Loads of creatives and freelancers have a side project. Some even have several! They reduce stress, highlight capability and give you a safe place to stretch yourself outside of client-facing work. They can give all kinds of benefits including new work for your portfolio, giving your practical places to learn new techniques and restoring confidence after client knocks.
This is all amazing positive. Yet there is a dark side here, too. Sometimes, it can be a case of taking a side project way too seriously. That can hurt collaboration or place too much stress on something that should be about challenging yourself to do your best.
Here’s how to spot if you are taking a side project too seriously. And what you can do about it instead.
You don’t feel refreshed
Side projects are meant to be freeing. It’s your opportunity to have a little more control over your destiny. It’s about being outside of obligations to others. And it’s also about using accountability and deadlines to a positive effect.
When we take our side projects too seriously, we tend to place pressure on them to succeed. It generally means that the focus shifts from the work we are doing to the outcome we hope to produce.
Once this starts to happen, a side project begins the rapid road to decline to homework territory. It’s become an ‘all or nothing’ scenario that can even invite procrastination and analysis paralysis because the launch takes the place of progress.
Stay present with the creative process. Think about what you can do reasonably in the time available. Dream for the future, but not to the point where it becomes another form of punishment. And reflect and congratulate yourself for the progress you make.
You can’t decide your next steps
Overthinking a project and getting crushed by the weight of possibility generally shows up in one thing- being unable to see the way forward.
When we take a project too seriously, we tend to be unable to make clear decisions. There’s a desire to incorporate all the ideas and opportunities into the early stages. This often leads to decision paralysis and a feeling that if you choose one option, you’re forgoing another.
All projects are built bit-by-bit. Attempting to cram too much in distracts from progress.
Look for the opportunity to move forward with what you have available to you right now that excites you the most. Always keep a clear focus on shaping your project in the early stages. Don’t be afraid to jump in to bypass that desire to control the ending entirely.
Collaboration is difficult
How seriously you view your side project influences how well that collaboration will go. Asking people to drop in with their input is difficult if you won’t let go. That doesn’t change until you make the decision to change your mind.
Whether it’s a regular collaboration like playing in a band or you need support on an ad-hoc basis (e.g., a designer to make a leaflet for your big opening) the rules remain the same.
If you don’t create mental space for people to:
- Get accustomed to your project
- Experiment with what they see in front of them
- Make a few assumptions
- Try their best
You will hamper what could be a positive process.
The longer you have worked on your side project, the stronger your knowledge is. That means you may know your project really well. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to translate it well to an outsider. In fact, the majority of people who are incredibly embedded in their side projects tend to forget nuance, detail and what it’s like to enter the world that’s been created cold.
Your knowledge can be a weakness. A person’s failure to get it right first time doesn’t necessarily come down to their ability to create great work. It might actually be your inability to be objective about the tasks at hand. At the very least, it’s usually found lying alongside the bedfellows of failing to teach and expecting too much assumed knowledge.
It most certainly means you’re not creating room for a person to build trust and be confident with the project.
Get a real world perspective about someone else’s relationship with your creativity. No one will ever love your side project as much as you do. It’s hardly a punishable offence. And it doesn’t mean they are not a professional person. or that they don’t love it in their own way. Allow people to surprise and delight you instead of expecting them to scoop out your exact vision. True creativity comes from supplying the conditions that inspire people to add their amazingness to what you are doing.
You externalise blame
One of the interesting hallmarks of a healthy project is that no matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you played the game. When a healthy project fails to launch, yes there is stress. There is grief and melancholy, and it can be hard to say goodbye.
But you always walk away thinking, “at least I tried.” And that there were great connections to be had.
There’s a definite ability to sift out what benefited you and made you stronger as a creative, business owner or person generally.
If you take a project too seriously, this is not the case.
People that pin their hopes too much on a project and/or take themselves too seriously have a hard time coping with failure. There’s always someone to blame for things not going to plan. They attempt goad people into action, often using bullying, humiliation and exasperation as a means to propel people forward.
This kills trust and in turn, creativity. And it stymies any ability to self-reflect and learn.
Life is a weird ride. Things can and do happen all the time that are beyond your control. That doesn’t mean there is some nefarious figure that has sabotaged you from the inside.
No matter how much you look for what someone else is done, the answer lies within how you respond to failure. Instead of spending time torturing yourself (and others) with why things didn’t go to plan, look at what you can do to change your head space and move forward.
You think it will save you
One of the most troublesome ways that a side project can start to loom larger than it should is by seeing it as a means to escape an unwanted working life.
We all go through the natural desire to change up our freelancing or creativity from time to time. Everyone has some form of quarter life or midlife crisis that masks you question the validity of what you are doing now. Or makes you feel propelled to make big changes. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t questioned whether their current career is what they want long term.
When it becomes unhealthy is when that desire to investigate alternatives becomes an all-consuming focus.
Yes, sometimes the pain we feel in work is terrible. Getting stuck when you are a freelancer is a lot harder than other jobs due to the personal investment. You don’t get to level up with a promotion or working somewhere new. And there’s a pressure to maintain income through established offerings you may not enjoy supplying anymore.
But please, don’t set yourself up to feel like there is no way out. That only invites burn out and the potential for mental health issues. Especially if things don’t go to plan with your side project.
Instead of pinning your hopes on ‘getting out’ via your side project, face why you need to escape in the first place. Be open to getting some coaching or counselling. Consider whether changing up your freelance business is worth a short to medium term reduction in earnings to focus on developing new things. And don’t discount potentially returning to a more traditional form of employment to stretch yourself. You can always return to freelancing later.
It’s not all bad news for the side project
Our passion what we care about is what defines us as people. Sometimes, we need to temper that passion so that it works for us instead of against us.
For example, I have met people who take their side projects way too seriously who have learned to diversify things.
Instead of putting all the eggs in one art form, they pick up sculpture or photography, too. Rather than putting the pressure on one musical project, they spread it around to different bands or genres.
As an alternative to side projects, maybe the energy is thrown into study, informally or via university degrees. Volunteering is also another popular choice.
It may even give you the desire to work in advocacy, education or develop new products.
Whatever the case may be, it’s OK for a side project to be a source of joy over the be all and end all in life. We’re not playing for cattle stations. We’re simply applied, creative and curious people that love playing, doing and creating in our off hours.
Anything on top of that is a bonus.