Side Project — Part 1 … Why?

2017 is the year of my sabbatical.

Chris Nicol
5 min readJul 27, 2017

Early on I knew that I wanted to travel, read, reflect and work on a side project. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to build a project myself and really flex my coding muscles. What better opportunity than a 9 week sabbatical?

Right away I had a few different ideas.

  • Learn some swift and build a simple calendar for the MacOS menu bar (with a nice flat styling).
  • Play around with Angular 2 and create a simple nameplate site that was a little more dynamic than About.me.
  • Build a sketch extension that would challenge my math skills.

The thing is, all of these were merely ‘make work’ projects. It is always going to be harder, whether it’s a work or a side project, to get excited or focused on something that doesn’t have a reason for existing. At least it is for me. If it isn’t solving an actual problem that exists, it’s hard for me to be passionate about it.

Then it happened. A real problem … one to be passionate about.

GTD’ing all the way

For the longest time, I’ve been a loyal OmniFocus guy. The features had helped me grow in the effectiveness of my GTD. Perspectives had helped keep me focused on the right things at the right time. ‘Review’ had helped me create a proper process around preparing for each week. Long before anyone else, they had a seamless and functioning sync between devices that brought all my tasks and inboxes together. The release of OmniFocus 2 made huge gains on the user experience and overall esthetic of the apps. Since then, I had been hooked.

However, when I got a new MacBook Pro, I realized that I needed another license (as I needed the existing desktop license still for my work MacBook). That meant another $55.49, not a huge amount of money, but enough for a pause.

I decided that it was a great opportunity to research what new tools where out there and see if anyone was giving OmniGroup a run for their money. After some research on about ten options, I came up with three products that really interested me.

Each addressed most, if not all of the features I was looking for. I gave each a test run for a couple of weeks. The bottom line: you really can’t go wrong with any one of them. However, todoist ended up at the top of the list for me. Perhaps I’ll do another blog post going into a detailed analysis of each one and why I chose todoist. For now what is important is that todoist replaced OmniFocus as my day-to-day GTD’ing tool across all devices.

One of the pros for todoist was the fact that there was a ‘new tab’ extension available in the chrome store (created by dicknaniel). I’ve been in love with this approach of hijacking the new tab with my upcoming tasks ever since I tried out Dayboard. The concept, though very simple, is quite powerful.

A new tab is a trigger moment, a fork in the road for productivity. Will I go to JIRA, Github, confluence, medium? Or will I head off to Google news, reddit, The Guardian or some other site that represents a productivity quagmire?

By displaying the list of next actions that I have, I’m providing an external trigger — the tasks that I need to complete. There is also the potential of an action; the todoist task may contain a link to the action I need to take. The variable reward is often checking off the previous task that I completed. The new tab could even provide the investment in the form of adding new tasks that need to be completed (though I typically use other input methods).

Overall, the new tab hijack fits the Hooked model perfectly.

So there I was…with the new GTD tool, a brand new chrome extension that triggers better focus. Life is grand, right? Not so quick…

The problem

This wonderful todoist new tab extension has one, great big, glaring fault. When you open a new tab, the focus of the cursor is not within the address bar. You may be thinking to yourself - “How bad can that be? Just a quick ⌘+L and you’re back in business.” Oh no, dear reader, you have not experienced a crime on UX like this unless you’ve attempted to book time-off in Oracle Cloud. It drove me absolutely nuts.

Perfect, here’s a real world problem I’m experiencing. Something that I can fix. A meaningful sabbatical project found … ✔︎.

Not so fast … it took me a couple of minutes to rewrite the extension so that it would behave the way it was supposed to. Not exactly a challenge that would help me grow.

There was still something there though. The new tab concept fit really well with the hooked model and had proven to be an effective trigger for improving my focus. My gut was telling me there was something more there.

Problem focused versus Outcome focused

To summarize, the problem I discovered was not the fact that the new tab extension didn’t have the right behaviour. It was the fact that I tend to procrastinate and lack focus at times. The new tab was merely the solution, one that wasn’t properly executed on.

The Problem — When working on my computer there are many distractions that take away from the focus I want on my work

I recently read an article on “Outcome Thinkers” that helped me reframe what I wanted to do. The concept of being an outcome thinker resonated with me. It actually wasn’t a new concept for me. I’ve often thought about the outcomes I wanted to achieve with writing, conversations, designs, or meetings. However, being an *outcome thinker* was a new perspective, one that I wanted to embrace.

Rather than think solely about the problem I had uncovered and was trying to solve, I started to rethink what I was doing and considered the outcome I was looking for.

Desired outcome — When on my computer I have a behaviour of consistently focusing on what is most important to achieve my goals

Though this may seem similar, there’s a profound difference. One that requires a very distinct solution. With the problem I just needed to remove the distractions. Solution — hijack the new tab on chrome to show my GTD list.

Instead, now I needed a solution that would provide the desired outcome. A solution that would help create behaviours of focus and help me towards my goals. One that would do more than merely remove the distractions of an open web.

Awesome, I had clarity on why I needed a solution. I was focused on an outcome rather than a mere problem. Now, I just need to figure out what that solution could/would be …

This is part one of a series on my side project during my sabbatical. In the second chapter, I dive into the “What”.

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