No Side Projects. Only Projects

To DoMy last episode of Writing “Light,” the video podcast sparked a bit of discussion with, and a blog post by, Tim Ward about how focus on your current creative work can be threatened and diverted by the pull of all those other things you want to make and do. After a few months of very consciously exploring how I work and understanding more precisely how I’d like to work, I’ve come to have a new perspective on the apparently not uncommon war between the Big Project and all those pesky Side Projects.

How does one avoid feeling guilty about the siren call of all those ideas in your head, those creative germs that have yet to achieve the status of “endeavor” because you’re putting all your time and energy into the thing your trying to get done now?

Simple. Recognize that there are no side projects. There are only projects. Each one has the value of a primary project while you’re doing it. When do you focus on one project over another? When you feel like it.

This is how I’ve been doing it. The approach is adapted from Mark Forster’s Autofocus system, which is explained by this handy little interview:

To summarize:

  • Make a list of things you want and need to do
  • Review the list and see what appeals to you the most
  • Do that thing until you don’t want to do it any more
  • Is it done? Scratch it off the list
  • Is it not done? Scratch it off the list and add it to the end of the list
  • Repeat

Since I have several creative projects in mind at any one time, this is an excellent way to determine what I should be doing right now. Everything appeals to me in varying degrees at different times, and each one has equal potential for artistic and fiscal reward.

All of these things are projects. None of these things are side projects.

Will it take longer to get any one thing done? Perhaps. But life is unpredictably, unfairly short. I’d rather get some of the way into many things, inevitably finishing one after the other, than do one or two things completely at the expense of getting to at least begin playing with all the others.

The lovely thing about this approach is that it’s self-regulating. Remember, the point is to look at your list and do the thing that “speaks” to you the loudest. If you trust yourself, you’ll be drawn to the project that is most enticing at that moment. A particular project will likely get a larger portion of you total attention because you’re really enjoying it, or because, perhaps in the case of a commissioned work, there’s an external incentive. The same reasons will dictate how long you spend on the project before moving on to something else.

Take this blog post. I put it on my list last week. I created a draft post on May 10th but apparently didn’t feel like doing much more with it then, because I didn’t start writing it until May 12th. It’s May 16th and I think I might finish it tonight… but I didn’t even start on it until I wrote six hundred or so words of “Light of the Outsider,” ran out of gas on that but still had some creative energy in me. A glance at the list and this blog post jumped out.

Earlier this year, before I adopted this approach, I was spending pretty much all my creative capital on “Light of the Outsider” and on “Writing ‘Light.'” I wasn’t really blogging at all, though I felt like I had some things to say. I also felt the nagging pressure of my still-unfinished website redesign, and the formatting of a new short story e-book… but I mostly pushed those things aside or, worse, felt a little guilty when I succumbed to working on them instead of adding words to the first draft of “Light of the Outsider.”

Now, with the freedom to do any creative endeavor I want whenever I want, I feel like I have more incentive and more ambition. Writing until you are (for the moment) no longer interested, rather than writing until you meet some arbitrary word count or log a specific amount of time in the chair, is a little like the difference between eating until you are full and eating until your plate is clean. The former leaves you satisfied, while the latter just leaves you uncomfortable, sore and maybe even resentful of the whole darn situation.

It’s working well for me. I’d love to hear how you deal with the press of many projects. Do you maintain tight focus on one creative endeavor at a time and manage to keep all the others in check (or not?) Or do you flow from project to project, letting each one accumulate a little more nacre until you have a pearl or two? Perhaps you have an entirely different approach to dealing with the demands of you creativity.

Let’s talk about it in the comments.


  1. I checked out this system and it is very intriguing. It definitely goes against my weekly goals set up on Monday. It certainly makes the work more enjoyable simply by the fact that you are choosing to do it. I’ll give it a shot and get back to you. Thanks Matt!

    • Cheers, Tim! Give it a month or so. Be sure to include everything you need / want to do, not just writing. (But don’t include day-job stuff — that’s a whole other set of priorities that are beyond your control.) You’ll find that your actions and choices will show you where your priorities lie… and then it’s up to you to adjust and reassess. Good stuff!

  2. OK. I’ll give it a shot. Definitely a systematic approach of any kind is going to be better than my haphazard approach. Or what I’ve been doing the last two weeks: “I’ve taken on too much, so I’ll play this game instead.” This seems like an eminently sensible way to move with the creative flow and still get things done.

    My father’s just discovered this independently. He’d been trying to write daily and finish one thing before going on to the next, and he gave up and adopted just this approach. He’s certainly happier!


    • Hi Michelle!

      “Sensible” certainly describes the Forster’s Autofocus System, indeed. But as I advised Tim (and as Forster himself advises), don’t do this just for creative stuff. Put everything you need and want to do on that list except day-job stuff that is outside of you control.

  3. Love it. This is the third time this week I’ve been confronted with this idea, to prioritize. The other two were about eating frogs … I like this idea better.


    • I’m glad this approach struck a chord for you, Diane. I’ve read “Eat That Frog” and, while I understand the logic behind the idea of tackling the toughest, largest task first, the Autofocus approach will accomplish the same thing. If you’re honest with yourself when you work over your list, the toughest, largest tasks will be dealt with… but only if they’re also truly important to you, and not at the expense of everything else. Good luck!

  4. Hi there! Happened upon your blog through your Tower Records post, but I figured you wouldn’t see my comment if I wrote it there since it’s a few years old.

    So, I guess we have two things in common: we’ve both worked at the same Tower Records! And we’re both working on a big writing project. :)

    I’m impressed by how many words you aim at writing within a certain period. I’m very easily distracted, and my main motivator is my own guilt!

    • Well, hello, former and mysterious co-worker. Who are you? When did you work at Tower?

      As you’ve seen by now, I’ve returned the favor of your Twitter follow and it seems some of my followers there have already taken a shine to your site… so I’m happy to have helped spread the word. And good luck with your writing project!

      By the way — I would have seen the comment no matter where it appears… comments on old posts are always encouraged!


      • Oh good good! Thank you, and thanks for taking a shining to my blog :) I no longer live in the US, based in London now, but spent a big chunk of life in Southern California and am always up for supporting local creative work!

        I wasn’t there for long, but it was around the end of 2001/beginning of 2002, so I think it was after your time? I definitely remember Charlie though, and wonder what he is up to now. Any idea?


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