Procrastiworking and the joy of side projects

A team of explorers fighting a zombie
The sort of thing that happens when side projects get seriously out of hand.

Between Zombie, games like The Trial, random charity projects, writing and other miscellaneous activities, on average I get a great deal done, outside of work, despite having the sort of work life that normally means it consumes everything else you do.

Side projects are some of my favourite things. I like to have as many as possible on the go at once, ideally some complicated ones with multiple moving parts as well as a few really simple ones that I can get sorted quickly. Some of the latter expand into the former. Most of them never get finished at all. They’re great.

Part of the reason I do this, when I’m really honest, is about mental health. I’ve dealt with crippling depression for my whole life; sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It was worst when I was in my late teens, but it still fluctuates periodically, and in the late autumn and winter when the nights draw in so do my energy levels and capacity to do things. Any things. At all. In the summer, when energy is boundless and I have relatively few fears of over-stretching myself, I do as much as I can in the time available. Sometimes in overcompensating I push extremely hard. When I am well I want to do everything, as hard as I can, because I am terrified that next time the depression claims that part of me it will be permanent and I will not get it back. It lends great joy to simply doing.

But there are plenty of other factors too. Like everyone in the world, I am not just one set of interests or hobbies; I contain multitudes. I like to explore and to create. I am lucky that work gives me space and money to do so in some areas, but – again, like most of the world – there are plenty of impulses that work can’t satisfy. So I get stuff done around the edges, through the application of a slightly unusual technique.

The system here is to get so busy that literally everything you are doing is procrastinating from something else. I jokingly called it “procrastiworking” once, and the name has sort of stuck. It consists of having a list of tasks that are interesting and engaging on their own merits, but also sorta kinda count as work. Productive tasks, rather than consumptive ones. Things that are sort of working towards something else. Examples: write a short short story every day for two weeks. Organise a live game. Blog for ten days straight. Make a Twine game that teaches you how to use Twine. Learn HTML. Make a website. Clear your Steam unplayed list before the next sale.

Once you have slightly too many of these, many of them interlinked, most of them satisfying to complete even if they’re tricky or annoying to actually do (partnership tax return, I am looking at you here) you can successfully procrastiwork by doing one of them, in the knowledge you are not doing any of the others. This is a blatant psychological trick, but for me it works rather well. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you’re not doing something else even more pressing.

The down side – and there is definitely a down side – is that you start to feel guilty for doing things that aren’t productive. You have to be able to put everything aside and focus on your friends, on activities that relax you and do not carry expectations of a finished product. If you’re not careful you begin over-emphasising the results, rather than the process. But really, the vast majority of side projects aren’t about what you end up with. They’re about broadening you out, exploring things you can’t do at work, learning new skills, discovering things you’re good (and bad!) at, creating for the sake of the joy of being creative. They’re about failing, not finishing and being half-assed without fear. They let you play. And being able to play well, as an adult, is a skill no one should be without.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

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