Finding Time to Play… and Using it Effectively

I’m a big proponent of play as a means to grow and succeed. In my career I’ve spent endless hours building things that interested me with no thought of recompense or acknowledgement, simply to broaden my knowledge on a particular subject, or chase a particularly intriguing idea. Play provides you with a fun method for exploring your medium without risk or judgement. It also allows you to build the things you wish people would pay you to build, and market the results to help steer your career.

In my conference talks, I frequently encourage others to experiment with interactive media. At first, I would often be asked “where do you find the time?” In answer to this, I started talking about an approach I call “Passionate Procrastination”, which simply involves using time you might otherwise spend procrastinating to build interesting experiments. We all have those moments in our day when we need to step back from the task at hand and let our brains mull things over. I proposed that rather than read Digg, watch videos, or surf Facebook, that time could be used to work on something else that you are passionate about.

When pressed further, I started talking about how little time was actually required. Twenty minutes every day gives you three full work weeks per year to apply to experimental projects. Considering the average American watches more than twenty minutes per day of advertising, this time shouldn’t be that difficult to find.

This seemed to convince most people (or they simply stopped asking) until today when I was yanked unceremoniously into a dotBrighton meeting via Skype and posed a question from an attendee regarding my recent talk at FOTB (I think his name was Paul, but I was a bit distracted, my apologies if I got it wrong). He cited my twenty minute figure, and asked how I was able to accomplish anything in that little time, given that it typically takes a good five or ten minutes to really ramp up on a new task.

I thought it was a great question, and that it warranted a more coherent answer than whatever I mumbled over Skype at the time. For me, there’s three parts to how I use this time effectively:

Firstly, that twenty minutes is an average that I only use as a demonstration of how little daily commitment it requires to accumulate a fair amount of play time. I would guess that most of my experimentation sessions last between 30 and 90 minutes, but I definitely don’t do it every day.

Secondly, it’s important to have a goal ready for when you decide to take a play break. I maintain a list of ideas in a text file on my computer, and glance over it regularly to keep the concepts fresh. I try to think through the implementation of these ideas during AFK (away from keyboard) times, like when I’m showering, or lying in bed trying to sleep (these are my two most productive idea times). This way, when I have some time to play, I’m ready to jump right into writing code and testing if my ideas work.

I also try to disassemble my implementations into small, easily-achievable sprints and accomplish one or two of them during a single break. This helps define and limit your time, as well as giving you a sense of accomplishment which can help propel you when you return to your usual work.

Thirdly, most of my play time is while procrastinating on other work. This means I already have my tools open and ready to go. In fact, I’ll often have a real project and an experimental project open at the same time, and swap over to play when I get momentarily stumped on real work (or just need a quick break). You mileage on this may vary depending on your work circumstances and your boss.

Play offers so many benefits, and it really helps keep working with technology from becoming mundane. Finding time to do it is likely easier than you think, even if it means missing the next Old Spice ad. I’m on a horse!

Grant Skinner

The "g" in gskinner. Also the "skinner".



  1. I really like you thoughts about having short achievable sprints. Those accomplishments help you wanting more, and will make it easier to continue being productive. I also like to keep things fresh by either changing the music im listening to or having something different but healthy to drink. I recently read this NYTimes article that talks about studying, and how to get the most out of it ( It also applies to working and goes well with what you are saying.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Another element which comes into play here is that most of the time we already know what we want to try, how we think the code will work (bath time meanderings) and what steps we are likely to take in order to achieve a concept, let’s face it it, most of us are a tad OC when it comes to flashing. All we really need is that time window to try and communicate the idea via the keyboard. The only problem you haven’t mentioned is having the self discipline to stop doing the fun stuff and get back to the boring crap that helps us with the less important aspects of life, like buying food and paying the rent.

  3. hmmmmm… well, i’m not completely sure about it. sometimes my brain just doesn’t work as I wish it should. For me “play time” is about doing the things you want WHEN your body/brain is up for it and NOT when you should do it because of it was previously planned, that’s sad. I find myself really hard to get any good progress in short periods of time, seriously, it makes me feel frustrated sometimes, when I decide to jump in it’s hard to remember where I was and why I was going in that direction… this is like “warming eggs and at the end nothing happens” lol!! I think I prefer accumulate all these 20 mins and spend them all together at once, in any afternoon I just drop one of my ninja balls and I just suddenly disappear, no mobile phone, no instant messaging, if someone ask for me I’m just not feeling well, I’m ill, send me an email I’ll answer later (only my wife and my secretary know where and how to find me if it is extremely urgent). I know this is a bit wrong but it’s the only way I have to feed my soul and keep myself emotionally balanced. I’m not a slave of this system, I work for living not live for working. Cheers!!

  4. Another really good perspective on the subject from John Cleese:

  5. I prefer to think of it as Productive Procrastination. Plus it’s that little bit more alliterative…

  6. I totally agree with you, sometimes procrastination can be positive, if is well focused of course and directed towards something that could turn into something useful, either in the sense of gaining/expanding knowledge in a particular subject or something that in the future could mature into a meaningful project that benefits your company, employer, etc., the key here is (for devs. in a position like mine) know how to sell the idea to your employer in order for him to give you the green light and agree on the times that you could devote to something that does not represent billable time for them.

  7. I totally agree, but I tend to do this sort of thing without the consent of the boss. I’ve learned far more “playing” than any training sessions or on the job work, but I just don’t think it would go down well with bosses that I was coding stuff that wasn’t immediately and directly work related. I also do a lot of it in my own time as well, so my work skills are being improved in my own time which I am sure would not be frowned upon by bosses. I don’t feel I am wasting my employer’s time playing and learning in work time.

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