Keep your "back burner" projects fresh.
How many of us have that project that perpetually sits on the back burner - waiting for the moment when fate or circumstance forces us to pay attention? It could be a journal article you want to write, or a novel you want to draft, or exploration for your future career. It could be a new fitness goal, or even a hobby - but these projects are marked by their "never important enough, never urgent enough" status. So how do you keep them fresh if they never seem to make their way to the top of the to do list?
Ask yourself why. What about this project makes it feel not important? Or not urgent? Get real about whether this is something you actually want to do, or something you feel obligated to do. Sometimes the project doesn't need to be on your list at all, and getting rid of that nagging feeling of guilt can free up some brain space for everything else. But if you do want to move forward, what has made it harder to do so in the past?
Make it easy to start. I know that occasionally, I find myself with 30 minutes or an hour, and I think, "oh gee, now would be a great time to start Back Burner Project" but if I don't have an exact place or task to begin, I'm likely to switch over to Netflix or start work on something that's more defined. So use your project management system, whatever that looks like for you, to make a map for yourself. Make a list of everything that needs to be done for the project that you can think of, and then mark a task (or a few) as places to start. Maybe you tag the tasks with time increments, so that if you have 15 or 45 minutes, you can find a task that should fit in that pocket of time. Try not to spend your time on the project deciding what to do, spend it...well, doing it!
Set up structures for support. Do you just really need a deadline to make progress? Find a way to set one! You can apply for a conference to present an aspect of your work, pitch it to an editor, set up a writing group around it, write it into your semester plan with your advisor, or build an accountability group that just focuses on whether you worked on it each week or month. Figure out what works best for the projects you're already completing, and reverse engineer it!
Use a timescale that isn't attached to your academic life. If you always wait until after the semester is finished to work on the project, you run the risk of always being exhausted when you sit down to work on something. Why not set up time, ever 1st or 15th of the month, to check in with your project and block time in your calendar to work on it? If the check in times recur regularly, and are not rooted in your academic timescale, it makes it easier to remember them (you always know when the 1st is!) and easier to fit in. You can plan for it, you can block it off - and even if you ARE busy with life, it can feel like a little bit of time when you connect with something different.
The more you can think about and plan for your side projects, the easier they tend to fit into your busy, full, life. Moving forward, inch by inch, month by month, is still WAY more efficient and effective than never starting because it is all so overwhelming and abstract. The more you can keep these projects, and the reasons they're important, visible and present to you, the easier it is to see how and why they deserve to make it onto your to do list.