Side Project Overload


Photo by Josh Bancroft

Photo by Josh Bancroft

People tease me that my hobby is starting user groups. I also organize big events for geeks in my spare time just for fun. I’m one of those people who notices the gaps and jumps in to fill them. When I wish Portland had an event, user group, or other gathering that doesn’t currently exist, I feel compelled to start it. I also enjoy meeting with other people to talk about common interests, learn new things, or help others who need a little guidance (the way others have helped me over the years). All of these activities are amazing and fun, but they are side projects that take up valuable time.

While I enjoy all of these activities, I’m starting to experience serious side project bloat resulting in personal overload. I’ve let my side projects take over to the point that I’m having a hard time making room for my paying client work. Part of my reason for starting my own consulting business was to give me more personal flexibility to manage my work and my side projects rather than having my hours managed by an 8 to 5 work day schedule. I have many other web worker friends who have made similar choices, and most of us seem to struggle with balancing our time between paying work and the side projects that are our passions.

There are a few ways to create a better balance between work and side projects.

A friend of mine recently implemented a “one thing” policy to better manage his time. He only does one non-paying “thing” a day during normal work hours. For example, if he already had coffee with me, he won’t have tacos for lunch with Todd.

I have started combining activities and asking people to join me at events like Beer and Blog if they want to talk to me or chat about side projects. It helps me combine those informal meetings with other events that I am already attending.

I also have started finding co-leads for anything that I decide to start, which helps spread the organizing load a bit. I am also going to start cutting a few things and doing a better job of resisting the urge to start new things along with saying no to more activities.

What are your tips and tricks for managing the balance between side projects, fun activities, and paying gigs?


remote desktop software

The “one thing” policy is a good one that I’ve been trying to stick to for a while. Relevant question: does reading a blog and responding constitute a “one thing?” Hmm…

Jon Payne

Slot your time. I have a block of time from 4-6pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays for my side projects. In this case they do “pay”, just not as well as my “main work”. They might pay for my lunch that day!

Only issue with slotting time is that eventually you start to commit a great deal of it, and if you try to be flexible and move blocks around you’ll find you aren’t getting things done like you had planned. Almost have to be hard-headed about this – at least I do. The trick is to also slot big blocks of “open time” so you can be flexible and handle things that just come up.

Pete Prodoehl

Yup, same problem… I can’t sit still for too long, so besides working full-time, running my own business, organizing Web414, BarCamps, DevHouses, and other things, I’m also trying to produce a documentary, and oh, it’s February, so I need to record an album for the RPM Challenge. I have come to the conclusion that I am insane.


I saw the title of this article and thought : “I’m not alone, yipeee !”. But, have I to be so happy actually ?

Thank to Audrey for her comment on dormant, open source and shared responsabilities; I completely agree with this mind.

My secret tip ?
– share project with friend for motivation
– measure the pleasure, and chose the max to have fun without regrets

excuse my bad english


It’s a hard struggle to stay focused. And yr own work is *always* more interesting and creative than the client’s. Hell, *you* thought of it. Ha. I work in bigger chunks of time – an afternoon is not usually enough to complete the app I had an idea for. So for me it’s usually a week on and then a week off. The hard part is not letting it bleed.

Dawn Foster

Aaron, What do you mean? Portlanders never have side projects. Oh wait, you were the other person to start a new user group in Portland in the past week :)


Saw this post title come into my river of news today, chuckled to myself thinking “I wonder if this is about Portlanders” – then I noticed which site it was from and who wrote it :)

Monica Enand

I have given this issue a lot of thought – It keeps coming up for me. Thanks for posting on it. I love the one thing idea. For me – I don’t put the side stuff on the same “to-do” list that I put the work stuff on. That way if the side stuff creeps into my head naturally I know that it is important to me in some way.


I can really relate because I’ve run into the same challenges. What I started doing is giving me a specific time and day to do those side projects. This lets me relax and not worry about work I need to get done, because I know all I’m doing today, is whatever I want : )


Love the “one thing” approach. Going to have to implement that in my life as well. It’s simply and obvious, but it’s such a great way get it on your head.


I’ve struggled with this too, and had to cut back and reduce the number of things I was actively working on. Aside from just doing less, other things that help:
* Some projects can safely go dormant. I’ll come back later when I have time.
* Putting tools out there for other people to do their own thing with what I started (open access to edit wikis, collaborate on maps, etc.) Open access to underlying data.
* Getting several people involved at the start, and documenting _everything_ so people know the project, event, etc. works without any one person having to be in charge of everything. It’s important to get other people invested in both the outcome of the project, and the process to get there.

I also keep a list of things I’d like to work on when I have time, with notes as I think of more ideas to try out, which helps me postpone diving in and doing something when I don’t really have time.


I don’t call my side project One Man Designs for no reason. I only take on one side project at a time (designing websites).

If nothing else it helps allay client fears that they only deal with one person, and this way they know that I’m solely focussed on their project.

It’s a luxury though, like I say, this is a side job stuff not my main income.


I have the same problem with creative projects. I see a potential project and regardless of how good the current project is, I can’t stop obsessing over what I could be doing with the other project. The best way I’ve found to combat it is to learn to say “not now” to other potential projects until I get the current ones to a definite stopping place. Above and beyond that I write blog entries about the potential projects in case other people want to explore the idea.

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