A practical guide to side projects from someone with a lot of side projects.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked on many side projects and can’t really think of a time where I haven’t had something on the go. In that time, I’ve published 20 publications, designed a children’s book, founded a design studio and just recently, launched a SaaS App, all of which started as side projects.
I see the term ‘side hustle’ everywhere. On posters, signage, tote bags and even on an Uber Campaign to recruit drivers. For me at least, ‘hustle’ plays to the unhealthy culture of overworking and financial motivation. Gross. For that reason, I intentionally use ‘projects,’ as a project can be undergone for many reasons and can always be on your own terms.
That’s not to say side projects should be quick or easy, in my experience, it’s the total opposite. In fact, some of the most significant challenges I’ve faced professionally have been from side projects. That said, I’ve always found the more challenging, the more rewarding.
But sometimes side projects can be really challenging, and motivation can be hard to come by, especially when you’re short on time and have other priorities, like family, or a day job. Getting your project to the finish line requires even measures of focus, diligence, and patience.
Having completed 20+ side projects, my hope is I can share some useful advice and experience, that will helps others realize their projects and escape the hustle. So here we go!
Establish Your Goals
As a first step, it can be really to beneficial establish your goals and project type up front. Is your goal to generate another income stream? To learn a new skill? Or is it to gain awareness and experience? These goals help you stay focused and serve as a great reminder to why you started the project in the first place. It’s also OK to revisit your goals and for them evolve throughout the project, but having a north star can *really* help stay you on track.
Take Your Time
Some projects will be quicker than others, but I’ve always found comfort in allowing myself to take the time to do things properly. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work to a timeline, but if it takes longer than expected, that’s OK. Some of my projects have ranged from a few months, right through to several years. Most recently, Construct took almost three years from ideation to launch. Retrospectively that’s a long time, but it goes quick.
It’s Not Always Fun
Often the early stages of a project are the most exciting and when you have the most energy, but as time goes on, enthusiasm tends to fade. If you go into your project knowing that not every aspect of it will be fun and exciting, it can help you appreciate the moments that are. In almost all cases, there will be parts of your project that will require bucket loads of patience and persistence. But don’t let that scare you, when you come out the other side, it will be all the more rewarding.
This one may be kind of obvious, but it is crucial to your project’s success. Keeping your project organized, tracking your goals and striking off your tasks helps you keep perspective and is a great way to see your progress. There are many ways to organize your project, and plenty of great apps to help you do it. Finding the right app can depend on the size and type of project and your personal workflow. I’ve always been a massive advocate for Trello and use it both professionally and personally (and for the most part, it’s free!). But there are a lot of other great options like Basecamp, Asana or Air Table to name a few. It’s best to have a look around, try a few out and choose one that best suits your needs.
Do Something Often
One saying that comes to mind is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ The same goes for your project. Working on your project often helps sustain momentum and enthusiasm, even if its only something small. Completing small tasks regularly can help with feeling a sense of accomplishment and keeping your project at the forefront of your mind, especially when you are short on time or have other distractions. But be careful with the small tasks, which brings me to the next point…
Prioritize Your Tasks
While doing something often is important, be careful not to fall into the trap of only taking on small, quick and easy tasks. This is one of the pitfalls of using a traditional ‘todo’ list. Easier tasks tend to find their way to the top, with the more difficult ones settling at the bottom. Eventually, you’ll end up with a list of nothing but difficult tasks, which can be a project killer. To stay motivated and make meaningful progress it’s best to do an even spread of easy and challenging tasks.
Be Open to Change
Like your timeline, it’s good to be flexible with your scope and open to change. I’ve found this to be especially relevant to building digital products. As your project progresses, there are many reasons your scope can vary, these changes may be in the form of new ideas, feedback from potential users, or even just a change of heart. But also be aware of scope creep. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are continually adding tasks, and you create a project so big that you can no longer realistically complete.
When the Mood Strikes
It’s natural to go through ups and down with the motivation towards your project. But when you’re thinking about your project and feeling inspired to work on it, harness that motivation and go for it! I’m a big believer that your best work is done when you’re feeling inspired and able to get in the zone. But that brings us to the next point if you’re just not feeling it…
Don’t Force It
If you’re not feeling inspired, or just not in the mood, don’t force yourself to work on your project. Forcing yourself is not only unproductive, but you will almost certainly never do your best work when feeling like this. Even worse, you also run the risk of ultimate project killer: burn out.
Take a Break
If you’re losing motivation for your project, sometimes taking a break can rekindle your fire. This is different from taking an afternoon or pushing tasks to another day, taking a break can mean putting down your project for a week or more. Having some distance can often help with perspective and allowing motivation to naturally come back around. Some of the best ideas I’ve had for my projects have been when I’ve been taking a break. But be sure to set a ‘resume date’ as this helps prevents the guilts from setting in and helps avoid your project going on hiatus indefinitely.
Work with a Partner
Having a partner or collaborator has many benefits, it can help with accountability, accomplishing your goals faster and having someone there to pull you through tough times. But select your partner carefully and ensure they are the right fit for you and your project. It is also important to establish roles upfront so you can clearly define responsibilities and expectations for the project. And be sure to put it down in writing, should there be a disagreement, you’ll have something to refer back to.
Before you finish your project, it’s good to think about next steps. This can be done at the beginning or middle or close to the end of your project. Depending on the type of project, it can be worth spending some time on these earlier on, giving yourself more time to prepare. It may be as simple as aligning some outcomes to your initial goals right through to planning a public launch and monetizing your project.
If All Else Fails
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how organized you are or how many breaks you’ve taken, circumstances change, and your project may no longer be the right fit. It’s OK to stop, but try and think about why you started in the first place before you make a final decision. Stopping one project is not the end of the world, but if you have multiple unfinished projects, it could be time to have another read of this article. 😁
If you’ve made it this far, thank you! This piece is part of one of my side projects, and I hope you’ve found some value in it. If you’d like to know more about my project, you can read my shameless plug below.
Shameless plug: Construct is a new web app for making beautiful and engaging fee proposals. Our mission is simple: to help businesses save time, get approvals faster and provide valuable insight. Start a free 14-day trial at withconstruct.com
Thanks for reading!