I often feel overwhelmed deciding what to do with my spare time. It’s a problem with volume moreso than ambition. When the feeling hit the other weekend I scribbled down seven ideas rattling around in my head and stared at the list blankly. I’ve used different prioritization systems in the past like the Eisenhower matrix (Urgent vs. Important) and the Six Sigma matrix (Effort vs Impact); and while those are good for evaluating required tasks… none of those work well for voluntary activities self-created by a serial project starter.

I need a system that helps prioritize and load balance projects I give myself. When free time shows up, I don’t want to waste time doomscrolling on social media or being in a state of overwhelm, I want to hop right in to an idea. I also don’t want seven big thought benders occupying my brain RAM at all times, I need less background noise. After some thought, a tiny mantra started kicking around in my head, “One big, one little.”

If I artificially limit myself to having one major and one minor active side project at a time, my agility goes up because I’m not doing ten projects at once, I’m doing one or two. When one project finishes, I move to the next best idea that fits the available slot. I will never be taking on too much and it’s easier to say “no” to new distractions if I have to substitute projects.

Why two projects? Why not one? That would be the ultimate focus state, but believe it or not it’s an intentional move because my pockets of free time are differently sized. In my mind, a big project takes a week or a month while a little project takes a day or less. You can slice up big projects into smaller projects, but that itself is a small planning project. I also like variety.

And because I have more than two responsibilities in life, one slight modification to this system might be to have one big, one little project for each major area of my life.

Area Big Little
Work Learn algorithms Write a blog post
Personal Make a game Build a Gundam
Family Clean garage

Careful! Adding more areas will put me back where I started, but 3 to 5 areas seems about right. What’s different between this list and the list of seven ideas I made the other day? Not much except that areas of my life tend to occupy particular timeframes: Work is during the day, Personal is during the evenings, and Family is after school and weekends. In practice my boundaries overlap (e.g. my work feeds my family) but it’s pretty easy for me to discern which area of my life needs attention.

I like how this limited structure builds some resilience against “crash-ins” like urgent emails, taxes, or car problems. Those surprise projects tend to be disproportionately problematic for me, like delivering a new piece of furniture to an already crowded living room. If I’m abiding in the one-in/one-out approach, a crash-in must take the place of something else in that respective area. That paradigm is much easier to manage than my current thought technology; a giant Jenga tower of obligations.

No idea if this holds up but this past week I’ve been more focused and centered than ever. Yesterday I cleared out a big work-related project and freed up some mental allocation. Wiping a project off the board and seeing a blank space made finishing the project even sweeter. Then last night I had some extra energy after bedtime and decided to work on a fun project for my podcast. I got about 80% finished in one night. Before (like the last four weeks) I would have felt guilty or distracted about picking up that project while thinking about four others I could/should be doing.

That’s my new “One big, one little” system. Now when a rogue idea sneaks into my periphery, I can chant my mantra and ward away those little demons.