Making a Hobby out of Work: The Benefits of Small Side Projects

Most of us- entrepreneurs included- have a full-time job. This is the focus of our professional career for a particular point in time, and it demands our utmost dedicated application. For entrepreneurs, it’s the company that they have founded and need to lead. All of those customers, staff and shareholders are depending on them to deliver at the end of the day.

Motivated people have a penchant for choosing all manner of high intensity jobs for themselves. They thrive under pressure and work hours well beyond the regular cubicle dweller. Moreover, these types of people often love to work as well, or to be more specific, they love cramming productive things into their time. I suppose I fit into this category (at least on good days).

I find that the downside of this attitude toward work is that my main working objectives (the most important and urgent ones) have a tendency to swallow up all of my attention. Sometimes these projects are delightfully interesting, and other times they are tedious and complex- or worse- boring. The type of tasks on the to-do list for that week need to be done however, regardless of how one feels about them.

This brings me to the key question underpinning this post: what is the best way to deal with free time if we want to spend it doing something productive? Or to relax, let off some steam and exercise our brain without making it feel like work?

I often ask myself this type of question on the odd late evening after a long day at work (and usually with a nice red wine to accompany me), or weekend morning (fresh from a full night’s sleep), or on an airplane (where I am writing this post). I enjoy vegging out in front of the TV as much as the next guy, but sometimes there are just too many neurons firing at once to make that an enjoyable experience, so a sense of mental restlessness takes over.

At this point, the thought of responding to more incoming emails, or finishing that presentation, or finalizing that budget, or reviewing that contract (or a dozen other possibilities) present a mild headache that can wait until the next morning at the office when I’m in full swing “company mode” and all fired up. But the feeling of wanting to do something little and yet productive still lingers, much like a craving for a late night snack or an itch that you won’t feel satisfied until you scratch.

At these moments, I personally feel that reviewing the to-do list or inbox is a total mind killer and waste of time. It causes undue stress about things that need to be done soon, in moments when I don’t feel like I have the time (or energy or intensity) for doing them. So, how to flex your mind and have some fun at the same time? I have found that the magic solution lies in side projects.

This might seem like a no brainer revelation, but it’s taken me some time to really take this concept to heart. Side projects are wonderful. They are intended to provide meaningful, productive, self actualizing output while being fun, non-stressful, engaging and personally rewarding. Side projects are also an incredible way to utilize excess cognition and creative capacity while learning new things that make one a better person.

The key criteria for a good side project is the following:

  1. Has a defined, valuable outcome.
  2. Has a flexible due date or is ongoing.
  3. Is not critical to short term job performance.

While all criteria are fundamental, I think that number three is the most important, as this factor will determine if a project is net personal contributor of bad “distress" or good "eustress (what we are after). 

In my opinion there are 3 types of side projects that one can engage in:

  1. Professional, job related: e.g. a pet project for a department that you are not responsible for but want to help; a way to automate some of your repetitive tasks that you never get time to do during the day; a new filing system; a new email system; test driving the latest software app to help you in your job, etc.
  2. Professional, not job related: e.g. writing for an industry publication; advising a different company; joining a professional organization; working on a new invention; taking an online course; starting a pet project with some friends, etc.
  3. Personal: learning a new language; losing weight/getting fit; learning how to cook properly; writing a blog; building a model plane (or lego Death Star); doing community theatre; joining the local Toastmasters or Rotary Club; studying a liberal art for interest’s sake, etc. 

During a tough patch or plateau at work (i.e. your all consuming job), side projects can be a great tool for reminding yourself that being productive can be fun, and that you are capable of achieving wins when you put your mind to it. During the good times at work, side projects provide a stimulating outlet to let off steam while indulging your creative faculties.

The best part about side projects is that you determine what they ought to be. Over a period of months and years, these “little wins” will rack up alongside one’s main career focus and leave a nostalgic trail of rewarding outcomes for mere bits of spare time well spent.

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