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Managing diverse projects in a multi-hyphen career

Juggling his way around multi-faceted work gigs and achieving a healthy work life balance as a sole trader, Neil Hughes, author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, shares a few tips to help others.
Neil Hughes juggling and balancing everything
Neil Hughes, Author, Comic, Computer Programmer and Public Speaker

“Hello. What do you do?”

I never know how to answer this. Usually, I blather:

“I write books, and mix stand-up comedy with mental health awareness. Oh, and some software development.”

People look at me, confused.

It wasn’t always like this. Some years ago, I worked in software full-time. I liked my job and my colleagues. But I itched to spend time on other passions. Part of me knew I couldn’t be satisfied with a life devoted to just one of my interests.

One day, I allowed myself to dream. What might life be like if I spent, say, a couple of days a week programming, and another couple of days writing? What could I achieve with more time to put into stand-up?

Could I somehow juggle a bit of everything?

I’d be trading away a comfortable, stable income for considerable uncertainty—at least, at first. It was unlikely I’d be able to immediately match my salary by mixing these activities.

But people don’t become jugglers because it’s the most efficient way to transport balls. We juggle because we can.

I realised it was possible. With enough graft, it could work. I decided to “give it a year”.

That was five years ago.

During that time, there have been successes. I released a comedy book about living with anxiety, which led to unanticipated opportunities. I got invited to give a TED talk, and then my stand-up comedy morphed into humorous-helpful presentations about anxiety to all kinds of audiences. I supported these growing opportunities through freelance programming work, and found time to tutor students in maths and physics.

But people don't become jugglers because it's the most efficient way to transport balls. We juggle because we can.

Being based in the northwest, it’s easy to travel all over the UK. I’ve been invited up to Scotland, and down to the south coast. Sometimes I wish for more local networking events (or to have discovered those which do exist sooner!), but technology connects me to opportunities around the country.

And the sheer variety keeps me energised. Most mornings, I wake up excited to choose what to work on.

But, of course, there have also been difficulties. Some projects never got off the ground. And there are fallow times when it suddenly becomes a struggle to find work—speaking invites dry up, writing commissions never appear, and the programming projects seemingly have migrated elsewhere.

These harder times haven’t deterred me. It’s sufficiently motivating to be working on my own passions, and if I can make this juggling approach work, then I will. I liked my old job, but I love my new life.

However, no lifestyle is perfect. There are always trade-offs.

I’ve had to become comfortable weighing up pros and cons. Every decision entails not making some other decision. If I commit to speaking gigs, I’ll have less time to write. If I take on a large programming project, I may have to ease off on speaking engagements.

In a sense, the entire juggling lifestyle is itself one big trade-off. In my case, I swapped stability for creative freedom, and financial security for satisfaction.

However, these trade-offs aren’t unique to this sort of career. Everybody has to choose what they value. Some need stability, some prefer autonomy, but we each have to find our own balance.

I’ve learned that this balance can be adjusted again and again. At first, juggling felt like a scary, permanent leap. But I soon realised I could always leap back the other way if I really wanted. The skills and experience I’ve developed would be invaluable if I chose to apply for a more regular career.

It also doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. I could simply add regular part-time work, if I required extra stability.

(This could work the other way, too—rather than a big leap out from full-time work, I could have gone part-time, and developed the writing and speaking on the side.)

There have been multiple smaller lessons to learn, too. Making this work day-to-day has required ever greater self-knowledge.

For a time, I thought there must be a ‘one true way’ to work. I tried copying the advice of endless online career gurus. But that turned out to be impossible. You’d need a 100-hour day to fit in all the meditation, yoga, work sprints, focus time, email systems, food prep, networking, hustling…

Instead of copying others, I’ve had to experiment for myself. My current system isn’t perfect, but I’ve discovered little ways to be more productive:

  1. Cross something off the to-do list as early as possible each day
  2. Co-work with friends/strangers once or twice a week
  3. Focus on one project for a couple of days at a time, if possible
  4. Take regular time out to decompress and reassess my priorities

Each of these work for me. But everyone else may be different.

The only universal constant is that we must figure out for ourselves how we work best. Try different routines, experiment with novel carrots and various sticks, and eventually you’ll discover a routine that brings out the best in you. Don’t beat yourself up for being a night owl, just because everybody else seems to be a morning person.

It's crucial to keep reminding myself why I'm doing this.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to make this work for so long. Some days it’s easy to stay enthused, and other days I have to reach deep inside for extra perseverance. Sometimes I change plans to follow where passion leads, and other times, I’ve just got to grit my teeth and work to a deadline.

In all those senses, juggling is just like any other job. But unlike other jobs, it maintains my interest and allows me to explore multiple passions.

That brings me to the final lesson learnt. It’s crucial to keep reminding myself why I’m doing this. Juggling is a wonderful, thrilling spectacle—but it’s also tiring. Reconnecting with the excitement—the thrill of variety, the joy of helping people through my work—that’s what prevents everything from crashing down around me.

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to anxiety. In between stand-up comedy, computer programming, and public speaking, he’s currently putting the final touches to a novel about a magical shop. He likes it when people say hello at or to @enhughesiasm on Twitter.