Finding the energy to work on your side hustle

Spend more than about five minutes on Hacker News and you’ll see them: the moonlighters. The side-hustlers. The dedicated cadre of people working a full day at their jobs and then rushing home to jump into their other project.

Squeezing their entrepreneurial ambitions into what little time they have left in the evening, often cutting back on sleep to get more done.

This kind of crazy ambition has paid off for a lucky few (Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt comes to mind), but the vast majority of people who attempt it eventually quit.

Quitting is so common because it is really, really hard to jump from your day job to your side project. It’s difficult and stressful, and so people tend to either avoid the work and not accomplish anything, or force themselves to do it until they’re completely burnt out.

The common advice for avoiding burnout is the same macho bullshit you hear all over the valley: don’t avoid it. Hustle. Grind. Grind harder. Grit your teeth and have more fortitude.

Be willing to burn the candle at three ends or quit — you’re not cut out for this game. The problem with this advice is that it’s not only toxic, it’s wrong.

The ‘grind grind grind’ mentality doesn’t stand up to science, for two main reasons: you are very bad at switching tasks from your 9-to-5 to your side gig, and you literally can’t be productive for more than about 70 hours per week. You can’t grind your way to success, but you can put in an hour or two after work every day, stacking bricks, until you’ve built a successful business.

One day at a time. cc by devion acker

You are bad at switching tasks, but there’s a way to fight it

If you’re going to work after work, you’re going to have to stop thinking about your 9-to-5 and start focusing on what you have to do to make your passion project succeed. Too bad you’re naturally terrible at switching focus.

Nothing personal, of course. Not only is the human brain bad at doing two things at once, it’s not even good at switching to a second task after its current task is finished.

A study by Sophie Leroy at NYU named this phenomenon attention residue: the old task lingers in your brain even when you stop working on it, using up additional cycles in the background.

This makes it hard to start on your side hustle after work, and even harder to make meaningful progress on it.

It’s even worse when your brain feels that whatever you were doing remains unfinished — you might want to move on to a new task, but your subconscious has no interest in doing so.

If you’ve ever spent the entire commute home lingering on problems from work, or let a Friday afternoon email ruin your weekend, then you know what I’m talking about.

But if you can convince your subconscious to shut down all of those extra processes running in the back of your head, you might actually have a shot at finding the mental energy to spend the evening on your side hustle.

The best way to get rid of this attention residue is a hard reset.

A hard reset: a ritual or routine that allows you to totally shut down the mental processes that are still up and running after you finish your day job.

A good hard reset has two components: a shutdown, and a spin-up.

A shutdown allows you to clear your mind of all of your old work, and a spin-up helps you more concretely shift into your new mental frame while being physically restorative — a burst of physical energy to accompany and encourage your newfound mental energy.

Shut it down

In Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, he recommends an end-of-work routine to allow your mind to free itself, rest, and relax. It’s a great practice for the end of the day, but if you’re trying to squeeze more work out of the day, it can also be a useful tool to encourage effective task-switching.

What you’re looking for here is a ritual that tells your subconscious “I’m done (with that) for the day.”

There are a number of ways to do this. Mine looks like this:

  • I start every day with a physical to do list on a 3x5 index card, which is a strategy I got from Ryan Holiday.
  • At the end of the day, I look at that card and copy anything undone back to my weekly to do list, which lives in Google Docs.
  • I then plan out my next work day in broad strokes.
  • Finally — I rip up that day’s 3x5 to do list and say “done!”
yesterday’s shutdown routine (gotta love working outside)

Newport recommends vocalizing: literally telling yourself that you’re done (his keyphrase is ‘Shutdown Complete’).

I like to take that and add the physical practice of ripping up an index card. Either way, those physical manifestations of “doneness” help your brain believe that you’re actually done, similar to how a bedtime routine helps sleep quality.

Spin it back up

After you clear out the mental junk from your day job, it’s best to also do something physically restorative to get some energy and clear the mind.

There tons of options here, but I’m only going to cover the three I find most effective: physical activity, meditation, and napping. Not only are these my personal favorites, they all have the bonus effect of decreasing stress — an all too common side-effect of working full time and starting a business on the side.

Physical Activity

Physical activity has been shown time and time again to improve cognition and mood. I recommend some light cardio or yoga here, and not something super taxing on the central nervous system like lifting weights.

Basically, anything that is restorative is good, anything that you would need to recover from should probably be saved for another time.

You can even do something as simple as going for a walk. Research from the University of Michigan has shown that going for a walk in nature can significantly improve memory and attention.

I used to walk home from work along the Chicago River and through tree-lined residential streets when I was feeling stressed, and it never failed to improve my mood.

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a pretty classic way to clear the mind, with plenty of science to back it up. You don’t have to go overboard, either: 20 minutes tends to be plenty.

There are dozens of apps that can help you; I personally use Headspace. There are also lots of great online resources for beginners, like those of Tara Brach.

Napping

When was the last time you took a good nap? Naps are extremely rad. And there are mountains of studies that show that a 20 minute nap can make you more alert and restore some of your cognitive function after demanding tasks.

This is honestly my favorite option of the three; just make sure you’re actually napping and not just listening to a podcast or playing candy crush in the dark.

Standard sleep hygiene stuff applies — dark cool room, no noise, no company, etc.

Go to bed at a reasonable hour

One you perform your hard reset, get stuck back in and do your thing. Just don’t end up doing it until 3 a.m. You need the sleep, and those extra hours probably won’t turn into anything productive anyway.

During World War I, the British Government got rid of hour caps for the factories that were producing munitions needed for the war effort, meaning that you had people working unlimited hours to produce as much as possible.

As a result, there have been some fascinating productivity studies done on the workers of that time period.

When looking at the data, you initially see what you would expect: for every hour worked, you get a fixed amount of output. One hour in, one bomb out, one hour in, one bomb out, etc. That relationship holds true right until about 49 hours of work, when you start to get less and less value for every hour.

By about 65 hours, you start to see negative productivity — the workers were making more mistakes than productive actions, and as such, more faulty bombs than good ones.

The sample size here was fairly small, but even still, it’s pretty clear that the additional value of work past about 70 hours is negligible.

Conclusions:

Work hard for a couple of hours, and then call it quits. You’ll get the same amount done, you’ll be much less stressed, and you won’t burn yourself out.

You’ll be able to put more effort into your side hustle if you work for an hour or two every day for a year than if you stay up until three a.m. working every night the next three months. Don’t burn yourself out, and have to take a month off to recover.

Slow and steady wins the race.

Good luck

Building a business is hard. Doing it in your small bursts of free time while you’re working a full time job is even harder, and I wish you the best of luck. It’s not easy, but it can be extremely worth it.

Give a hard reset after work a shot — it’s made a huge difference in my ability to work after work, and I hope it will for you too. And even if you’re not working on a side hustle, give it a shot: it’s a great way to unwind.

When it comes to health and fitness, it’s a lot easier to read advice than it is to put it in practice. That’s why I wrote a little booklet to help you get to the gym and follow through on your goals. 
Get it here, free: Five Scientific Strategies to Actually Get Yourself to the Gym.