A budding entrepreneur often faces a paralysis of choice: too many ideas and opportunities for projects, products and brands constantly rolling in. It's easy to get distracted and give into shiny object syndrome, skipping from one unfinished project to the next.
For years as a freelance writer and writing coach, I bounced among ideas and assignments haphazardly, chasing alluring fantasies or tantalizing paychecks. But it meant little cohesion across my work, easy distraction and a lack of forward momentum. Instead, my attempt to build a portfolio career sort of zigged and zagged across a circle, always winding back, starting at zero with every new endeavor.
Now I've figured out a way to prioritize my work to ensure steady progress and hold strong boundaries that keep me from flittering toward every new idea.
To keep myself focused, I've organized my work into three tiers that stack like an inverted pyramid: job, side hustle and passion project.
How to organize a portfolio career with an inverted pyramid
Each of the tiers is some kind of occupation, but they serve various purposes and contribute various benefits to your life.
The simplest way to describe each is based on money:
Job is the thing you rely on to make a living.
Side hustle makes you a little extra money.
Passion project isn't intended to make money but to enrich your life or career.
My job is "editor and writer." I do that for pay and benefits. That slot includes a full-time staff editing position plus the freelance writing I do that covers related subjects: careers and writing in digital media, including this column for Inc.
My side hustle is building a business teaching people how to write for digital media, including consulting, training and courses. I make money doing it, but don't count on the income.
My passion project is studying -- through reading and research -- the intersections of rhetoric and digital media (i.e. applying an ancient art of communication to modern modes of communicating). It makes me no money, but I love doing it.
Why this system works
Organizing my jumbled sense of work into tidy tiers on a pyramid, like shelves with dedicated purposes, helped me quickly see what's important, what's not, and how to make room for new opportunities.
With all my spots filled, I've set aside other projects: ideas for books, the thousands ideas for new websites I have every week, writing assignments outside of my beats, consulting that doesn't fit how I've defined my side hustle.
That's because I know any new passion project would mean setting aside my rhetoric studies to make room in that tier. A job that would demand more energy than my 40-hour-a-week position would spill into my side hustle tier.
I allow for the option to swap in these new projects, so I'm open to opportunities. But the system forces me to decide a new opportunity is more important than what's already in the pyramid -- which makes me think twice before chasing every shiny object.
How will you fill your pyramid?
How you fill your pyramid depends on how you want to shape your life and which occupations you prioritize.
If making a living isn't your top priority, you could broaden the definitions of "job," "side hustle" and "passion project" based on how much time or what priority level each occupies in your life. This lets you fit in not just income-generating occupations, but also anything you want to commit to, like life admin, child care, elder care, education, enriching hobbies or community involvement.