Mix Up the Workweek by Setting Your Own “20-Percent Time”

Many large companies have policies that allow employees to spend some of their time working on their own projects. These programs are often used to entice high-caliber job applicants, as well as encourage innovation. For example, Google (s goog) has what it calls “20-Percent Time”, where its employees spend one day each workweek on project they’re passionate about, while 3M (s mmm) calls its version “15% culture,” which “encourages technical employees to spend 15 percent of their time on projects of their own choosing and initiative.”
This approach doesn’t have to only apply to corporate employees — it can apply to web workers as well. Whether you’re a freelancer or a corporate employee, if your work is measured on your performance rather than your presence, your work hours may be flexible enough to accommodate your own “20-Percent Time.”
But why do it in the first place?

  • Innovation and creativity. Innovation is one of the most cited perks of 20-percent time. According to this handy infographic, half of Google’s products are a result of this employment perk. The products that have resulted from 20-Percent Time include Google Adsense and many Google Labs features. An example that might seem closer to home is cartoonist Hugh MacLeod. He drew his first gapingvoid cartoons during his downtime while he was working as a copywriter. Now he’s published a book and does commissioned art. He may not have had a firm policy on creating things outside of work, but it’s easy to lose sight of side projects when one focuses on their “real” work almost every waking hour to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Exploration. By making the time to pursue personal passions, you can dabble in different areas, which sometimes results a broader understanding or a new perspective on the field you’re working in. It might even lead to a new line of work altogether. 37signals started as a web design firm, but couldn’t find collaboration tools suited to their needs so they created Basecamp. This led them to develop their own web apps instead, eventually leading to the Ruby on Rails framework.
  • Opportunity. By making time for personal projects you give yourself license to act on ideas, questions and passions that you might not be able to do during your work week. You’ll have a chance to do tasks would’ve been too risky, or even seemed downright strange.
  • Motivation. In a popular TED talk, Dan Pink discussed the science behind three major motivators in the workplace (which I elaborated on in a previous post). These motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Though your experience with the latter two may depend on the project you choose, giving yourself 20-Percent Time allows you to exercise your autonomy.

Setting Your 20-Percent Time

Before you schedule your 20-Percent Time, remember that the number shouldn’t be taken literally. Allocate the time that works for you. You can take one day each week, an entire weekend, or even 30 minutes each day. Personally, I like to start my day working on a personal passion project. It gives me fuel to work through the rest of the day. Plus, it eases me into a heavier workload ahead — after all, if I make a mistake on my personal project, none of my clients will suffer.
As Simon noted in a previous post, it’s easier to get burned out when you don’t work a typical 9-to-5 job. With that in mind, how can the typical web worker manage to have 20-Percent Time especially if they have a busy home life? It’s hard to squeeze in a personal project if your family, pets, and home errands suddenly require your attention.
Taking a cue from Sylvia Plath, why not work on your project before your household wakes up? This might mean waking up earlier than usual, but even 15 minutes per day spent on a passion project is better than nothing. Plus, the quiet environment might make it easier for you to work.
But here’s some more common sense: mark the end of your workday. It may not be a cutting-edge life hack, but it’s simple and, more importantly, it’s true. Only by setting actual work hours can we draw a clear line between work and the rest of our preoccupations.
Do you set aside time for personal projects? If so, how did you manage it and what do you do with your time?
Photo by flickr user net_efekt, licensed under CC-BY-2.0