I’m a big believer in the power of side projects. This blog was once a side project. Same for the business behind it. Nearly every professional milestone I’ve made was from something that happened in my spare time, and I don’t think that’s an accident.
Side projects harness the unexpected. While your regular job and career needs some stability so you can pay the bills, you can take much bigger risks with smaller projects. A few of those risks will really pay off, and may even evolve into new full-time opportunities.
The problem is that side projects are difficult. You don’t have a lot of time to work on them. The motivation to work on side projects can also wane. Nobody will fire you for not showing up on your pet project, so they die more often from neglect than outright failure.
I want to share some practices I’ve found useful for picking side projects, and more importantly, actually finishing them.
Designing the Right Project
A surprisingly big part of finishing a side project is making sure you choose the right one. Most side projects fail before they start because the person didn’t design them properly. I keep an eye on several criteria whenever I take on a new project.
1) Pick a Few Hard Constraints
Contrary to popular opinion, flexibility doesn’t make a project easier to execute. Hard constraints force you to be realistic when making estimates and prevent your project from ballooning in scope.
When I started the MIT Challenge, I made my constraints very clear from the start—pass the final exams. Early on I added programming projects to that criteria, but otherwise the goal was clear and constrained. This omitted a lot—I wouldn’t do presentations and I would only do assignments to help me learn the material. But those omissions also made the project feasible.
A good rule of thumb is that a project should have at least three constraints: scope, content and mission. Scope means you constrain the project to be only a certain amount of time or a very clearly defined size. Content means what you’re actually going to do—I chose exams and programming for my MIT Challenge, but I could have gone with something different (say a research project). Mission means you narrowly pick what your project stands for, which then lets you make cuts more easily when things start to grow.
2) Look for Random Upside Potential
Random upside potential is when a project has the ability to push you into new territory and has the possibility of big rewards if it is successful. These kinds of projects usually leverage some of your expertise, but also include a large random component which means you’ll end up needing to learn a lot to keep up.
I know I’ve found a project with random upside potential if I can get excited about the possibilities of success, but I’m also unsure exactly how to execute the project. Projects which lie entirely within your existing expertise will be more stable, but also lack this random upside potential.
3) Make it as Big as it Needs, But No Bigger
Most projects have a crossing point. Any smaller and they sharply lose their random upside potential, interestingness or impact. The best projects are those picked just past that point.
I’d love to make a blanket statement that the best projects are three months or only require 100 hours, but I’d be lying. The MIT Challenge was a year-long project, and took thousands of hours. Had I done the “do a freshman year of MIT in three months challenge” it would have been significantly less interesting.
However, it’s easy to let projects grow in imagination. Your idea for an app you want to build on the side starts with a few core features, but then balloons into a monster. Monstrous projects are really hard to finish.
Executing the Project
Once you’ve designed the project, you then need to do all the work. This is the hard part and where most projects fail. Fortunately, if you designed your project well, implementation is far easier.
I stress the importance of good project design because fixing design errors is far easier than combatting the difficulties of execution. A few strokes of the pencil on a notepad is much easier than altering the discipline, motivation and sweat that comes later.
1) Be Realistic With Your Time
A common mistake is greatly overestimating your willpower and motivation in the planning phases. It’s one thing to say you’ll wake up at 5am every morning to put in two hours on your project before work. It’s a very different thing to actually avoid pressing that snooze button.
I like to do a test week of a project schedule when I’m still in the design phase to see what’s reasonable. I did a pilot course before I started the MIT Challenge which let me know what trying to do a course in one week would look like for my time.
2) Work Strictest in the Beginning
I started at a class-per-week pace during the first few months of the MIT Challenge. This wasn’t necessary—there were 33 classes and 52 weeks to complete them. However, doing this gave me a cushion for the later classes which could have been more difficult, or if I got burnt out.
You can overdo this. Starting an exercise plan with a 20-mile run is a bad idea. But your motivation will never be higher than the first few weeks, so use that momentum to lay out good habits.
My suggestion is to be the most rigid about your work schedule in the beginning, and let yourself relax more as the project stays on target. The early stringency will mean when your discipline wanes later, you’ll still be on schedule.
3) Set Triggers to Combat Perfectionism
Perfectionism is an easy trap to fall into, particularly for those favorite projects of yours you really want to succeed. It can be hard to say “this is good enough” and move on.
The truth is, the quality you can execute is relative to what you’ve executed in the past. I’ve met almost nobody that has had a spectacular success from a first attempt without an intermediate level of quality from a less successful prior project. This means perfectionism can become a cancer if the quality you’re trying to achieve isn’t possible from a first iteration.
The best way to combat this tendency is to define trigger moments where you’ll be forced to move onto a next stage. Setting hard deadlines for milestones and not allowing yourself to fudge them later allows you to perfect as much as you can but pull the trigger when time runs out.
The Lifelong Project Mentality
If you’re not already doing a side project, I’d recommend starting one. Although they can complicate your schedule and make life busier, they are one of the few consistent keys I’ve observed in almost anyone who has impressive accomplishments.
I try to have the practice of always having a side project. If there is a period without a big side project, I’ll take on smaller ones that let me dabble and reflect for the next one I’ll undertake.
The biggest achievements your life are rarely going to be those someone forced you to do. They’ll be the things you undertook from your own initiative. Execution is a skill and it is cultivated through practice. Side projects are valuable because they instill this habit of making your ideas a reality.