Guide to focusing on your side project, even when your tired

Missing main image

Yeah, yeah, yeah we all know focussing these days is tough. There is an entire industry around eliminating distraction and becoming more productive. Cal Newport is the pioneer around deep work and recently even wrote a book about it. I cannot wait to read it. If only I could sit down, and check out all the reviews before purchasing it,”don’t you just hate losing focus and getting distracted?” Arrrrrrgggg!!!</span></p>

Physical vs. Mental tasks


Have you ever noticed how when you want to go for a jog or wish to put the trash out. The task is specific and definitive.

You will walk to the bin, take out the packet and carry it outside. Or when going for a jog, you put on your running shoes, go outside and start jogging until you want to come home.

Alternatively, when you addressing emails, you open your email, read its contents, click the link it referred to and off you go to only return 30 minutes later.

Understanding Distraction


It is clear to see that the potential for distraction on physical projects/tasks is much easier to control than that of intellectual projects. But why is that the case? This is because there is no clear finish line on mental tasks and you just don’t know when it’s done. At PwC, they have specific training and invest tons of cash into staying on task and delivering high value.

The lack of definition may lead to scope creep, but the more savage criminal is distraction.

For example, if you create a feature your application does not need right now. You just end up with code that you could potentially use elsewhere, provided you build things in a modular fashion. However, you will only realise that it was a waste a few nights later when your users validate your feature set.

But at that very moment after you finishing coding, even if it is later shown to be useless, you would think  that you were super productive and feel great about your progress. This is an awesome feeling, and would of added to your side projects momentum which is great for the project as a whole.

Protecting your Momentum and Focus


Now let us contrast this situation to what happens when you get distracted. You start with a specific feature in mind , while you busy your phone goes off or an email notification pops up or you see a strange piece of paper on your desk.

It is highly likely that your attention will be hijacked for some time before you return, and this tends to happen often. In the end, you feel unproductive with little to show or a product of inferior quality.  

By definition, side projects are done, alongside other commitments, making your time and energy critical components of your success. Therefore, Momentum and Focus cannot be squandered and should be protected.

Here are some techniques to protect your momentum and focus, even when you tired

Secret Weapon #1 : Remember what drives you

There is a reason why you started this side project, so remind yourself by reading or writing it before you start your work session.

For example, Brian Harris from Videofruit gave excellent advice of writing your goal on a blank piece of paper and sticking it on the wall behind your desktop screen. So you will be constantly reminded of why you started on this journey and what you want to achieve.

Secret Weapon #2 : Session State Persistence

According to Edmond Lau (Author of the Effective Engineer), leave your last side project session in the same state you ended it, so that you can just start where you left off. This will absolutely save you some time, by reducing your digital and physical environment setup time

For example, physically shutting your laptop without closing your last used applications or leaving your desk space arrangement in the same place you left it. This is a simple technique that can easily save you up to 30 minutes per session.   

Secret Weapon #3 : Adjust work schedule to your Energy levels

You most likely know when you work best, which is normally in the mornings or evenings.

Whichever that may be, schedule your work sessions around when you will be best equipped to address them.

Tasks can be categorized into 3 level

  • High Energy      – Complex, Most important task of the day
  • Medium Energy – Everything else that does not require top alertness
  • Low Energy       – Mundane, repetitive tasks, or chores

I have the most energy in the morning, so I batch all my high and medium energy task for the morning and at the end of the day, I do the more mundane chores. This is a good way to ensure that you are getting things done early in the day.

Just make sure you figure out what works for you and do more of it. Once you built a routine around when you perform tasks, your body will become accustomed to your schedule and be ready for work every time.

Secret Weapon #4 : Quick and Painless To-Do List

Make use of a to-do list so, you know exactly what will need to be worked on. There are many applications out there to help you like Evernote, Things or OmniFocus.

If you do not use any of the above-mentioned application, go old-school, use just write what needs to be done on a regular piece of paper. The satisfaction you will receive from physically scratching off a to-do item, is so much more intense than ticking a complete box.

Secret Weapon #5 : Healthy lifestyle

Regulate the kinds of food you are eating and drinks you’re having, to help maintain even energy levels throughout the day. Even exercising for just a few minutes will help you with stress, mind relaxation and the necessary energy to get the task done. According to Population Health Management journal, eating unhealthy is linked to 66% risk of loss of productivity and lack of exercise increases your risk of low productivity by 50%

Secret Weapon #6 : Only bite off what you can chew

It is not possible to do everything, in one sitting, so prioritize your tasks or to-do list items according to what is important, so that you getting the most out of your work sessions.

You can do this by either, ranking your to-do items or using Eisenhower’s Quadrants and understanding your velocity (how fast it takes to complete a task)

If you enjoy using a paper-based To-Do list, use a post-it for your To -Dos, this will help limit the list to the most important items and what you can achieve in one sitting

Secret Weapon #7 : Know what you want to achieve

You need some form of goal setting, setting near-term milestones is excellent at keeping you on track.

For example, I set weekly milestones for where I should be and check my progress to what I actually achieved. This is a great opportunity to adjust your approach, know what is working so you can do more of it or what is not working so you can try something else.

When you seated at your desk to start working you should already know what you going to do, so plan effectively.

Planning consists of

  • Organising information in a way that you can get to it easily
  • Having you to do list, prioritised and written out so you not wasting time on what you still need to do today
  • Having your digital and physical environment ready to work

Secret Weapon #8 : Pay attention to your self-talk

It is easy to start telling yourself that your work is crap, you will not finish, that work project is useless and will not work. A large component of your focus and momentum is psychological, so stay positive. If negative self-talk is really troublesome, write it down as a way to purge it from your mind, shelf it away so you can look at it later.

Secret Weapon #9 : Staging your physical environment

Pick a place that is yours and free from distraction

I enjoy working on tasks in my study, which is away from the main house when nobody is home, with headphones on. Sometimes, I do not even listen to any music, but it serves as a helpful ritual in getting ready to work and a great social indicator of being busy.

Before I had a study, I worked on the dining room table, which gets a lot of traffic. I would just place my watch upright in front of me, put my headphones on and if my focus wondered. my eyes would catch a glimpse of my watch and I would be reminded to stay on task.

On a side note, I hear standing workspace have significant benefits in achieving focus and optimal productivity. I have not tried this yet – maybe it can work for you.(Give us some feedback in the comment below if this works for you)

The important point to remember is to create a physical space that works for you whether it be in a quiet secluded room, busy dining room table, on your bed or in a coffee shop. Ensure that you can work in that consistently and have some token to remind you of what you want to achieve. It need not be fancy; it just needs to work for you.

Secret Weapon #10 : Crafting your digital environment

We have thousands of notifications bombarding us every day, so find a way to shut them out while you busy.

Turning on Airplane Mode and restricting my desktop applications to be task specific, is incredibly helpful. Try to keep it simple, if you have a technique that works, keep doing it.. Otherwise, RescueTime and Vitamin R are great for time management and realizing how much time you spend on a particular task.

I listen to music occasionally while I work. The trick here is to find music that helps you think melodically. While I was studying for my Board Exams, I tried classical music but it did not work for me. However, new age instrumentals worked wonders for my concentration and energy levels. I could work hours listening to instrumentals and not even notice the time go by. Find a music type that works for you.

A trick I accidently stumbled upon was listening to a small set of songs on repeat.It is amazing how you get into a rhythm and complete tons of work, while bopping your head and enjoying the experience. If I am not mistaken Matt Mulligan (Founder of WordPress) and Chris Sacca(#3 Forbes Midas List), do the same thing.

Secret Weapon #11 : Don’t break the chain

Work on your side project, almost every day, by doing small, manageable pieces and building momentum.

This article is about 2000 words long done over sessions of 500 words a session. You will be surprised how far you can get by just systematically, working a small piece a day.

Simple ways to track this is by using GitHub streak calendar or marking an X on a calendar.


Secret Weapon #12 : Discuss your project with friends

If your side project excites you, share it with as many people as you can. Tell them what you want to achieve and when. Social pressure will make you accountable, motivate you to continue.

Secret Weapon #13 : Do things you love

You cannot work all the time. It will become difficult to be productive when you feeling like you’re missing out on life and time with people you love. So spend time with people you care about and do the things you love, which will help your mind from straying into negative self-talk.</div>

So how do you apply this, to your next side project session

Just pick one technique, like making use of quick and painless to-dos. If it works for you, pick another like “discussing it with your friends” and continue to incrementally develop your productivity stack. The important thing to remember is to identify the techniques that work for you, not best practices, just you.


If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be this.


Find what works for you and do more of it, no excuses.

It is all about you.

Why waste precious time and energy when your side project has so much potential?

NEXT STEP: In the comments below, write one technique that helps you stay focused?

PS: If you like this, receive each new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign Up, using the form in the side bar or get the PDF summary using the form below.

Vinchenso Kendall Profile Pic

I provide side project tips only when inspiration hits, feel free to subscribe.

Back to top