product designer, cyclist, armchair urbanist

Feedback Loop

I recently took two vacation days to stay at home, be with my family, and work on side projects. I was prepared to be inspired and diligent. I had a simple, yet ambitious plan for creating things.

In short, it didn’t work. I did very little writing (ironically, I started writing this article before work on the Monday after my mini vacation). I got a little done, but for the most part, I was sidetracked and a bit bored.

Bored! How could I be bored when there are a thousand wonderful things in our industry to be learning and creating? I contrast this with the “filled-to-the-brim”, “always-on” inspiration I feel during the work week when I’m working on other things.

I’ve said this before, and it’s still as true as ever: We’re most inspired when we should be working on something else. What’s going on here? What’s the magic that’s present during regular working hours, but vaporizes during vacation or dedicated “side project” time?

  • Passive thought? Do our brains have a peripheral thought life that flourishes when not given direct attention?
  • Time gluttony? Do we thrive under the constraints and pressure of small time slots, but get fat and lazy when we have a large block of time to do whatever we want?
  • Bad working habits? If you’re like me, you’re constantly optimizing your work habits to get the most out of the time you have. But I wonder if the prospect of 2-3 full days of working only on stuff we love is just too good to be true. Have snappy online social services ruined our ability to focus and press through difficult work? Have we succumbed to the tyranny of the push notification, and surrendered up our mental disciplines in return?

Your Job is Not a Curse

Each of those hypotheses for inspiration slump lead me to conclude that if you’re serious about side projects, your day job isn’t a curse. It might be your biggest blessing! The time that you have to write, work on side projects, and self-teach may be short, but it can have a higher net value than day upon day of free time. You appreciate your free time when you get it, and you’re constrained to work quickly and with focus.

There’s a remarkable feedback loop present between day work and night work. Even if your day job is completely unrelated to your hobbies, you hear things at work that give you ideas to boost up your side projects. You have the benefit of the energy, camaraderie, and the criticism of your coworkers.

Then at home, you practice things in your side projects that make your more competent at work. You’re refreshed by working on stuff you really want to, and you develop insight and skills that make you a more valuable employee.

Killing either part of this balanced feedback loop can break the circuit and stop the flow.