I am a firm believer that one should focus intensely on the one thing at hand to get something meaningful accomplished. I do also have one side project (it changes based on my availability, learning objective, etc) that I am always tinkering with all the time though – these are experiments that help me learn, build or experiment.
There are many documented benefits of side projects, as long as they dont take up too much of your mind space. Some of the most creative products in the world were born from side projects (although they are the ones we talk about the most – #slack, #twitter, etc.).
The benefits I have found are many fold, I thought I’d list them to encourage entrepreneurs to influence their employees to try stuff out. Why?
1. When you do a side project, you learn something new – always. I have found that even if it is an idea that I know a lot about or a problem that I am critically aware of, I end up learning a nuance or two about the problem, positioning, distribution, human behavior. For example with a project we did on monitoring the media for elections, I found that most news media properties were woefully staffed to do data driven projects.
2. It helps you tide rough times during your primary job. Every job has its “days” and some down periods – not down time where it is “waiting for someone to do something”, but time when you don’t see things going your way and need a break, so you can come back to the primary job with a fresh perspective and new set of eyes. For entrepreneurs, I would say this should reduce your overall attrition, since people realize that most side projects go “nowhere”, but once in a while the side project will take over an employee’s life and likely cause you heartburn. It is still worth the effort.
3. It helps you create and get a productivity rush, which gives you more dopamine, less adrenalin. Both are useful, but for most of us, who are in largely desk-bound jobs, the need for a “feeling” of doing something that you don’t have to do is wonderful and fulfilling. For entrepreneurs, the employees that have positive attitude (which dopamine causes) is awesome to have around.
4. It helps your brain be sharp. Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast that talked about brain amnesia. Basically most people remember numbers and artifacts from many years ago, but cannot remember a single important number from the last 2-3 years. The smartphone has taken away the need to remember these mundane things was the conclusion of the reporter and you have “amnesia” since your short term memory remembers fewer and fewer things. With the increase in online distractions at work, including social networks, videos, news, etc. the best way to keep your mind occupied with “junk food” for the brain is to have a good side project.
5. It helps you get out of “boring routines”, prevent doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results. After a while at anything you will get proficient at it enough to not only go past the “productive” phase but then get into the plateau phase. The plateau is when you “settle down”.
Settling down is for ground coffee. You ask hyperactive kids, who have had a candy binge to, “settle down”.
I think for entrepreneurs who are hesitant to encourage their employees to do side projects, personally, the benefits far outweigh the downsides. I have heard of projects taking up too much time, intellectual property being infringed up on, and a few other stories, which are all likely true and a cause of problems.
Still the best framework to think about side projects is – will you learn something new? Is it going to help you explore a new area? Will it help you grow as an individual?
If the answer is yes, please by all means, do it.
Having a side project when you are already doing side projects, though is just a big waste of time, is what I have found.