If you want to make half the money you originally planned to make this year put your hands in the air and say “HELL YEAH!”

Yikes–sounds like a nightmare, right? But hey, it’s really not so bad. I’m in that boat, what with the novel and all. And if pursuing a passion project of yours puts you in that boat too, then worry not, my artistic friend–you’re not in bad company.

Lots of people cut back on their “work” work time to make room for work on personal projects. It’s very common for freelancers, small business owners, and other people who have a good bit of control over their work schedule to cut back on billable hours to make room for course creation, a book project, or some other creative undertaking.

Why do it? There’s plenty of reasons:

  • Like me, you’re torn between 2 professions/skills. I love copywriting and wouldn’t trade my client work for the world, but I also want to try out life as a novelist for a while. I really can’t pick just one. (I also like having money in the meantime.)
  • It can be a step towards your dream career–that tiny, baby step that’ll get you just a bit closer to leaving your day job or doing your day job as a freelancer on your own terms. (Or how about being a novelist, professional painter, or travel photographer instead? Mmm, sounds nice.)
  • It can bring in a bit of extra income. Ah, a peek into what could lie ahead. Making a living solely based on doing what you love–that’s the dream, but we must start small.
  • You get to feed that artistic soul of yours–you creative thing, you. Not to mention that it’s just plain fun.

So if you’ve ever considered teaching that one thing you’re really good at in an internet course or writing that novel you’re always thinking about, whip on out that pad and paper and use these tips to figure out how you can actually start getting shit done. Instead of being that bummer of a guy who always tells people at parties, “I thought about writing a book once.” That guy makes us very sad. Let us not be like him.

Before we get into that, just so we’re all on the same page: what exactly do we mean by “personal project”?

What’s A Personal Project?

For this post let’s define a personal project as any project that:

  • Typically requires lots of upfront work before earning any income (if you plan to earn any income from it at all);
  • Is usually more focused on your passions than your profession;
  • Involves lots of skill and creativity.

That there’s a wide net. It can be anything, really, and the cool part is that often these projects have the potential to serve as long-term assets when done well. Most commonly–at least for creatives like us–these types of projects tend to look like:

  • A novel or short story/poetry collection
  • A nonfiction book, perhaps a memoir or how-to
  • An info product or instructional course
  • Pro bono projects for building your portfolio/resume
  • A painting, drawing, or photography collection
  • An EP or album

Whatever it looks like for you, giving yourself rules and boundaries for your time spent on balancing these 2 types of work will save you a lot of headaches, tears, and frantic midnight McDonald’s trips because you’re going so insane that you feel like the only fix is “all the fries you have, please.” (…Just me?)

1. Plan Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly, and Daily

I know, I know. “The best-laid plans of mice and men…”, right?

Look, even if things don’t always go according to plan, you should still have something to work from, something to work towards, a roadmap to compare progress against. And even if you work a salary job and don’t need to plan out your professional life in as much detail as a freelancer does, you should still plan out both sides of your career: the passion project side and the professional side.

I plan out my career–both personal projects and my copywriting business–90 days at a time every single quarter. Why 90 days? I’ve found 90 career day plans to be the perfect length: long enough to keep you focused on the big picture but short enough to be flexible when you need it to be. (Check out the article linked above by Taylor Pearson; his in-depth explanation of the 90DCP is worth the read. You won’t want to do it any other way.)

Make 2 lists of goals for the quarter: a list for your personal project and another for your regular day job. Use these goals to guide your planning when you break that quarter down into months and then weeks. Sounds like quite the undertaking, I know–but it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It takes me about 3-5 hours each quarter to plan out the coming months and having some direction for my career is always worth it. Doing it effectively takes a bit of practice, which is why I can’t wait to dive deeper into this topic for the first blog post of April. Am I the only one that gets all hot and bothered at the thought of lists and spreadsheets and planning things?

We’ll talk about this more later but for now, heed this advice best you can: make sure your 90DCPs are based on measurable, controllable goals. You must be able to control the outcomes you’re looking for. Here’s an example:

  • “I want a publishing company to offer me a 5-figure advance for my novel’s manuscript.” — Not in your control. This is a wish–and a great wish to have–but it’s not a goal you should hold yourself accountable to.
  • “I want to pitch my novel’s manuscript to 20 agents in the month of April.” — Very much in your control–and look at you, girl. Now that’s a goal.

You can work as hard as you want (and do a great job, too!) but you won’t be satisfied with yourself until you get that 5-figure advance–something you really don’t have absolute control over. Stay positive, stay motivated, and stay in control by choosing goals that leave it entirely up to you to get shit done. You can’t plan a solid 90DCP on serendipity or someone else’s free will.

So what does this mean for balancing client work and personal projects? First, while thinking about why you’re taking the plunge and sacrificing some of your work/free time for this personal project, ask yourself: what’s the end goal here? To add an extra source of income to the mix? To eventually reach a point where you can sustain yourself financially only working on creative personal projects? Or simply to take some time for yourself by focusing on your hobbies and interests for a while?

Your answer–along with your current financial situation–should help you decide how much time you’ll allocate towards your real job and your side project. I can afford to go half and half most weeks, but if you’ve got a house and a family to support you might only be able to tackle it at a 80-20 ratio for now, and that’s fine too. Really it’s cool that you’re taking a step towards your dream job at all, so you should feel proud of yourself, even if you can only give it a few hours each week.

2. Guard Your Work Time Viciously

Because what usually falls off this week’s schedule when something comes up and suddenly you have less time for work than originally planned? Personal projects. Poor babies.

Know your ratio (50-50, 80-20) and make that ratio your bitch. Live and breathe that ratio. Emergencies happen, life happens–so cut back on work time if you must, but only do it according to the golden ratio. Oh, it ain’t easy, I know. I still struggle with it myself, but let’s not forget about the whole urgent vs. important thing. Repeatedly sacrificing what’s important for what’s urgent will draw your fate, and probably not in the way you were hoping for.

Know what needs to be done and when you’ll do it. Set some boundaries–if you write for 3 hours every morning, don’t even think about answering client calls until afternoon. Seriously, it’s like cheating on your soul. If you’re not even taking your creative work seriously enough to put away the phone for a few hours in the morning, how can you say you’re really giving it your best shot? And what kind of signal does that send to the universe, to your own psyche? Not a good one, old sport.

Likewise, you’ve got no business agent hunting in the afternoon when you should be focused on your clients.

This is your rule for balancing client work and passion work: guard them both, but guard them separately. They’re equally important, so don’t make them fight for your attention. Each should have their own clear place in your routine. Build your schedule and plan client work deadlines in a way that makes sticking to this rule possible.

I’m sure I don’t even have to mention the other side of this whole “guard your time” thing, especially if you’re already accustomed to the self-employed life–you must become better than you’ve ever been at guarding your total work time from bloodsucking vultures who just want to feast on your precious hours and minutes. Ridiculously long phone calls with clients, lunch with your lonely great aunt Linda who wants to hang out all afternoon, and even your own bouts of procrastination–you’ll have to navigate these waters at a pro level to maximize time spent on either side of your newly split schedule. I’m real sorry I just called your great aunt Linda a bloodsucking vulture, but you must make it clear to others and yourself that you are working, not just screwing around in your home office all day.

I’ve learned that I can only schedule 2 extra outings a week and still get everything done. Learn what works for you and enforce it with an iron fist.

3. …And Track It Meticulously, Too

Oh man. There’s just so many reasons to track your time that it’s almost a liability for you not to.

Time tracking can:

  • hold you accountable to your goals,
  • help protect you from billing disputes, and
  • help you keep track of how long it takes you to complete a certain task–and therefore plan/quote more accurately and efficiently in the future.

And you know what–it’s actually not just your time you should be tracking, but all other relevant stats for your personal/work projects as well. What’s your average earnings per hour this month? Or if you’re a writer, do you know what your average word-per-hour rate is?

You don’t need any fancy gizmos to track your time but a good one can certainly make it a lot easier. Start here:

  • Timely — “scheduling and time tracking, simultaneously”
  • Harvest — “time tracking and reporting that lets you operate with insight”
  • A free option: a simple homemade spreadsheet — one for client work and one for personal projects; should track planned and actual values for time spent and on what, income earned, average number of dollars earned per hour for each week and month

Tracking your time will give you cold hard insight into whether or not you’re really spending your time like you planned you would. Looking back on the past week and realizing you really only worked 25 hours sucks–and it is bound to happen–but it’ll light a much-needed fire under your ass that’ll keep you motivated to stick to your schedule in the future.

4. Adjust Spending and Saving Accordingly

You and I are lucky, lucky souls if we can manage to take some time for personal projects and still afford to pay the bills. Take a moment to appreciate that. I feel very fortunate to be in a position to pursue a passion project and I hope you feel the same.

Give yourself time to explore your project; give yourself space and freedom. But alas–money makes the world go ‘round, and the average person can’t enjoy that kind of freedom without spending a little bit less and saving a little bit more before taking the plunge and cutting back work time. Saving up beforehand will help give you peace of mind while you’re working on your project; you know you’ve got the extra savings, so it’ll all be okay if this project doesn’t pan out. On to the next!

And I know it’s hard, but if you’re sacrificing work time to work on something that isn’t going to pay out right away, you really should spend less in the meantime. Which is pretty rich coming from a person who just spent $70 on Amy Schumer tickets, but just because I’m making poor choices doesn’t mean you have to do the same.

I won’t tell you how to save or how to spend less–you’ll figure it out on your own and with the help of the internet. What I will tell you is that keeping in mind why you’re saving this time around will help you make all the tricky decisions you need to make when it comes to planning out your finances for the next year.

5. Set Hard Deadlines

Speaking of money, now’s a great time to mention that we can’t do this thing forever. We’ve got bills to pay. Stuff to do. A career to build, for heaven’s sake.

Worried about the risk involved in taking on a passion project? Yeah, me too. We mitigate this risk by giving ourselves deadlines for personal projects so we don’t end up working on them until we’re old and senile. This deadline will come in handy when you’re plotting your 90DCP and planning the financial side.

Ah, deadlines. They’ll hold you accountable and keep you checked in to reality. It may seem pointless and sadistic to set a deadline on something like a passion project, but I guarantee that you won’t be so inclined to drag ass on the last chapter of your manuscript when you remind yourself that you’re supposed to be on the second draft already.

Sometimes we underestimate how long things will take, and that’s fine. That’s when it’s time to sit down, soul search, and figure out if you should drop the project altogether or set a new deadline and finish the damn thing already.

And Then You Dive In

You might be nervous. I was. You might be so excited and so nervous all at the same time that you’re not sure if you should dance or cry or throw up on the floor. Welcome to the life of a blossoming artist! (Hope you didn’t come for the glamour!)

Just as with life and work and creativity in general, you won’t do your best work if you’re not taking care of yourself. Sleep comes first. Then your sanity (bodily movement, wholesome foods, treatin’ yoself). Then family and friends. And please, please, please do your best not to overschedule yourself. Tell clients no; tell them you’re happy to pencil them in for a later date. You’re working on your passion project now. Right now you’re working for you, your #1 client–a client that’s way more important than anyone else could ever be.

Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

— Stephen King