The Lifecycle of a Side Project

I enjoy working on side projects because they bring a variability and freshness to life. Most side hustles provide at least one of four potential benefits — benefits that can help justify getting a little less sleep and doing a little more "work."

While these side gigs can provide variability, they can also be variable. Projects can differ in discipline, scope, industry, team, etc. But there's one thing all side projects have in common:

Every side project undergoes a similar lifecycle.

The lifecycle of a project is made up iterations (i.e. cycles). Within each iteration exist the same, consistent four stages:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Action
  3. Grind
  4. Shift

It's important to understand and recognize when your project transitions from one stage to the next. Being aware of each transition helps you catch issues earlier and make the appropriate decisions about the future of your project.

I will be writing about the details of these stages in future articles. For now, let's look at a high-level overview of the stages within an iteration of a side project.

[1] Inspiration

The first step in any side project is The Inspiration. This is my favorite part of the process. It's where anything goes — the sky is the limit.

This phase is not only about brainstorming on what you may someday place upon a blank canvas. This is also where you make a plan on how you are going to execute the work.

During the planning process, it's a good idea to set goals for your project. Goals are essential because they drive the purpose of the project. They help you better understand, over time, if your project is accomplishing what you set out to accomplish.

Once you are ready to execute, the project moves into its next stage.

[2] Action

After the planning is complete, it's time to move onto The Action. This is the phase in which the work occurs. It's important to get to this phase as quickly as possible. While it's good to have a well-thought-out plan, it's more important to put that plan into action. The faster you act, the sooner you achieve your goals, solve your problem, or test your theory.

So, plan effectively, but efficiently. Get to acting on that plan as quickly as possible, because eventually you will reach the next stage.

[3] Grind

The Grind is as negative as it sounds, and it occurs in every project. Even the most fun and successful projects experience a grind. Sooner or later it'll feel like your project is dragging or isn't supporting the goals you had set. Something will feel off at some point. (If it doesn't — if it's perfect all the time — you're too comfortable and it's time to push harder.)

The Grind is an extremely useful part of any project. I never look at it as a bad thing because it informs that something that needs to change for the project to be successful.

The way in which you can create (or maintain) success of a side project is to recognize, as quickly as possible, when you are in The Grind. If you stay too long in this stage, you may end up killing a project that didn't need to die. The quicker you can move onto the fourth stage, the better.

[4] Shift

The Shift is the connecting point between The Grind and The Inspiration. This is when you take a moment to reflect on the project and its goals. It's when you choose the future of the project, which can be one of three things:

  1. Stop: When the project isn't serving its goals and you don't have a clear path on how to change that, it may be time to stop working on the project. That's okay. Deciding to kill a project can be one of the most important decisions you make. It means you've learned something, and now you've cleared the way to work on something better.
  2. Pause: Of the three potential outcomes of The Shift, this is perhaps the most difficult to execute. Sometimes a side project is still supporting its goals but it just can't be a priority right now. There's nothing inherently wrong with that — it happens to me regularly (I have several projects paused right now). The key is that you need to have a plan for resuming the project. Pausing a project without a resumption plan means that you've killed it and are failing to admit it.
  3. Pivot: When a project still seems viable, but it's not heading in the right direction, you can keep it going but change its direction by pivoting. This may mean redefining your goals, or maybe it's adjusting how you're executing (acting on) the work.

No matter what the outcome of The Shift, it inevitably leads back to The Inspiration. That may be inspiration for a new project, or it could be another round of inspiration for your current project.

Every side hustle undergoes the same stages within its project's lifecycle. It's paying attention to the phase you're in that can provide dividends down the road. So go get yourself inspired and then get to work!

(And check back for more articles on the details and nuances within each of these stages. I will be littering these pages over the months and years to come, until, of course, this project reaches its Grind and requires a Shift.)

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