If you're like me, you're working hard to find the right work/life balance. In that game, I think any little edge can be of value. Here are 4 tips I use to self-improve without sacrificing any time from the 'personal' side of the ledger.
Multi-purpose your MP3 player
If you have an MP3 player, put some tech-talks on it as well as music. Then when you're out doing something that allows effective multi-tasking, listen to them. I like to go running, on some days I'll listen to a podcast on software engineering. Google will help you find lots of good podcasts, one of the best sources is "Software Engineering Radio", found here.
Put a tech book (or at least tech tutorial printout) in your car
There are going to be times when you end up waiting somewhere-- these are ideal times to read material you just might not have time for otherwise. Probably my favorite example is a shopping trip. My wife loves to shop, I hate it. But now I just leave a tech book in the car, which I take out only after we get to the store we're driving to. Once we're there, I let her go through the store while I catch up on my reading. Then when she's done at that store, I put the book down as we talk and drive to the next place. Everybody's happy! (Warning: We programmers can be overly focused sometimes, which can lead to spousal displeasure. Be cognizant of the fact that you shouldn't keep reading once your spouse returns to the car!)
Take a book to the Oil Change
If you're like me, you've got two cars in the family. That means every 3 months somebody's going to be going to the shop for at least an hour-- twice! To make these waits more bearable, I've started taking a book in with me. The same technique works well at the doctor's office-- sitting in the waiting area for my checkup can be time well spent!
Leave a 'Boot-Up' Task for Tomorrow
My work laptop takes a long time (several minutes, at least) to boot up. This isn't because the machine is overloaded or needs a cleanup-- it's because this is when corporate IT pushes scripts and patches onto the box. I like to leave myself something to work on while this is going on-- a small diagram reminding myself what I was working on, a tech document, a to-do list to think about, etc. Then when my machine is busy waking up, I can start getting myself back into the right mindset.
I'm sure there are a lot of other ways to effectively use time that would otherwise be spent unproductively. If you've got a favorite, please leave it as a comment.