How to Start a Side Project… And Keep Going

Starting a side project, whether it’s for personal development, creativity, or business, is one of the most rewarding ways to spend your free time. Free time, a funny concept. In a day there’s not much of it, but added up over the course of a year and there is a lot you can do. In a day, you won’t notice much, but in a year, you can look back and see spectacular progress. In a year… that is if you start now. 

Many think starting is the hardest part, I disagree. Starting is exciting! Starting is full of hope. Starting is fun. Starting is the second hardest part. The first hardest part is continuing after things get tough. A month in and you may tire of staying up an extra hour or waking up early to make the most of your free time. Free time isn’t free after all, it comes with a price, and paying that regularly will make quitting something you constantly debate. Winning that debate; that’s the hardest part. 

In the past year, I embraced the side project. In doing so, I’ve learned a few things, some hard skills like narrating an audiobook or drawing in Photoshop, but also some soft skills, such as time management and burnout prevention. These soft skills have enabled me to find time and stay motivated, making my side project a key part of my life, a habit ingrained into my very being. 

If you’re thinking of starting a side project, here are a few tips in developing a process so when the excitement fades, and the going gets tough, it’ll catch you and keep you moving forward. 

Develop a Schedule: 

From March 28 to November 14, 2020, I published 34 videos documenting myself Typing The Great Gatsby. 

Before I started the project, I knew the possibility of me giving up was very high. For the first few episodes, I was looking forward to typing and recording my process, but after the fifth episode (with many more to go), I couldn’t wait for it to be over. 

In order to avoid collapsing and giving up on the project, I decided to publish weekly, every Saturday. The weekly schedule made it sacred. I’m not a religious person, but this was as close as I got to attending church. I had to show up once a week. 

By having a weekly schedule, I could plan for the future. Once you plan for the future, you can anticipate how your week is going to go and ask yourself, “When am I going to do it?” The time for me was often after work on Friday. 

Starting a side project is all about how you manage your time. And one of the easiest ways to manage time is to set a schedule. Whether it’s a daily or a weekly mark, make sure you have one. This can be as simple as something you can track in your calendar. Over the course of many months, you can scroll back and see every time you showed up. 

Little by Little: 

When I was recording the narration of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, I did a little bit every night to avoid burnout. 

Starting a side project can be exciting and you might get obsessed. However, if you don’t pace yourself, you could end up draining all your energy and interest. If your side project is going to be worth anything, odds are, it’ll take more than a few days to complete. Therefore, doing little by little, bit by bit, day by day, you can get the project to the finish line. 

Spreading your project out over the course of time also allows you to develop a relationship with it. It becomes a phase you go through, a season you can reflect on. 

When I was working on The Metamorphosis, I knew I could find a day, hunker down and record the whole book. If I did that, I would only have one recording session, and that would only be one chance to learn, try, and do. 

Instead, I chose to record a couple of paragraphs each day, and edit them in batches. Each recording session was a whole new experience, with its own challenges, and by overcoming new challenges each time, I learned more. The more times I did it, the more I learned. This experience was the real metamorphosis.

Use a List:

With scheduling milestones and doing a little consistently, working on side projects became a part of my everyday life. Once something becomes a part of your everyday life, you’ll find that you may not have the same amount of free time every day. There are some days where you just need to do — less thinking, less brainstorming — just do. My advice when anticipating busy or tiring days is to have a list prepared. Work off of a list, so that you know what you need to get done today, tomorrow, and maybe even a week from now. 

Earlier this year, I wanted to improve my digital illustration. This was an extracurricular activity that I might not have ample time for every day, yet, it was something I wanted to do daily. Drawing Pokemon allowed me to follow a list, which enabled me to practice without having to be inspired. I didn’t need a muse, I only needed to know which Pokemon was next on the list to draw. 

Pokemon is an easy choice because all those critters are numbered. If you aren’t pursuing anything that involves Pokemon, you’ll have to develop a long list of your own and work your way through it. Little by little. Once the list is done, evaluate your experience. Ask yourself: is this something you want to keep doing? If the answer is yes, make a bigger list. If the answer is no, you finished it, you can hold your head up high and pursue another side project. That’s the beautiful thing about a list, eventually, if you’re disciplined with your scheduling and your little by little, you’ll get to the end. 

In life, we only have so much time, and we shouldn’t waste it dreaming. If there is a project you want to tackle, don’t wait. There won’t be a perfect time. You’ll have to squeeze it into your real life, your main project. 

As I mentioned, consistency is the key — not getting started — however, in order to remain consistent when things get hard, how you start and how you prepare will make all the difference. So remember, make a schedule, pace yourself, and follow your list. Before you know it, time will pass and your side project will be done. 

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The Saturday Story: Overcoming The Weekend Distractions

Has this ever happened to you? All week you look forward to Saturday, a free day for you to work on your project. You don’t have to attend any meetings or go to any appointments. It’s finally time for you to catch up or get ahead. You can write, you can read, you can finally make some progress. 

But then — suddenly, it’s Sunday night — and you realize, you barely did any of that. You didn’t catch up or get ahead. You feel discouraged and exhausted because you know that another grueling week is ahead. You eye the next weekend. Yes, the next one will be different. But will it? 

There’s a reason why your free days can often be less productive than the days where you have to squeeze your project into a busy schedule. On those busy weekdays, you may need to wake up early to do a bit of writing or edit a draft during lunch or stay up a bit later to outline. On busy days, you don’t get a lot done, but you do a little. However, on Saturdays when there is nothing to anchor your day, you may find yourself drifting away from your desk, only to return when the weekend is over. 

Why is that?

When we have a free day to do anything, we may put things off. We may wake up and decide, hey, it’s a beautiful day, let’s go get breakfast, once we come back we’ll do some work. When we come back we realize that we haven’t vacuumed in a few weeks. We should probably attend to that first. Then we feel a little tired from our breakfast and chores, why don’t we take a power nap, and as soon as we wake up, we’ll tackle the project. We take a nap and when we wake up, our friend calls and we talk for an hour. Suddenly, it’s dinner time, so we’ll eat, and it just so happens that after, the better halves want to watch this new movie. We can’t miss that. In a flash, we successfully had a day off. However, we failed in doing anything productive with our personal project. 

This issue occurs when there’s no schedule. On workdays, you do have a schedule, you clock in, answer calls, attend meetings, take lunch, return for the afternoon pow wow and then sign off. However, on Saturdays, you can do your project whenever you want. Whenever you want may sound like total freedom, but it actually creates friction within, or as Steven Pressfield calls it, resistance. 

Saturday is the day we have all to ourselves, we can make the rules. The thing is, there needs to be rules. There needs to be at the very least a schedule for when you will work on your personal project, it’s something you need to be accountable for. Whether it’s first thing in the morning, immediately after lunch, or before you do your chores in the afternoon, you need to put down on paper or on your calendar or tell your spouse that at this time, you will be working on your project. You need to set the time aside to do it. Not wait for the perfect time, because the perfect time will be swallowed up by distractions. 

Scheduling it in is about making a promise to your Wednesday self. It’s about making the person you are on Monday proud. The weekday versions of you are working hard to pay the bills, but the weekend self is for the soul. Don’t waste it on frivolous activities, there will always be time for that stuff, but there will never be enough time for the work you really need to make, the work nobody else can do, the work you must practice on, the work that comes from your heart. So don’t waste time when it’s available.

Procrastination comes in many forms and there’s no magic solution, but setting a schedule, a chunk of time, where you sit down and work, shows the world you’re serious. There will be distractions on Saturdays, you know this now, so be prepared, don’t let it catch you off guard again. 

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How to Stay Motivated in Creative Projects (ft. Progress Bars)

If you’re a Millennial like me, you’d remember a time when downloading anything took forever. Downloading music, downloading tv shows, and downloading movies. Computers weren’t that powerful back then, the bandwidth — if it wasn’t still connected by dial up — was overall pretty weak. Occasionally, a large file, like an HD movie, would take hours if not days to complete. 

I would sit at the computer and stare at the progress bar and watch it slowly edge along, telling me how many percent was left and how many kilobytes it was receiving per second. Looking back, I wonder how many cumulative hours I’ve spent sitting there watching that bar. Now and then, it would move so slowly that I would have to put my mouse cursor right by the edge just so I could see if it was actually moving, even by a pixel. It’s an old technique, you can use it too. 

The most infirurating part, which happened more often than not, is when the download would be going really fast, reach 98% and then… stop… I felt so helpless. Still, I was always grateful for the existence of that progress bar, because even though it was sometimes glitchy and inaccurate, it kept me from canceling my download. 

A progress bar is a good design. It helps you see how much has been done and how much is left to do. It works brilliantly for downloading software, but progress bars work for other things in life too. If you are painting a room, the progress bar is the paint on your wall. When you are reading a book, it’s the proximity of your bookmark to the back cover. These are things that tell us, “Great job! You’re doing it! Keep going!” 

Progress bar

But what about things that don’t inherently have progress bars? For example, writing a book. Writing a book is a multi-step task that doesn’t have a clear progression. Is finishing the outline 1% or 2% of the project? Is finishing the first draft 50% done? You don’t know. With creative projects, you can often feel as though you — like my download — went really fast at the beginning and then got stuck at 98% complete. You’ve been at 98% complete for months now on that novel. What the hell!? 

While progress bars are great for measuring projects with completions, creative projects aren’t always clear, especially if they are more personal projects, so you as the creator gets to decide where the end is. And to avoid ending up stuck at 98% for infinity, it’s good to create this progress bar from the very start of your project. Actually draw out where the 25% line, where’s the 50% line and where is the finish line is. 

For example, let’s say you are working on a novel. Great! You could just start writing and see where it all ends up, but God knows where that will take you. Instead let’s break it down. We can even do that with the different stages. 

Outlining: Outline 1st act will get me to 25%, Outline 2nd act will get me to 50%, Outline 3rd act will get me to 75%, and reviewing it 3 times will allow me to complete the outlining stage. 

Progress bar for outlining is filled. Then we can move to Drafting. 

Drafting: Writing the 1st act will get me to 25%, act 2 will get me to 50% and so on like that. 

Then there is Editing, Publishing, and Marketing. All these sections can have their own progress bars. So even when your larger progress bar feels like it’s stuck on 98%, you can look down at these smaller ones and see what actually needs to be done and work on it until you can reach the next milestones. 

Whenever you are stuck on a project or feel unmotivated to continue, think of your task in relation to a progress bar. If you at least know where you are going, then when your work and effort are only delivering minuscule improvements, 0.001% of progress each day, at least you know you are still on the right track and that, even though you may be stuck at 98%, you know you’re not completely frozen, and progress is still happening. 

We live in a time where a lot of things are instantaneous! Tv shows, movies, and music to name a few. I haven’t downloaded anything that took over a few minutes in years. Yet, creating meaningful work still takes time and the results might not be visible if you’ve been staring at the progress bar for so long. But as long as you keep moving towards the next percentage point, as long as you know where that is, then eventually, you will be done. 

Keep going! Before you hit cancel, look at the progress bar. It might not look like it each and every day, but you are making progress. 

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30 Day Writing Challenge: Write the Same Thing Everyday

In order for artists to improve, they need to draw the same thing over and over again. Each time they draw something, they see something different. Something they didn’t notice previously. Each time they draw, they dig a bit deeper. They see angles, colors, textures in a different way. They challenge themselves to be more refined or more creative, bringing something new to the original idea. 

We can apply this creative technique to writing as well. For the next 30 days, I want to challenge you to write about the same thing every day. It can be your chair, your room, your dog, your family, your cup of coffee, anything, but whatever you pick, stick with it for 30 days. Each day, write one new sentence, as long or as short as you want. 

For me, I chose to write about the intersection in front of my apartment. It’s a busy place with a lot going on. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And each day, I see something a little different in it. Or at least try to. 

Some days I write something really good, other days, I just try to get a sentence down. The goal of this exercise is to practice observing deeper, seeing details that aren’t immediately visible. It also helps you develop a habit. For many people, writing every day can be a challenge, especially if they have a lofty goal, like 2 pages a day or a 1,000 words. This challenge simplifies the process: 1 sentence. Easy. Write about the same thing every day. No need to wait for inspiration, it’s there. Write about that! 

What makes this a challenge is that you need to overcome your own perceived limitations. By day 5, you’ll run out of surface-level stuff to write about. That’s when your creativity really kicks in. That’s when you hold on and discover how your mind actually works. You may feel bored around day 10 or 15, but keep going, because your best sentence may come at day 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, or 30. You may need to get through the shit first. And that’s the last thing about this challenge. It allows you to practice perseverance. And perseverance is essential

I encourage you to start after you finish reading this article. There is no time better than the present. Good luck! I look forward to reading your work. 

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Respect Your Project, Finish Your Story

No real writer likes what she’s writing ALL the time, or even MOST of the time. The important thing is to stick with your story until the end. That’s when the magic happens. – Meg Cabot

It’s so easy to give up on a project. You’ll get stuck and bored, and you’ll want to stop. You get another great idea and you’ll want to chase it. But finishing the story you started is so important, here’s why: 

Respect the project:

When you start a project, you’re responsible for it. A project is like a child: it’s born, it needs someone to take care of it and help it grow, and then one day, when it’s developed, it’s sent out into the world. It’s your job to make sure it survives and prospers once you release it, making you proud. You gave the project life and now you have to take care of it. If you don’t, if you’ll simply let it die on the shelf, you’ll rob it of its potential. 

Respect your time:

Think of everything that you could have done if you weren’t writing. You could have spent time with your pet or talked to your spouse. You could have watched a movie or read a book. You could have napped or gotten drunk. There was a lot you could have done, but you chose to write. You chose to spend your limited time on Earth doing this activity. You’re investing your most precious resource into this. It’s like paying for a membership for the gym, showing up, and sitting there for an hour without using the equipment and going home, then being upset because you aren’t seeing any results. Respect your time. Finish your work. 

Okay, let’s say I convinced you and you’ll pull out that half-finished project and write to the end. But where is the end? 

Honestly, you can end a story anywhere (even in a mid-sentence), but that would be disrespecting the audience — unless it’s a really good half a sentence. When the reader starts reading your work, you’ve made a promise that you will give them a sense of resolution, enjoyment, or fulfillment. You don’t want to disrespect your reader’s time either. You want them to come back one day and read your other works. With an honourable completion in mind, there are places that make sense to end a story. 

And as the writer, you get to decide: do you want your story to have an explicit ending or an implicit ending? 

Explicit ending:

When there is nothing more for the reader to know, when all the questions are answered, then it’s an appropriate ending. This type of ending is a nice little bow on a wrapped up story. 

I like to think of these as success or failure stories: 

Did Rocky win his match? Did we save Private Ryan or kill Bill? Did the lovers get together? If your story is about a specific mission, then at the end, the audience should know whether it was accomplished. Did the hero get what he or she wants? Did good conquer evil? 

These types of stories tend to leave the reader satisfied. 

The other type of endings are…

Implicit ending:

Often known as open-ended stories, these endings leave the resolution up to the reader’s interpretation. 

One main example is a…

Cliffhanger ending: 

Which leaves the reader wanting more.

As one mission ends another begins! What adventures are your characters up to next?

A cliffhanger can have the character literally hanging off a cliff, Or it could be done subtly: 

The last scene can be of a man calling his ex girlfriend. Throughout the story, we learn that the man is overcome with guilt. He wants to make amends with his past lover. The story ends before she picks up the phone. The reader wonders, did she answer? Was it the right phone number? If not, what would the man do? The reader draws her own conclusion. 

These types of stories will leave your readers thinking about it even after they’ve put the book down. 

If you are struggling to finish, aim for one of these two endings. Yes, they’re broad, but they will give you a lot of room to make adjustments and edit when it’s done. 

Write to the end (even if it’s bad): 

It’s going to be bad. There’s no avoiding that, so you might as well get over it. After all, that is what editing is here for. The faster you write to the end, the faster you can start editing. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

Remember as the writer, you are the first reader. The first draft is a discovery. You don’t really know what your story is about before you get to the end. You don’t know if it’s going to wrap up nicely or leave the reader wanting more, but having a target gives you direction. 

Let yourself discover, because that is some times where the best words come from. Don’t give up on your writing, no matter how small the project is. Write to the end. 

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Read This Before You Quit Writing

You’ve written a story over and over again. You’ve written many stories over and over again. You’ve persisted as long as you could and you cannot handle another rejection. You feel it’s time to quit. 

That’s a very natural feeling. When we try to do something that is very hard it’s easy to feel as though we are wasting time or that it’s no longer fulfilling and we are not seeing progress. We are essentially beating our head against a brick wall, torturing ourselves to make something that nobody else wants to consume. 

You’ve given it your best shot, but you are still so far from your writing goals.

Before you quit, hear me out. It is completely fine to quit. I’ve quit many things in my life and when I quit something I hate doing, I found myself gravitating to something I enjoy. So quiting is good! But understand why you want to quit. Are you quitting because you hate doing it? Or are you quitting because you feel as though you are not good enough to advance to the next level? 

I didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be a director and an actor. The thing is, the more I did that: the more I hated being on set and memorizing lines. I put three full years into pursuing those two careers, but in the end, I came to the realization that I didn’t even know what those jobs required to begin with. It took the doing for me to understand the industry I was getting into. 

See, I was thinking about that as a job, something I HAVE to do every day. Something to pay for all my expenses. Thinking of it as a job sucked the life out of it, especially when I was starting out. It placed so much pressure on me because I wanted to do well and impress people so they will hire me again. Not everything you do needs to be a job! 

I like to play hockey. And I’m at the age where it’s incredibly obvious that I’ll never play it in any professional manner. I’m too old and I’m not that good. Still, I like to play it. I’m a part of a beer league and it’s a big part of who I am. Does anyone aside from my team care if we win or lose? No! Sometimes I feel like we don’t even care. We just like playing. 

The same goes for writing. 

Not everything you write needs to be for a professional reason or to get published. You can still do it! You can still be a writer and not publish your work. You can still be a writer and not share it with anyone. You can just write because it’s something you enjoy doing. 

Don’t let external pressure force you to stop doing something you enjoy. If you have a day job and you want to write on your free time, do it without considering where you are going to publish it. People watch movies and play video games and scroll social media. So don’t feel guilty for wasting your time doing something you enjoy. Do it for yourself. Everything you do, do it for yourself. 

And the beauty of writing is, it’s not like hockey, there is no age limit or physical requirement. You can do it until you are old and withered. 

If you want to quit publishing your work. Fine, but I encourage you not to quit writing because writing is to the soul what eating healthy and exercising is to the body. 

What challenges are you facing as a writer? Please let me know in the comments below.

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Understanding A Character’s Motivation |Tony Robbins’ 6 Human Needs

When you are writing, you often wonder whether or not you are leading your character in the right direction.

You ask, “is this actually what they will do?” The better you understand your character’s objective in life, the better you can pick the logical paths for them to go down.

The 6 human needs were first introduced to me by Tony Robbins from his book Money: Master the Game. In the book, he discusses the motivation for money, and that often times, people don’t even know why they want more money. They want to be millionaires and billionaires but have no real idea about what their dream life cost.

I gave myself an exercise; I asked myself what is something seemingly unachievable (due to finance) that I want to experience in my lifetime. The one that popped into my head was being able to live in a hotel for a year. So I did a bit of math and shared it on my Instagram account.

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But back to the point, the better we are at understanding what motivates our characters whether consciously like wanting to live in a hotel forever or subconsciously like feeling safe from danger, the better we will be at making choices for them and writing a believable storyline.

6 Human Needs:

  1. Certainty: safety, security, stability, comfort, consistency 
  2. Uncertainty or variety – surprises, challenge, excitement, adventure, difference, novelty 
  3. Significance – to feel special, pride, wanted, needed, important 
  4. Love and connection – approval, attachment, intimacy from another human, part of a community 
  5. Growth – constant emotional, intellectual, spiritual development 
  6. Contribution – the need to give, nurture, protect, and serve others 

Some of your characters might attribute multiple human needs. They might be very needy. Others might be more focused. Nevertheless, whenever a character is making a choice, regardless of where they are in the storyline, odds are they are driven by one of these human needs.

What do you think? What is your most prominent human need?

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Level up the real way

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How to gamify your life

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Oct. 1, 2015

Why do we love video games? I personally don’t. I find them stressful and frustrating. More often than not, I drop the controller and tune it out. I love listening to people talk about video games with enthusiasm, though. But, because of my ineptitude, I choose to pursue more achievable goals in my life.

Hence, I reframe my question: why do they love video games? Well, I guess other people love video games because there are these little achievable goals. You go from one stage to the next collecting coins, building infrastructures, defeating bad guys, saving the princesses, and heroically winning. That doesn’t always happen in life. The game of life lacks the instant gratification felt in a video game. Life’s little achievable goals take years and years to accomplish.

Moreover, life’s little defeats aren’t as miniscule as video games either. If you lose in life—get fired, fail an exam, get dumped by your partner—you cannot restart; you have to live with it day after day after day. We love video games because a game is an escape. It’s our second life, where failure can be chocked up as a few minutes wasted.

Although video games are great escapes from the real world, the same way sports are for some, the same way television shows are for others, we need to understand that life is the ultimate game. Life is the only game that matters. But why then are we so content with being idle with our lives and putting all of our efforts and energy into a video game, where accomplishments seldom matter?

The reason is because we often make our goals in life too grand to accomplish; we set the bars and our sights too high. That is not how a video game works. In a game, you don’t start at the hardest level; you start at the beginning. You have little, surmountable tasks to accomplish first, they get incrementally harder, and then you fight the boss. That is how you should consider life. That’s how you gamify life. You do it by visualizing it not as a monotonous day-after-day grind, but reframe it as little surmountable tasks, which will ultimately lead to achievements.

When you think of work, you often consider the paycheque. Why not? That’s the whole reason for work. But if that’s the case, then you are always going to be disappointed. After all, you don’t play Mario just to collect the coins, right? Your job should be an avenue for your self-improvement. You should be growing with each day’s task. You should be becoming a better manager and a more skilled worker.

At school, we often dream about graduation, but what about the actual process of learning? Is homework just a means to an end? If it is, then it’s obviously not a game, it’s just a chore. Strive for improvement, yearn to beat the task and excel. If you are willing to waste five hours trying to level up on your iPhone game, you can very well spend that five hours beating your previous score for your homework assignment and retaining the information.

We love games because they’re an escape from reality, but we have to remember that we deserve to win in life too. So don’t waste all your efforts in front of the screen, save some for the real world.