How Stress Can And Can’t Help You With Your Side Hustle
In the name of having multiple income streams, I’ve spent the past few months starting up a side hustle. I’m not co-founding a big and ambitious startup. Instead, I’m working on a couple of personal projects at the same time. One is a small piece of software that I intend to sell. The other is monetizing my writing.
I originally, and naively, used to think that building a successful side hustle only involved blocking out some time to get cracking after my 9–5 work was done for the day. Boy, was I wrong — even if I didn’t encounter much in the way of practical problems, my own head has been getting in the way of doing productive work.
Nothing is at stake, so little gets done.
Working on side projects is my personal choice, and as a salaried worker, it won’t impact my ability to keep a roof over my head. In other words, I only have something to gain from my projects, but nothing to lose — except perhaps some self-respect — if I decide to drop them.
Nothing is at stake, and if I fail, no one ever even needs to know. That’s the first problem.
Moreover, assuming I continue painstakingly working on my projects over the next few months and years, that doesn’t mean I’m working in a time-effective way. The lack of any real deadlines is a real pain.
Sure, deadlines may be a cause for excessive stress for a lot of us, especially those of us who deal with them on a regular basis as corporate employees. But it turns out stress isn’t all bad — what’s more, there exists such a thing as an optimal level of stress, as defined by the Yerkes-Dodson curve.
What the curve says is that people, predictably, tend to fail when pressure is excessive — a scenario most common in the corporate world and in startups. That’s when burnout happens. Too much is expected of us, in too little time.
Similarly, performance is poor when pressure is not present at all. In that case, we are not incentivized to perform at all. Why do it now, when we could do it tomorrow? Why do it at all, when our livelihood doesn’t depend on it?
I have no real requirement for when my product should be finished and shipped. The deadlines I set for myself are completely arbitrary. Even if I were to set a reasonably challenging deadline for my next task, it still wouldn’t succeed in generating stress, because I know it’s fake.
That’s how you end up having eternity ahead of you for finishing personal projects, and no plan.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. (Parkinson’s Law)
As a result, I always, inevitably, end up wasting lots of time on small things that are, in the grand scheme of what I want my finished work to be, irrelevant. I’d be ashamed to admit just how much time I’ve spent making a logo, perfecting elements in the user interface, and so forth — when really, the key features are still missing.
In writing, this manifests as excessive editing before the draft is even done. Setting up paragraphs to look nice and neat, formatting quotes and references before I’ve even taken the time to write my reflections about it, tweaking titles, and so forth.
Working on the “easy” stuff keeps me busy, and feeling busy has me feeling productive, even though my rational self knows that’s a misguided feeling. This ends up slowing down the process of creating a great deal. It’s easy to avoid the important bits when there is no finish line in sight.
Time off feels undeserved.
I told you about how stressed I’m not. Great. Now, let me tell you about how stressed I am— makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
After I started spending serious time on my projects, I’ve had a hard time doing anything just for fun. I used to spend way too much time playing videogames and binging series on Netflix. I felt guilty.
Eventually, I did a 180°. All of a sudden, everything about my day was planned out carefully and only useful items would end up on the calendar. Time to just chill? Nope, that’s not profitable. Skip!
In the same way, I started viewing social interaction as something of a hurdle. Sure, I can meet friends and family whenever — global pandemic allowing. However, I have to admit that I always feel some level of anxiety when I can’t stuff my checklist chock full of “useful” tasks because friends are in the way. That’s a depressing way to view life and friendship.
If this all sounds dumb, I agree. Thinking long-term enough, one of the reasons why I’ve been working on side projects, to begin with, is to eventually have enough money and freedom to just do the things I like. That includes the very activities I’ve been down-prioritizing in order to spend that time working instead.
I assume this is true of many others who start side projects. Well, at least, I can’t remember ever hearing anyone say they just want to work forever for the sake of working. It’s almost always about getting to a point where we no longer depend on our 9–5 job, retiring early, maybe saving for rainy days. As many reasons as there are side hustlers, really.
Mind you, I’m a believer in sacrificing a little now to get more later, but taking it to the extreme is not wise. Neglecting time off is neglecting your health and productivity. There are plenty of articles out there telling you to take time off work, both on a small and on a large scale. It’s not news, yet it’s hard.
Take vacations every few months, take breaks every few minutes.
The same applies to personal projects, whether we like it or not. I found out I need to give myself a hustle-vacation every now and then if I want to be effective. And so do you, because even if you’re doing projects in your own free time, it still counts as work. Any creative effort with the purpose of generating a return, later on, is work.
Accepting that rest is a need — not a luxury — is helping me cope with the feeling of wasting time when I’m sitting around enjoying life, as opposed to working. I’d be lying if I said I got rid of all the guilt surrounding recreational activities, but I’ve made good progress. Taking time out to breathe helps you in a lot of ways. Enjoy it, and don’t beat yourself up.
In the end, I can’t know what will happen to me tomorrow, and neither can you — and who wants to find themselves at the end of their life having spent all their time working? The only sustainable way to survive your side hustle is to remember to take time off from it.
Breaking the cycle
It should be obvious by now how these two elements — lack of stress, excess stress — end up feeding on one another, creating a disordered and unhealthy approach to side hustling.
I’d be lying if I said that I’ve solved my struggle completely. But I’m trying my darndest to. Since we are dealing with a vicious cycle, any strategy that helps break the cycle can help. It doesn’t matter which particular part of the cycle you attack. It’s down to personal preference.
Here are some examples of many possible strategies I’ve been trying out:
Increase beneficial stress ↑
- Set dates to show someone else your progress, for instance, demos of your product (leverages feelings of shame if you end up not delivering).
- Have others be involved in your planning, for instance, seek out opportunities for commissioned articles with deadlines, as opposed to only writing for your blog.
Decrease destructive stress ↓
- Schedule your time off as if it were a regular task in your project. No matter what you think, you do need to take that time.
- If you like to wake up early, try achieving as much as possible before you start on your day job, as opposed to afterward. After all, if you have two blocks of personal time during the day, it’s easier to allocate one to side projects and one to winding down.
While at first glance it might seem paradoxical that one might be stressed and not stressed enough at the same time, to me, it’s been a reality of spending my free time doing fully optional and self-driven work. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
Having lots of time at your disposal and few external requirements can be detrimental to productivity in the context of a side project. Not being under enough pressure to complete your tasks will end up stressing you out on a personal level instead.
And it’s a vicious cycle — the more you stress about not producing enough, the more time you’ll end up taking away, out of guilt, from worthwhile chillaxing and allocating to your side hustle. And that doesn’t help the original issue at all.
If my story resonated with you, take the time to reflect on strategies you can use to find that sweet spot of stress. Find ways to be held accountable. Make time to relax. You’ll be well on your way.