In praise of side projects: pick up a creative hobby and become better at everything else you try via @FastCompany

How Creative Hobbies Make Us Better At Basically Everything

They're not just diversions from the daily grind—creative play can make you better at what you do at work.

At any given time, I have a side project running.

It’s often a new blog or a Tumblr or a book or a newsletter. Sometimes I try to design WordPress themes. Other times I try photography. This ethos of new projects and new improvements runs throughout our Buffer team. We love to find ways to grow, excel, and improve through side projects and hobbies.

I have yet to create the next Uber or Gmail—million-dollar and million-user enterprises that began as side projects.

The good news: You don’t have to create a million-dollar company to get your time’s worth from a side project or creative hobby.

Spending your time in this way can make you happier, healthier, and more productive.

The psychology of side projects

When Google began its famous 20% rule (employees could spend 20% of their time exploring fun, passionate side projects), the result was a more productive, more creative 80%. Side projects boosted work performance.

There’s been research to back up this phenomenon.

San Francisco State psychology professor Dr. Kevin Eschleman and his colleagues measured the effect of creative hobbies on over 400 employees. In two separate groups—one rated by coworkers and one self-rated—those with a creative hobby were more likely to be helpful, collaborative, and creative with their job performance.

As an added bonus, outside of work those with hobbies felt more relaxed and in control. Said Eschleman:

The results indicate that organizations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work. Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control, but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance-related outcomes.

Recovery is a key psychological function of side projects and hobbies. The Eschleman study highlights the importance of creativity and recovery, and a paper put together by the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology cites a range of factors that come into play with leisure—or lack of leisure—and recovery.

From a psychological perspective, it would be better if people engaged in activities in which they sought challenges and tried to match them with their skills. Evidently this also applies to work: Optimal experiences correlate positively with mental health. However, in our society leisure is used as an "escape" from work. "Escapism" in this respect means that people do not seek meaningful leisure activities for their own growth and development, but instead resort to passive activities to escape from everyday strains and problems. Such behavior is frequently associated with a passive lifestyle and boredom, which in turn might feed into apathy and depression.

Boston College sociology professor Dr. Juliet Schor calls this phenomenon "work-spend-work-spend mentality." We work hard so we can spend more, and the more we spend, the harder we work.

Side projects and creative hobbies help stop this cycle and nurture a more creative and fulfilling version of down time.

Low-risk, low-pressure, and love: The Three rules of side projects

It probably goes without saying that side projects differ from work projects. But how, exactly? Building a website can be a work project for you and a side project for me. Playing piano is a career for some folks; it’s a creative hobby (a bit of a slow burner, at that) for me.

In a post on Medium, Hiut Denim Co explains its thought process behind side projects, which have been hugely impactful on the careers of Hiut’s cofounders. They believe side projects follow three rules.

  1. They don’t have to provide you with a living. You can still eat if they fail.
  2. They don’t have a deadline. And as there is no time pressure, you don’t revert to your usual formula. You try new things. You experiment. You take risks.
  3. This is a Labor of Love. You provide the ‘Labor’. And you provide the ‘Love’. So when you spend time on it, it is because you really want to. That keeps you coming back and pushing it on.

Low-risk, low-pressure, and love

You’d be hard-pressed to find these three concepts all in the same place in the business world. Many work projects lack two—if not all three–of these elements. High-risk, high-pressure assignments represent the flip side of creative pursuits. So without side projects, things get unbalanced rather quickly.

Along with providing work balance, side projects and hobbies help push us to improve in a number of key areas. Here’s how the Busy Building Things blog describes it:

It’s also important to be our own client sometimes, and have side projects that push new skills, flex our creative muscles, and give us testing grounds for new and innovative ideas.

A side project, a creative hobby, or both?

When we’re talking about side projects and creative hobbies, are we talking about two of the same things? Not precisely. Here’s the best way I’ve found to think of the distinction between side projects and creative hobbies:

  • A side project has an output, a finished product (eventually).
  • A creative hobby is a long-term interest.

Here’s an example: Musicians take on side projects quite often. These projects can be the result of experimenting with new creative hobbies—new instruments, new sounds, new technology. In this way, the hobby leads to the project.

I’ve found creative writing to be an incredibly enjoyable hobby. Someday, I’ll turn this hobby into a side project of writing a book.

You can choose both projects and hobbies. You can do both at the same time. And you can pick absolutely anything that interests you and that you want to learn more about.

Your side project or hobby doesn’t need to be something you’re already good at. You can think outside the box with what you choose—anything that interests you, fulfills you, excites you. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Learn to draw
  • Learn to code
  • Sell something online
  • Write a book
  • Start a blog
  • Take lessons
  • Audit a class
  • Volunteer

Which ideas could you add to this list?

How to keep a side project going and a creative hobby active

Of course, knowing the advantages and methods for starting a side project or hobby is one thing. There’s also the challenge of overcoming the obstacles that get in the way. Here are some helpful tips for creating a project or hobby that is reinvigorating and sustainable.

Find the time by setting a meaningful goal. One of the biggest obstacles with these creative pursuits is finding the time to do them. I like the way that Rachel Andrew of A List Apart puts it: "Finding the time" often relies upon having a goal that is meaningful and important to you; a goal that is valuable enough to make a priority."

Focus on the now, not the end. Keep your attention on the task at hand. Side projects are meant to be low-pressure; you’re doing the work because you love the work, not to get something shipped.

Break your project into parts. I’m borrowing this idea from the world of work projects. Often, it’s easier to make headway on a project if it’s not too daunting to start with.

Combine your interests. If you’re struggling to stick with a project or hobby, consider scaling back your options to something you know. If you love writing, try learning a new writing medium rather than stretching yourself to something brand new like design or code.

Coming up with a project or hobby can provide a big psychological lift and a boost to work productivity. Find something that’s low-risk, low-pressure, and a labor of love, and you’ve found your project.

What side projects and hobbies do you pursue? What would you like to try but haven’t yet started? I’d love to hear your experiences and ideas in the comments.

This article originally appeared in Buffer and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user m01229]

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  • RunningMan

    Appreciated! I've been in a serious funk, a quarter life crisis so to speak, and needed to hear this. About to write my first blog article and re-connect with my artistic side. Much Love!!

  • 100003820806267

    So true! At last I can show my kids that all my 'creative hobbies' over the years have been good for me. I have always got something going on the side, and I love it. The latest is scrounging around charity shops and jumble sales for old books that I resell. I'm never going to retire on the money I make, but I'm having fun.

  • Thank you for the great article. I worked at Polaroid for many years and loved it. I was the founder of their Creativity Lab. Recently I started a meetup group in Boston called Take Better Pictures. To my amazement, many people joined who have very left brain day jobs.

    They are seeking creative hobbies that allow them reconnect to their creative side. The other benefit of pursuing their hobby of photography in this way is that they meet new people outside their usual circle. I love organizing our meetup groups. In any one session I have international blend of scientists, musicians, coders, doctors, all enjoying the experience of capturing a moment of beauty through photography.

    But it is more than just a hobby for most of them, they are passionate about it. They want to learn new skills and are eager to improve. They seem to like the workshops best when they are not just fun, but also challenging. Now I am offering photo workshops at work too. Fun!

  • Arden Quaint

    Amazing article and absolutelly accurate speaking from experience. I'm constantly working something out on the side since I'm not currently working in the industry that I want.

    I'm always building some website for online communities - just finished a very complex one this spring. I've got quite a few in the bag already, always done as little side projects, and loved pushing my (limited) knowledge further on webdesign. If not that there's always a photography hobby going on - which I'm actually hopping it will lead to side projects like you said, and possibilly a career - or some creative writing about characters I've created in games and learned to love over the years.

    Thanks for this article, makes me feel a lot better about the projects I do as something normal and encouraged rather than me being confused about what I want to do in my life.

    Really, thanks.

  • Chris Poile

    I completely agree with this. When I'm creating something new or learning something new, it revitalizes me and makes my 'main' projects a lot easier and much less stressful.

  • daniellaley

    Thanks for this post. I just noticed I'm doing that: I'm an architect that likes artistic drawing but never had the time or chance to do it frequently. Now I started drawing by orders online and it made me realize it's a very nice hobby and lets me build a good portfolio. I'm actually thinking of starting a little side business!

  • Chris PhotoFix Hilbert

    Thanks for this article…I'm very creative and sometimes feel the "need" to do something crafty….now I have evidence for what I always "knew"!

  • Great points to keep in mind Kevan! If I didn't hate paper so much, I would print this article as motivation for my own side projects and hobbies.