How to Balance Your Career and a Side Hustle Using Psychology

It’s not rocket science, it’s a system

“Balance is not something you find, it’s something you create.”

― Jana Kingsford, author

I’ve had a side hustle since college. Or, as I like to call it, a side passion.

It doesn’t mean I don’t work hard or want to progress in my career — I love my job. But a side passion lets me enjoy the freedom of expressing myself through writing without the burden of using it to pay my bills.

How to Balance Your Career and a Side Hustle: The BLOCKS system

Over the years, I’ve developed a system that helps me stay productive, creative, and sane. I’ve used my knowledge of behavioral science and psychology to help design it, and have distilled it into what I call the BLOCKS system.

1. BATCH your tasks

Instead of multitasking, batch similar tasks together and focus to get more done. Countless studies have found that avoiding multitasking can help us squeeze more work out of less time.

Why does batching work? Because it helps us avoid what scientists call switching costs. When you’re interrupted or jump around from task to task, it takes time for your brain to move from one thing to another. Switching focus wastes mental energy and increases the number of decisions you have to make. It can even make projects take up to 50% longer to complete.

Here’s how neuroscientist Dan Levitin described the need for batching:

Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up… the same fuel they need to stay on task.

And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to… feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time.

[Multitasking] literally depleted the nutrients in our brain.

For example, answering emails is the perfect activity to start batching. Instead visiting your inbox to answer emails as they come in, visit twice a day and spend 20 minutes thoughtfully responding. Batching can help you be more productive at the office, and use less mental energy during your side passion hours.

To apply this principle, ask yourself:

  • What tasks might go quicker if they were combined rather than tackled separately? These might include writing a blog post, scheduling posts on social media, or designing marketing materials.

2. LIMIT your free time

If you want to write a book, learn a foreign language, build a boat, or start a website on the side, you’re going to have to sacrifice some of your free time.

Personally, there have only been a few weekends where I haven’t written for at least a few hours since I was in college. Now, you don’t have to run a schedule as extreme as mine to get a side passion going, but you will have to sacrifice some downtime to do it.

To apply this principle, ask yourself:

  • Are there any moments during my day where I’m wasting time or doing something that seems to sap more energy than it provides? These might include vegging out in front of the TV, scrolling through TikTok, or watching the news to the point of anxiety.

3. OUTSOURCE so you can focus

Outsourcing is critical. Handing over low-value, repetitive, or specialized tasks can free up lots of your time. If there’s something you want to learn and can’t outsource, like learning to code, then do it. But if your side gig involves creating content or scaling a business, outsourcing can help you get lots done in your spare time.

For example, my strengths lie in writing and narration. Those are the things I enjoy doing, so I outsource three kinds of tasks:

  • Work that takes up too much time with too little return, like designing the posts on my Instagram feeds.

  • Skills that will take me too long to learn to do well, like editing videos for YouTube.

  • Activities that I’d consider low-value compared to writing. Tasks like scheduling updates on social media using a platform like Buffer or Later.

To apply this principle, ask yourself:

  • What do I think my side hustle time is worth? Are there any tasks that would create more money or time than they would cost to outsource? These might include research for a blog post, creating an explainer video, or taking on a new marketing channel like TikTok.

4. CREATE time for active mental recovery

Creating a schedule for your side passion might mean getting up early or spending time working over the weekend. But make sure you also create time for mental rest and recovery.

In athletics, there’s a concept known as “active recovery.” It means after you’ve gone through a tough gym session, your next best action isn’t to skip a workout or take a nap. The best thing for your body is to perform a low-intensity activity like walking or yoga. For knowledge workers, active mental recovery is a critical but often overlooked practice.

For knowledge workers, active mental recovery is a critical but often overlooked practice.

Active mental recovery might include meditation, journaling, using a float tank, or exercising. Whatever you choose to do, make sure to take the time for active mental recovery.

To apply this principle, ask yourself:

  • What activities do I do to manage my mind? For me, the first steps toward active mental recovery included journaling, meditation, and exercise.

5. KILL low value tasks

You're probably familiar with the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Principle. It states that 20% of our activities cause 80% of the benefits. For example, 20% of a brand's markets might provide 80% of its sales.

Low-value tasks are those things that don't drive results but instead steal your focus and mental energy. These tasks feel good because you get a little hit of serotonin, the happiness hormone.

It's as true in your career as in your side passion — low-value tasks steal time from the things that deserve your full attention.

Low-value tasks steal time from the things that deserve your full attention.

For example, imagine your side passion is selling an online course about Excel skills. You might find that 95% of your students discover the course through your podcast, but only 5% have found you through your blog. In that case, your blog would be a lower value task as compared to the podcast. So, with limited time and resources, you should focus your efforts on creating and marketing the podcast.

To apply this principle, ask yourself:

  • Which activities don't seem to be giving me much return? Would I be able to focus on channels and tasks that I know give me results if I killed off that low-value tasks? Make sure to use data to decide where possible.

6. SCHEDULE and work ahead

The most effective strategy you can adopt when building an audience, a business, or a career, is consistency. But this is also the number one challenge for people balancing careers and side passions. When things get crazy in the office, often the first thing that drops is the side hustle.

So, plan for the inevitability that you will have busy weeks or months at work. If you work ahead and schedule things to publish, post, or release later, you'll be able to build in schedule buffers for your day job.

Or, if you're not too bothered about building an audience and just want to express yourself, sacrifice consistency to achieve balance. But know that you'll also sacrifice the inherent motivation of a deadline and getting work done quicker.

Why? It's down to something called Parkinson's Law that states "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." In other words, the longer you have to do something, the longer it takes. Consistency creates deadlines, and deadlines get things done.

Consistency creates deadlines, and deadlines get things done.

That's why I'd encourage you to work ahead and maintain a consistent output. Don't be afraid to lean on the Outsourcing principle to achieve this.

To apply this principle, ask yourself:

  • Am I too ambitious with my publishing, posting, or product development schedule?

  • Do I have the discipline to schedule things ahead of time, or I do I get too excited to share with my audience and customers? It took me time to get to a place where I could schedule a podcast to publish in four to six weeks, think of it as mentally "done" then move on to the next thing.

The Bottom Line

Not everyone wants their side passion to become a full-time gig. But you might be shocked to learn which major brands started as side hustles. For example:

  1. Apple: This world-changing company was started in its founders’ spare time. Steve Jobs was working at Atari, and Steve Wozniak was an engineer at HP.

  2. Instagram: Co-founder Kevin Systrom was a product manager who taught himself to code in his spare time. He built Burbn in his spare time, which became the basis for Instagram.

  3. Spanx: Founder Sarah Blakely created the billion-dollar brand while selling fax machines door-to-door.

  4. FUBU: Founder Daymond John built the massive clothing brand while working as a waiter at Red Lobster.

  5. Twitter: Founder Jack Dorsey created the company while working as a programmer.

The common thread that runs through every story is the challenge of balancing careers and side passions. So how did they do it? By leaning on effective, evidence-based systems rooted in psychology like the BLOCKS system we just reviewed.

As Scott Adams, who created the cartoon strip Dilbert as a side hustle while working at Pacific Bell (now AT&T), put it:

Winners have systems.