The Science of Side Projects: How Creative Hobbies Improve Our Performance at Everything

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 percent rule (employees could spend 20 percent of their time exploring fun, passionate side projects), the result was a more productive, more creative 80 percent. 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 3 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. Venn diagram of side projects 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.

Over to you: What are your creative hobbies and side projects?

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.

Image credit: Jeremy Levine Design

P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy our Buffer: Open Blog newsletter. Receive each new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign up here.

  • http://topknotsundays.com Kelsie Baher

    I love this! I find I’m always looking for side projects/hobbies in my spare time–working on my blog (short-term) or working on my book (very long-term) at the moment. But I’ve been wanting to bring my high school acting days back to life so I’ve been toying with the idea of joining an improv or theatre group to get back into performing. I think I just need a little push to actually go for it and incorporate it as a hobby into my life and this post has definitely inspired me to revel in my hobbies/side projects even more :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Kelsie! Sounds like you’ve got some amazing ideas and projects in the queue!

  • Jacques Bornman

    Thank you for a very helpful article. A friend and I both have a passion to write (for now as a hobby). In an effort to write more we decided to spend 60 minutes every day of July and post our efforts online. We thought it might be fun to invite others along, so we posted it on social media (side project). In no time we had more than 450 followers/participants at @writersbootcmp on Twitter. It’s an indication that many people want to give expression to their creativity.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Jacques! I just checked out the blog/twitter. Awesome idea! I love the thought and implementation you guys did with this. Hope you have an awesome July of writing!

  • Nobunagaoda

    Great article! I recently started fencing as a hobby. I’ve found that trying new things helps me broaden my general set of skills, not just the ones I’m practicing at the moment

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Awesome! How are you enjoying fencing? My brother picked it up a few years back – was hoping to maybe make the Olympics one day!

      • Nobunagaoda

        I enjoy it like nothing ese! I started on January and Its great! I hope your brother make it one day. Last month was the Panamerican tournament and I saw the olympic team, they are tough!!

  • http://www.petrpinkas.blogspot.com/ Petr Pinkas

    Awesome post Kevan. I totally agree with the side project idea and with the idea of recovery. I have just read a book called Power of Full Engagement and the recovery part is the key of your full engagement potential. So true and so great you are sharing this as well.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Petr! Sounds like an amazing book. Would you recommend it? I often forget about the recovery element of side projects. Sometimes, I confuse side projects with “work” – maybe it’s because the word “projects” has a work feel to me.

      • http://www.petrpinkas.blogspot.com/ Petr Pinkas

        Yes, I would highly recommend it to anyone. There are tons of case studies and examples how to incorporate recovery into your work and personal life. There are stories from all different kinds of people – managers, entrepreneurs, regular employees or athletes. They come to the treatment sometimes depressed and they see positive impact of the recovery strategy almost immediately. It is also obvious they have to rethink their life vision and priorities.
        That is true Kevan, sometimes even side projects can be work too :)

  • http://www.annaliesehenwood.com/ Annaliese

    Does this count as a good side project/hobby? I’d say it counts as both because there is an end product and it’s also a long-term process. I’ve made 5 pillows and a rug as well as this framed one. It’s a fun change of pace from the day-to-day work routine.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Wow, that’s really neat! I’d say it definitely counts, Annaliese!

  • nickyjameson

    I turned my Fine Art Photography into more of a side business. This is my site http://nickyjameson.com. It is a great creative outlet for me as I have quite a stressful gig as a Project Manager. It wasn’t enough for me to simply post my photographs, I also sell my prints. I have a newsletter for my devoted fans and Collectors and I also go to art shows. Through it I don’t have the pressure of my creative pursuit putting a roof over my head, yet I do have defined goals. Because I look at it as a side biz I push myself to continually learn, and that includes marketing selling, blogging and social. I don’t have to. however it is important to me that I do. And I can test and try out new things as I go along. The great thing is my photography keeps me balanced and challenged and helps me in my day job. I think it’s because I am allowing my creativity expression. I should add that when I lost my Dad last year my photography focus was one of the things that helped me move through the loss.

    • gianacuna

      Awesome gallery!

      • nickyjameson

        Thank you very much!

    • ajoliveira

      Great photos! I have been collecting and curating on the side project stories as a way to inspire other to embark on their own project. Would you care to share your story there? That’s at http://www.onthesideproject.tumblr.com

      • nickyjameson

        That’s a cool blog you have. I’d love to share my story there. Let me know how to do that. :) Thanks for the compliment!

        • ajoliveira

          Great. Send me an email to ajlmfo@gmail.com and I’ll reply with what I’ll need.

  • http://chetkittleson.com/ ChetCrunch

    I wrote a post, “four reasons to try a side project” a while back, (http://bit.ly/1jrZXu2), and so the title of your article was like candy for me. This is great content, thanks for sharing Kevan. (You do an incredible job at tying in other relevant content/stories, I’m taking notes!)

    I’m currently at a company I love and am working on things that matter immensely to me, (BD at UP Global), and I still find an incredible amount of value in side projects. (From mini-startups to blogging, etc.) It’s important for us to do things for ourselves because we want to, and the personal growth experienced from doing side project style things outside of the day job is astounding.

    A side note, I received advice from Dave Parker, our VP Product, to look at other departments within our company as “side project” opportunities as well. If you’re at a company that has different teams, think about how you might be able to contribute during nights and evenings to not only help another team but to pick up another skill. (IE I’m in BD but love writing, so I work with our content team on assigned stories.) Opportunity is all over the place, we just have to be hungry to learn and willing to put ourselves out there.

  • samik

    In the venn diagram, it talks about “no time pressure” which is a contradiction to the fact that that you need to find the time by setting a meaningful goals to your side project to keep it going.

    • gianacuna

      I think what he meant was that you don’t have to put a deadline on your projects so there’s no time pressure.

  • http://gregmcphearson.me/ GregMcPhearson

    Your post falls into the category of “much needed medicine” for today! For me, the key is to constantly remind myself that these are just that – side projects and hobbies. I’m a TV junkie who is also intrigued by what makes successful leaders tick. So I combined the 2 into something – I’m not exactly sure what – but for now, it’s a blog where I will profile the good, bad and ugly of TV Bosses. http://tvbosses.com

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Sounds like a great idea, Greg! Wishing you all the best with it!

  • Pingback: » Friday Findings Change of Perspective

  • gianacuna

    This is totally spot-on. When I think about work on weekends or any free time it leads to more burn-out. That’s why I started a blog so I can get my head off things and clear my head of stress. By the way I blog here: http://www.gianacuna.com

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Really glad to hear it! Blogging is one of my favorite choices for an awesome side project. :)

  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    Additional creation can bring the heart expressing, understand what you need.

  • ajoliveira

    Great article. Not only side projects are great as people don’t consider them as often as they should. Usually success cases are never told showing how many has started this way. That’s why my own on the side project has been collecting and curating on the side project stories as a way to inspire other to embark on their own project. To show them there is a way other than to radically change your life or keep thinking ‘what if…’ instead of actually doing it. It is at http://www.onthesideproject.tumblr.com if anyone is interested in getting to know how it is, told by who’s doing it.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      How meta! A side project about side projects, I love it! :)

  • http://bit.ly/thesparkebook Andrei Kryssov

    Great post Kevan. The tricky part for me was finding something that I loved to do, not something that I felt I had to do. I originally started working on a book but found the time frame I set myself was a bit over ambitious. As the project consumed my free time it quickly burned me out. I transitioned the idea for the book into a newsletter/blog and that works much better for me now. My site is: http://thesparkletter.com

  • Pingback: on why you need a hobby | Orlando Christian Counseling for Individuals, Couples and Adolescents

  • Donal O’Conghaile

    Great post, Kevan! I’ve learned about myself that I’m never happy just ‘being’, and I always have to be working towards something new. For my latest side project, I’m venturing into e-commerce with http://lifehackposters.com. It’s something I’m super passionate about and enjoy working on. So even if it’s not a huge success, I’m enjoying the learning experience!

  • Pingback: Why Creative Side Projects Are Good for You | MediaStreet News & Opinions