Growing up, I learned a lot about the difference between being productive and wasting time -- or, at least, what others thought was me being productive or me wasting my time. Doing my homework was productive. Working on my stories about witches was definitely not.

Most of us faced this same comparison as we went through school. And most of the time, there's a good chance you were told that your hobbies or side projects would get you nowhere - that they were a frivolous waste of time.

But did you know that side projects can actually make you more successful?

Don't worry, I won't just back this up with my own example of how my story writing helped me in my career (although it actually did come in handy because it taught me a lot about creative writing and how to put words together in a cohesive sentence).

As professionals, if we're hoping to get to another level in our career, we need to have curiosity, creativity, and perseverance. Side projects help us develop these skills and drive us to reach that level of success — as long as we know what success means to us.

Picking a good side project

You may like to do a lot of different things in your downtime, such as watching funny TV shows and drinking wine. And while you might consider it a side project to binge watch every episode of Psych, chances are it's not going to get you anywhere unless you frequently attend '80s pop culture trivia nights.

So how do you pick a project that's actually going to be a good fit for you?

1. Choose side projects that you find fascinating and enjoyable.

What do you really love doing? Writing, painting, programming, animation? Your side projects should revolve around something that makes you want to learn more and sparks your curiosity.

The more deeply involved you become in your work, the more likely you are to enter a state of flow that allows you to learn more, faster. How do you know if you're in the flow state? If you've ever found that hours passed by without you noticing because you're too focused on the work, you've just experienced that flow.

When you work on something you enjoy, even when you hit a wall, you'll have an easier time working through your frustration and pushing past the block. The enjoyment you get from the activity will help pull you through.

As an example, I doodle from time to time, and with practice I can make some pretty fun little drawings. I'm fascinated by learning new drawing techniques and trying them out in my doodling sessions. To me, drawing is enjoyable and meditative. It helps me zone out, even when I hit a point where I'm not sure how to complete what I'm sketching.

I work at it until I figure it out and that's fun for me. So, a good side project for me is creating playful and inspirational sketches.

2. Choose side projects that tap into your creativity.

Creative doesn't necessarily have to mean "artistic". But it does mean doing something that requires you to think laterally. Lateral thinking allows us to look at problems from different angles and come up with a solution in a new way. Side projects that take this approach will help you develop a thought process that is monumentally helpful in problem-solving.

The project I've picked taps into my creativity because I have to come up with sketch ideas, create quotes for the sketches, and then figure out what techniques and drawing styles I should use to actually draw what I want. I'm putting something together in a new way that I haven't tried before.

3. Choose side projects that expand your skills or knowledge.

If you only work on things you're already good at, you won't improve. Think about playing the piano. If I can play one song really well — I know the notes, the beat, the feel of the pauses between the music — I have mastered that song.

And mastery is great, but in addition to mastery, you need to work on something just outside your current realm of knowledge. Something that you can do about 70% well, so that you can strive to fill in the remaining 30% and fill in the gap. This pushes you outside your comfort zone and forces you to continue learning and refining your skills.

So for my drawing project, one thing I can add to increase the challenge is Photoshop. My Photoshop knowledge is rudimentary, but I have fun working with it regardless. Using Photoshop to complete my project will prove as the 30% gap I need to overcome, and it will also teach me to use a brand new tool.

Completing the side project

In order to complete the project, you need an end goal to work toward. How will you know when it's done?

1. Set measurable goals and track your results.

I've already decided that I'm going to do fun and inspirational drawings and color them in Photoshop. Just so that I know that this project will have an end date to it, I'm going to do 100 of these. After 100, my side project is done. My goal will be to do one per day over the next 100 days.

Set a goal that you're comfortable with. Determine, based on your free time and the time requirements of your side project, how long it will take you to get to a certain milestone. Use that information to set down a deadline, and stick to it.


2. Write down your experiences as you work on the project

It's always a good idea to keep a journal to record thoughts, feelings, struggles, joys, and frustrations. This helps with achieving work and personal goals because it gives you a bird's eye view of your progress, allows you to see patterns in your work and moods, and will help you figure out and work on your shortcomings.

While you're working on your side project, keep a journal to record how you're doing. It doesn't have to be in depth. Start with three struggles and three accomplishments each time you work on it. This will help you see your progress as you go along.

3. Share your progress to create accountability.

One of the most magical (and sometimes awful) things about the internet is our ability to share everything. Sharing your work publicly is a great thing to do to reinforce the work you've done, get support for what you've created, and even get feedback. You can share your project on something as simple as Facebook, or find a site dedicated to similar work and share it there.

It's important to share your work with a group of people, regardless if it's your three closest friends, or your a community of people with similar passions. Getting feedback, positive or negative, will teach you what you need to improve on in your work and help you take the steps to make that improvement.

Using the skills you've learned to advance your career

You've done all this work, you've learned new things, and you're mastering a new skill... now what?

1. Do a post-mortem after your project.

It's important to do a post-mortem evaluation on the process and results of your project. What went well, what frustrations seemed to come up again and again, how did you overcome them, and what would you do differently next time?

If you've been keeping a journal throughout the project, it will be pretty easy to spot where you had issues, where you did well, and what you can work on with your next side project. Write down your post-mortem so that you can evaluate and learn from your hard work. Use it when you begin your next project to avoid the pitfalls you faced in the last.

2. Think about the new skills, techniques, and attitudes you learned.

Make a list of all the new skills you've learned, both practical (like learning how to use Photoshop at an intermediate level), and personal (like how to stay focused and motivated after you totally screwed up a drawing that was 90% done).

Separate the list into Hard (practical) Skills and Soft (personal) Skills.

As an example, here are a few Hard Skills:

  • Learned how to use Photoshop.

  • Learned how to write in modern calligraphy.

  • Developed a good eye for shading.

And for Soft Skills:

  • Learned perseverance for restarting a sketch after messing up.

  • Learned how to stay focused on finishing a tricky part of a sketch.

  • Learned how to communicate what I was trying to achieve with a friend who could provide feedback.

All of this is relatable to any career, because working through problems, communicating well with others, and learning new tools helps us add value to the work we do in our day jobs.

3. Relate your improved skills to your own career.

Now that you've made your list, determine how it relates to your career. Do people at work routinely get promoted if they're known to be hard workers who persevere through tough issues? Is there a role you could move into at work that allows you to use the new skills you've learned? Are your new skills going to add value to the company (and when performance reviews come around, your bonus)?

Fun work helps us learn

We learn best when we're open minded, having fun, and playing. Side projects are supposed to be fun and enjoyable. Remember that your project doesn't have to be lucrative, particularly productive, or help you get into the corner office. The best part of side projects is that they're supposed to challenge us and also be fun.

The different skills you learn in your side project are directly relevant to your job. These skills can be used to have better conversations with your boss and coworkers. They can be used to get paid what you are worth. They can also make you a better person, and a better professional, than you were yesterday.

Putting it all together

Side projects are a great way to merge your personal interests with your professional advancement. You get to work on projects you enjoy and reap the rewards of becoming more successful in your professional life. They're like hobbies — with benefits. So, take advantage of your free time and start creating something you enjoy!

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