Side Projects: How to Start (and Finish) One

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Amanda Zantal-Wiener
Amanda Zantal-Wiener


It might be an unpopular opinion, but I do believe that having tons of great ideas isn’t always a good thing.

There just isn’t enough time in a single day to tackle all of them -- let alone while also doing your day job. So how do you choose just one -- and once you do, how do you make time to work on it, and see it through to the end?

That, my friends, is why we get search results like these:

side projects search results.png

We get it: Finishing a side project is really, really hard. After all, when you put in long days or weeks at work, the last thing you want to do is, well, more work -- even if you have a remarkable idea.Download Now: How to Be More Productive at Work [Free Guide + Templates]

But it’s not impossible. In fact, with a few changes to your outlook and approach to your side project, it might actually be what you had originally imagined -- fun. Some side projects can even become side hustles that allow you to make money and profit from your work. That’s why we compiled this list of tips to complete those side projects that you’re determined to see through to the end.

6 Tips to Start (and Finish) a Side Project

1) Make sure the novelty isn't going to wear off.

Many moons ago, I was having a career chat with my then-editor about some business ideas, when she introduced me to my favorite term: “shiny object syndrome.” I use it to describe my tendency to think of a great idea, jump into it with full force and excitement, and after a month or two … lose interest.

From what I’ve observed, it’s a common phenomenon among creative people, which makes it that much more difficult to actually finish a side project before you think of another one that’s, well, “shinier.” So to prevent that, we’ve established a few steps to follow:

  1. Make sure you’re really excited about the idea -- really excited.
  2. Give it 10 days, and see if you’re still excited. If you are, proceed to the next step.
  3. Acknowledge just how difficult this project will be. How much time will it require? Are you actually going to be so excited about it that you still want to give it your attention after a terrible day at work?
  4. Give it a trial run. For one work week, schedule an hour each night to do research on the project.

If your responses to each step are pretty much affirmative, then that’s a good sign. Proceed -- but not without caution.

2) Be respectful of your employer's time.

Sometimes, your employer might encourage you to execute a side project on the company’s behalf. It might be an experiment with new types of blog content, or starting a branded podcast. But never forget about your “day job” -- you know, the thing you were hired to do because of its ultimate impact on the product and customer.

In other words, even if the side project is something your manager signed off on, be respectful of the company’s time and resources. Here at HubSpot, we approach everything we do with a general formula:

customer > team > individual

If your instincts tell you that you might be neglecting your “normal” work for the sake of your side project, they’re probably right -- and that can have a negative impact on both your team and the company. Until you can provide evidence that your side project will have equal or greater impact, always give priority to the job you were hired to do. After all, it’s called a side project because it’s something you do on the side.

If the project isn’t being carried out on behalf of your employer, then it’s best not to give it much, if any of your attention during work hours. Many times, employees are required to sign documents agreeing not to use company resources -- like computers or other supplies -- to work on anything other than the work they were hired to do, so it’s better to be safe than sorry, and work on your project during your own time.

3) Wave your "nights and weekends" white flag of surrender.

If you really want to see your side project through to the end, be prepared to lose the vast majority of your nights and weekends to it. Of course, watching another episode of “Orange Is the New Black” might be easier and more enjoyable -- in the moment. But is it going to lead to something that’s ultimately fulfilling in the long run? Probably not. Sorry, pal, but step away from the Netflix.

But even that might not be enough, and you might have to treat your nights-and-weekends dedication the same way that you would treat anything with longer-term benefits, like a healthier lifestyle, or saving to buy a house.

"If you're planning to work on your side project ‘whenever you get a chance’,” says Dmitry Shamis, HubSpot’s senior manager of web development, "you'll never touch it.”

It might mean that you have to stay up later or skip happy hour, but build time spent on your side project into your routine. If you go to the gym after work, schedule an hour after you get home and make dinner to work on it. Or maybe you’re an early bird -- I am, and I’ll be the first to admit that the hour I spend each morning drinking coffee and scrolling through Instagram could probably be spent more productively.

In any case, make your side project part of your day-to-day activities. It’ll feel less like a burden, and more like something that you just naturally do.

4) Tell other people about it.

A few years ago, researchers at Dominican University conducted a study to see if writing down goals or sharing them with a friend correlated with a higher rate of meeting them. In short -- it did.

side projects goals.png
Source: Sid Savara

Notice how the groups that wrote their goals down and committed them to a friend outperformed on accomplishing them, compared to the groups with unwritten goals. Putting our ideas on the record, even if just by writing them in a notebook, gives them life, and makes us that much more likely to follow through on them. Plus, by telling a friend, you’ll avoid those awkward moments of stammering for a response when she asks you how your project is going.

"Hold yourself accountable by telling other people about your project,” says HubSpot ‎Senior Marketing Manager Lindsay Kolowich. “Better yet, tell other people about the smaller parts of it you’ve vowed to complete by a certain time. I always find a little external pressure to be a helpful motivator."

5) Join an industry community.

Depending on the category your project falls under, there's likely an online community or Meetup group for it. Let’s say I wanted to find a meetup where I could talk about an SEO side project. Even with this fairly narrow search criteria, I still managed to find three relevant groups:

side projects meetup.png

Much of this goes back to the idea of accountability through others. And by sharing your side project with a community of others who are interested in the same topic, not only are you getting the motivation of external pressure that Kolowich mentioned -- you’re also improving your chances of getting objective insights and feedback on your ideas.

6) Reward yourself for progress.

Finally, if you’ve followed the above five steps, it’s okay to independently recognize your own hard work. External praise is great, but sometimes, it’s nice to reward yourself for your accomplishments.

"I pay myself in cookies and mozzarella sticks for completed tasks," says Niti Shah, a senior growth marketing manager at HubSpot.

Hey -- whatever it takes.

Whether it’s a nap or a special treat, sticking to your resolve to see a side project through to the end deserves recognition.

What are some of the best ways you’ve found to finish a side project? Let us know in the comments.

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