If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to work on a side project but somehow you can never keep it up - this article is for you.
Spoiler alert: motivation is useless, your why is everything (and your systems).
I’m fully aware that this is one of those articles that my friends will throw in my face whenever I have another productivity crisis and start being harsh on myself again - goes to show that even knowing the tactics is not enough to avoid the pit of despair.
Find your why
Being motivated doesn’t work. Motivation only exists for a short time at the initial stages of any idea and is meant to give you the initial rush to set up the systems to keep you going.
You make progress and finish stuff by consistently showing up for yourself - also known as discipline. Some argue that it’s something very difficult to get a hang of, but I believe that if you have a strong enough reason to do something, this will come naturally.
If you struggle to find a compelling reason to keep going, chances are that in reality you don’t actually care about it. Maybe you want to be The Kind of Person Who Has Side Projects but that’s not a good enough reason - in behavioural science this is called external motivation and is likely to wear off.
It’s much more effective to find your reason inside yourself, although it typically also requires a bit of soul searching which is hard - and I think that’s why so many people drop their projects unfinished.
Your reason why has to be stronger than your why not.
You will never find the time
One common misconception about side projects is that you’ll need to have time for them, and that time will just magically appear when you’re on track with everything else in your life.
That’s a trap. And a big one too. You can go to work, go to the gym, make dinner, do your chores, and plan to work on your project when all this is done. Unfortunately, more often than not, all these minutiae of daily life will just expand to take up all the time and energy you have and you end up doing nothing.
You can look at it as a form of very advanced and elaborate procrastination.
In order to actually progress with the project you’ll have to make the time, and this requires conscious effort and ruthless prioritising (which is a great way to live anyway by the way).
The magic time table
I’ve seen a lot of productivity gurus doing maths on your weekly calendar to show you how much time you have in a week for your side gigs. I think they’re really oversimplifying the calculations and let’s look into why that’s the case:
Total time in a week
7 * 8 = 56
5 * 8 = 40
5 * 2 = 10
7 * 2 = 14
7 * 1 = 7
This is my (very conservative) time split within the week - and it only takes into account the basics needed to keep your body in a decent state. As you can see, even with these very optimistic estimates, you already have only 37 hours left.
You could argue that yes, that’s 5 hours every day, but have you considered the time it takes to do groceries, laundry, or see friends occasionally? It’s also impossible to just go from one activity to another, you need to take breaks. Resting only while sleeping is not enough to give your brain enough space to be able to perform at its best.
You can put your social life on pause for some time, you can skip breaks and outsource your chores, but if your project will take longer than a month or two, your sacrifices pile up.
Some days, we all just need to lay on a sofa and watch a silly show or read a book. There’s nothing wrong with that, as opposed to depriving yourself from any form of play and entertainment - this will only leave you frustrated and burned out and you won’t be able to progress at all.
What this means in practice is that your project is likely to take longer, and there’s no point beating yourself up about it because you need time to be human.
I think that’s one of the things I say the most - both on my blog, to other people, and to myself, since I tend to forget about it.
It’s easy to think that if you manage to work on your project 10 hours in one week, every week is going to feel the same. That’s not true and expecting yourself to keep up this pace is a great way to start feeling frustrated with yourself and like you’re a lazy failure - which will lead to burning out by the way, it’s not just your day job that can cause it.
Some weeks you’ll be able to work more, other weeks you’ll have to take it easy. It will delay your deadlines and the project will take longer overall, but at least you’ll be able to function in the process.
Imagine you already have everything in place to keep up the work for long periods of time, you’ve been making consistent progress for a few months and then suddenly you’ve fallen out of your routine.
It happens. It doesn’t mean everything is lost - you can just go back to it in a few days or weeks. It’s just like living a healthy lifestyle: you wouldn’t throw away your entire fitness routine just because you were tempted by a doughnut, would you?
Similarly, sometimes you’ll just have to pause the whole side project thing altogether for a while. That’s also fine, there are more important things in life than that (even though it might be hard to admit it sometimes).
Your health and your loved ones are definitely more important than your work - if you’ve just had a surgery, your friend is going through a rough patch or your mum is sick, just ditch the project. Focus on what’s really important right now. Your project isn’t going anywhere, and chances are you wouldn’t be able to be productive on it anyway if your life is off track.
Manage your energy
You know these days when there’s been a new emergency at work, and your boiler broke and there was a train failure so it took you three times longer to get home than usual? That’s a lot to go through in a day, and I’d strongly argue that it’s probably better to take it easy in the evening rather than getting yourself to work more.
Contrary to popular belief, working more doesn't make you more productive, it’s quite the opposite really. Being well rested and in a good mental place means you’ll be able to do better work in fewer hours.
Remember it next time you’re tempted to stay up late to work, even though you have to wake up early the next day. It really isn’t worth it. To make matters worse, if you’re regularly neglecting your body’s needs, over time it will make it more difficult to recover and be productive in general.
When that happens you’ll need to take more time off everything to get it back in a good state and you’ll end up being slower overall.
Make it a routine
It’s just like working out: in the beginning you really have to remember it and force yourself to go, until one day it becomes a habit and you don’t have to think about it anymore.
Similarly to exercising, the best way to keep yourself accountable is to schedule a meeting with yourself and keep it. This time when something comes up, you’ll know you have something more important to do at that time and it will be easier to pass on it. Of course, as I explained in the section above - be reasonable about it.
In time you’ll learn that having a side project outside of your day job is a lifestyle that you’ll need to get adjusted to and work out the best way to incorporate it into your schedule.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, it’s all about managing your priorities and understanding your needs at any given time. It’s called intentional living and it’s not easy to learn at all, so be kind to yourself.
Not everyone has to work on side gigs, and that’s okay, it doesn’t make you any less awesome. It might just not be the right thing for you in your current phase of life. Regardless of it, I hope you'll find these tips for side projects helpful in your life.