10 Tips to stay focused on your personal Projects

Whether you are working on a personal project to develop new skills or to improve your portfolio, it can be hard to maintain your motivation, especially on longer projects. You might be going through a lot of things in your personal life (and in case you are, I wish you all the best!), or maybe you’d rather use this time for something “less productive”, but you know that hard work pays off. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you stay focused and motivated.

When you already are motivated…

Shia Labeouf just do it meme

1. Take advantage of focusing techniques

Focusing techniques like the Pomodoro Technique and the Eisenhower Matrix can help you stay on track and maintain your attention.

The Pomodoro Technique involves working for a set amount of time, usually 25 minutes, and then taking a short break. This allows you to focus on your things healthily. I like Pomofocus to take full advantage of this technique, as it will enable you to add tasks and estimate these tasks in “pomodoros” (what they call their focus time). You can also fully customize the time for each pomodoro and each break accordingly to your needs.

The Eisenhower Matrix classifies tasks based on urgency and importance, so you can prioritize the most important ones first. The article above should give you a good direction about how to do it. My suggestion is not to waste too much time looking for a tool to build your matrix – just a piece of paper and a pen can get you far enough.

2. Keep your distractions under control

It’s okay to lose focus now and then, but distractions can be a major barrier to progress on your project. Balancing your focused time and your distracted time is the key, and that’s why using focusing techniques are so important.

During your focused time, try to eliminate as many distractions as possible, such as turning off notifications on your phone or working in a quiet place. I like to “hide” my phone under something on my desk: like under a pile of paper, a book, or maybe even behind my laptop. Not having my phone in a visible range really helps me to forget about it, and it’s still within a reachable distance – no need to get off my chair hehe.

If you’re a starter in staying focused and you find yourself easily distracted, try using a tool like Freedom or Cold Turkey to block distracting websites and apps.

I personally don’t use such tools, because it feels a bit like being micromanaged, and having too many tools at once can be quite confusing and time-consuming (which is the opposite of our goal, remember?).

3. Set goals and estimations

Setting goals and estimations is one of the most effective ways to stay focused on personal projects.

When we set clear, measurable goals for our projects, we know exactly what we’re working towards. We can break down larger goals into smaller, more manageable tasks, which makes it easier to stay on track and measure progress. For example, if your goal is to build a website, you might break that down into tasks like creating a wireframe, designing the layout, writing the content, and so on.

  • Make your goals specific and measurable: Instead of setting a vague goal like “build a website,” set a specific goal like “create a homepage wireframe by Friday.”
  • Break down larger goals into smaller tasks: This makes the project more manageable and helps you stay on track.
  • Set realistic estimations: Consider how much time each task will take, and be sure to allow extra time for unexpected delays.
  • Hold yourself accountable: Share your goals and estimations with someone else, or use a productivity app to keep yourself on track.

A tip from another thoughtbotter, Jordyn Bonds, is to estabilish a cadence: set up an easy-to-achieve and fixed schedule to work on your personal projects, like “The third Saturday of every month”.

Once you take this step, you will have a much easier time staying organized, which is our next topic for ya :).

4. Stay organized

Now we have to keep everything tidy. Your workspace should be clean, your tasks should be on a to-do list, and your estimations should be all set. Using a Kanban approach helps you easily stay organized.

My suggestion is to stick to Trello, as it’s easy to use and maintain. Just create your cards, drag them where they belong, and “voilá”!

And don’t forget to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance.

When you need motivation…

Lazy dog playing with a ball while laying down

5. Make breaks

I’m not talking here only about using focusing techniques such as the ones mentioned before, but about longer breaks.

We need to build a mindset that is comfortable with not working on this project in every free time we have. This helps you to keep your sanity and enjoy doing your projects as much as taking your breaks. It’s okay to take longer than you expected.

This always happens in real projects, where clients are literally paying you, and you are dedicating 8 hours of your day, 5 days a week. It’s only normal to expect the same when having way less time and motivation to work.

Go play a video game, go hang out with your friends and family, or do whatever you find joy in doing. It’s okay to enjoy your time and have fun.

Life is not about making as much money as you can or becoming the best at everything you do. It’s about enjoying the ride.

6. Work in groups

Remember back in school, when we had school projects and we would always want to work with the people we like, even if that meant slowing down our performance?

Sometimes it’s not about getting the highest grade possible, but about enjoying your time at school, right?

In thoughtbot, we refer to Personal Projects as Breakable Toys. Just this change in names already helps us to get rid of feelings such as “a project has to have a beginning and an end” or “a project should be perfect”. Treating your project as a Breakable Toy can help to minimize your anxiety when working in groups, as sometimes your team might not be progressing as fast as you would like them to, or maybe one of the members cannot finish a task in the proposed time – and that’s okay!

Of course, we need to stay focused, and it’s important to align with all team members about the goals and expectations of the project, to make sure that everybody can grow together.

7. Stay positive

Okay, I know this sounds a lot like “Oh you have depression? Have you tried to not be sad?”, but hear me out:

We actually have real studies showing the impact of how faking a positive attitude can actually fool your brain. I know that you probably still don’t believe me, so here are some studies on this topic:

So yeah, having a positive and optimistic attitude can help you to build motivation and literally improve your life. Remember that mistakes and failures are a natural part of the learning process and can help you grow and improve.

8. Keep a good Work-life balance

A more appropriate wording would actually be “project-life” balance, but that sounds weird, doesn’t it?

As you might have noticed, most of the tips previously mentioned talk about having a good balance between your work, your personal projects, and your life. This is because taking care of yourself is even more important than the other two.

Just think about it in the long run: working overtime (be it accounting for personal projects or not) for a couple months is not healthy, but it’s doable. But what about working overtime for years? What about decades? While the Tech Area rewards hard work, it is a very draining kind of work, where anxiety is always watching you from behind the door.

That’s why self-care is so important. You need to plan your life and your projects for the long run. Be sure to rest, exercise, eat well, and be well with yourself. As they say, “Life is not a race, it’s a marathon”.

It doesn’t matter how far an airplane can fly if it has no fuel, right?

9. Celebrate small wins

Celebrating small wins along the way can help you to stay motivated and focused, and remind you of your meaning. Make sure to take time to acknowledge your progress and celebrate your accomplishments, even if they are small.

Just look at how far you already came in your life. How many battles you’ve won, all the tough days you have endured. You are capable of doing it. Just take one step at a time.

Remember that thing you thought that would have ended your whole career? Well, you’re still here. You have won.

10. Find a meaning

Of course that doing something you enjoy or that you need is already a good motivation, but finding meaning in your work can be a powerful motivator. What if what you’re building could have a positive impact on people’s lives? Or in your own life? Or in the life of someone important to you?

Humans are sociable, empathic beings, that work better in groups. Being part of a group and contributing to it is one of the biggest feelings of fulfillment we can feel.

Having a meaning, and a reason can help you push through difficult moments. You can always remind yourself about the impact on people’s lives.

Now that you know everything you need…

Why don’t you pick up on that good ol’ project you were working on? :)