Ryan Hogue loathed how much time he spent in northern Virginia traffic. He calculated he spent nearly eight days’ worth of time sitting motionless in his car each year.

Life was otherwise good: It was 2016, and Hogue sat next to his best friend every day at his senior web development job. He had a side gig as an adjunct web development professor at his alma mater, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He was making $117,300 per year, but driving back and forth felt like a waste of time and money, he says.

He started thinking about ways to earn passive income and better optimize this time. That October, he started a dropshipping business, which quickly turned into a print-on-demand company. He later added online courses, one-on-one coaching services and a YouTube channel to his collection of income streams.

Three years in, those streams outpaced his two salaries, so he quit both day jobs in 2020. Last year, Hogue made over $1,600 a day, or roughly $11,400 per week, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.

Hogue, 35, credits his success, largely, to a simple strategy: turning his business into a game for himself. Each day, he’d simply try to earn more money than he did the previous day, he says. At first, he only made a handful of sales per month, equating to roughly $4 in profit per day, so he worked on figuring out how to double that.

“[My friends] would just laugh at me — ‘Dude, cool. $8?’ — but in my head I knew that I could double that, and double it again,” he said during a recent Make It panel at SXSW.

Incremental goals made Hogue feel like he was improving, even if he could only buy an extra McDonald’s Big Mac per day. Winning that game each day helped keep him from quitting before his business turned profitable, he says.

He recommends the strategy for anyone else who’s trying to get a side hustle off the ground. “The dollars-per-day [mindset] helps you understand what your time is worth,” Hogue now tells Make It.

Today, Hogue still gamifies his side hustles. Despite the passive nature of most of his businesses, once they’re automated, he gets bored and starts looking for new challenges — often working 60 hours per week, he says.

His mindset has shifted: Now, he tries to incrementally increase what he makes per year, trying out new side hustles that could support that goal, he says. Once a venture brings in sustainable income, he scales down his involvement and turns his working hours into developing his next income stream.

Hogue quantifies success in a couple of ways. He tracks his net worth in an Excel spreadsheet, and regularly calculates how many Big Macs he’s earning every 24 hours. In his home state Virginia, at $4.67 per burger, that shakes out to roughly 343 Big Macs per day.

Not every financial expert will tell you to measure your worth in fast food menu items, but Hogue’s strategy isn’t far off from conventional advice. The best way to achieve financial goals is to set small targets, commit to checking your accounts weekly and understand it can take years to see results, experts say.

“It takes a long time for a lot of human beings, sometimes 5, 10, even 20 years to accomplish that goal,” Wells Fargo head of advice and planning Michael Liersch told CNBC in January. “You just got to stick with it and inspire yourself to make sure you can achieve it.”

As for Hogue, his current experiment involves starting print-on-demand businesses and handing them off to high-paying clients. For $10,000 to $15,000, he’ll start building a business for someone else to run in six months, largely using artificial intelligence and automation, he says.

So far, 11 clients have paid for the service, says Hogue. He plans to eventually raise its price, depending on how these initial attempts turn out, he adds.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Hogue worked as an adjunct professor at George Mason University.

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