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Three Ways to Fit in Your Creative Side Projects

I’m a huge proponent of freelancers having creative side projects. Which isn’t surprising, given that in addition to running a freelance writing business, I also write about and do workshops/books on productivity for freelancers, am editing my first novel, just wrapped a successful Kickstarter, and have two more nonfiction books queued up for when I have the time…plus the sequels to my novel (the next one of which I’m planning on writing during NaNoWriMo here in a few months!).

Adding more work into your day sounds like it’d be a path to burnout, but instead, you could very well find that these projects keep you creative and engaged. You’ll find insights from your side projects sneaking into your “day job” work, you’ll get ideas from your side projects, and you’ll find yourself more engaged and productive overall – if you do it right. 

On the other hand, if you want to fit creative side projects into your freelance work life, but can’t seem to find the time, you’ll wind up frustrated and disillusioned, and maybe even burned out. So what’s the secret to successfully incorporating these life-sustaining side projects into your workflow? I’ve found three things that work exceptionally well for me:

Three time management strategies to give you the time to work on your creative projects:

1. Timeboxing

This isn’t about making units of time compete with each other in a physical battle. (Two times enter, one time leaves!)

Rather, it’s about setting aside chunks of time or specific days to each project. An example set up could look like:

  • 9 AM to noon is for Creative Project A
  • Noon to 3 is for Project B
  • 3 to 5 is for Project C

But you can also set it up so that you’re working on Project A on Mondays and Wednesdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays are for Project B, and Fridays are for Project C.

There are multiple ways to apply this. I actually do timeboxing both by day and by work category. My weeks are set up roughly like this:

  • Mondays and Fridays are for my internal business work. This is when I do things like writing my own blog posts, pitching new clients, recording any video posts for the week, planning my marketing strategy, processing the bulk of my email, and so on.
  • Tuesdays through Thursdays are typically dedicated to client work, though lately I’ve been switching it up a little and taking Wednesday afternoons to work on my business or creative side projects.

Then, as far as the individual days go for me:

  • Mornings are by far my most productive time of day when it comes to straight up creating. So any writing is usually done in the morning and I like to have most of my writing done by 1 PM or so. (If you want to figure out what time of day is most productive for you, check out the Productivity Heatmap from Productive Flourishing.)
  • Afternoons are for things that require slightly less creativity. I usually do all of my “pre-work” for articles (research, outlining, reaching out to potential sources) in the afternoons (read more about how this speeds up my writing process here), will poke around in Facebook groups to see if I can help anyone, or edit something I wrote the day before.
  • Late afternoon (4-6ish) is for tying up any loose ends, checking email and replying to anything that needs an urgent response, and doing light admin work.

This gets fudged a little now and then (when I was running a Kickstarter, I couldn’t exactly take days off from it), but 95% of the time, that’s what my work week and work days look like. You’ll notice I didn’t just pick times and days at random—I created this schedule based on what makes me the most efficient and frees me up to create the most. My clients’ schedules play a part in this, too, as a lot of them have meetings on Mondays and Fridays, which means they don’t want or need me to be immediately available to them on those days.

You might not want something so structured, and that’s totally fine. Personally, I’ve discovered that this really helps me, because it soothes that part of my brain that’s always freaking out about how I’ll never get to work on project A.

2. Endcapping

Whether you’re running a business or working at a day job, chances are you have one or two projects that are close to your heart but not really generating any money yet. I’m guessing you’ve had a few days where your internal conversation has gone like this:

“Okay, I’m up and ready to work. I want to work on my novel/play/fun project…but I know I probably should work on this project first, because it’s going to generate income. I’ll work on my fun project after lunch.” (several hours pass) “It’s after lunch…I can work on my novel now, but I should probably answer client emails…” (6 PM rolls around) “Ugh, I’m so tired. My brain is fried. I’ll work on my novel tomorrow. I need to eat dinner or I’m going to Hulk out.”

I had this exact problem when I was doing NaNoWriMo last year, and I’ve ran into it repeatedly while editing that same novel. What’s worked best for me is a technique I call endcapping. This is where I put the project at the beginning and the end of the day, doing 30-60 minutes on it each time. I usually do 60 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening. This is what let me finish NaNo with around 65,000 words last year, on top of a full freelance writing workload (although the weekend writing sessions certainly helped!).

The thing is, as a freelancer, I’m never going to half-ass my client work or blow it off. And most freelancers are the same way. But we will blow off our own projects or put them dead last, even though those same projects are what keep you creatively fueled. (And that creative fuel comes in handy with client work – it’s the circle of life.)

In some sort of weird magical math, I’ve discovered that if I put my work very first, even though it feels selfish, I go into my work day with much more energy and focus, feeling like I’ve already accomplished something (and feeling extra jazzed because it was my baby project that I love working on). As a bonus, I’ve noticed I’ll often get started earlier when I know I’m starting with my project, because I’m looking forward to working on it that much. Ending the work day with another 30 or so minutes does the same thing; it gives you a buffer between your work-work and the rest of your life, and it lets you wrap up your workday with a smile on your face.

3. Layering

If you examine your day carefully, you’ll probably find that there are several packets of “lost time.” Things like the time you spend in your car alone, or on the bus, or walking the dog, or cleaning the house. These times are ripe for “layering,” which is what I call it when you’re taking advantage of time that would otherwise be lost by stacking something on top of it. My favorite example is podcasts (because they work great whether you’re cooking, cleaning, or walking the dog), but you can also read or listen to audiobooks.

Of course, if you’re doing something like riding the bus, you can bring along a notebook to write or brainstorm in, or type up things in Evernote (so they’ll be easily accessible from your computer later). Or use the Skillshare app to sync videos offline and watch them then. When I had a day job, I used to use my bus time to type up posts in Evernote on my phone, then edit them on my lunch break and schedule them once I got home. But if you’re walking the dog or driving, that’s a little less feasible!

I recommend leaving some empty space in your day—it’s good for your brain.You don’t want to pack everysingleminute with reading or listening, or your ideas won’t have any room to percolate and come together. But this is a great way to find more time in your day to get inspiration, actionable tips, or ideas, and it’s helped me to keep up on industry news and events without having to spend my peak creative hours reading about it.

Do you have any creative side projects? How do you make time for them?

Michelle Nickolaisen Michelle is a freelance writer and business owner based in Austin, TX. When she’s not writing for clients, she’s writing about productivity for freelancers at Bombchelle. And when she’s not doing either of those things, she’s creating a line of paper planners for freelancers, editing her novel, or watching something involving sci-fi or superheroes on Netflix.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • I’ve just started freelancing full-time, and this is my exact dilemma – how do I fit my creative projects into an otherwise packed schedule? It’s Monday, and I WANT to work on my own blog posts, but I feel like I SHOULD do client work first. But I like how you approach it and can see how that might work better for me! These tips, and the ones on your blog (which I was all over last night), are saving me from learning some of these lessons the “hard way.” Thanks for that!

  • I LOVE your tip about working on our own creative projects first. I’ve had a project I’ve been wanting to get going on for weeks, but I always put other things first. Definitely have to try this out! Thanks, Michelle!

    • Thanks Krista! I hope it works as well for you as it has for me 🙂

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