The hardest thing about side projects isn't coming up with ideas. It's what happens after, and how you get from idea to done. We explore how to think like a project manager to work more efficiently, getting to know yourself to tailor your systems to you, and most importantly, how to define what "done" or "successful" even means when it comes to your creative work.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” -James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
Do you have an ongoing list of creative project ideas, but hardly the time to get to even one? Do you have creative dreams, but no energy and time to dedicate to the pursuit of those dreams? Lofty dreams aside, maybe you just want to make stuff and you can’t seem to get it together.
As Roald Dahl c/o Willy Wonka said: “We have so much time and so little to do. Strike that, reverse it.”
It can actually feel like either extreme: mostly we feel like we have too little time, too much we want to do. But some of us may also feel that we have so much time, all 24 hours of it ticking away, slowly and steadily, with too little focus.
Both roads funnily enough can lead to burnout.
I think the truth of it is, there’s always going to be some variance in privilege, circumstance and experience among us, and this impacts the time and ability we have to commit to creative work outside of full-time jobs. We can’t ignore that.
But I also like to think that with the right systems, anyone can work faster and better. That’s the secret advantage.
Think of money, power, race as systems. These are systems that are mostly static. Hard to change. These are systems that hold people back, whether consciously or not, whether we recognize it or not, whether we are the perpetrator or the victim.
When it comes to finding and making time to move your work and life forward, you have to build your own systems to optimize your input and your output, to take ownership over at least your life and your creativity, against all the other systems that aim to keep you where you are.
I know, it all sounds very un-glamourous. Why are we talking about systems when we should be talking about creativity?
So here’s a dose of glamour: have you heard that “you have the same 24 hours a day as Beyonce”? Maybe you’ve seen it plastered over mugs meant to inspire you, to be a call not to use “I have no time” as an excuse not to work hard and to go after what you want.
To that you might say, well Beyonce is rich, famous, beautiful. She has a team working for her. She doesn’t have a day job. Her job is to be Beyonce.
But the point of this turn of phrase is not to strike comparison-itis into anyone who hasn’t made it as a world-renowned celebrity by 19 (the age that Beyonce won her first Grammy as a member of Destiny’s Child.)
And let’s be real: while Beyonce has a lot more help and a lot more resources, her stakes are also a lot higher. If she doesn’t perform well, if she doesn’t outdo her last album or show, it impacts a lot more people than it does for you and I.
Truthfully yes, we all have the same hours in our days. We may not all be starting from the same place, but wherever you’ve landed and however you got here, circumstance and all, your life and how you get from where you are to where you want to go is your choice. Many of us don’t like to face this head on, blaming external circumstances. Well, I can’t because…. They can because they don’t have to…. I don’t have money. I don’t have the energy. I don’t have the time. That’s not for me.
Your goal isn’t to be world famous (unless it is) or rich (unless it is).
It’s more simply to make time, energy and space to live your life the way you want to. That includes living your creative dreams, regardless of whether or not it’s your job, whether people will pay you for it or not, whether you even know why you’re doing it or aren’t quite sure where these dreams even come from.
You’re not Beyonce, but you are you, and that means that you have the freedom and independence that comes with a small or even nonexistent audience. (Unless you’re Beyonce reading this, and if so, call us!)
You can experiment and try things with low risk. You can do things that no one will ever know about — which may sound depressing on the one hand, but often is a blessing in disguise. All the stories you hear of overnight successes are never that; we just don’t hear about the years it took to get there until they’ve already gotten there.
Different people work in different ways, so if you think that there’s one big secret to finding the time for your creative projects, it doesn’t really exist.
All you need to do is look for clues and get closer to how you like to work.
Make up your own rules.
Here are some other tips to “find” time to work on creative projects, average person edition:
Smaller than you think you can go. Micro, even. Once you reframe the whole concept of a side project—yes, it can be a 80,000 word ebook or a 3 month Ruby on Rails app—but it could just as easily be one blog post that takes a day to write. Even smaller than that, it could be a Twitter thread.
Yes, some kinds of creative projects generally take longer than others—but if you want to build an app, do you really need 20 features to start? This isn’t as much about finding time more than it is about building momentum, and moving yourself forward with small wins.
Over time, as you start to build up your side project muscle memory, you’ll find it easier to find the discipline to keep going to make bigger things. Discipline and focus is a huge part of finding time. It’s not time you’re trying to find; it’s trying to maximize and optimize the amount of time you do have.
Figure out if you’re a “one small thing a day” type of person or a “deep work” kind of person. This could depend on the project you’d like to work on, sure. But I think generally, we gravitate towards one style of working or the other. Figure out what type of person you are and make space for that.
If you need deep work time, try to batch errands for a specific block and day of the week. Be strict about this and figure out how to keep it sacred. This could be late night if you’re a night owl, the perfect time for you to think, play and work when the rest of the world is asleep.
Automate whatever you can automate in your life and conduct regular audits of what you can drop in your life.There have been so many recent advances in how we live our lives that we underestimate how much time we can save on things that used to be things we had to do. This could mean meal delivery, having your groceries delivered, doing meal prep, etc. I used to work at a company where every few months, all recurring meetings would be deleted, a palate cleanse for work.
Think about taking the same approach to your life: where can you automate and where have you been on autopilot?
In How to Come Up With Your Next Side Project Idea, I mentioned morning pages to help find your next creative project idea. You can also use the same practice to help you “find time” too, given that mostly I think people mostly do have time, if they think about it; what they’re really lacking is energy.
So think about what tools and practices you can put into practice in your life that will help you take everything that clogs up your brain, the things you think about over and over again, and put it down, tuck it away. For some people, this is bullet journalling. For others, physical exercise or listening to music does the same thing.
A few minutes a day or week can do wonders to keep your mind clear and free and your energy high. That matters more than trying to find extra hours, still spent exhausted.
It’s so obvious but it’s definitely worth pointing out (again). Check how much time you spend on your phone per day. The average person spends 3.5 hours per day. What’s 3.5 hours? That’s almost half a workday! You could have half another job with that time. I know, it feels like such an easy, passive activity. Working for 3.5 hours is not the same as mindlessly scrolling for 3.5 hours.
This is again, one of those systems designed to keep us aligned to someone else’s goals (click more stuff). I recently put a timer on Instagram so that I give myself the time to browse a social media platform that I happen to enjoy, but I stop myself from going too far deep into a world that’s designed by very smart people paid lots of money just to keep me there.
Use project management approaches to build better systems for your projects.Tools like Kanban help you keep your active task list as light as possible so that you don’t spend time looking at a long list and feeling overwhelmed.
You may borrow from successful project management practices and prefer to work in sprints. Within the frame of a sprint, you can break it down even further: do a lot in a short period of time (that means cutting out other obligations if you can, planning to optimize your energy, etc) or to use timebound sprints to do a little at a time, but consistently and with each stretch.
I like to do both. When I have a very specific idea, and the time to work on it (this year it’s been during lockdown), I love working on one project in a short period of time, start to finish, idea to launch. Not having to context-switch allows me to get a lot done within a short period.
But, in my regular day-to-day, I don’t often have the energy on evenings or even weekends to do the same kind of work, in that same way. When I was getting serious about learning to code, I once tried, hoping to do a #100daysofcode stretch, then build project after project while balancing a job. I had my list, tons of brilliant ideas, and my plan laid out in front of me.
I burned out and wasn’t having fun. From this, I learned not to force creativity or learning during major life events, such as starting a new job or moving. My Github acts as a very accurate record of this journey, periods of the commit and the push, usually no more than a few weeks at a time, punctuated by a lot of empty stretches of nothing.
I did learn a lot but I’ve decided since then to work with the much more manageable (for me) #10daysofcode.
We hate to disappoint others, more than we hate disappointing ourselves. It’s why a lot of us seem to get a lot done at work, even if we don’t particularly like our jobs, but we can’t seem to put the same level of effort and commitment into our own projects. We’re our own worst bosses but good things can happen much faster when we have others to keep us accountable.
Maybe it’s informal: surrounding yourself with people who also have goals and projects they’re working on. Or, you could work out a more formal structure and set up recurring checkpoints, Zoom work sessions once a week, etc.
There’s a reason why so many online courses now have community built in: with so much information out there, the challenge in today’s world isn’t so much finding the knowledge but the motivation.
So maybe you have the perfect project idea but do you have all the skills you need? Sometimes the best creative project ideas are collaborations, the efforts of two or more people coming together to make magic. This isn’t a time saver, really. It’s more of a time and impact amplifier. Start to think of time this way too.
Make yourself visible.
Pay attention to people who share similar values to you but come with complementary skillsets.
Collaborations don’t need to be formal. They can be trades, service barters for one particular part of your project that you’re not an expert on. Want to develop a site but need some design help?
What I mean by this is: work on projects with a specific end outcome and be very, very careful about ongoing projects. Ongoing projects, hate to break it to you, but they never last. They’re just not meant to. There are only x number of companies in the world that have lasted 100 years, and that’s due to the efforts of many people with lots of money. Societies crumble, businesses crumble, surely your creative project will too.
But so often, we correlate success with our ability to survive, to keep things going, to exist beyond a memory. Just as it is with relationships too, success may not be measured in time but in impact. What did it mean to you, to the people you made it for?
Maybe the best container for your project is ongoing. But break away from the notion that the default parameter for success is how long something exists, and think more about the desired outcome and impact instead.
Welcome to the side project graveyard, the place where ideas go to die. Some of these may have never made it past idea, and others did, only to die during the birthing phase. Others still make it live, and then….
Yep, they die.
It all sounds very dramatic but just as life imitates art and vice versa, the pursuit of creative work is an ongoing state of conception, birth, and death. Creativity is cyclical, ephemeral, and its success often measured by external outcomes: money, fame, praise.
Did you get the job?
Do you have a million followers?
But the real beauty of a life in pursuit of creative side projects, no matter where they end up going or leading to, can be found through the simple act of trying to move the needle towards being able to answer yes to this question: are you proud of your work and your life?
Side projects are not the same as a side hustle, where ambition precedes growth. They don’t need to be shared to be successful, and you shouldn’t expect them to last. You don’t always need to have one; sometimes, you’re in a season of life where there are other priorities.
The philosophy that I like to take with side projects is the same as I take with most things: let things live and then die. When you look back, some projects may seem larger than others, some will go on to be forgotten. But they’ll all have led you to where you are now or where you will go, in ways both concrete (a new skill you’ve learned) and less tangible (getting closer to future you).
As you move through life, change jobs, grow your creative perspective, the what of your side projects will evolve as you do and the how may too. But if you can understand why side projects are important and not frivolous but necessary to your creative growth and potential, then the first steps is to start to think about how you can arrange your life, time and systems so that it becomes easier to pursue that work, no matter where you are in your creative journey.
What can you leave behind? Who can you surround yourself with? How do you do your best work?
The whole point of building systems in your life to help you make more creative work outside of your day job is not necessarily the outcome of that side project, but of how it leads to the expansion or your self.
And that is what the world is built on: people all expanding individually, and then together. That’s how civilization, art, science, community and society is made.
The ability to imagine and to take that imagination and make it into reality is one of the things that is really distinctive about humans. Whether it’s painting, building airplanes, or figuring out how to make a paycheck last to the end of the month, it all stems from the same creative capacity. And there is no better way to flex that creativity muscle than to do art, be exposed to art, and to think about art. -Augustin Fuentes, author of The Creative Spark, How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional
For all the times where you’ve felt unfulfilled, unrealized, unseen, unheard or unnoticed, you will always have the power to take your life, your creativity, and your career into your own hands through a side project. And with whatever money, success, and notoriety you may—or may not— achieve, there will always be another side project idea on the edge of your creative synapses, leading you to next, something on the edge, something just about to come to view.
So try not to hold on too tightly to something just because it feels like giving up to let go. It will feel like failure, whether it’s the quiet kind or a very public failure. Just know that creativity evolves and it grows, just like you do: you’ll always have something more you want to do, make, build and learn.
Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.