Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

north-star

What's Your Criteria?

I often hear from readers who have a list of side project ideas a mile long but struggle when it comes time to pick one. It’s easy for some — they just pick one and get on with it. But others, faced with seemingly endless choices, freeze up and start to procrastinate. Previously, I’ve written about why it’s important for you to have a North Star; something to remind you why you started working on side projects in the first place.

I often hear from readers who have a list of side project ideas a mile long but struggle when it comes time to pick one. It’s easy for some — they just pick one and get on with it. But others, faced with seemingly endless choices, freeze up and start to procrastinate.

Previously, I’ve written about why it’s important for you to have a North Star; something to remind you why you started working on side projects in the first place. But, when it comes to deciding which project idea to work on, it’s equally important to know what your criteria are for a worthwhile, valuable side project. If you don’t know — on a personal level — what constitutes a good project, you’ll waste time jumping from one project to the next hoping to find something that sticks.

I work on side projects to keep my skills sharp, share knowledge with other people, and build an audience for my writing. I keep an extensive list of project ideas in Evernote. When I evaluate which project to take on next, I consider each idea on my list and ask three questions:

  1. Would this idea involve skills I want to maintain or improve? Lately, this means new projects have to involve a fair bit of writing.
  2. Is this idea something other people would find valuable or interesting? It’s fine to scratch your own itch, but I find it far more satisfying to provide value to someone else.
  3. Assuming it’s successful, is this idea something I can iterate on and improve? I love to update, reuse, and build on work I’ve done in the past. I repurposed old articles for my email course, for example.

Before I even begin to consider working on something new, it has to meet at least two of my criteria. Preferably all three — the more, the merrier.

Have you considered what your criteria for good side projects might be? If you often find yourself struggling to decide what to work on next, take some time today and figure it out. There’s a good chance you’ve thought about them before, if only subconsciously. Write them down and keep them handy.

Next time you’re staring at your list of project ideas, frozen, pull out your side project criteria. Use them to test the viability of each and every concept, cutting bad ideas as you go. If nothing else, you’ll reduce the cognitive load of making your decision.

What’s your criteria for a good side project? Hit reply and let me know!

Until next time,

-Brian


What's Your North Star?

On a clear night, with just the right conditions, there’s about 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. As far back as the 2nd century, human beings have looked to those stars to help determine their location and heading. And none is more well-known than the North Star. The North Star has one unique property: it never moves. Okay, that isn’t strictly true. But for all intents and purposes, you can count on it staying put — right above the North Pole.

On a clear night, with just the right conditions, there’s about 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. As far back as the 2nd century, human beings have looked to those stars to help determine their location and heading. And none is more well-known than the North Star.

The North Star has one unique property: it never moves. Okay, that isn’t strictly true. But for all intents and purposes, you can count on it staying put — right above the North Pole. If you were trying to navigate in the days before GPS, knowing which way was north turned out to be pretty handy.

When it comes to doing our best work, I think we all need our version of a North Star — something that reminds us where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish. My North Star is “Be Useful.” When I’m feeling lost, unsure of what to do next, or stuck, I know I can’t go wrong trying to bring value to someone else.

I’ve said before that procrastination is a byproduct of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of other people’s opinions. Fear of not being “good enough.” But I think there’s another angle.

Procrastination is forgetting our North Star.

When we get stuck on a project, it’s helpful to remember why we started working on it in the first place. Most of my early side projects were a response to a job I hated. The work was uninspiring, the clients were awful, and I wasn’t learning anything new. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a better job with the kind of work I’d been doing. So one night, at the peak of frustration, I said “fuck it” and started coding. I realized there was only one person who could change my situation: me.

You’d think that would be sufficient motivation to carry me through to the end of the project. But it wasn’t. There we so many nights where all I wanted to do was flop onto the couch and watch TV. But it didn’t take long before a tiny voice in my head spoke up.

“I thought you wanted more than this?”

Once I remembered my purpose — my North Star — it became hard to justify six hours of TV on the couch.

Your North Star can be anything that speaks to the heart of why you started a side project in the first place. Landing a more fulfilling job, satisfying the creative half of your brain, improving your skills, or creating a better life for those you love.

No one can tell you what your North Star is. It’s something you have to decide for yourself. So decide, right now. Write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.

And when those dark, tired moments happen — and they will happen — take a look at that piece of paper, and remind yourself of what drives you.

Until next time,

–Brian


Bring Value

I don’t have many concrete goals when it comes to my work. I try not to chase money, promotions, page views, or followers. Instead, I ask myself one question. “How can I bring value to someone today?” It isn’t a mission statement, or a manifesto. You won’t see it on a motivational poster. It’s simply a way to keep me on track – to remind myself where my focus should be.

I don’t have many concrete goals when it comes to my work. I try not to chase money, promotions, page views, or followers. Instead, I ask myself one question.

“How can I bring value to someone today?”

It isn’t a mission statement, or a manifesto. You won’t see it on a motivational poster. It’s simply a way to keep me on track – to remind myself where my focus should be. It’s a North Star when I feel lost, useless, or unproductive. Just try to be useful.

I try to bring value to you, dear reader, by sharing my thoughts and advice on shipping side projects, doing your best work, and being more productive. But bringing value to those around you doesn’t require an email newsletter.

Share your knowledge with a junior developer. Help a coworker figure out a tough bug. Grab a coffee with the new hire and make them feel welcome. Take on something everyone else dreads doing. Write a blog post. Empty the dishwasher.

Add value wherever you can, even if it isn’t part of your job description. Not only will it make you a more valuable employee – and human being – it’s incredibly rewarding. 

Time spent helping someone else is never time wasted. 

Until next time,

–Brian