How side projects can help keep you sane

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Side projects are things we do that aren’t our main jobs. Does that thought invigorate you or make your heart sink? I’m firmly in the former camp… 

This blog/newsletter started as a side project. Back in 2006, I had a writing/editing contract with a big corporation that paid the bills. But I wanted to do something else — something that I found more satisfying and rewarding.

I began with a weekly newsletter about writing, and didn’t find it too overwhelming to produce 750 words every Tuesday. Soon, my subscriber list grew from hundreds to thousands, all around the world. And before long, I had a new side project: A book.

I self-published 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better in 2008 and the quick — and ongoing — sales thrilled me. If I were a publishing company, I’d call this a strong backlist book or one with a long tail because it’s still selling strong.

My next side project? Blogging five times weekly. Initially, I’d avoided this commitment figuring it too onerous. But once I’d vanquished the habit of editing while I wrote, I knew I could produce another 250 to 500 words per day, no problem.

From there, for my next side project I launched the popular course Extreme Writing Makeover. And I started coaching one-on-one.

Let me confess something, though. Even though my products and services aren’t “cheap,” I don’t make a living wage from them. They’re interesting. Intellectually rewarding. Challenging in ways I like.

But I earn most of my money from consulting. I work for businesses that require writing, editing, training or crisis communications. I enjoy this work, of course. But I enjoy my blog, my book and my coaching just as much, if not more.

Do you want a side project or two? Here’s some advice — particularly if your side project involves writing:

  1. Draw a box around yourself, firmly outlining how much time you’re able to commit to it. If you have a fulltime job and a very young family, perhaps you don’t have time for big side projects right now. So pick something less demanding. Or divide the big side project into smaller and more easily achievable tasks.
  2. Understand that not everything is about making money. We all have a host of motivations for everything we do. If you get great satisfaction out of something, perhaps you don’t need to make much — if any — money out of it. Or maybe your side project can be something that will enhance your reputation. In turn, this may lead to greater financial success in other parts of your life.
  3. Enjoy the process. Side projects are always experiments. Not all of them will succeed. Check in with yourself, regularly, making sure you enjoy your side project. And if you don’t, dump it and do something else.
  4. If you want a different result understand that you’ll have to work in a different way. Remember Albert Einstein’s dictum: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The good news is that you’re your own boss with your side projects so you have the freedom to try other ways of doing things.
  5. Don’t judge your own success. Of course, you can judge your own happiness with the project, but don’t judge whether or not it’s “worked.” You need some external measurements for this. These might be as simple and inexpensive as Google Analytics or sales figures. Or you might need to hire a consultant or a coach to help you evaluate. Most of us are terrible at self-evaluation so think about this investment in the same way you view the cost of music lessons for your kids, or a personal trainer at the gym.

I have several side projects that aren’t specifically related to writing. One is that I coach a debating team at my local high school. Another is that I read at least 52 books every year — watch for my column on that in a few weeks.

Your side projects will be different and maybe some of them relate to writing. But whatever they are, they’ll help you create a more fulfilling life.

What  side projects give you the most satisfaction? How do you handle them? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by November 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the non-fiction book, Blog Inc by Joy Deangdeelert Cho. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

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