Does this sound familiar to you?

Wake up at noon (still tired), doze off throughout hours of lectures, attend several group meetings (but really, sit there staring at Facebook), trudge home, heat up leftovers because I’m too tired to cook, open my computer (whose screen I’ve been staring at all day), and launch Netflix. Then sit in my bed watching Friends for countless hours before passing out.

That’s what my first two years of college looked like. I wasn’t engaged in what I was doing, and I wasn’t learning anything useful in my classes. My days were spent in the library, cramming facts into my brain for the next exam (all of which I would forget 10 minutes after said exam).

Hunt Library @ CMU aka Home 🙁

In my mind, good grades meant that I was doing my job as a student: I was learning. But I was complacent. I wasn’t really learning, I wasn’t motivated, and I certainly wasn’t happy. And then I realized something:

Forcing yourself to solely focus on things you don’t care about is exhausting.

If you relate, even just a little, keep reading!

Step 0: Stop Making Excuses

Try something new. Stop rationalizing Netflix binge watching sessions by telling yourself that you need to disengage after a long day of work. In my case, I needed the opposite – I needed to engage myself in an activity I was eager about because I was on autopilot for the entire day.

Like fighting fire with fire, you shouldn’t fight lack of engagement with more lack of engagement. Instead, give yourself a space that’s all yours in which you can explore and play.

Break the cycle: Make an effort to put more of a focus on things you actually find interesting, even if it's just for 30 minutes.

Step 1: Take the Dive, I Dare You

It’s time to pick your project.

The key is to find a beneficial unwinding hobby that you want to put your time and effort into. It should add something meaningful to your life, so not Netflix, not drinking to excess, nothing unproductive.

As a disclaimer, I’m by no means advising you to stop caring about your obligations like school work. And I’m also not telling you to cut out all unproductive activities – a couple nights out a week with friends is highly encouraged. I’m just advising you find something (useful) that you’re passionate about and intrinsically motivated to accomplish.

Other than that, it can be whatever you want – a new language, InDesign, surfing, wine, Python, juggling, whatever.  I had a laundry list of things I wanted to do and learn that I claimed to “not have time for”, so I picked the first thing on my list.

Make and maintain a list of anything and everything you want to do or learn. Write down what comes to your mind, as you can always nix things later – this is just a brainstorming session. My list included yoga, weightlifting, some hard skills like learning SQL, and this website.

Once you have your list, start with the first thing on your list, or the project you’re most enthusiastic about because you’ll be way more likely to stick with it.

I typically work on one “personal” thing and one “professional” thing, both of which last four to six months. My personal projects are typically lifestyle or health changes, like maintaining a slow carb diet over the summer. These ensure that I’m taking care of myself, mentally and physically. My professional projects are skills-based because I think they’ll be useful for my career down the line.

After you pick your project, get into the habit of making it a top priority. In the past, you’ve probably put obligations like assignments, work, family, or kids ahead of everything, leaving no time to do things for yourself. Create a change in mentality that encourages and allows you to prioritize something that’s all yours.

Ideally, you’ll want it to be an activity that you can teach yourself. So after that, pick a cool activity or skill that you can self-develop and self-teach. A perfect example of this is my current project – this website. I want to become a better writer, but I also want to develop marketing skills and techniques to promote and grow the site. Not to mention the process of building a site.

I could spend my time reading a ton of books about how to be a better writer, or I could just write more and ask others to provide constructive feedback.

Start with anything. If you don’t like it, it’s okay to move onto the next thing on your list. You want your projects to engage you and challenge you, not make you miserable.

Step 2: Swimming from Point A to Point B

Setting goals is crucial to ensure that you’re actually making progress at a good pace. So here’s a quick step-by-step list to help you make effective and realistic ones:

1. Quantity and Identity

Your goals should be quantifiable and specific so it’s easy to know when you’ve reached them.

For example, saying “I want to run a lot” isn't a great goal because it’s unclear what “a lot” means. With this kind of language, it will be impossible to know if/when you’ve accomplished your goal.

Instead, the goal should be, “I want to run a 5K in under 25 minutes.” And once you hit that, you can adjust your time to be even lower.

2. Set a deadline

Going off the previous example, the “running a lot” goal also lacks a deadline. Running for 45 minutes without stopping after two weeks of training is totally different from after a year of training.

To improve the goal from before, the goal should be, “I want to run a 5K in under 25 minutes by [date of next race].”

3. Sub-Goals

Small wins are just as important as the big wins. They keep the goal in sight and it feels good to cross them off the to-do list!

Create smaller goals to help you reach the big end goal. I like to break down the big one into sets of weekly tasks to make it more manageable. So do some research on what these sub-goals might look like.

Going back to the 5K example, most experts warn folks not to run too far during each workout. That means you shouldn't run a 5K every day for your training. Rather, a good sub-goal could be to hit the track twice a week and do 10 sets of 200m runs (half way around the track). You can begin at your average jogging pace, record the time, and then beat your previous time with each subsequent run. This helps to prime your muscle fibers to run at top speeds.

4. Keep Tabs

Track your goals and sub-goals to make sure you’re staying on schedule to reach them. If you need to ramp up your weekly tasks, go ahead and do that.

5. Celebrate

Maybe that treat is a few episodes of Parks & Rec with a cold one.

Reward yourself if you reached your goal successfully and on time 🙂

6. Onto the Next One

If you felt you were too relaxed in your previous goal setting, challenge yourself even more and make the next goal harder. Push yourself and you’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish. As a caveat, make sure you’re not burning yourself out with these goals. They should be ambitious enough that you’re learning and pushing yourself, but lax enough that you’re having fun.

Step 3: Just Keep Swimming

Good job on completing your first project!

Now it’s up to you to decide whether you want to continue it or step away with another experience/skill under your belt.

For me, I love my projects and want to continue developing, so I don’t drop them completely. The past projects become secondary priorities to current ones, but they’re still priorities nonetheless.

Here’s Why You Should Take a Stab at It

Now that you have your game plan, there’s a lot to look forward to. But below are the two best things I’ve gotten from embarking on my creative side project journey.

Benefit 1: The Most Desirable Skill Ever

The ability to teach oneself seems to be a dying skill, especially in “millennials”.

In a typical classroom in the United States, students are spoon-fed information in lecture, forced to practice the concepts you “learned” via homework, and regurgitate it during an hour-long exam. Or you’re doomed to a group project. None of these things are nearly as helpful as taking your learning experience into your own hands. Knowing how to teach yourself things is an invaluable skill in itself.

There are very few things that you need a class for, but we’re raised with the mindset that we need a structured course to teach us whatever we want to learn. That’s why online course platforms like Udemy are so popular. You can take a course for $20 on how to use Trello boards in 2.5 hours and spend $50 to improve your public speaking in 3.5 hours….or you can learn it by yourself if you put in less time than you would in the course. Plus it’s free.

Learning how to teach yourself things is incredibly valuable. Not to mention the sense of accomplishment you experience when you achieve something you’ve been working at for a while.

When I got the idea to start a site, I had no idea where to start.

  • Should I start with WordPress?
  • What host do I use?
  • This theme sucks, how do I fix it?
  • Why isn’t my slug working?

So many questions.

I found this course and was about to buy it to help with all my questions. But I knew I would be cheating myself because I wanted this site to be a learning experience. I wanted to learn WordPress, but while learning it, I wanted to teach myself how to learn on my own, too. Instead, I tried to figure it out for myself, with a Google search here and there, some patience, and lots of curiosity. After a couple hours of tinkering around and exploring WordPress, I got exactly what I wanted. I had the foundation of my site and it felt awesome.

Teaching yourself also gives you the joy of small wins. For example, once I got the website off the ground, I noticed that the captions under the pictures weren’t centered. I dug around in the theme that WordPress tells you not to touch.

I googled ways to fix it, and after 15 minutes of trial and error, I manipulated the HTML correctly to get exactly what I wanted.

Benefit 2: Happiness & Organic Motivation

There are so many people who feel like they’re slaves to their own lives. Maybe you’re one of them.

Let your side projects become the happy escape from all the not-so-great obligations in your life, whether it’s hours of lecture, your boring 9-5 job, whatever. Make your outlet a productive and helpful one.

Once you find this sweet spot, you’ll become more intrinsically motivated to continue your progress.

I challenge you to stop your autopilot stupor and start being engaged and excited about what you’re doing.

If you decide to explore something fun and new, let me know 🙂