By Rebecca Hardy
I love systems. I think most worldbuilders do, at least to some extent. Systems of magic. Systems of currency. Systems of governance and geopolitical conflict in underwater cities, postapocalyptic wastelands, and galactic civilizations. And . . . systems in the real world, which can sometimes be the most challenging of all. I’ve tried just about every “Get Your Life Together” system I can get my hands on—planners, goal-focused journals, productivity apps. But what never feels fully addressed for me is balance. With every new system strategy, I find myself trying to cram all the different parts of my life into a too-small space, and end up overwhelmed by a hand-wringing, dread-inducing onslaught of I should be writing.
I should be writing is a curse, poisonous and draining, and can leave a hero feeling weak in the face of all that they have to do. So, I set out to brew an antidote: a system that promotes balance, reduces decision fatigue, and cuts down on anxious thought spirals.
Welcome to Sidequesting.
Sidequests are meant to slot into your life without disruption, by only focusing on what you do with your free time (i.e., time not spent on Main Quest tasks, like your day job, schooling, parenting, managing immediate healthcare needs, and/or other dependent care).
First, identify what balance looks like for you. Which personal categories need attention for you to feel like you are living a balanced life? These categories might include things like creativity, productivity, career advancement, friendships, physical health, and mental health. These categories are your Sidequests.
Next, think about how you give energy to these areas of your life. Why are these Sidequests important to you? What concrete activities can you think of for each? As your dutiful Dungeon Master on this first playthrough journey, here are some suggestions to get you started.
Fill your free time with activities that feed your creativity.
- Read books and essays on the craft of writing.
- Go mining for concept art that inspires characters and worlds.
- Add songs to your project playlists to reflect characters, scenes, or overall tone.
- Try a new food or recipe. Bonus points if it relates to a work in progress!
- Engage in non-literary storytelling (e.g., drawing, music, dancing, playing dress-up).
- Watch an inspiring movie or play a video game and reflect on what worked for you, what didn’t, and why.
- Brainstorm ideas by imagining your future bibliography: titles and snippets of stories you haven’t written yet.
Congratulations! The existence of this category means you no longer have to tell yourself “I’m gonna do that tomorrow,” because whatever you’ve been meaning to do for a month and a half, you’re going to do today.
- Make a list of projects you want to accomplish and rank their importance—is there anything that can be postponed?
- Prioritize projects with deadlines.
- Pick a stale work in progress to read and revise.
- Set timers for sprints—15 min? 30 min?—of dedicated, focused writing.
- As you transition between projects, take a moment to breathe deeply, stand up, and stretch—strategic pauses help with productivity, too!
No one’s going to hustle for your dreams harder—or better—than you! Build the skills to make connections, promote yourself, and present yourself as a professional.
- Update your website or write something new for your blog/newsletter/Patreon.
- Research authors or creators whose careers you admire.
- Read stories by peer writers, and in publications where you want to submit.
- Revisit the foundational works that made you want to be an author.
- Build your agent wishlist.
- Work on related project assets, like synopses and query letters.
As you come up with activities for the rest of your Sidequest categories, remember: they don’t need to be big. These are activities you can squeeze into your free time on a regular Tuesday, to practice satisfaction with your efforts at the end of the day and add a sense of accomplishment into existing tasks.
Once you’ve identified your Sidequests and outlined a few concrete actions for each, you’re ready to go! I recommend starting with one Sidequest per day. For example, let’s say your Sidequest is Creativity. You would go about your day as usual, doing all the tasks required by your Main Quest, and focus any downtime or undirected energy toward activities from the Creativity list. Repeat with a new Sidequest every day until you’ve cycled through them all and, hopefully, survived a balanced week with as few I should be writing attacks as possible.
Rebecca Hardy is many stripes of writer—an author, screenwriter, script doctor, 3 am email proofreader, and marketing content consultant. Her heart lives at the intersection of weird and wonderful and has been consuming SF/F/H content at an alarming rate since childhood. After earning her degree in clinical psychology in the snowy hills of northern Idaho, she moved to Los Angeles to bring her characters and stories to life. She’s worked most notably in the digital space, developing indie video game properties into live-action film projects, and is currently working on her debut fantasy novel. Step into her web(site): bextraterrestrial.com.