April 04, 2019
tl;dr: since learning how to code, I’ve become obsessed with building things with the end-goal of making something worthy enough of landing me a job as a developer.
A few weeks back, I came across an article on Hacker News that really resonated with me. The title of that article was “Getting Too Absorbed in Your Side Projects”1 and the topic is hopefully self-explanatory. I’ve written about my own experiences with side projects and how I go about building them, but one aspect of side projects I left out was my attitude towards them. Like Bennet, I too found myself becoming fixated with my side projects, so much so that my mental health was being negatively effected.
In this post, I would like to dive deeper into how I became so fixated with making things, what the consequences were, and the things that have helped me overcome my fixation.
Soon after starting my journey of learning how to code back in late 2015, I realized I wanted to become a software developer. Not knowing what exactly it took to get a job writing code, I googled “how to become a software developer” and devoured as much as I could on the subject. After reading various articles and watching countless YouTube videos, it became apparent that having experience was the common denominator out of all the advice being given.
Unlike other professions, however, experience doesn’t necessarily have to be gained from a professional environment. When it comes to software development, experience can be gained by contributing to open source software or building your own projects—and this is where I got the idea to make my own things.
Once I realized I could potentially land a job by building side projects, I never looked back. I started side projects that I thought would be beneficial to have on my resume: first I made an Android app since I had just learned Java in school, moving on to simple static websites using HTML and CSS, then on to browser extensions before working towards building full-fledged web apps.
In the beginning, ideas were a dime a dozen. As I worked on one side project, I would have a new idea for the next one. Like many others, the appeal for the new idea far outweighed the current project I was working on so I would typically chase the new idea, leaving the old one unfinished.
This cycle of having an idea, to coding, to sometimes launching, back to having another idea, soon became another habit of mine, just like having a cup of coffee every morning.
But when I didn’t feed into this side project cycle (as I like to call it), my mental well-being started being negatively-affected.
My side project cycle was so insidious that it took nearly two years before I realized the extent to which it had a hold on me. This realization came from finishing a side project one day without an idea lined up for the next one and feeling panic and somewhat anxious.
I racked my brain scouring for ideas because I was uncomfortable not spending my free time working on a side project. This uneasiness lasted for a few days before I finally came up with an idea for the next project, albeit one that really wasn’t useful for anyone, myself included.
Regardless, working on that latest idea made my anxiety and uneasiness go away so I was happy to be doing something. Initially, I didn’t give much thought to the feeling of being uncomfortable with not being productive. It wasn’t until those same feelings washed over me again that I realized I was dependent on the side project cycle.
After this realization, I tried to defend my addiction by reminding myself of the potential benefits it could have on my career:
“Think of all the experience you’ve gained!”
“Your next side project could be the next Facebook!”
The problem with these statements was that the projects I had made were trivial in comparison to projects people use to land jobs. Rarely did they solve any major issue; the projects lacked complexity and depth which meant I would have a hard time speaking technically about these projects with potential employers.
This took some time to accept, but once I did come to terms with my unhealthy habit of building side projects, I began to wean myself from the addictive cycle.
Consuming media for pure enjoyment has been one of the biggest factors in combating my addition. Watching Netflix, reading books, and playing video games have all taken out large chunks of time that I would have previously spent mindlessly coding. These actions have also brought me closer to those I care about in my life like my girlfriend and best friend.
When the weather permits, I also enjoy playing football with friends, going on bike rides, and hiking. For nearly two years, the most exercise I got was from walking so getting out of the house and being physically active has significantly improved my well-being.
Although I still occasionally work on side projects, they no longer have an addictive grip on me; I feel no obligation to be constantly working on them. Instead of seeing side projects as a means to an end, I now view them simply as an end—things I can work on because I enjoy doing them.
This change in perspective has allowed me to build more complex and meaningful projects all the while maintaining my sanity.
Written by Cedric Amaya who is currently studying Computer Science in sunny California. You should follow him on Twitter.