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Shipping Is a Muscle

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I used to be terrible at shipping side projects.

It always started the same way: I’d have an idea, get a head full of steam, and plow right into making it a reality. My fingers would fly across the keyboard, code flowing from my brain to the editor with ease. But, often, things would fall apart. I’d get bored or hit a technical roadblock and the project would end up languishing on my hard drive. I’d move on to my next brilliant idea, hoping that would be the one I’d actually ship.

You can guess how well that worked out. Sound familiar?

On your first trip to the gym you might struggle to lift even the smallest of weights. Your muscles, twitching and quivering, haven’t been trained for what you’re asking of them. But, with a little persistence and dedicated practice, you start lifting a bit more. Then a bit more on top of that. One day, you surprise yourself with how strong you’ve become.

Shipping is a muscle. And, like any muscle, it can be trained. Here’s some tips to make it a bit easier:

1. Cut scope

When you have a day job, particularly if it’s one you enjoy, your first responsibility is to your employer. Which means the majority of your side project work has to happen on nights and weekends. You need to make sure it’s manageable — and the best way to do that is to aggressively cut the scope of your project.

For every potential feature ask yourself two questions:

Be honest with yourself!

  • Is this just a nice-to-have, and not really core to the product?
  • Is this something that can be added or improved upon later? (More on this in a second)

If the answer to either of those questions is yes, leave it out of your first version.

2. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

You can always improve your side project — particularly once you have feedback from real users. You need to adopt the mentality that until an idea is out of your head and into the hands of other people, it basically doesn’t exist.

When I launched Draftly, my Dribbble client for Apple TV, it let you do three things: see a collection of shots, see a bigger version of an individual shot with some details, and view a user’s profile. That’s it. But in the weeks after launch I added more features, refined the UI, and refactored the codebase. If I had waited until everything was “perfect”, I might never have launched at all.

Perfect is procrastination.

3. Stop wasting time

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: we all have the same 24 hours each day. It all comes down to priorities. Stop watching Game of Thrones. Or watch it while working, at least. But you’d get a lot more done if you didn’t.

Try to value creation over consumption. Instead of watching television, write a blog post. Rather than scrolling through Twitter or Facebook on a long bus ride, fire up the Notes app and brainstorm project ideas.

Granted, some items on your calendar are immutable. If your kids need to get to daycare, you can’t skip the drive and put in an extra hour on your side project. But if you examine your schedule closely, and aggressively cut scope, I’m betting you’ll find ways to eke out time here and there.

Work that muscle

With some practice and these tips, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a shipping machine. Why not start today?