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5 Fresh Ways Side Hustlers Can Stay Focused and Productive

Having trouble concentrating? These real-world tips can get you back on track.
5 Fresh Ways Side Hustlers Can Stay Focused and Productive
Image credit: mihailomilovanovic | Getty Images

At night, while most people are relaxing in front of their televisions, I can be found at my laptop mulling over the use of "charming" as a "brand personality pillar."

Since 2014, I’ve had a side hustle, This Dog’s Life, a online community for dog lovers where I wrangle everything from daily content strategy to brand positioning. Running my startup means working two jobs -- one as special projects director for Entrepreneur and another I’m creating from scratch with the hours I don’t use for sleeping. It also means finding myself lost in situations like this one, where I’m wondering too much about the definition of ‘charming’ (Is it too cutesy? Is it annoying? Should it even be a brand pillar at all?)

But I get an alert -- someone has responded to questions I’ve sent for my next post on This Dog’s Life. So I switch gears to reply and once I hit “send” I realize I really do need to assign more to freelancers so I pull up my story idea document. Which reminds me to scroll through my Instagram and Facebook feed which somehow leads me to check for updates on my email subscriber list. All this keeps me distracted from the one thing I was supposed to accomplish that evening: defining my brand.

Related: 50 Ideas for a Lucrative Side Hustle

I need to focus but it’s tough. The problem is I am tired -- really tired. After working a full-time job, my exhausted mind tends to wander and decision making takes a lot more effort than it should. It’s a common problem for anyone running a side hustle -- and a hurdle must be overcome to move forward.

Of course, this is a common problem. So many businesses started as side hustles and many entrepreneurs have struggled with how to manage both energy and time. To help myself and others improve their focus, I reached out to a number of experts -- including some former side hustlers -- for their real-world strategies to make it work. Their ideas can help us all stay focused, avoid distractions --- and feel like we accomplished something for the day.

Here is what they had to say:

1. Practice energy management.

To be productive, match your tasks with your energy, says Jessica Lawlor, the CEO of Jessica Lawlor & Company, a communications firm, founder of the Get Gutsy blog and former side hustler.

Lawlor knew she did her best creative work early, so she prioritized her day based on when her body and mind worked best. She woke up 5 a.m. to finish blogging and writing for her side hustle before leaving for her full-time job. Once there, she still aimed to get complete any creativity-intensive work done in the morning hours, knowing that her energy would wane in the afternoon. Rote tasks that required less brainpower were saved for the afternoon, such as email and expense reports.

This habit serves her even today as she runs the business she founded full-time. “So many entrepreneurs and side hustlers are obsessed with the idea of time management, but I've personally found that practicing energy management has proven much more effective.”

2. Seek out new tools for focus.

Find out how you spend your time, says Nick Loper, the founder of Side Hustle Nation, a coaching service for entrepreneurs. The answers can be eye-opening and help side-hustlers better understand what tasks to delegate or even eliminate altogether. He suggests downloading apps such as Toggl or Everhour, or even just creating a simple Excel spreadsheet. Tracking your time can help gamify tasks and keep you alert. “Knowing you're ‘on the clock,’” says Loper, “tends to speed up your efforts and keep you focused.”

Loper’s other tip for focus? Brainwave music. Startups such as Focus@will or Brain.fm. design original compositions with brain function in mind. While Loper doesn’t use these everyday, he says when he does he definitely feels more focused and productive.

Related: Side Hustler's Life: 5 Ways to Make It Work

3. Make time for growth.

Of course, if you’re consumed with running your business, you’re not growing it, something Chris Guillebeau, the founder of The Art of Non-Conformity, a platform for unconventional people doing remarkable things, realized first-hand while living on a hospital ship in West Africa and working as a hospital aide.

Since Guillebeau squeezed his side-hustle into mornings and evenings, he set aside 25 minutes every morning to complete one task that would grow his business. This ensured that emails and other tedious chores wouldn’t overwhelm his limited schedule. Key to this practice was not starting the session until he knew what he wanted to accomplish. “I made a rule to not open my laptop before beginning, Says Guillebeau. “Otherwise, I’d inevitably end up distracted and fail to accomplish anything significant.”

The habit often set the tone for the entire day. “No matter what else happened” he says, “as the chaos of the day unfolded, I felt a special sense of satisfaction.”

4. Rethink the week.

For some side-hustlers, productivity means getting real about what you can work on when. Luisa Zhou tried to set aside an hour a day after work but found herself too exhausted to do more than watch TV or scroll through her Facebook newsfeed. “Reality sank in,” says Zhou, who is now self-employed and helping women transition from employee to entrepreneur.

After some trial and error, Zhou realized she’d need to break up her to-dos. She saved mentally intensive activities for the weekend, where she had the energy and focus for planning and creating content for the week ahead. The weekdays were reserved for manual tasks she could complete while in “autopilot” mode, such as sharing content and responding to questions.

“This method is the path of least resistance. It doesn't require me to change my schedule or increase my willpower,” says Zhou. “By making all my weekday tasks manual, I made them as easy as possible to do even in a tired, don't-want-to-work, or think, state.”

5. Schedule ‘side hustle-only’ time.

Spending every spare minute on a side-hustle is tempting for a side-hustler. And if you’re building an app to help with focus -- like ShaoKan Pi did -- it might even be irresistible. But while Pi and team spent every evening, lunch and 10-minute break on Forest, an app that helps cure cell phone addiction, they found their energy fading. “This is the moment most people give up,” says Pi. “And this was the moment when we decided to find another way to keep working on Forest.

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So, instead of using “spare-time” -- something Pi realized was unstable and irregular -- the team slated regular, fixed times they could depend on. These time blocks were carefully scheduled, reserved only for the side hustle, and considered sacred.  This strategy helped him progress on Forest and free his mind. “During the ‘free’ spare time,” says Pi, “I can learn new things, think about new ideas and plan what to do in the next project time frame or even watch an episode of my favorite TV show without feeling guilty.”