Strategies for Side Project Success

Side projects can be a vehicle for personal growth and discovery. Even when the result isn’t long-term financial gain, the education and experience that comes with a new product launch is always rewarding.

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Side gigs have allowed me to learn new skills, meet smart and interesting people, and explore aspects of business that my full-time job does not offer. Those who freelance or work from home often generate ideas for side projects, each a new rabbit to chase down a hole.

But should you follow? The answer is a resounding “maybe.”

With careful consideration, respect for the work that pays your bills, and the ability to stay focused, you can pursue a side project successfully. You can—and should—follow that rabbit, as long as you do so with patience, intention, and discipline.

Strike a balance

Pursuing a side project while another gig pays your bills is tough. Many people talk about finding the time to work on a project, and that’s a problem. You don’t find time for something like this: you designate it.

If you have an hour after dinner to pursue a new venture, write it on the calendar and make it an official date. It’s harder to shrug something off if time has been set aside for it.

Note that I suggested only designating an hour. It’s not much time, and that’s intentional. Your billable hours should be the priority, even when an idea is new and exciting. Take it slow so you aren’t robbing yourself of paid work.

Make a plan

Any successful side project should start by clearly defining the idea. I do this with a mind map, which is like a semi-organized brainstorm. It’s an excellent way to get all your thoughts, ideas and reflections on a single topic written down for later reference.

Start by writing the idea in the center of the document and then branch out all of the things that help define it and make it into reality. When you’re done, it’s easy to see all of the components of your side project in one place. From there, you can put them into categories and get to work during your designated time.

Define essentials and enhancements

Ideas usually start flowing freely once you’ve defined the new project and put it into a mind map. It’s a great feeling, but it’s important to be mindful of what’s necessary and what’s just fun.

I recommend using two lists to separate the two. Name the first “Essentials” and use it to record what must be in place to get a minimum viable product up and running. The result is a clear roadmap getting you from where you are to where you want to be.

Name the other list “Enhancements” and use it to record things that are fun features to have like that cool animation, integrated Twitter sharing, and so on. Only turn your attention to Enhancements once the Essentials list is completed.

This takes will power, but remain strong. You can delay that gratification.

Beware the enthusiasm bell curve

It’s normal for enthusiasm to taper as you work on the more mundane parts of a side project. If it’s a business, this could include opening a business checking account, determining the cost of the product or service, registering your business, and so on.

This is a dangerous time because it’s usually when that second idea pops into your head. It’s tempting to turn to the new idea and leave the original plan in the dust, but abandoning ideas halfway through is how side projects never get finished.

Plus, take comfort in knowing that you’ll feel the same way about the second idea once you’re halfway through launching it, too.

Know when to put it aside

Sometimes a brilliant idea comes to you at the exact wrong time. If you can’t dedicate time to work on a side project right now, it’s still possible to seize the opportunity by:

  • Filing it for later. If a new idea appears when you can’t work on it, store it for later. Put a reminder on your calendar on an appropriate date in the future.
  • Grabbing the domain name now. If you must delay work, grab the related domain name now before it gets scooped up.
  • Identifying the small steps that you can do now. This will often result from your mind mapping session.
  • Conducting relevant research. Read books or subscribe to a relevant podcast to listen to while in the car or during downtime. There’s a great book called Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky that addresses much of this.
  • Working on behind-the-scenes planning. Think about everything that must be done before you can begin work. When you’re ready to pick the project up again, all of the planning will be in place.

The keys to planning and managing side projects

Side projects take focus and planning but can be hugely rewarding—both financially and for personal growth.

Maintaining momentum when you begin a side project is key to getting it across the finish line. Break tasks down into small chunks, set attainable goals for the week, and create a series of small wins for yourself.

As Jerry Seinfeld says, don’t break the chain. Work smart, and good luck.