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I have a number of private web design projects that I work on during my spare time. Non of the projects have any real deadline, other than my own urge to finish them.

As there is no real deadline, I sometimes find it hard to prioritize what project to work on, and I find my self swapping between the projects, focusing on more than one project at the time - which doesn't feel like the most productive way to do things.

How would you best go about to manage a situation like this? I have perhaps a few hours at a time, a couple of days a week that I can spend on these projects. Should I focus on one project a day, or divide the hours so that I work a little bit on each project every time? How do I get the most out of my time?

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

First, I would definitely advocate making each 'block' of work time (bet it an hour or four, 10 minutes, a full day, etc) tied to one project. That is, rather than sitting down and saying "I am going to work on my personal projects now," say, "I am going to work on Personal Project X now."

When I make a list of personal projects and sit down to say "I'm going to work on one of these, now," but just have the list in front of me, I get option paralysis. I can't decide what to do first, which project is most important to me, where to go next, etc. Prioritize your projects. You don't necessarily have to always work on priority #1 until it's done and never touch the rest, but you should develop a system to decide which projects are most worthwhile based on personal value, time to completion, relevance (working on a project using the same tools as you use at work? Maybe it's worth some extra time!), etc.

Bottom line, you get the most out of your time by doing what's most valuable to you and what's most productive. Value is subjective in this case, of course, so develop your own tactic for deciding what you value most. Productivity happens when you achieve a real level of focus, so don't multitask yourself to death. Work in bursts, and don't break the chain if you can avoid it.

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Agree with you on the option paralysis. So far, as the amount of spare time is pretty scarce, I tend to prioritize the project that is closest to completion. That way I get the satisfaction of completion ASAP, which is a great feeling. – Christofer Eliasson May 7 '12 at 19:49
That sounds like a pretty good system. I tend to strike a balance between 1) completeion, 2) fun/excitement about the tools I'm using, and 3) relevance to work or other motives for learning. – asfallows May 7 '12 at 19:52
Enjoy the idea about not breaking the chain as well, I believe that can be helpful in many situations. Unfortunately I believe it is more suitable for work (with a regular schedule) than for private projects (if you cannot work every day), as I would inevitably break the chain on my private projects. – Christofer Eliasson May 7 '12 at 19:54

Set a deadline. The deadline will make you prioritize the project X over project Y accordingly.

The biggest problem with such private/hobby projects is that without the deadline, you tend to move around in circles. With a deadline probably you will freeze on the design and requirements. This will in turn lead you to working on specific sub tasks within your project. You may miss a deadline, but with specific and finite tasks to be done you can have a good idea of how much more time is needed to complete it.

I have had many hobby projects with no deadlines, which never finished as I lost interest in them after working on them for like six months. The satisfaction of completion will be more fulfilling than the short burst of enthusiasm when starting a new project.

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There is definitely a balance that needs to be found but unfortunately, what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. With that said, I would automate your process and do an evaluation of your time. Until you know what you're doing and go through the process of tweaking your process - intentionally - to see how your productivity can improve, you will continue to feel (or question whether you are being) unproductive.

Check out a time tracking software - track your time in real time and take a few minutes at the end of each week to look back on your progress to see what worked and what can be improved next week. It takes a little time, but I've found it's a great way to not just "feel" more productive, but to "know" it - by seeing it in black and white.

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I think picking three major projects you want to work on in a given day (no more than three - you can always add more to your list if you're done with the previous three) and working relentlessly to get them finished is a good strategy. You'll see your projects finishing one after the other and you'll have a better sense of accomplishment than being 50% done with 50 projects and not being done with any.

The power of focus is that it works.

Another thing I'd recommend is the Pomodoro technique. Working in timeboxes of 25 minutes to an hour, and then taking a 5 minute break, and restarting - is a very effective technique. It is also highly recommended that during the breaks you get up from the computer and walk around or get some mild exercise before starting again. Checking social media or getting distracted in any way is not recommended.

Hope this helps.

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