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Ben Tyler
Ben Tyler

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Time Boxed Challenges: An Easier Way to Meet Your Learning and Building Goals

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For a minute, think about that mental laundry list of things of things to learn or build. Maybe some free time comes up and you work on one of those items for half a day only to let it fade to the background again.Then a couple of weeks down the road you have some free time again and you pick up where you left off or even pick up a new item. No real progress gets made.

Finding a Way to Move Through the List

How do you get around this though and actually consistently learn and/or build?

There are a whole slew of solutions out there, but at least at the present moment, my favorite solution is the personal time boxed challenge. In other words, spending X minutes per day for X days working on a very specific, defined goal.

This past spring, I spent 30 days doing a personal map design challenge. Each day I would take 30 minutes to focus on designing maps using Mapbox Studio. The reasoning behind it was simple - I wanted further my cartographic designs skills to the point where I could make an office worthy 18" x 24" map poster.

While I am still nothing close to a cartographer, I leveled up my design and Mapbox Studio skills. It was an investment in myself that I am very happy I made and I ended up with two maps that I will be printing out as posters to hang in my office.

What is a Time Boxed Personal Challenge?

It can be a whole lot of things but the meat and potatoes of it comes down to spending X amount of time every day for X number of days. The challenge can take the shape of learning a new skill, building a side project, or a mix of the two. For example:

  • "I will spend 30 minutes a day for the next 15 days learning the foundations of JavaScript animations in React."
  • "I will spend 30 minutes a day for the next month building out a marketing site for my side project idea."

Why Take On a Time Boxed Personal Challenge?

In addition to being fun, these types of personal challenges have a ton of benefits that include

  • providing a structured way to learn a new skill or build a new product
  • providing a manageable framework and schedule that helps ensure consistency and increases the chances of follow through
  • typically results in a portfolio item or product that can be leveraged in your personal or career growth
  • if you share your progress and learnings from the challenge, can lead to new connections and getting involved in new communities
  • can open unexpected doors and opportunities

How to Design Your Own Personal Challenge

Setting up your own personal challenge need not be an extravagant and drawn out ordeal. Here are the general steps I like to follow.

  1. Make a list of things that you would like to learn or build. Keep the list focused on things you could complete in 10 to 20 hours and make each item as specific as possible (i.e. learn how to design a 18" x 24" map poster using Mapbox Studio).
  2. Pick the item from the list that excites you the most and select how much time you will spend working on it each day and for how many days (i.e. 30 minutes/day for 15 days). I personally like the 30 minutes/day approach for 15 to 30 days because it is enough time to make real progress on things, but not so long that it drags on and I lose interest.
  3. Choose a time of day that you will always work on your challenge. This extra step of selecting a time will help you integrate the challenge into your daily routine and will help ensure you actually take the time to work on it.
  4. Start your challenge and take a daily snapshot of your progress each day. It can be incredibly rewarding and increase your motivation and confidence for future challenges if you can look back and observe your progress.
  5. Share your daily snapshots. It can be both fun and encouraging to share your daily progress with others on Twitter or any other platform of your choosing.

Wrapping Up a Challenge

Reflecting on the work you accomplished throughout your challenge is just as important as doing the work. The process of reflection not only allows you to cement the lessons learned along the way, but can additionally be a major confidence booster and provide jet fuel for your next projects when you look at where you started and where you ended.

Often times when I am considering taking on another side project, it can seem daunting and that I just do not have enough time to execute it. Doing these personal time-boxed challenges though has consistently taught me that you can get a lot done only spending 30 minutes a day for an extended period of time. Understanding that with consistent small efforts, you can build and learn some really big things, is an invaluable lesson.

My Current Challenge

After wrapping up my map design challenge, I recognized this framework works really well for both learning and building things. Accordingly, it made me hungry to put together another challenge. This time around, it is taking the shape of learning how to use Figma to develop a design system.

Next Steps

Follow and tweet me on Twitter at @_btyler_ with any personal challenges you undertake. I would love to follow along and hear about what you are building and learning!

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