughter into this world just last September. Ever since, our lives have been a whirlwind of activity that is very rewarding, but also leaves us exhausted at the end of the night. Clearly I could not take on a new endeavor now.

I began thinking, however, about something I heard Robert Egger say during a talk at Georgetown. He has been a local fixture in the DC non-profit community for years through his DC Central Kitchen. He spoke about effecting change through “relentless incrementalism”. Every day do a little bit better.

While my project is not as ambitious as his, I thought this might help me get started. To that end, I came up with the following rule for myself:

Make at least one productive commit each night.  This commit does not need
to be large or substantial.  Even something as small as cleaning up stale
comments or the TODO list is adequate.

On the face of it, this may seem like a trivial and insignificant rule. After all, you’re not going to make much progress tweaking comments for days on end.

My experience, however, has been that this rule is just the right amount of motivation to get me to open the editor at the end of a long day. Then, once I’m in the code, I will typically end up working on a larger feature instead. My fifteen-minute commit turns into a two-hour coding session that makes significant progress.

So far, I feel this has been quite successful for me. Looking at my local git log, I made the initial commit on November 17, 2012. For over two months now I’ve made slow, but real progress each day.

Of course, has spending all this time writing code at night increased my stress or taken away from my family time?

After thinking about it, I don’t believe so. For the most part I work at night after both my wife and daughter are asleep. If anything, it has replaced my time spent watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and playing Diablo 3.

In terms of stress, I’ve actually found the personal project to be rather energizing. This should not be surprising given the research that creative workers feel the most satisfaction from a sense of progress. Daniel Pink also does an excellent job describing this effect in his book Drive.

The feeling that I’ve accomplished something far outweighs the temporary entertainment of TV or the false treadmill of most video games.

So the next time you feel like you don’t have the time for that cool project you want to build, consider just making one small commit each night. You’ll be surprised how far it can take you.