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Bringing Structure Back Into My Life With One Month Projects

Bringing Structure Back Into My Life With One Month Projects

Man with long brown hair and black dress standing by a mural reading "Character isn't made by machine"

Note: This is written in collaboration with One Month Projects. I am not being paid to write about my experience. All opinions are my own.

Magic happens when spontaneity and discipline come together.

This time last year, I’d just landed a software engineering internship at a cool startup. Spurred on by the idea that I could do anything I put my mind to, I decided to try something audacious: rather than hunkering down and spending all of my time coding, I would wake up at five in the morning every single day to publish a post on my then-fashion blog. I would write until about 7 AM, publish to my social channels by 8 AM, and take the BART from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco by 8:30 AM, where I’d slide into my desk as the startup workday began at 10 AM.

Rather than being distracting, this routine greatly helped my attitude at work. Publishing a post every morning gave me a sense of accomplishment, and that momentum would carry through the rest of my day. I was alert, focused, and eager to learn — and I didn’t need a single drop of caffeine to get me there. The work I was doing was challenging, so by the time I got back home at night, I’d usually be exhausted … which was great, since my schedule dictated that I’d have to be in bed by 10:30 PM in order to get a solid night of sleep. I’d wake up the next day excited to write, and the whole cycle would repeat.

It was wonderful — I’d basically created a self-sustaining environment for doing my best work. Never had I ever experienced that level of productivity before. That original blog has since split into two blogs where I write about the things that interest me: lifestyle and personal development (Fake and Basic) and software engineering (Sweetness and Light).

My life would turn sideways and upside down in the months that followed — this past year has been one that I wasn’t prepared for, both personally and professionally — but those precious few months of my internship ended up making a lasting impact on me.

No more messing around: hello, structure!

I’ve been feeling pretty stagnant lately. I recently left my last job in search of a place that was a better fit, and though I’ve been getting out and exploring new opportunities, I miss that feeling of being “in the zone” every morning. I’d proven to myself last year that no matter how “busy” I thought I was, there would always be time in the day to dedicate towards a focused activity. All I needed was some discipline and clarity of mind.

I want to emphasize the “clarity of mind” part — I learned the hard way that all the structures and productivity measures in the world didn’t mean a thing if my mental and emotional health weren’t already in place. Dreamers and Schemers is a personal development blog, and true personal development is messy and non-linear. Taking time away for reflection and processing is important.

That being said, I realized that as of late, my sleeping in and probing conversations that led to the same conclusions were no longer really ways to take care of myself: they had become unproductive ways to procrastinate. I wanted to find that sense of accomplishment again — the sense that I could change my life with only a few hours a day.

Enter: One Month Projects.

One Month Projects: Coaching + Action

I met Yunzhe Zhou of One Month Projects through my friend and programming coach, David Hu. All three of us had recently taken the same personal development course, and I’d actually read Yunzhe’s post on how she’d done twelve projects in twelve months a little while back. [1] Each one of her side projects had changed her life, just like committing to writing a blog post every morning in January had changed mine. She now runs a coaching program helping others fit their own one-month projects in with their busy lives, especially for career transitions.

When Yunzhe reached out to me about the possibility of working together, I was immediately on board — I was relishing my newfound freedom, but I knew that I was also kind of wasting it. I’d been productive on top of my demanding job, not in spite of it, and I had a feeling that I needed some more structure in my day to get back to being effective.

This program is divided into two parts — an action plan, which involves defining concrete deliverables on specific dates and scheduling in your calendar for the exact times you want to work on your project, and weekly accountability phone calls between Yunzhe and myself to ensure that I’m sticking with my plan.

The importance of the action plan

Creating the action plan itself was really helpful — not only did it help me define clear-cut tasks, but it also made me think about what would make a worthwhile one-month project. Initially, I’d wanted my project to be “write and publish blog post every day,” but I realized that that was far too easy of a goal to set for myself when I’d already been blogging steadily for three years. [2]

“Hmm,” I thought when I found myself breezing through the course with my blog-post idea. “This seems simple. Too simple. What’s an area of my life I’d like to step up for real?”

I realized that I wanted to work on my engineering skills more than I did my writing skills, and changed my action plan accordingly. When I made that change, going through the course and finishing the project suddenly seemed like a much more substantial (but still feasible) challenge. Defining the action plan itself really cleared up what I should be aiming for.

The action plan should feel challenging, but still doable! Creating my action plan the second time around took me about an hour and a half of dedicated time — I wrote out all my thoughts by hand into my journal. No distractions allowed.

My one-month project

My project is to write an app that will take a bunch of photos I feed it and prepare my Instagram feed for me. I chose this project for three reasons:

  1. I spend way too much time planning out my Instagram feed and the photos that go with my blog posts. I enjoy seeing the end result, but my favorite part of content creation is the actual “creation” part. I would love to automate the “marketing” part, which includes feed styling, as much as possible.
  2. I haven’t worked on a strictly technical side project since I graduated from college (the last one being a virtual closet app). I like having a blend of word-writing and code-writing in my life. Now that I am not actively working as a software engineer, I’d like to keep up a ~10 AM-6 PM weekday schedule of working on a dedicated project. It took me a while, but I realized that this allows me to have the wake-up-write-article-work-on-project-chill daily routine that makes me so productive in the first place.
  3. One weakness I’ve noticed I have as a software engineer is the reluctance to mess up — I’m That Person who reads a ton of books on clean code but feels defeated when I get compiler errors. I want to be comfortable diving headfirst into unfamiliar territory, and persistently “hacking” a solution until it works.

Normally I’d do all this in a dedicated month, but since it’s already the middle of December, I will be starting this project today (December 17) and finishing it on December 28. [3] Eleven days sounds like a short amount of time for such a project, but I’ve already done the necessary researching and scoping, and there are several libraries (pre-written code) from other developers that I’ll be using in my project.

Documenting my progress

I’ll be covering the progression of the project here on Dreamers and Schemers, and I’ll do a technical write-up on Sweetness and Light, my tech blog, once I have finished the project. You’ll also be able to see my source code on GitHub once it’s complete.

I’m excited to get into it! I know first hand how a little habit can go a long way in literally changing your life. I can’t wait to get my momentum back with this project and see where it takes me. ♚


[1] I read even more than I write, and it’s kind of freaky/cool how many people I’ve met in real life in San Francisco whose work I’ve read before.

[2] Writing a blog post a day is only an “easy” goal for me because I’ve been writing content pretty regularly for years now. For you, it may be totally different!

[3] Is “the eleven-day project” a better name? ? I believe this is feasible, since most people going through this program have full-time jobs, while I have more time to dedicate towards my project.

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