What do you do during your spare time? If you're anything like I was 10 years ago, your answer probably is "I don't really know. Watch TV, I guess?"
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing actually wrong with watching TV. It might just not be the best use of your already dwindling spare time. With TV, it's not clear what you're getting better at. And it's certainly not a clear path to personal improvement. Now if you're like the rest of the world and don't care about personal improvement, or getting better at something everyday, or you don't believe in the idea of sharpening your axe everyday, that's fine. But the very fact that you're even reading this post makes me think that you aren't like the rest of the world. Or at least you're trying not to be.
Even if it's obvious to them that it's doing them no good, the majority of the working population still kick back after a long, tiring day at work and spend 3-4 hours a day watching TV. The problem with TV is that if left uncapped, can take over your life. I've had my fair share of channel surfing addictions too, so I know what it feels like. There's a reason the TV is often referred to as the "idiot box". Want to take back control over your life like you remember from your college days? Chuck your TV out the window. Do it today. Do it right now. This essay can wait.
So if TV is out of the question, what should you be doing during your spare time?
The naive approach is to just "go with the flow" and do what you feel like doing in the moment. And that's how I was for the longest time when I stopped having access to a TV. I didn't really think about what I wanted to do. I just went and did it if I felt like it. And if it got boring after 5 minutes, I'd find something else to do. Pretty simple, eh?
Now, don't get me wrong. This naive approach isn't always a bad one. Sometimes, it might even be the right thing to do. There's benefits to adopting this model of life for a couple of weeks, months or a year. But make sure the time period isn't unbounded. There's even arguments supporting this model for the first twenty years of our lives. But if you keep doing this for a long enough time, you end up becoming what we call in my line of work a "jack of many trades". Mediocre at several things, good at nothing.
A "jack of many trades" is perhaps the worst thing you could become. Well, maybe not the worst — being good at nothing is probably worse. But at least there's nothing pretentious about being good at nothing. People would get it and move on with you. However, if you're a jack of many trades, you're not great at anything either. So you won't be seen or see yourself as a "specialist", an "expert", or someone who's "knowledgeable" at anything. And that's just a horrible place to be. You might as well not be good at anything.
Every person who has made a good name for themselves so far in this world is incredibly good at what he/she does. Mediocre people don't get recognized for anything even if they're actually better than a lot of people in their domain. Unfortunately for the mediocrities, there's just a lot of other people much better than them by definition.
Being good at only a very few things and a total zero at everything else isn't very ideal either in this world. Unless you're really, really, really good at what you're good at. Maybe the best in the world even. But since most of us don't fall into that category (I don't, yet), we can't afford that luxury of not even knowing how to tie our shoe laces because we're so busy being the best in the world at something else.
Instead, what I find works best is a hybrid solution. What works best is not just being a jack of several trades, but additionally great at a few specific niches that you can clearly state in words. Specific niches such as singing, dancing, drawing, painting, rock climbing, sculpting, video recording, video processing, martial arts, etc.
What I'm proposing is to engage in life projects. Pick 3-4 narrow slices of your life you'd like to work on, and then work on them everyday. It's important to work on your life projects rather frequently because you want to dig deep into your narrow slice and go all-in. The advantages of going all-in are tremendous. You want to pound on that niche so hard that within just a few weeks, you're already significantly better than 80% of the people around you when it comes to that one specific domain.
"Life" projects don't mean you're stuck with these projects your entire life. You decide at the start how long you're going to keep this "contract" with yourself for. And then at the end, you decide if you want to renew this contract. If you don't think a specific project is working out for you, switch to something else more productive. But you want your project lengths to be at least 2 weeks long to make them worthwhile. During this period, you're not allowed to jump ship unless something drastic happens. Power through your projects and try to learn as much as is humanly possible about your niche. If your project happens to be a skill, craft your skill and hone your trade like there's no tomorrow.
Every waking moment of your spare time should be spent on one of these projects that you've chosen for yourself. And nothing else. There's a rather good reason you only pick 3-4 projects at a time. If you have too many projects going on at once, you lose focus and can't go all-in. And we all know the power of remaining focused on just a few things. Every company that has tried to do too many things at once has failed. Choose the 3 projects that will provide the highest value to your life, and cut the rest. Cutting the bottom 7 from your list is the most important step in this strategy. During the next few weeks, you'll be tempted to work on "fun" things that you enjoy that aren't part of these 3 projects. But you must firmly say no. Those activities can wait until the next project cycle.
Sometime during the chilly Vancouver Fall in November 2003, during a moment of quite introspection in my bedroom, I had my first epiphany ever. It was so profound, I didn't even know what I had was called an epiphany — I only realized that a week later. During my rather brief moment of insightfulness, I decided upon a new way of running my life. A new way that would categorize everything I did during my spare time into 1-5 "projects". Today, 10 years later, during a chilly 2012 winter in Toronto, I couldn't be more pleased with the results.
Here's a selection of "projects" I've worked on for the last decade or so, in chronological order:
- Nov 2002 — Become a PHP "expert". Master the PHP programming language to the point where I'm more comfortable in it than I am in English. Interestingly, I just "renewed" this project contract again last Friday (on Dec 21 2012) for like the 30th time! I find this project very rewarding and satisfying, and my LinkedIn profile is testament to the results. 10 legit endorsements on PHP, nice!
- Nov 2003 — Work towards getting a 42/45 on my IB final scorecard. I only ended up getting a 40, but hey, it was still worth pursuing this project for a year and a half. This project concluded in May 2005.
- Feb 2004 — Project Typist! Work towards a typing speed of 100+ wpm. This was right after I realized what it meant to be pareto productive. I managed to hit a whopping 115 wpm surprisingly with just a month of intensive practice.
- May 2005 — Project Juggler. Learn to juggle 3 balls effortlessly. Resolved in just under a week.
- Jun 2005 — Get better at writing! That's when I started this blog. I figured the best way to get better at writing was to just start writing more. Going through my blog archives, it's apparent my writing quality—both in content as well as in style—has gone up by at least an order of magnitude. This project too has been on-going for more than 7 years. I renewed this project as well last Friday (Dec 21, '12) so I could let myself write this post and the last one. What renewing means is that whenever I choose to spend my spare time writing a well thought-out essay, I always allow myself to continue unless I have a more pressing deadline. So even if these essays take a while to write and re-write, I find it's worth my time. There's just no other way to get better at writing than to keep writing.
- May 2006 — Project DSLR! Learn to shoot decently well with an entry-level DSLR camera. This project carried on for 4 years but was put on unexpected hold for 1.5 years from May 2010 to Nov 2011.
- Jan 2009 — Project Get Fit! We all know how that worked out for me. Embarrassed at my level of fitness while living in one of the fittest cities in the world, I went all-in into this project, giving it my 100%. The results were staggering. After just 10 months of intense self-designed Fartlek training, I had become fitter than most people I knew back then.
- Jun 2009 — Project Flosser: form a habit of flossing at least 5 times a week, but at most once a day. I had been procrastinating this one for over 2 years! It was also my first experiment in the domain of habit formation. I'd never consciously done that before. I'm proud to report I still continue flossing at least 5 times a week even today, after 3.5 years. I know it's a habit nowadays because I actually feel weird and grossed out when I've gone 2 consecutive days without flossing. The same way I feel if I start my day off without brushing my teeth or taking a shower.
- Oct 2010 — Project Biker: get better at cycling, especially on the city streets with heavy traffic — without a helmet! Very ambitious.
- Dec 2010 — Project Zipcar! Goal: legally drive a zipcar in San Francisco. Read all about it here.
- Feb 2011 — Project Half Marathon! Run my first ever half marathon. This was going to be tricky due to my very wobbly knees, but doable.
- Jun 2011 — Project Driver! Get better at driving a car. Like really better. Not just know the rules. But be able to drive well sub-consciously.
- Nov 2011 — Project DSLR Round 2! Get at least 5x better at shooting with a DSLR than I already was.
- Dec 2011 — Project Toronto: Figure out a way to re-locate myself back to Toronto in 2012 with the least amount of effort.
- Dec 2012 — Project DSLR Renewed (for an additional year): Get at least 10x better at shooting quality shots with a DSLR than I already am.
This is just a selection. Several of these similar "projects" were initiated by me over the years for all the things I love doing everyday: hiking (Half Dome!), scaling mountains (Machu Picchu!), running/fitness (marathons), ping pong, travel (sight-seeing), and improving my language skills in PHP, Ruby, English, Tamil, Spanish and French.
Each project cycle has a clear goal (either subjective or objective), an action plan, a routine that I can follow regularly, and a contingency plan on what to do if things go awry. For Q1 of 2013, these will be my on-going "projects":
- PHP & Ruby (programming in general)
- Fitness (physical as well as mental)
- Ping pong
- Travel (aka sight-seeing)
- Wedding planning
- High-quality movies (in any language)
- Board and puzzle games (involving the mind)
- Extreme sports & adventure (skydiving, parkour, etc.)
Everything I do during my spare time must fit into one of these project buckets. If they don't, I stop doing what I'm doing instantly. Before starting a task that's going to suck in more than an hour, I stop and ask myself: what project bucket does this task fit inside? If I can't answer that question in under 5 seconds, I find something else to do. There's only so much free time in a day, and it's very important to consciously choose how we spend it. Notice how TV, socializing, and "hanging out" aren't on this list. I will therefore be limiting myself to only a very small amount of time on them: perhaps a few hours per week in total.
It is this very highly-engineered process that has caused me to say no to a lot of tasks I might actually enjoy. I only want to engage in projects that interest me the most, or have the highest ROI for me. Life is too short to get good at everything. So I've been carefully nurturing what I want that list to be. After a few decades of constant iteration on these "life projects", maybe I'll be good at many things as a side-effect.
In fact, saying no to activities is the hardest part of the strategy. Your friends will almost definitely ridicule you for this. They'll think you're merely fishing for excuses to say no to doing stuff with them (mine did), but you know better. Always be willing to try stuff out for an hour or two. You want to keep an open mind when it comes to new things. But if you're going to invest a decent amount of time and effort into something, think twice before starting out. You could end up spending 10 hours on something and just become mediocre at it. Or you might end up becoming great at something that just doesn't add that much value to your overall life. Like the way I got really good at some computer games back in the day.
What heuristics do I use to say no to a prospective project?
- Can I get reasonably good at this skill in a reasonable amount of time? If the answer is no, I don't bother starting the project unless I really want to acquire that skill no matter how long it takes. That's pretty rare though.
- Can I go all-in into this project? If I'm constantly gated or blocked by external factors, I say no to that project.
- Can I practice or work on this project all year around? Practice and frequent repetition is what makes me good at something. So if I have to wait for external factors before I can practice, I don't even bother. I also don't bother if this "hobby" of mine is seasonal, i.e. only possible for a short period of time every week, month, or year.
- Does this project have a lot of overhead work required to get started? If I had to meditate for 15 minutes every time I started to write a line of PHP code, I would not have bothered getting better at it. The magic is in starting or resuming your project fairly quickly (in say less than 10 minutes) so you can work on it in frequent bursts.
- Does this skill or goal add "value" to my overall life? Why work on something that's ultimately not going to be useful to you and your overall life goals? Surely you can find something else to do that is more valuable to you.
Because of the above project rules, I've had to call it a day on several projects of my life thus far. I've had to cut learning Go for example. I've cut learning to ski and snowboard. I've said no to cooking until now. I've called it quits on indoor rock climbing despite numerous requests by my roommate since I wasn't getting as much ROI out of it per unit time. And the list goes on.. I've probably cut more things than I've included. But that's a good sign that you're being choosy in your project selections which you should be.
The concept of running your life as a set of projects isn't terribly new. 5 years after I came up with the idea on my own in 2002, I learned that the software guys had already come up with a name for this style of project management way back in 2001. They termed it agile software development. Each project cycle is called a sprint, and during a sprint, you stay focused and power through your tasks without distraction. At the end of each sprint, you have a sprint retrospective (how did your last sprint go?), and a sprint planning session (what should we do this sprint?). Agile sprints are typically 2 weeks, but your life sprints can be as long as you deem fit for the type of project you're working on. 3 months seems to work well for me when it comes to existing projects, but for new projects, I limit them to just one month so I can review my progress regularly. I can always renew a project if it's working out to my liking.
Due to the very agile nature of my projects stemming from the requirement to frequently review the list of projects being worked on at any given time, I call these projects agile life projects.
Now go build your list for January 2013 before the year turns over.