Nine years ago, almost to the day, I was invited to plan a science event for fun. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of a side project of epic proportions.
Fast forward to today, our science communication platform Ratio hosts more than 40 events per year, produces three podcast series, and has a YouTube channel that has amassed more than 179.9k views. These numbers are not that huge, but most of the content is in Bulgarian – a language spoken by less than 7 million people.
A few years before that, I already had started this blog – the most standard format of a solo side project. It did eventually get me a full-time job – and later basically became one, as a vast amount of project requests for my consulting services come after partners have met me through my writing.
So it’s no surprise that I deeply believe in the power of side projects. But they can be a difficult beast to tame. I often get asked how I manage to find the time for them with everything already on my plate. So I wanted to share:
- what makes running side projects so difficult,
- what you can gain from them,
- and nine pieces of advice that make balancing a side project and life easier.
Why is it so difficult to start and stick to a side project?
Starting a side project is easy. Sticking to one is as hard as hell.
If you’re like most people, your side project will be at best third in your priority list – after your full-time job and your family. This means that whenever you feel drained, take a vacation, or have a lot on your plate, your side project is the one to suffer.
Additionally, sticking with a side project requires a ton of tenacity. There surely are times where I say to myself “Why the hell am I doing this?” Oftentimes, this means you take a break from your side project. I’ve been blogging since 2006 but still, I didn’t post anything for more than six months last year. I just needed a break. It’s easy to return to a side project if you already have a long history of building it. The momentum is there. The issue is that if you take a long break early on after starting your project, you’re losing traction and it’s that much more difficult to build the habit.
And finally, it takes a long time before you start seeing results for your side projects. Chances are it may be months before you see some results or get positive feedback about your work. So you will definitely need to get some other type of motivation if you are to stick with your new venture.
What does a side project do for you?
No matter how difficult it may be, I believe you’re better off starting a side project of your own. It’s a marvelous thing that not only lets you create something from scratch but has a ton of benefits for your overall being.
A source of learning new skills
You’ll be doing everything when starting your side project. And I do mean everything. This is a powerful source of acquiring new skills – even ones you might have been dreading earlier. I find that having a playground of your own raises the stakes and decreases your fear of just trying things out:
- Writing blog posts led me to start customizing my site and dabbling into CSS and HTML.
- Starting an NGO required us to double down on organizational skills, financial planning, and volunteer motivation.
- While doing my first freelancer side gigs I had to learn about accounting and documentation.
Any side project will teach you something – the chief of which, I’mma guess, is time management and structuring tasks. When you have a 9-to-5 regular job and a home to take care of, you need to be a true taskmaster in order to carve out 2 hours per day for your side project.
Help with your career
I often get asked how to start a career with no experience. And I invariably say “start a side project”. The reason is that a side project is the easiest way to build something where you create the rules and where you are fully responsible for the results. You don’t require anyone’s permission. You plan, you build, and you learn.
Even after 7 years of professional experience, many of my job interviews would veer towards the personal projects on my resume. The reason is that side projects show initiative, tenacity, and intrinsic motivation – things employers are always interested in.
A side project is your place to try new things. And when you see you can actually get these new things to work, a cool thing happens. You get more confident. And this confidence doesn’t apply just to the task at hand – like being confident you can actually write a short story people enjoy. It applies to trying out new things in general.
Here’s a very basic example. When you create a blog of your own and aren’t a technical person, you’ll need to just suck it up and install the plugins, update your theme, set the hosting account… even if that means you break your website from time to time. As time goes by, you get to break things less and, more importantly, worry less when you do. You understand it’s all part of the deal. And the next time you need to do something you’ve never done before, you’re a bit more confident you’ll be able to do it.
Leadership and inspiration
There are some side projects that don’t require you to play with others. But the ones that do – oh, how much you can learn from them!
I don’t consider myself a person with a lot of innate leadership talent – but managing a group of 50-plus volunteers during a full-day event is a school of its own.
I hope your side project grows enough to require a larger team. And when that happens, you will see that it’s an experience that promotes leadership like no other.
Decompressing from your main job
A side project doesn’t necessarily need to be a growth engine – it can be something you enjoy doing that takes your mind off things.
Actually, even if your side project is more of a hobby, research shows it will have a positive impact on your work. It’s a tool to let your brain rest and recharge. And while it rests, new ideas come in. So by taking on a hobby, you’re actually infusing your brain with fresh experiences and new ideas – and this is something valuable that will make you a better professional.
How to make a side project work? Nine tips from experience
Hopefully, I managed to convince you a side project is a good idea. But how can you make it work? Here are nine pieces of advice I can give you based on my experience.
Find the right match
A side project is a matter of passion – it will not be able to thrive otherwise. When you’re behind on your day job and you’d much rather go out with friends – that’s when only passion can get you through.
Think about it long and hard – are you ready to do this for the next 10 years and not lose momentum? This is a great litmus test for judging if you’ve truly found your match. Don’t worry – you don’t need to answer it on day one. But it’s a good question to ask.
Collect more Whys
When the going gets tough you might as well forget why you started your side project in the first place. So every now and again when you’re having a good time, make sure you memorize it.
I personally have a “Jar of Awesome” where I keep some small wins along the way, most of them related to personal projects. It can also be done in a computer file or your everyday journal. It’s a great way to remind yourself why you took up this side project and what it brings you in the first place.
The stronger your Why gets, the easier it is to keep the momentum for your project.
Focus on skill rather than results
When I started my blog I didn’t have Google Analytics set up. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why I persevered over the first couple of years.
Aiming for results too quickly can kill off your intrinsic motivation for taking up your side project. So make sure you’re focusing on building up your skills rather than setting up your own rat race.
If you’re honing your skills you get a true sense of progression no matter the outside factors. This is a way healthier focus and it’s completely in your own control.
Make it a learning experience
Being deliberate about your side project is the best way to really make it count. Start off by setting your own learning goals – just like you’d do for a class at school. Make it specific and track your progress.
This strengthens your conviction to pursue your side project for its developmental worth rather than the results. And this will get you the tenacity it takes to see things true and actually get these results.
Be clear what you’ll be saying “No” to
The reverse side of knowing full well why you’re doing a side project is knowing full well what sacrifices you’ll be making. I didn’t. I still feel like I’m being detained against my will when there’s a deadline approaching and I can’t go out with friends.
A side project means you’ll spend some sunny weekends at home in front of your laptop. It means you’ll need to cancel a trip because an urgent task pops up. It all comes down to making a conscious decision and reminding yourself of the Whys you already have at hand.
Block time on your calendar
Your side project is the third one on the list. So getting your schedule straight helps you in two ways.
First off, this guarantees you’ll actually be getting work done. Even if the time slot changes from week to week, you will still need to make a deliberate decision when to move the slot to.
Second, it serves as a habit builder. The more regular your side project work becomes, the easier it will be to follow through.
And finally, it also serves as a deterrent to paying too much attention to a side project. There’s a chance this new venture will be more interesting to you at first than your regular job or social life. And by setting up boundaries you remind yourself there are other things to focus on, like friends and brunch and reading a book.
Make it easy enough to quit… but not easier
A side project should not feel like a prison sentence. If you feel it’s not your thing – or at least not anymore – you should be able to quit. Most often, this is related to feeling like a failure. But keep in mind a side project is the purest form of an experiment. If you don’t want to move forward with it, you’ve just learned what you’re not interested in.
Still, making it too easy to quit means you’ll be tempted to bolt off the moment hardship arises. You need some degree of struggle and tension. It’s part of everything worth pursuing.
During the first few years of Ratio, I’d routinely vow to stop and quit as soon as we finish off with the upcoming forum. But it’s a big project so it’s not easy to just drop it. And I’d eventually remember my Why, settle down, suck it up, and move on. This pattern is a great example how far you can go if quitting on the spot is just not an option.
If you want to go far, go with a friend
Many side projects are solo endeavours. But if you’re building something big make sure to recruit at least one or two partners in crime. This will help you feel accountable and also let you both feed off of each other’s energy.
In principle you can get the accountability element by having a goal buddy you rehash your overall plans with. But the energy level bit is much more profound. It means that when you’re down or lacking energy, there is someone working on the same thing who can pull you up.
A nice alternative for more traditional solo side projects (like blogging, for example) is to join an online community. By seeing how driven other writers are you will get an extra boost of motivation.
Treat it as an experiment
Side projects usually start off as a spark of passion. So it’s OK to not be structured about them – at least at first. You are absolutely allowed to discover the next pieces of the puzzle as you go.
As a structured person who hates uncertainty, this has always been an issue. But I had to learn to live with it.
You’ll be better off if you treat your side project as an experiment. You formulate a hypothesis, draft out the steps to test it out – and you judge your success not by the number of wins, but by the number of lessons learned. By reframing failure as not learning anything you’ll be more free to test boldly.
The most important step is the first one
I just dedicated 2000+ words to create an impression I know what starting a side project is all about. But that can’t be further from the truth.
I started my blog on a whim as a school project. 14 years later, I still can’t say I have a concrete plan what I want to achieve with it.
Our science communication project started off as a vague idea over a beer. I never would’ve thought we’d be doing more than 40 events per year. Heck, I never thought it’d last for more than a few years.
It is OK to not have a specific direction when you’re starting a side project and to take it one step at a time. The more steps you take, the more your side project will shape up. So take the first one and let’s see what happens!