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!