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Anna Simoroshka
Anna Simoroshka

Posted on • Updated on

Full-time, side projects, learning, and staying sane

It seems to be a rather common thing, especially among fresh developers, to feel that you can't manage working full-time, constantly learning and staying up to date with technology, doing a side project or actively contributing to opensourse, and having a life.

2 years ago I couldn't manage having a full-time job and a life at the same time, I was always exhausted and had a mild depression. Now it is much better: I work, have a long-term project, learn new things almost daily, do not neglect my health and life too much, and don't feel on a brink of complete burnout.

So, here are the things I learnt over the past years of struggling to find my balance.

  • Eliminate commute as much as possible. Even 45 minutes one way eats up 1.5 hours that could be spent exercising, resting, or doing important things. Find a job that is closer. Do remote. Move closer to your office. Anything. Moving to a flat 5 minutes away from the office was the absolute best decision of the last year.
    At the very least, it could be a pleasant commute during which you either exercise (walking or biking) or can work and study.

  • Exercise and rest. It might seem like you really do not have time or even the right for this, especially if you under pressure of deadlines. However, it is paramount for both metal and physical health, and productivity. You will have more energy and will be able to do more things in less time. It's like an activity that takes negative time!

  • Focus. Choose 1-2 most important things you want to do right now in this period of your life, besides work. Learning a new language, building something, writing, doing an art project - whatever requires commitment. If there are too many things, decide what is more important and give up on the rest even if it is hard to do. You can pick them later when you're done with the first ones or when you have more time and energy.

  • Do a little bit every day. Set a goal of half an hour of learning or working on your own things. Do not wait for a free weekend. It is nearly not as effective, you can be tired, other things will inevitably come up, etc. As a bonus, you will constantly stress about not doing things that matter to you, and stress is not your friend.

  • Choose your social activities wisely. Accept that you might need to spend less time hanging out if you want to make time for productive activities. But never abandon social life entirely even if it feels like you don't have time for it. Spend time with people who support you and give you energy, not the other way around.

  • Get help if you cannot manage on your own. If you feel burnt out, depressed, constantly in a state of anxiety, always tired, it is okay to ask for medical help. It can do miracles in some cases.

  • Expect things to always take much longer than you think. Rather than going all in and putting everything else on pause, try to find a balance you can maintain as long as it might take. Even if it is a decade. Design your life here and now and live it, don't wait for the magical moment when you are going to be done.

Can't say I've reached a completely comfortable state, but these things certainly improved my life. None of them occurred to me before my plate got so full I was ready to break down under its weight. And also it took somebody else telling me that no one is a superhuman and we need to take care of ourselves first.

Do you do programming outside of work hours? Do you have many side projects and hobbies? Do you struggle with deadlines? How do you find your rhythm and stay sane?

Top comments (69)

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

This is incredibly wise advice.

My overarching advice that applies to all of this: Don't overoptimize any of these points. At least for me, I've found myself choosing my social activities a little too wisely for example, and I end up stressing about it. You sort of alluded to that. There's definitely a relaxed middle ground to be.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka • Edited on

Thank you!

It is very easy for me to give up on the most important things first: physical activity and social life. My partner is pushing me out of my shell and I often find myself stressing out because "I want to spend Sunday working on my things, not hosting people, chatting, and having fun!". So I have to remind myself about the importance of living outside of the code editor.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Same πŸ™ƒ

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk

There's a line from an old country song that goes something like "nobody wishes they'd spent more time at the office on their deathbed."

So true.

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alexantoniades profile image
Alexander Antoniades

Totally right. Coding is fun of course but you need some balance. Life is to be lived.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk

This is a good post on an important topic, Anna. Thanks for writing it.

I program outside of work on side projects, "keep up-to-date" with our industry, and have hobbies.

I think you hit the nail on the head. You have to "find your rhythm". I'm not sure that process will be the same for everyone though.

I'd like to make three points:

  1. Don't try to compete with the personas people are projecting. We're all showing our 'best selves' on the internet. Only the rare guru is going to write a blog post about how much they are struggling and how burned out they are. Everyone else is going to project 'success' at all costs.
  2. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. There's no reason a healthy programmer couldn't work well into his or her seventies. But what's the chance you'll be healthy in your seventies if you don't exercise and take care of yourself now.
  3. Take vacations. Real-ones. You would not believe how much more productive I am after two weeks at the beach with a stack of good books and no internet. I feel like a different person.
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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

The process and the details are definitely going to be different for different people. This is why my list is as generic as it can get, to the point I felt it's just repeating the obvious.

Totally agree with your points number 1 and 2. Vacations are tricky and also can be different thing for different people. I feel like I have a jelly instead of a brain if my vacation is long and I don't do much, so I try to split it in short getaways.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk

Yup, you have to figure out what works for your vacations too.

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marc_m_b profile image
marc_m_b

Thank you for "Take vacations. Real-ones " I take vacations but not really keeping away of thinking of work and programming, that nearly drove me the a burnout!

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pawelsaw profile image
Pawel Sawicki

Although it makes sense to me (I have a similar bio) I came to an entirely different conclusion: Drop the full time permanent employment and become a part time remote working freelancer. Invest more time in yourself. Constantly learn new things... stagnation is a problem. Exercise, stay healthy, enjoy time with family and friends.

Btw ... as a part time freelancer, working remotely you’ll earn much more money, so even a sabbatical after each project is possible.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

This is a valid option that works great for some people! Awesome that you were able to design your life the way that works for you.

I tried freelancing several times and came to a conclusion I don't want to do it just yet. I hated looking for clients and projects. I hated the fact that, as a beginner, I couldn't offer much value.
And I really need a structure and stability.

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gadse profile image
Peter

It's great going freelance works for you! :) I think it's important to know that going freelance is always an option to consider.

I myself do need the feeling of security that being employed grants me, so I'm quite certain going freelance wouldn't work for me specifically. At least at the moment. Maybe I'll try that in the future with 50% freelance 50% part-time employment.

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that__anna profile image
Anna

That sounds like a dream but must be hard to do in reality...

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danielkiedrowski profile image
Daniel Kiedrowski

Really good post! Thank you. And I agree 100%. Especially, till I had the same life before and figured out the same rules helping me. It works!

Two things made a big difference for me:

  1. wake up at 5AM and go to bed at 11PM as consistently as possible. Waking up at 5 PM gives me a solid 3-4 hours (depending on whether I don’t or do remote work this day) ! This additional time I currently use to learn a new language for one hour and work on my side project(s). After work there is still enough time to have some quality time with my friends or girlfriend or go to the gym.

  2. don’t work from a todo list. The internet says there is a study that 41% of all items written on todo lists get never done. I haven’t checked and it is not really my key point here. A todo list tells you what you think you need to do, but not when. A Calendar does. Having a long todo list for me, started making the feeling of having not enough time even worse. So what I do now: I use the todo list as a tool to clear my mind of reoccurring thoughts. To ease my anxiety that I might forget something important. And then I use my calendar to plan out my week. I use time slots and plan the time from 5AM to 11 PM for each day of the next week on Sunday. Weekends are not planned. This helps me to calm this feeling of not having enough time, because the calendar clearly shows me what is possible in the coming week and gives me the feeling that every aspect of my life will get touched during the week.

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that__anna profile image
Anna

Love the advice on number 2 but number 1 really does not apply to many people who are more productive and energetic at night. When left to my own devices without a schedule, I go to bed at sunrise and wake up in the afternoon. I am really happy and full of energy at around midnight. I feel ready to take on the world.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

It is amazing how different people's brains work! I am the opposite: not a morning person at all, and calendars give me huge anxiety because I can never stick to the time slots and it takes too much effort to constantly adjust. So todo lists are everything to me. I keep them short for the current stuff and stuck away the long lists of what I will have to do later. I gladly remove those 59% of things that I won't do (not everything HAS to be done).
But my partner is the same as you: he likes doing most of his work in the early morning and keeps his google calendar so full it gives me anxiety just to glance at it. :D

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Kevin Hooke

I think the key for everyone to understand with these recommendation lists are to try a few different approaches (getting up early, working late, todo lists or no todo lists), and find what works for you. We're all different, and what works for one person (like getting up at 5am) would be the worst approach to get anything done at all for another person.

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amyruth profile image
Amy Rutherford • Edited on

I dropped a lot of interests in the past couple of years because of financial issues and having to focus on learning things that could transfer into marketable skills. Now that my course is done, I want to work some of things I used to like back into my daily routine, but I constantly have that "I should be productive" nag in my head. Hoping I can balance things so I don't become one of those dull "if it won't make you money it's worthless" people.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

I had to do the same when I finished my degree and faced the reality: I need a job to pay for living expenses and to stay in the country, and I don't have much of a marketable skill set. So I gave up on what was at that moment a dream - game dev - and pumped myself up on modern web development, giving up pretty much everything for a couple of months. It was extremely difficult to get out of the "I must do things" mindset. Especially when you keep setting new goals.

But yeah, try to switch your attention. At a point, I took drawing classes online, did some crafting, tried to learn musical instruments. Even simply playing video games helps. "I must do things" should also be accompanied by "I must have fun".

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amyruth profile image
Amy Rutherford

It's nice to know I'm not the only one struggling.

I don't have a tech job yet, but I feel like now that I'm somewhat competent I should try to balance things out, because trying to get find work is its own ball of stress. I haven't crafted anything but code for the past nine months and forgotten what tv and movies are. I might save the binge watching for when the money comes in more steady, but I can knit a sock or pick up a Japanese book and start from the beginning....again. It will probably be a slow start but I'm going to get back to myself somehow.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka • Edited on

9 months is a lot! Actually, it is good to take a day or two completely off and binge watch whatever, or even better - go somewhere. You'll be more relaxed if you allow yourself to do it once in a while (which of course can be quite tricky to do, mentally, because "must do all the things").
I find that scheduling idle and fun time is better than scheduling work. You know that you have those hours set aside and that you are allowed to do anything or to do nothing.

Do try to balance things out now, because getting a job is only a beginning of a new interesting but challenging stage.

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amyruth profile image
Amy Rutherford

Yep. It was a last ditch effort to learn after trying to learn on my own, getting stuck and giving up for a while. A lot of things happened that gave me a lot of free time so I went ham on it since I was starting from almost zero.

I thought about how monks have each hour of the day scheduled and I might have to put reminders in my calendar. I finished my web dev class a few weeks ago and I'm still trying to decompress, even though I see the gaps that need to be filled in. Mixing things up will keep me from overdoing it I hope! The mixed blessing of not having a deadline for a while.

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Carles Mata

Great post! Just the situation I'm having this year.. I'm working 45h / week or more, and everyday I spend 1h in conmute. And I always feel I don't have enough time to learn new things, have side projects and have fun outside development. My actual situation vs the changes I want to make are:

  • I go running 2 times a week, but spend a lot of hours sitting on a desk the rest of the time. I don't feel that extra energy you talk about, so I think I should exercise more than I do to feel it. Anyway, I plan to exercise 4-5 times a week: 30-40 minutes during the week and all the time I can on weekends, but always longer.
  • I'm starting to wake up 30 minutes earlier every morning from Monday to Friday. When I get used to it, I'll wake 30 more to have 1 hour of extra time every morning. I'll use 2 days to exercise and 3 to learning.
  • I stripped down Facebook and removed the mobile app. I only log in by web and maybe 1-2 times per month. I still have to spend less time on Twitter and Instagram.
  • And my main problem, one of your advices: focus. When I have free time, I spend a lot checking e-mail, RSS, or just maintaining the to-do list. I need to reduce that and spend more time just DOING. I'll take your advice to dedicate almost half an hour per day to the side projects.

So as you see, I'm still trying to find my rhythm and staying sane, because currently it's a bit of a mess.. hahaha Thank you four sharing this!

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kylemay profile image
Kyle May

Yep. It's all about finding the best productive moments in the day and devoting them to work, and that's certainly much different from person to person.

I'm personally productive at 9AM to 1 PM sluggish and unproductive from 3 PM to 8 PM but I hit my most productive period from 9 PM to 2 AM

A lot of people actually have multiple productive and unproductive periods during a day, but unnecessarily constrain themselves into a binary circumstance of being a night owl or a morning person.

You could take this further in that people also might unnecessarily constrain themselves into a 24 hour cycle. I personally have 3 days a week where I work most of my hours, and 3 days where I relax and work on hobbies, social activities, fitness, etc. This conflicts with my unproductive periods, but I find that the added goal and time crunch gives me more motivation, focus, and enjoyment than I would otherwise have.

I personally burn out much faster working consistently for 5 or 6 days even if it's less hours, because I like to devote long focused periods (12+ hours) to whatever i feel like doing. My family knows if I go into work mode that they wont see me for the day, but the reverse is true for family mode where I spend all of my time and focus on them.

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cmmata profile image
Carles Mata

Working full day 3 days and resting other 3 sounds really interesting. But it's not an option for me as I work in a company that is very strict with time and presence. It's old fashioned and I have to be 8h/day like if I would have to be open to clients. Like in a clothes shop or businesses like that. It's a pity, but what I have at this time.

I think my day is not binary like I'm productive at morning and unproductive at night. It's more like an energy bar, full at the morning and near empty at nights. It's strange because I can go to run either mornings or nights with more or less the same result, but my development focus is very different, high at morning, half at midday and finding really difficult to focus at nights.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

Great plan! Try changing this and that and see what works for you.

Yes, exercising works when you do it consistently, preferably every day. Hitting 10000 steps can also be considered an exercise, and a short 10 minutes intense workout can work even better than an hour long session. I am still struggling establishing a consistent routine with this one.

When you get to wake up earlier, remember that you don't actually make an extra hour in your day, there are always 24 of them, and you'll need to go to bed earlier anyway. Unless you are super productive in the morning, it might not make much of a difference. Giving up on things that don't give you any value is much better.

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cmmata profile image
Carles Mata

Well, I didn't explain you.. I'm a morning guy and at nights I usually watch films or series. Nothing more than distract my mind because the rest of the day I'm doing a lot of things. So waking up one hour earlier means that I go to bed the same hour earlier, so I convert one "video hour" to a productive hour. That's why I said I'll have extra time. :)

Anyway, as you recommend it's a kind of way to give up things that only give me some fun and nothing really valuable.

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gadse profile image
Peter

Thanks for your valuable advice. Especially the choosing-your-social-activities and the get-help parts.

I also tried doing everything all at once: full-time CS studies, part-time employment, pursuing all my hobbies (LARP, D&D, programming, tinkering with electronics), and partaking in all the social stuff with all my friends at once. Needless to say it didn't work out, since I also needed more than 4 hours of sleep a night. So I decided to cut back on a lot of things.

What did work out is essentially what you describe: carefully cutting back on my studies, hobbies and social stuff (cutting back on work was no option). Being a very social and time-consuming hobby, only playing pen-and-paper RPGs "survived" the process as a serious hobby. To stay sane, I roughly plan two weeks in advance while keeping two days a week work-free*. Also, being a bit of an introvert, I sprinkle the whole thing with an evening of solitude once every one or two weeks - even my s.o. doesn't see me on those evenings, and it works very well!

(*work meaning both paid work and working on university projects, papers, or my thesis)

The whole process did prolong my studies, but I eventually reached a point with consistent productivity - and with much lower levels of stress because of that. Having cut back on so many things even lets me act spontaneously again - it makes me feel like I'm in control of my schedule again, and not the other way round.

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Ekim Kael

Thanks for writing this Anna, I think I might read this every week(Monday)
Also all the comments here,

I am currently in a stressful situation mainly because of my family and I don't have any jobs but I would try to apply your advice to see if it works for me if not pick in the comments to adjust

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

Thank you! Yes, the comments are incredibly useful here, I am so glad.

If you pick only one thing at a time it might be easier to incorporate in your life. Personally, I'd start with exercise and rest as the most influential thing.
I hope it gets better for you soon.

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ekimkael profile image
Ekim Kael

I'll try my best

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perigk profile image
Periklis Gkolias

Looks like this article was written for me. :) I do have a commute of 45 minutes(one way), I am working on my side project(s), I do spend some time for self-learning(currently taking lessons about deep learning), exercising 2-3 times per week...and guess what, doing my masters degree at the same time, while trying to keep my social life active.

I can't brag that I have managed to balance all those requirements. But if I can give a couple of tips those would be:

0) Eliminate crap from your life.(Paretto law)
1) Take advantage of your "dead time". I have managed to read more than 20 books this year, just because of that.
2) If you are doing video courses and the material is not extremely advanced, it helps to listen to some parts to 2x speeds.
3) When attending the lectures, be present and active, it will save some reading later on.
4) Code every day, even if it is a single function. This one here: johnresig.com/blog/write-code-ever...
is very inspiring.
5) Dont forget to do funny things,you still need endorphins.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

Do your have any advice on how to decide what is crap in your life and what is not? Sometimes it can feel like all things are super important or needed.

Yes, funny things! Fun is really important.

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perigk profile image
Periklis Gkolias

It is mostly being cynical about my targets. Something like the YAGNI but for life.

Lets say my schedule for a normal Thursday would be:

  • Go to the gym
  • Grab a beer with a friend
  • Work a bit on my side project
  • Revise yesterdays slides from master
  • Progress with the introductory blockchain course I am watching

You need to apply the 80/20 law here. So you need to pick only one.

  • If fitness matters for you(for example but not limited to, you had an accident and you want to become stronger) gym is a top priority.
  • IF social stuff matters more, beer

You got the point.

What if you want more than 1 to progress? You have to pick them interchangeably. And of course it helps to leverage your time(shameless advertising): dev.to/perigk/the-art-of-leveragin...

PS I just realised I never pusblished this article. Hmm

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ddonprogramming profile image
Decebal Dobrica

This article is inspiring Anna, I feel challenged to write my own now. Albeit I am a little less emphatic and I would offer less answers, more questions.

I too tend to want to do programming outside work hours or record video courses, but somehow I seem to get a little bit ahead of myself when doing side project and allow exploration a way too important role, that led to me failing to be successful in doing so.

While finding a rhythm and staying sane is always a different challenge and as I found out a constant struggle our human nature wants to be in (constant change). Grappling at how other people deal with this has hardly been positive to be.

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seanahern profile image
Sean Ahern

This is excellent advice. Thank you for sharing. I’ve had to address almost all of these issues in the past year and have never felt better. Initially i thought I’d end up β€œdoing less”, as if that’s net negative, but ultimately I’m doing a higher volume of valuable, heart-centered work. ✌️

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bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

Wow nicely written. I can guarantee that these advice work because I am applying them for years, but never realized that I can summarize and share them.

  • Time - I have the luxury to choose only jobs with low commute duration, and I apply many Team-management skills to my personal life. The family is a team and can be managed. My colleagues that are living in Rent apartments are always moving near the offices (we moved the office twice). I did 45 min commutes and at my new job I cut it down to 5.

  • Exercise - I did some A/B testing and a few hours a week are great for me.

  • Focus - It is all about priorities. Many years ago I realized that I cannot have more then 3 main focus areas at a time, in my life. The first two are family, and as a side effect providing money. The third and secondary targets are switched each year: learning, a hobby or other extra stuff.

The downside is that I had to let go to many other things, so I do better at the main activities.

  • Brick by brick - I use all the free time I have, but the long projects (that takes more than 4-5 hours) are sometimes finished in a span of weeks. You can accomplish many things if you persevere.

  • Social activities are a priority for the peers I always keep hearing "I do not have time ...". They do not realize this of course. I cut off from my life many "mandatory events and gatherings", that did not bring awesome in my life. I was wasting time just because of social pressure.

  • Marathon. I often speak to people that want to become developers, and I am portraying this "IT" industry as a long and hard core marathon. You have to think on the long run. It takes at least a year to get your first job, and many more to build great stuff.

  • Monitoring - I keep a close eye on everything that is a time Sink. When I realized I was checking social networks every 10 minutes I removed them from my phone and some from my life. I keep away from games (being almost an addict).

I know that it sounds lame and "robotic" but if you think about it, if you measure and improve the mandatory activities you spend time, you will have more time to do fun stuff.

Context: I am doing side projects for at least 7 years, I learn a lot, I have a family, I never had a burnout.

I do not wake up early, I work full time at an office, I always work at projects I like and for free. I take entire days and holidays time off with no computer and apps.

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fabiorosado profile image
Fabio Rosado

This is such good advice. One of the most important bit would be diet and exercise, I felt completely dead at times, but after starting working out I got more energy and my brain seems to work much better - also focusing for long periods of time is not as painful as it was in the past.

Also this - Expect things to always take much longer than you think. - sometimes I think: "Oh yeah, I encounter this issue somewhere else, this will be quick. A day later I'm still stuck on some weird bug haha

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

"Oh yeah, we will have a beta version in 2 months" One year later it is still in the making XD

Good point about the diet. Especially cutting down sugar in general and snacks between meals, this works great for me.

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prateek_gogia profile image
Prateek Gogia

Currently, I am going through similar kind of process and there are some points which you mentioned are actually very valid in my case.
The major point about commute and working near to house are actually very important. It can save a lot of time and plus the energy as well.
My colleagues think that's a stupid move though, since I've to pay almost double the amount of rent for the place I live in because it is nearby my office.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

I got the same reaction from my colleague. But everyone's workload and priorities are different. I know he doesn't do any side-projects or have time-consuming hobbies except travelling.

When I was making the decision to move, I actually calculated, how much my hour is worth. The rent increase was pretty much covered by the time saved, plus I was saving on commute as well. Add the additional benefits like nearby gym, nice area, and ability to make my own decision when and where I want to have a walk or a bike ride - for me the choice was very clear.

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prateek_gogia profile image
Prateek Gogia

For me this is like a relief because after hearing from so many people about my decision, I started by decisions.

Coming to side-projects, they are so much important. I think majority of my learning and confidence in writing code has come from there!

In order to that, time and body's will is required which is totally in our hands.
Sad to see that people often neglect this point.

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simoroshka profile image
Anna Simoroshka

There is a huge difference between working on an existing code-base and building something real from scratch. I learnt a lot from both type of experience and I see them both important and complimentary to each other.

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lardissone profile image
Leandro Ardissone

I can't agree more with the commute time advice. I work at 45min on best traffic and it's a pain. You get home really tired and need to do the chores with a bad mood instead. Thanks for this awesome article.

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