Doing all the things you want to do

Someone dropped me an email a couple of days ago asking how one can best balance out all the things they want to achieve and learn professionally with limited time.

I think this is a deeper question than he may have realised. Because time is our most valuable commodity and you don’t want to look back at yourself and think you’re in the same position you were a few years back with a few more white hair and wrinkles.

So, my response comprised of 7 steps that I guess I subscribe to (consciously or sub-consciously) to help me through my career.

*note the following ideas are just mine and things that have kind of worked for me. They do not constitute professional advice!
1. Remembering to dedicate the largest chunk of time to my work / day job / expertise. getting stuff done is essential to staying employed and relevant. You may feel like you’re working in a job that doesn’t challenge you, or your boss is an insufferable fool, or you don’t get paid enough. But that’s the nature of work. Sure, one can change jobs or whatever, but it will remain a constant. Even self-employed entrepreneurs have to dedicate a large chunk of time to bringing in money. Most of the time, that isn’t the most enjoyable part of the process.

2. The second part is to pick those areas to explore which have the greatest level of overlap. For example, if you want to learn another programming language and you have the choice between Python and Ruby… choose the one which is more widely used where you work or in the tools you work with so you can leverage the knowledge more widely. For example, I’m repurposing an email response into a blog post. This saves me time and helps (or doesn’t) more people.

3. Limit the number of new things you delve into at any one point in time. No more than three or you’ll drive yourself mad. I’ve fallen into this trap many times myself where I’ve taken on too many commitments. I want to blog and make a video and start a podcast and do a Host Unknown music shoot and, and, and.

4. Exercise discipline in your learning. Set aside a fixed amount of time and don’t exceed that no matter how tempting it can be. I actually block out chunks of time on my calendar for nearly everything and it really helps me to focus. Different things work for different people. Personally for example, I’ll block out an hour before work to say, research a topic to write a blog about. Then no matter how far I’ve got, I’ll stop at the hour and get on with my day. Then I’ll have another hour blocked out in the evening to finish up the research or to get writing the blog. etc. Maybe that will be recurring on my calendar two days a week. On another day I’ll have something else, like do 1 module on an online course to learn about colour-grading videos.

5. Be patient. It will take time to see improvement.

6. Accept you’ll never become an expert on everything. But with enough focus on a few set of items, you can become really good at that.

7. Be sociable, network with peers and colleagues. Share what you’ve learnt in blog or talks or whatever medium suits you. Establish a trusted network of a few friends that will give you honest feedback and help you improve. The best sysadmin in the world is useless if no-one knows about the work they do or others can’t learn from their experience.

A final added ‘bonus’ point I’ll add is try to find balance in your life. The mind, body and soul all need their time to engage and recharge. There’s a great talk by Mike Rothman and Jennifer Minella on taming your inner Curmudgeon which expands on the topic really well.