4 steps to finding better side projects

Or more precisely: how to make sure you work only on more promising projects, and actually finish them.

I’ve spent a lot of time on things that didn’t go anywhere. I used to think it was just my poor execution, but some ideas are, simply, bad.

This process has helped me identify the winning ones —and get them finished.

1. Write ideas down in full.

Ideas come at inconvenient times, so catch them when they come. Take the time to write them out in full.

For me, this means writing at least 3 sentences.

2. And then do nothing.

This might seem strange, but abandon your idea for a while.

Holding onto an idea suffocates the next one. It’s tempting to obsess about the idea or possibility that someone else might steal it or act first.

But they’re usually not great ideas, anyway.

For me, the sooner I let go of my idea, the sooner the next one comes. And usually, the next idea is better anyway.

So having written it down, in detail, I deliberately think about other things: I forage for new ideas while giving that already-collected idea some time to mature.

3. Review the ideas once a month.

By the end of the month you’ll have an idea smorgasborg! with 5 or 15 or 30 ideas.

And with them placed next to each other, you’ll see each idea in a new light. There’ll be with new connections and opportunities you hadn’t seen before. Some will still resonate, being clear and singular opportunities; others will merge or divide in ways you didn’t expect. They take a life of their own.

When I do this, I end up with one or two refined ideas to focus on in the next month. The rest stay in my idea backlog. Or get killed entirely.

4. Set S-Goals.

Next, you need to convert your idea into reality. You need to know each, specific step that’s needed to bring it to life.

The key here is to be as specific as possible. I can’t emphasise this enough. Specific, specific, specific, specific. A goal is specific enough, for me, when:

  • I know precisely what I need to do in each step.
  • I know how long that will take.
  • I know what ‘finished’ looks like.

I’ve called these S-Goals.

Forget SMART goals. Merely S-goals are fine.

S-Goals pre-load my thinking, and specify precisely what needs to be done. No more “what the hell did I mean by that half-described reminder?” Instead, I look at my list, choose one that suits my current motivation, time & context, and get shit done. I know exactly what I need to do, and I know when it’s finished.

“Build a network”
is hard,
“Email Frank, Joe and John” is specific and easy.


  1. Write your ideas down in full
  2. Then do nothing.
  3. Review the ideas you’ve collected, once a month.
  4. Set S-Goals for your chosen idea.

That’s it. Simple — which is precisely why it’s worked for me.


  • Day One’, the journalling app for recording ideas and reflecting on them. The timeline allows old ideas to ‘sink’ down into the marsh of life, for future archaeologist-me to look at layers, history & learning.
  • (For public-friendly reflections, I use Buffer to share via Twitter. And Medium — as of today!)
  • For task management I use OmniFocus, mostly because it handles folders better than Apple Reminders, lets me specify parallel and sequential dependencies, and hides tasks that can’t be done yet. A little expensive, but it’s repaid itself in less than a month.

Any other ideas?

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