I wish life wouldn't get in the way of my lifelong learning
January 12, 2014 2:45 PM   Subscribe

How do you balance "life" (ie. full-time work, family, chores etc) with hobbies/projects that can't be done in short time periods or occasional bursts of action, but require a longer sustained activity?

For example, I've been trying to learn Python programming for 3 years. I have a full-time job and a family. My to-do list is as long as my arm. I almost never have more than an hour of free time a day, and that time is divided between all my hobbies and my social life (as pathetic as it is, these days). Whenever I start doing anything Python-related, I go into a black hole of research, programming, debugging etc, which could last for hours, if I didn't have to sleep and take care of my kid and go to work. It takes so much time to pick up where I left off and get back into the zone that it's rarely worth doing it for only an hour or less. And if I do limit myself to a shorter time period, I get frustrated by the lack of progress. (Especially because I usually get stuck somewhere and don't manage to solve the problem before the time is up.) Of course, this means I only do it occasionally, which in turn means that in the meantime I forget half of what I learned, which means that I have to go back a couple of steps the next time I start...

Anyway, I'm sure there are people out there who, like me, have a job and a family and don't live like 15th century hermits, but, unlike me, still manage to ie. pick up a new programming language, go to evening school, learn a new craft, maybe even hold a second job or work on their startup company, etc etc. If you are one of them, please tell me your secrets!
posted by gakiko to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You need to schedule this time as if it was your job, or a team sport practice session, or a rehearsal schedule.

I do theater, and a lot of folks at work ask me how I find the time to have rehearsals 3 nights a week and find props and build sets and such. The answer is that I schedule the time and stick to that schedule.

It helps if you have someone else on the schedule, too. Maybe find a class or a study partner, so you can't weasel out of this time you've scheduled.
posted by xingcat at 3:14 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make time. I have been sailing (learning to sail?) for something like six years or so now, and I'm just getting into racing this last season. I am going racing next weekend. I have everything arranged for that, I need to be at the harbor by 10:00AM and I will probably not be done till at least 4:00. I have child care arranged and people know that I will be busy that day.

I have a two-year-old and a full-time job and a house to maintain and plenty of little projects to do (like fixing leaky bathtub drains and getting my old truck smog checked) just like everyone else. I'm just not doing those things next Saturday.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:28 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it's important enough, you'll make the time for it. I've noticed a ton of people that want to write or learn coding or art or whatever and don't have time for it but are completely current on the hot TV shows of the moment or the latest controversies or whatever.

Maybe you need to get up an hour or two early. Maybe you need to give up a hobby. Maybe you need to hire a babysitter. Maybe the garage door needs to stay unfixed a little longer.

People always ask me how I have time to write and work out hardcore and do the stuff I do. That's my secret. I've decided what's important to me outside work and that's what gets done. Sometimes the house stays messy. Sometimes I don't know what happened in Game of Thrones (actually I haven't ever seen an episode of it). Sometimes I don't get to go do fun things I might enjoy. But I make it to the gym and get my writing done and that's what matters to me.

In your case, maybe you need a more structured program that lets you do things in bite-size chunks so you learn right away rather than taking enormous chunks of time? Something like Codeacademy or even a structured class at the local community college?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:33 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I collect rocks and minerals. Whenever I get into a funk, I go back to researching them, because it's an ongoing process, learning about them.

Sometimes I get stuck on what something is, or why it formed that way or how it ended up in my collection, and it drives me nuts until I figure it out. I remember when I was taking programming classes, it was equally intensive, figuring out this or that and debugging. It's a lovely use of brain space and very relaxing.

In which case, the laundry might get a little delayed or the bathroom is spritzed instead of steam cleaned, but I found out that the grossular garnet on my desk was from the precambrian period or something equally as fascinating.

Perhaps you could think of it as your downtime and therapy? Maybe two weekends a month, say, "family, I am going into my hole now, Python therapy," and do that? Granted if you have a partner or others who support you in this endeavor it would work out like that. When I was programming, I left the home and utilized an office or University computer to work out my bugs. Ahhh, such peace!

When my kids were little I was always shoving rocks and other things into their faces (poetry, etc.) but you just may need to carve out chunks of time on a twice-a-month schedule until they get older and family demands aren't as urgent. Sorry if I don't have a better answer, but it is really hard to meet the demands of family and follow an intensive hobby at the same time, unless you arrange it in advance and have a great support system.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:02 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As some people have said above, the key is mostly just to carve out time and stick to it. It doesn't have to be a lot, but make a schedule and do it every day, or almost every day. For example, I used to write on my lunchbreak at work. Once you subtract time to eat and walk to a restaurant, I was really only doing 40 minutes of work per day at the most. But because it gave me a natural structure, I wrote at least five days a week, and I got a ton done. I also picked one thing and stuck with it- writing and making movies is the only "work" thing I do besides my actual job. A third thing would just be completely untenable.

You honestly don't have to do any silly grandstanding stuff like giving up tv, or other stuff you enjoy. If you don't let yourself have fun and enjoy life, you'll burn out, and then what will you give up on? Your job that puts food on your table? No, you'll abandon the extracurricular stuff you were trying to make time for in the first place.

The idea that people should be working every minute they're awake, and that any leisure is a betrayal, is absurd and profoundly unhelpful. Having a schedule is important not only for setting a time during which you will work, but also because it frees you to relax the rest of the time. When it's work time, you work. When it's not, you don't. It takes away all the counterproductive beating yourself up over "Why am I not working RIGHT NOW??"

Another thing I do, which may or may not be applicable, is to do my writing outside the house, usually at a coffee shop. This frees me from the distractions of home, and it also helps with the separation- I think of the coffee shop as "the office" and home as "home." When I'm at the office I work, when I'm home I don't.

Lastly, please know that this is an extremely common problem. It's not about being "lazy" or not- it's about finding techniques that will help you be productive. Good luck!
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:15 PM on January 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sometimes you just have to take a break. I wrote very rarely for a few years because I didn't have the mental energy between a stressful job and being a parent. So I took a break. That's okay! It means that now I do have the time, and the energy, I can. So I tend to not watch TV, except for a few shows and even then, very rarely. I write at night, or in patches. I leave the heavy duty stuff to times I can carve out peace, but the dinky stuff? The bits and pieces? That I can do while kiddo watches TV, or plays with a friend, or I'm on the bus, or something.

Don't discount the mental energy required to work and parent. They are intensive practices and learning something like programming is a big drain on top of that. So be kind to yourself. Maybe scale back the project, or break it into smaller pieces, or something. Finding a balance with your partner is vital as well - I have writing time, my partner has game time (not just playing, but admin and so on for leagues). Neither of us expect the other to shoulder most of the primary care during family time, in order to pursue a hobby. And we always try and make family time actually useful and vital and nurturing, and a priority as well because it then makes hobby time much more meaningful and less likely to induce discord.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:58 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I absolutely hear you. Programming is not something you can "do over lunch break." Especially in the beginning, when you're learning the basic mechanics of the core libraries, or how to structure your code, or the principles of OO or functional programming or whatever. A lot of that stuff takes the right mindset, painstaking attention to detail, concentration, and so on. Later, when you're building actual software that you can break down into big abstract modules, there are times when you can accomplish something in 15 minutes, like writing a new test or comparing the performance of two libraries. When you're still dealing with misplaced semicolons and off-by-one errors, nuh-uh.

This is really a situation where something's got to give. If you can't carve out a couple sizable chunks of time per week to devote to this, you simply can't do it. You're asking how to become an accomplished cook when you only have 15 minutes to cook each day. Well, some dishes take more than that to prepare, and you can't stop midway through and start again the next day. That's just not how cooking (or programming) works.

I guess one thing I would recommend, if this is at all applicable to your situation, is to optimize your pipeline. Is your IDE set up correctly, so that you are working with it instead of against it whenever you sit down to look at code? Set it up the way you like it, so that you can start being productive as soon as you sit down. Are your coding projects organized sensibly so that you, your compiler, and your IDE can find them easily? If not, figure out how to organize things in nested directories or packages or whatever, so that you don't have to do any stupid file-wrangling. Get all your libraries up to date. Are you in the habit of leaving detailed comments in your code? If not, take some time to go through your existing code and leave detailed comments to your future self. Basically, make it as easy as possible to context-switch into programming. Your available time might still be insufficient, but at least you'll have the best chance of taking advantage of it.
posted by Nomyte at 6:04 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I got less productive overall when I stopped watching downloaded TV because it turned out to be the only time I was resting and catching up on minor tasks. Make sure you factor in energy+time - it's no use having a three hour block each Saturday if you're drained.

And something will have to give. I know someone who is intense about a sport, and his partner picks up the parenting slack and he spends very little time with his kids. He thinks he has a balanced work/life/hobby situation, but he really doesn't, and it's awful to watch.

If you can pay to have more time freed up by babysitting or paying for an activity your kid is involved in, that helps a lot. I like sprints over small chunks of time for learning new things too, so I try to get a weekend every now and then to just throw myself into something new, by arranging with my husband and the other kids to cover all the family stuff. It's hard though.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:54 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a full-time job and a family.

You need to have your spouse support your efforts and help you to convince your children that your efforts matter. If you need two uninterrupted hours a night, Monday through Friday, to learn Python, you need to schedule those two hours with your spouse and make sure your spouse is ready to back you up (watch kids, etc., during those two hours).

Then you need to physically disappear like clockwork for just those two hours a night. You can't sit at the kitchen table and expect everyone to pretend you're invisible for two hours a night. Turn one room into your escape room. Make it lockable if possible, especially if you have little kids who might try to wander in every 30 seconds or so. For two hours, you focus on Python. If you don't learn it, it's your fault, because 10 hours of focused study per week is pretty damned good.

And then you need to pay back your spouse (and probably children) with something of equal value. Maybe you are now the Saturday parent. Your spouse can do whatever the fuck he or she wants to do every Saturday without even warning you about it because you are the 100-percent parent every Saturday from now on. Sunrise to sunset, you watch the kids, you play with the kids, you take them all the places they need or want to go, you cook for them, you clean for them, you sit down and eat meals with them, while your spouse is out smoking strippers and watching crack for all you know or care. Your spouse can schedule his or her Saturdays from now until doomsday knowing you will always be the parent and housekeeper on Saturdays.

Then sleep away your Sundays if you can get away with it.
posted by pracowity at 1:43 AM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh man I feel your pain. I was in the same boat re: getting up to speed with programming, and the only way I managed to do it was four months of unemployment. Now that I'm working, it's been a huge challenge keeping up that momentum between work, family time, house maintenance, and sleep. My social life being already long gone.

I've asked your very question to folks I know who seem to stay productive on extracurricular projects, and their recipes for success appears to involve either the ability to survive on four hours of sleep, or willingness to accept a massive reduction in shared family time by tag-teaming the kids.

If you crack the code, let us know. In the meantime, I think pracowcity's advice above is your best hope. I do something of the sort, except where I escape to the library for a few hours on weekends, and it's the only way I've gotten a damn thing done.
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 6:21 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in the blog A Life Less Bullshit. She writes a lot about this kind of thing.
posted by girlmightlive at 6:29 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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