How to Stay Focused on Your Side Projects

Last updated on January 1st, 2021

What I enjoy (and dislike) about freelancing is my ability to pick and choose my work, and create a career path for myself. I enjoy this because I can try and learn a whole lot of new things. I dislike this because there is an endless amount of things to try, and believe me, I try them all.

I’ve had good luck with finding freelance clients and projects to work on in the past two years. Historically, this has given me balance in my professional work time, and I really only spent about two hours per day on a single side project. Most recently, “side projects” became my working on @halfhalftravel.

Halfhalftravel was my way of learning advertising, marketing, design and writing.

Setting a time limit for working on @halfhalftravel allowed me to stay focused and not deviate from the original mission of creating a useful travel resource. I have a Trello board filled with new feature ideas, collaboration and brand partnership thoughts and plans to monetize and grow the traffic. Whenever I had a free moment, I would pick an appropriately-sized task and get to work. This wasn’t the perfect process, but it kept me focused and helped make significant progress on building out the site from scratch.

As @halfhalftravel grew, I wanted to do more things. I would think of an idea and try it right away. I ignored my Trello board and lost track of my own project planning. Balancing the writing of new content, editing photos and improving the SEO started to exceed my allotted two hours per day that I wanted to spend on side projects.

When I found myself with more time, I started to learn more about Pinterest, affiliate marketing and SEO. As I used this ‘more time’ wisely, I started adding more photos to my stock photography sites. I found myself with even more time and I started making YouTube videos. I (somehow) found myself with way too much time and I started experimenting with gig sites like Fiverr and Upwork. I would read articles and watch videos about everything I could find about passive income and growing a community.

Now, instead of carefully working toward a single goal, with one side project, I had a large number of side projects all moving at the same time. I wanted to take a step back and figure out why I like working on side projects so much and if there was anything that I could share about my process that could help others.

How to choose a side project to work on

A side project can be anything that you work on, well, on the side. If it’s not really a side project, then it’s your “main project,” or primary source of income. I try and make my side projects support my primary source of income in terms of applied skills. Money is usually my motivation to get into a new side project, but that isn’t always the case.

Any time I come across an interesting idea, I’m curious as to how it can work for me. Focusing specifically on passive income, there are so many rabbit holes to explore. You can try affiliate marketing, stock photography and ad sales from a popular blog or social media account. Focusing on active income, you can work on sites like Upwork, Fiverr or even Ask Lorem. Focusing on social media, you can grow your Instagram account, Pinterest account or YouTube following. Aside from all of this, you can create your own blog, app or service. The sky’s the limit!

Because there are so many options to choose from, any time I want to try something new, I always make sure that I get value out of a new idea. Let’s take SEO for example. I found an issue with because it wasn’t ranking as high as I wanted it to, for certain keywords. I searched with the most obvious search terms to try and find my answer: “How to get more traffic,” “How to rank #1 on Google,” etc. I read all of those blog posts and watched all of those videos.

Each suggestion that I found was a huge undertaking and learning experience to master. Let’s take backlinks, for example. Backlinking is a valuable way to grow your SEO for a website. Sure, I can find broken links and point people to an article that I have that fixes their broken link. Sure, I can write articles about services or tools, then email people and encourage them to add my link to their websites. Sure, I can write guest posts for blogs and link back to my article.

All of these backlinking strategies are incredibly time-consuming and could easily fill up all of my time. I had to ask myself, is this something that I want to master, and how much benefit will it give me? At the time of my original investigation, it had little return. I would be backlinking to a project that had 10 or 15 articles and I felt like I had bigger things to work on, first.

I tend to choose a new idea to run with on based on a few different factors: first, my level of interest, second, the question of if I could apply a given skill to a bigger project or idea and third, if the idea is something that I want to learn more about. These are all good first steps in determining which side project to focus your time and energy on.

How to know when to ditch a side project

Like in my backlinking project above, I didn’t find immediate value in continuing to learn and implement the strategies. I’m glad that I learned what I learned, and I’m even more glad that I don’t consider this strategy a priority anymore with any of the blogs that I work on.

I started a blog all about GIFs and my plan was to grow the blog and monetize it with ads. I explored hiring writers and I explored building my own content about GIFs. After struggling to come up with content ideas, I realized it wasn’t worth pursuing.

Even if I invested money in building out the content, I realized that GIFs aren’t that interesting and I couldn’t get excited about wanting to promote it.

I’d say that if you have a hard time committing to the project after you gave it a chance, then it’s worth abandoning or coming back to after a long break. That strategy has worked for me, and I haven’t thought twice about moving on from an idea.

What if your side projects don’t earn any money?

I’ll go months into a new idea, learn everything about it and start implementing a strategy for it. Side projects totally can be learning a new skill that you can use to market yourself at a later date.

I started teaching myself Jekyll more than four years ago. I liked the idea of a static site generator and being able to host an entire site through Github pages. After learning the entire platform and building a few personal sites, there wasn’t much left to do with Jekyll. The sites that I built had no earning potential.

A few years ago, I found out that Shopify actually maintains the liquid template engine. Jekyll uses the same syntax for templating. Using what I knew about Jekyll and translating that into Shopify was a great discovery.

To date, I’ve built a few Shopify themes and have actively maintained several Shopify stores for clients. I consider my Jekyll-learning experience and building some fun sites as a side project that didn’t earn me any money. Because I was able to parlay those skills into paying work, my side project indirectly earned me money.

Determine if your idea has potential

I got my first introduction to stock photography in 2011. I uploaded a few of my photos to a few different sites and left them alone. Over eight years, I’ve only earned about $100 from those photos that I uploaded 2011. In 2017, I decided to give stock photography another shot (get it?). I accumulated thousands of solid images throughout the years and they had nowhere to go.

I gave myself a week to explore stock photography. I went through my photo collection. I added titles, descriptions and keywords to hundreds of files. I even wrote a couple of keywording tools to help me save some time, and I found some programs to help with the other metadata.

I took my images and spread them across several different stock photography sites. I waited and observed which sites had the highest return. I evaluated which sites had the easiest uploading process. Then, I waited. I had a few files resonate, and made a few hundred dollars off of several images. See? Potential.

Stock photography isn’t going to turn into a full-time career for me, because adding meta information to photos isn’t my ideal way to spend a day. In addition, outsourcing this type of labor is too expensive.

But, if I spend 30 minutes every few days and upload 10 images to various stock sites, traction will start to form. That $100 quickly can turn into $1000.

The best way to know if your idea or side project is going to work is to give it a valid try. Learn all of the struggles and learn what comes easy to you. Get some signals from the market to determine if what you offer has real value. If no one bites or if you can’t see yourself following through with it, it’s probably better not to spend any more time with your idea.

Set goals for yourself

Goals are good to have because they provide ways that you can see your progress. It’s like a video game. Each level is clearly defined and there is an end in sight. If you fail at a certain level, you keep trying until you pass a checkpoint. Side projects are similar - actually, they’re really similar to video games.

I don’t want to call a side project a game, but there’s a gamification aspect of wanting to excel in an idea that you make from scratch.

A goal can be small, or it can be big. All of my projects are made up of goals of all sizes. In my example above with @halfhalftravel, I do have that Trello board filled with my sub-tasks. Each task represents a goal in some shape or form. They’re there for me when I’m ready to pick up a new idea to work on toward building out @halfhalftravel. Without that, my mind runs wild and I’ll end up running in circles forever.

Have fun!

Side projects should be projects that you enjoy working on. If a project is not fun to work on, why would you want to spend your time working on it? I enjoy my work, and I also enjoy challenging myself with new and creative ideas. My creative outlets are my side projects. They keep me motivated and help me through everyday challenges.

Learning how to stay focused on something is different for everyone. For me, the steps that I’ve discussed above are the process that has worked for me. I’ll have an idea, I’ll try it out, I’ll optimize what I can and finally, I’ll eliminate the bad ideas.

What’s your next project? What do you enjoy working on?

First published on January 29, 2019