Super Students are always working on something big. Something big enough to train their skills, accomplish ambitious goals and, ultimately, prove their worth and added value to the community (which may be a website, a city, a country or the whole world).
Why a Side Project?
Working on a side project means conducting productive activities outside of the formal constraints of school or college. Too see it through, you’ll need ideas, resourcefulness and diligence, which all stem from a strong desire to create new things.
In the long-term, side projects look impressive on your CV. When you’re through with your studies, imagine going to employers and being able to say I learned programming and created this app, I teamed up with some friends and created a small business, I raised thousands of dollars to equip my school’s library. Accomplishing these goals demonstrates initiative, drive, and the ability to deliver on a plan.
Working on side projects is fun. You feel that your work has a purpose and immediate consequences. You get to meet and to work with amazing people (some will become good friends for the rest of your life). You get to “show off” and compete with others for prizes and recognition. It’s really fun.
Step 1: Know thyself
I’m guessing that 100% of the people reading this already came up with an idea for a side project once. Maybe something like this crossed your mind: I should write a novel, It’d be cool if I could log my studying time on an iPhone app, I’d like to be a published author on PubMed.
Ideas for side projects are not hard to find. They draw from your personal interests, skills, field of study and life experiences. The person on Earth that better knows you is, well, YOU. So take advantage of that information and start making some lists:
- List the top 5 fields you’re interested on (of Science, Technology, Culture, Business, whatever you’re into). Example: Medicine, Biotechnology, Entrepreneurship, Programming and Neurology.
- List the top 5 skills (almost) no one can beat you at. Example: Leadership, Project management, Public speaking, Writing, Graphic design.
- List your top 5 positive traits. Example: Diligent, Organized, Patient, Optimistic, Go-getter
This kind of introspective thinking lets you balance your interests and your personal characteristics, paving the way to having great side project ideas featuring YOU.
Say you’re an arts student interested on English literature. Illustrating a classic story like Catcher in the Rye (for example) would make an awesome side project to help build your portfolio.
Get the picture? Connecting the dots is an effective way of getting new ideas or reinforcing old ones.
Step 2: Generate and Evaluate Ideas
Among all the steps involved in completing a successful side project, coming up with new ideas is definitely my favorite. It’s the time to set my mind free and think of all the possibilities.
Work Your Idea Muscle
With the previous step in check, ideas should come easily to you. If they don’t, you’re probably making the #1 brainstorming mistake: criticizing your ideas before they’re even born.
Before engaging in any project, let your imagination come up with the craziest ideas. That’s why it’s called brainstorming, it’s a stormy session, with the sole purpose of producing as many ideas as possible. Evaluating their feasibility comes afterwards.
You might be asking: But what the hell is the point of letting idiotic or megalomaniac ideas go through? Well, for a couple of reasons:
- Bad ideas today might be good ideas tomorrow. Take notes of all your ideas, given that even the ones that will be rejected today may become great ideas tomorrow.
- The first impression is not always correct. Super Students are naturally ambitious, so some of their ideas are overwhelming or even intimidating. Don’t reject them at once; some may justify further consideration because of the available human or material resources.
- Impossible ideas will give birth to great ideas. One of the biggest advantages of brainstorming is that it keeps the engine running until the end of the session. Impossible or non-serious ideas are usually followed by the best ones.
Brainstorming is also best conducted in groups or teams. It’s almost like a game: each one of you briefly explains an idea and then note it down. You take turns until the session ends or you exhaust your idea muscles.
During your brainstorming sessions, it’s good practice to get inspired by the works of others. Sources of inspiration vary greatly from project to project, but these websites will serve most of your needs:
- Instructables. Perhaps the most popular DIY website ever, Instructables has been online since I was in elementary school. There are detailed reports of every DIY project imaginable, from electronics to cooking, gardening and 3D printing.
- /r/DIY. This is a subpage of the website Reddit (which you probably already know), specialized in DIY reports on all kinds of projects. You can order the projects by upvotes to learn about the most popular ones in each category.
- DeviantArt features art submitted by its users. There are millions of art pieces in all shapes and colors. Whether you need to get inspired by modern art, sculptures, photography or even LEGO original creations, DeviantArt has something for you.
- Make Magazine usually documents amazing projects, yet quite complicated ones. Most of them require specialized knowledge and true skill to accomplish. That’s why I love skimming through the website!
Filter Out Great Ideas From the Noise
In order to choose the idea you’ll stick with (the one that will turn into a success), you have to select the ones with most potential, i.e. 3-5 best ones, and then carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each one.
This evaluation process can be as serious as you want or need it to be.
Some larger and more ambitious projects will be dependent on the approval or support of stakeholders. They may be teachers, ethics councils, investors and other powerful people.
Conducting a short feasibility study shows professionalism and induces the wow-effect we’re looking for. Since this is reason for a post on its own, please follow the link to learn how to craft a simple feasibility study.
Nevertheless, most of the time we’re working by ourselves or armed with a small team. These for-fun projects are usually good to go after a short discussion or brief balancing of the pros and cons. Every element of the team will have an opinion, based on their experience, skill and personal preference.
Step 3: Plan Ahead and Commit
You’ve heard it before, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Planning your side project is the first step in turning an idea into reality. Again, the amount of preparation required depends on the seriousness of the project. That being said, side projects meant to partake in contests or competitions, for example, are better off with a rigorous planning process.
First and foremost, you should look everywhere you can for example projects even remotely similar to yours. The websites from last section are a good place to start.
The internet holds articles and reports of people who did the mistakes you can avoid. Better yet, those people will probably answer your PMs and emails if you have any questions.
Building a chair? Check the appropriate Instructables group. Coding an app? There’s always dev blogs and Stack Overflow. Organizing a conference? Try to find people in your city or college who already did it the year before.
Next up, you should worry about setting a solid plan. You’re maybe thinking that instead of wasting time on thinking about your side project, you should be working on it instead. Trust me, a good plan takes 10 minutes and can save 10 days.
4 Simple Questions that Make a Solid Plan
Do I have the Specialized Knowledge required to complete the project?
- If you’re working alone, the answer is probably yes, since you chose the idea based on your skills. On the other hand, you can start a side project for the sole reason of learning a new skill. In that case, you’ll develop your skills as the project progresses.
- If you’re working on a team, be sure to recruit people who have valuable skills and knowledge to bring to the table. More on working as a team.
Do I have access to the necessary resources?
- List all the tools, equipment, materials, software and even places (such as labs or workshops) that you’ll require. Do you already have access to them? If not, where can you get them?
- How much will it cost? My favorite side projects are the ones that cost next to zero to get started. Coding an app or writing a novel is mostly free, while organizing events and building devices is not. Is someone providing the startup capital or do you have to come up with it?
- (optional) Fundraising: Consider all the funding options available to you: grandma funds, crowdfunding, sponsors, bootstrapping and so on. A detailed fundraising plan is outside the scope of this article, but will be covered next week.
What’s the deadline?
- If a deadline is already set for you (like in the case of a contest or school project), then time management is a delicate matter. It’s safer to take a professional approach and use tools such as Trello or Gantt charts.
- If you have the freedom to decide your own deadlines, then there’s no pressure and it’s easier to juggle between working on the project and studying, socializing and exercising. Be careful with this added freedom, as it may unleash the dangerous ghosts of procrastination.
What steps will the project consist of?
- This part of the plan is project specific, meaning that if you’re writing a novel, the roadmap is completely different from, say, building a robot. These projects are fundamentally different.
- If you’re writing a novel, plan all the chapters beforehand. Building a robot? Schematics and component lists should be in check. Organizing an event? You better schedule meetings with your team and get everything you need on paper.
Motivation and Commitment
Starting a side project is fairly easy and straightforward. The thing people struggle with is completing them. Not surprisingly, motivation is the usual suspect.
I’ve written before that motivation is unreliable. Depending on the alignment of the planets of Andromeda, you can either feel great and be super productive or get lazy and not feeling like it. If we trust on our motivation to get through with our projects, we’ll never get stuff done.
Instead, I suggest the definition of daily quotas. Commit to working on your project every day. No exceptions. You may not feel it today, but discipline yourself to achieve small goals (daily quotas) every day no matter what. Let’s see some examples:
- Writing a novel? Write 500-1000 words everyday, regardless of the quality of the final piece. After 2 months, you’ve finished a novel! Sure, it must be revised and edited, but it’s still quite the achievement.
- Building a website? Work on it at least 15 minutes per day, regardless of what you achieve. Chances are you’ll work for much longer than that once you get in the flow of work.
- Publishing a comic book? Write and draw at least 20 minutes a day, regardless of the quality of the final piece. Work will pile up and you’ll have a lot of material to work with in the long run.
- Get it?
Combine the habit of meeting your daily quotas with the occasional use of sheer willpower. You’ll move mountains.
Step 4: Just do it!
All this thinking culminates in the vital part of any side project: actually doing it. You’ll be working on your project for a while, which can mean everything between a few days and a few years.
Given that you’re making regular (preferably daily) progress, don’t worry too much about how long you take. Instead, turn your attention to something much more important. It should be your no. 1 concern when working on a side project:
Strive to produce quality work at all times. Planning is about 80% of the effort in this regard. The remaining 20% are all about your mentality.
Avoid perfectionism, but take pride in the quality of each completed task. Remember that commonly disregarded factors such as appearance, design, organization and polish count a lot.
Pay attention to details: together, they’ll boost your work’s quality and add up to an excellent final product. However, most people work on rough drafts or temporary solutions first. Only then will they polish and add that final juicy feature (for the wow-effect).
Quality is dependent on many factors, especially the authors’ skills and experience. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have room for mistakes or that your expectations should be sky high for every project. All in all, quality is a question of mindset, not so much a characteristic of your final products. Do the best you can.
Document the journey
You don’t go travel without a camera and possibly a travel journal. So why would you leave your projects undocumented?
Every side-project of considerable ambition deserves to have its story told. Gather as much material as you can and you’ll see how it comes in handy when you’ve crossed the finish line. Although it takes a bit of effort at first, it’ll prove itself invaluable in the long run. Try to get:
- Photos: take lots of pictures of plans, equipment, materials, team members, important steps, you name it. They are the cornerstone of any report or article you’ll write afterwards.
- Journal: jot down some notes every week about what you’ve done, what hurdles did you bump into and how you solved them. It’ll be the most useful piece of information to keep as reference.
- Schematics/Plans: conserve your notes and any schematics, plans or diagrams that helped you along the way.
- Sources of information: save the reference to all the websites, books, articles and even people you used to get information and solve problems.
Troubleshooting and Overcoming Hurdles
A well-managed project isn’t free from unexpected problems, they’re just fewer. Even with stellar planning, you must be prepared to solve problems creatively.
Unfortunately, they present themselves in numerous ways: tasks that took too long, team members who got sick, materials that go missing and abrupt changes of circumstances, just to name a few.
It’s important to be flexible enough to adapt your plans on the go. That’s why I like scheduling tasks in a way that you can easily anticipate or postpone them (Trello or a Gantt chart are excellent methods). Adapt or let your project die.
The good news is that the rest of the project’s execution is pretty straightforward. So, jumping all these hurdles is the bulk of your operations. Coding an app? Debug efficiently and you’ll be finished in no time. Writing a book? Figure out your own personal ways to destroy writer’s block. Building a robot and your lab is closing next month? It’s time to search your town for other friendly lab owners.
There’s also a way of getting experts in your field to give you advice based on decades of experience. For free. It’s on a place called the Internet. They’re no farther that a Google search away. My favorite places are:
- Specialized communities. There is a subreddit or a forum for everything. Google will point you in the right way (“woodworking forum”, “robotics forum”, “writing forum”).
- Instructables. Free guides with quality pictures to building stuff similar to yours. It’s a DIY safe heaven.
- YouTube. For a visual representation of how things are done.
- Quora. A site meant to organize human knowledge in the Q&A format. A bit more general, but it’s possible to find quality advice here. (Shameless plug: here’s my account in case you want to follow me.)
- StackOverflow. If you’re coding and bumped into a bug you can’t solve, look here and there’s a 99% probability of finding the answer.
After you’ve completed a few side projects of your own, you’ll realize that mistakes and unforeseen circumstances were what taught you the most. When documenting your journey, be sure to include information about how you got through bumps in the road. They’ll make the most interesting part of your story.
Step 5: The Finish Line and Beyond
If you made it to Step 5, congratulations on finishing your side project! Feels good, doesn’t it?
Now, assuming that all finishing touches are taken care of, there are only two tasks left: 1) bringing all your notes together and 2) showing off!
By now, you should have a respectable set of notes and pictures. It should be easy to put it all together into a great article or report. The sooner you have it ready, the sooner you can share your project. With only a few changes, a single article can be converted into an Instructable, blog post or technical report.
If you built something meant to be used by other people, sharing is essential (and you can even put it in step 4). Otherwise, it’s still cool to show people what we’ve done, since they’ll give you their feedback and opinions. Ranging from social media to vlogging, the ways to promote your work have never been so many. A few suggestions:
- Friends, relatives and beta testers. These are your trusted allies who can give you there opinion before you even launch.
- Social media. Use your favorite outlets: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, StumbleUpon and so on.
- The appropriate subreddits
- A short demonstration video on YouTube
- Hacker News (for startups and tech)
- Blogs related to your craft
- Local news and printed media
Finally, since all your side projects are student made, they’re probably eligible to take part in student competitions. Competing against other teams is the ultimate way to keep you constantly learning, motivated and hungry for more. During the competitions themselves, you meet a lot of great people and important contacts in your field of interest. There are a lot of opportunities out there, in any field imaginable (Young Scientist competitions, Microsoft Imagine Cup, Intel ISEF and much more).
During the past 5 years or so, I’ve worked on side projects that taught me more than an entire decade of school. And not just theory, but actionable knowledge that can be used to create even more. Some examples of what I’ve worked on (for inspiration?):
- A portable, cheap and digital ECG device that you could connect to your laptop. I started it back in High School and won a few competitions with it. After all these years, there is still an Instructable reporting on the whole building process.
- Some small Biochemistry projects to learn my way around a lab.
- Two research projects in collaboration with my faculty’s research team, one of which is actually published on PubMed (still going through peer-review).
- nanoNews Medical, a free Android app that summarizes medical news daily and automatically.
- The Student Power.com!
The feeling of finishing something made by you is one of the best in the world. Few things compare with having your name in the cover of a book, paper or app. Fulfillment is worth the trouble of overcoming the obstacles ahead.
workshop_h1, by Teague Labs @ Flickr.com
Terracotta Infantry, by Richard Fisher @ Flickr.com
Brainstorms at INDEX: Views, by Jacob Botter @ Flickr.com
A portrait of the artist, by Kerri Lee Smith @ Flickr.com
Footrace finish line, by Seattle Municipal Archives @ Flickr.com