Make Your Side Hustle Work

by Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Hudson Sessions, Manuel Vaulont, Amy Bartels

With the rise of platform technologies and increased use of freelancers, contractors, and “gig” workers by companies, it has never been easier to start a side hustle to generates income on the side of a full-time job. Nearly 44 million U.S. workers are currently running a variety of side hustles ranging from driving for ride-sharing companies, renting out their houses, or selling handcrafts online.

One reason for the surge in side hustles is the ease of starting one. For example, to get paid for completing online surveys on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk requires a two-minute application and a brief wait for approval. To become a Lyft driver, all you need is a valid driver’s license, decent car, non-egregious driving record, and a short online application. Even side hustles that are more specialized, such as freelance graphic design or web development, can launch within a day or two by creating a profile on Upwork or other platforms.

But managing a side hustle is not without complications. We recently set out to understand the benefits and challenges of balancing a day-job while moonlighting. To do so, we conducted a series of studies with over 1,000 individuals who held variety of full-time jobs and side hustles, such as an HR coordinator who makes and sells jewelry, a data analyst who delivers food for Postmates, a nurse who completes online surveys, and a graphic designer who does freelance writing. Participants worked on their side hustles for an average of 13 hours per week spread across 4 days, median annual side hustle income was approximately $5,000, and almost half of participants had more than one side hustle.

Workers who exclusively support themselves with gig work grapple with job insecurity and struggle to find identity, but many also find they can anchor the benefits of independent work to the stability of a full-time job. More specifically, we found that side hustles empowered individuals so that they feel they are the agent in charge of their work, which led to being emotionally and cognitively invested in the side hustle. Workers even carried forward the positive emotions associated with this experience to their full-time jobs, which improved their full-time job performance. However, in certain situations, side hustles can distract from full-time work. Our research reveals numerous ways in which full-time workers can best craft and choose a side hustle, build it up, and balance it with full-time work and other demands.

Choosing Your Side Hustle

Fortunately, for those pursuing a side hustle, numerous options exist. Although the amount of income one can earn from a side hustle is certainly a key consideration, we also found that the features of the work and motives for doing it predict the extent to which workers feel empowered and engaged in their side hustles.

Features of the work. Five key features increase enrichment from side work. First, side hustles that provide autonomy by giving workers the independence and freedom to schedule work, make decisions, and choose how they accomplished the work offer more enriching experiences. Likewise, side hustles that involve seeing tasks through from beginning to end also tend to be better experiences. Fortunately, side hustles tend to exhibit such independence and offer such discrete tasks given the nature of gig work. Thus, finding side hustles with these features should be relatively easy.

Three other key features to consider when choosing a side hustle include side hustles that provide feedback, significance, and skill variety. In terms of feedback, finding a side hustle that provides direct and clear information about one’s performance improves the experience of the work. Consider for example, the instantaneous feedback provided to Lyft and Uber from rider ratings and tips added to the fare. In contrast, performing a dog walking side hustle via the Rover app may provide less immediate and clear feedback about one’s performance and thus be less enriching.

Finding a side hustle that is perceived to be significant (i.e., directly influential to the lives or work of others) should also increase enrichment from the work. As an example, in selling goods online, side hustlers are unlikely to deeply connect with the significance of the task, whereas a babysitting side hustle via the Urbansitter app will likely increase perceptions that the side hustle is significant. Finally, finding a side hustle that involves a variety of skills should improve the experience. The skills can be those the side hustler already possesses, or even more beneficial, may be skills the side hustler wants to further develop. For example, consider the variety and breadth of skills one may use or develop by performing a variety of jobs on TaskRabbit compared to the lone skill of driving for a shared ride service. In short, finding a side hustle that offers autonomy, discrete tasks, feedback, significance, and skill variety will lead to more enriching experiences and help facilitate empowerment and engagement in the activity.

Motives for pursing a side hustle. Workers that pursue side hustles do so for a variety of reasons, and we found that the motives for pursuing a side hustle increased the chances that workers experienced empowerment and engagement in their side hustles. For many workers, side hustles are motivated by the pursuit of practical interests, such as increased pay and security. We found that 45% of individuals said that their top motive for having a side hustle was to increase pay and prestige.

Other individuals pursued side hustles for different reasons. For example, 34% of individuals said that their top motive for having a side hustle was a desire for variety and autonomy. For example, a cashier may seek variety elsewhere by doing odd jobs on Taskrabbit, or an accountant may pursue autonomy as an artist on Etsy. Another 7% of individuals said their top motive for having a side hustle was to increase social interactions and benefit others within a side hustle. For example, an individual may choose to drive for Lyft to increase social interactions or choose to teach at a community college in the evenings to benefit others. Holding these motives (i.e., desires for pay and prestige, variety and autonomy, and socializing and altruism) appears to have encouraged individuals to more actively shape the work and its context, increasing side hustle engagement. Finally, we found that 14% of individuals said that their top motive for having a side hustle was to have more security and authority in their work. For example, an individual may rent out a spare room on Airbnb to make sure they do not fall behind on their mortgage payment.

Two significance implications can be drawn from these four side hustle motives. First, side hustles motives go beyond merely increasing income. Moreover, having a more expansive portfolio of motivations for pursuing a side hustle, aside from merely making money, increases the side hustler’s desire to be an agent who actively crafts the role to serve their motives. In turn, this desire to shape the work will increase empowerment and engagement in the activity.

What’s more, the experience of a side hustle will be best when side hustle motives are congruent with the nature of the activity. For example, someone with a desire for social interactions in a side hustle may be ill suited to a side hustle entailing completing surveys online but more well suited to bartending a few nights per week. Thus, choosing a side hustle should involve consideration of congruence between one’s motives for the activity and the likelihood the side hustle will fulfill those motives.

Doing something similar to your full-time job or doing something different. Should a full-time accountant undertake individual tax returns on the side of their full-time job? An advantage of holding such a similar full-time job and side hustle is having a set of skills that facilitates both roles. This congruence may make managing and transitioning between the two roles easier compared to if the accountant performed a dissimilar side hustle, such as working as a wedding photographer. However, our research suggests that occupying a similar side hustle and full-time job may limit a sense of being away from full-time work as an individual extends the experience of a full-time job into what would otherwise be non-work time. Ultimately, curtailing time away from a full-time job by holding a side hustle that is similar to one’s full-time work may prevent recovery from the primary job. Thus, side hustlers will need to manage the tension of finding a side hustle that draws on existing skills with the opportunity to add variety to one’s work life in order to provide an escape from full-time work.

Building Your Side Hustle

After choosing a side hustle based on features of the work, motives for performing it, and the costs and benefits of doing something more or less similar to full-time work, workers have a couple of key decisions to make in terms of building their side hustle. Specifically, considerations ought to be made for managing the pace of the side hustle, keeping the side hustle on the side, and disclosing the side hustle within full-time work.

Pacing your side hustle. Some side hustles are easily scaleable at the outset. For example, on any given day, workers could complete more or fewer surveys online, pick up passengers for a longer or shorter period, or deliver a large or small number of orders for Uber Eats. For these side hustles, pacing the work relative to full-time work and non-work demands is relatively straightforward and adaptable. Other side hustles require greater consideration regarding the workload. Some side hustles may involve developing a relationship with clients and settling into a routine (e.g., tutoring, dog sitting, babysitting). Workers performing these side hustles may do well to build up a “book of business” over time so as not to overcommit while finding a sustainable workflow and to avoid taking on long-term customers who are difficult. Finally, other side hustles, such as freelance illustration or web design, may entail large deliverables. Oftentimes such projects are accompanied by significant deadlines that may range from overwhelming to infrequent. Such a “feast or famine” workload may take a heavier toll on workers who are trying to evenly pace their side hustle work from week-to-week. Individuals who struggle to make and keep precise plans may want to avoid the perils of such freelance work.

Keeping the side hustle on the side or making it full-time. In our sample, 17% of participants agreed that they would like to turn their side hustle into their full-time work someday. These participants tended to have side hustles that aligned with personal interests (e.g., drone photography, woodworker, art, writing) but did not generate sufficient income. Regardless, long-term aspirations for a side hustle can help with decisions about selecting a side hustle and pacing the work. Individuals who are looking for a side hustle to turn into their primary work one day ought to select a side hustle that is more personally interesting than their current full-time job and yet has enough earning potential to be able to support oneself. An upside of side hustles is trying out alternative work to one’s full-time job that can be scaled up or eliminated altogether as long as investing in the endeavor does not threaten one’s full-time job.

Disclosing your side hustle to your manager. Side hustles entail performing work outside of your full-time job, which many organizations could view as a conflict of interest, or an infringement of employment agreements. Before pursuing a side hustle, individuals should check company policies to ensure working on a side hustle would not be a violation.

However, even if a side hustle is not a violation of company policy, individuals may be hesitant to disclose their side hustle to coworkers or supervisors. When deciding whether to disclose, workers should assess the culture of their organization to understand whether the organization is indeed open to these types of opportunities. Consider whether or not you know of others that also have a side hustle and whether or not they openly discuss their side hustle while at work. Another consideration is your relationship with your supervisor—do you trust them? Do they trust you? Are you risking violating that trust if you don’t disclose your side hustle?

Once you decide to disclose to your supervisor, key items you likely want to highlight to your supervisor include how you and your full-time work will benefit from the side hustle and how you will work to minimize distractions. Some of the benefits to highlight to your supervisor include the skills you will build or hone in the side hustle that you can apply to your full-time work. For example, one individual in our research discussed how dealing with clients in her side hustle consulting business helped her improve in her full-time job as a sales representative. Other benefits to highlight include activities that the side hustles gives you that you may not be able to get from full-time work, but that make you overall more satisfied with life and work. For example, another individual in our research who works for a Fortune 100 corporation full-time in an HR role, discussed how creating beautiful pieces of jewelry and selling them online allowed her to express her creativity in ways she was unable to do in her full-time job resulting in increased work and life satisfaction. Finally, share the results of our research that found an overall net positive impact for side hustles on full-time work performance.

Your supervisor may be concerned that the side hustle will distract from full-time work. In our sample, very few workers worked on their side hustle during company time — so ensure your supervisor that you will not as well. Likewise, you should also promise that you will not use company resources such as computer equipment or office supplies to aid in your side hustle.

Distractions from side hustles can also be minimized by ensuring that you complete work or meet your goals. For example, you are much less likely to be distracted by your side hustle on Etsy if you can fully complete the order you are doing for a customer during the weekend, rather than spreading it out over multiple weekday evenings. Likewise, rather than splitting your time driving for Uber before and after work, you may want to consider driving when you have the most time to meet your daily goal for fares or consider setting a morning and an evening goal for fares.

The Balancing Act of Full-time Work and Side Hustles

Although there are many benefits to having a side hustle, there are certain pitfalls that you want to make sure you don’t let overwhelm you.

Managing your energy. The most common time for our participants to work on their side hustles was weekday evenings. Although it is tempting to slide straight from your full-time work into your side hustle, or to work each weeknight or all weekend on your side hustle, you should find time to unplug from both your full-time work and your side hustle. Individuals in our study worked on their side hustles an average of 4 days per week – so limiting your side hustle to certain days of the week would be a good first step to managing your energy. Side hustlers should also consider taking time between full-time work and side hustles rather than starting side hustles immediately after work

Similarly, taking small breaks for even as little as 10 minutes during full-time work or during a side hustle will also help to manage your energy. Although it is tempting to use breaks to surf the internet, send emails, or run errands — the best breaks are those that allow you to detach from work. Consider taking time to focus on the meaningfulness or joy you receive from your full-time work or side hustle. Take some time to show gratitude toward others or help out a coworker. Take time to meditate and relax.

Draw from positive resources of side hustle work. Although juggling full-time work and a side hustle can be difficult, we also found individuals were able to draw from the positive resources generated from side hustles. After working on their side hustles, many individuals in our study reported feeling enthusiastic, inspired, and excited the next day at work. Interestingly, we also found that side hustles helped to offset negative emotions individuals experienced from full-time work. That is, if individuals reported feeling upset, nervous, or distressed during the day at their full-time job, engaging in the side hustle again served as a positive resource for individuals by helping to offset negative emotions.


In short, we are proponents of side hustles — they allow workers to reap the benefits of independent work while retaining the stability of a traditional role, thereby avoiding the major downside of full reliance on gig work. They also offer empowerment as workers feel able to shape the work and its context. But like so many things in life, you can have too much of a good thing; balance is the key.

This article was originally posted in Harvard Business Review.

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