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

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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

16 Responses to “Mix Up the Workweek by Setting Your Own "20-Percent Time"”

  1. I’m really hoping the “Taking a cue from Sylvia Plath” comment is something about her writing methods, rather than a reference to the circumstances of her death…

    ‘cos I’m all for gallows humour, but it seems a wee bit out of place :)

  2. I love working after the fam has gone to be or before they wake up. But make sure not to make your family feel like you can’t wait till they go to bed or disappointed they woke up early. It kind of defeats the purpose.

  3. Judging from personal experience maybe you should consider spending more time on personal projects. Having spent more than two months, mostly on personal projects I was able to take up new client work I wouldn’t otherwise being able to.

    Personal projects give you that knowledge you don’t need right away but will in the future.

  4. Offering 20% of creative / innovating time to employees is nice but you need to set some kind of framework so its not just free time.
    The Google 20% as some very specific rules & process that includes a project application with your manager validation….

    When you are an independent or freelancer its different, I personally never spend 20%. Its incremental. At first its like 10, 20 minutes a day exploring a new concept or ideas, then it start growing up to taking 40% to 50% of my time on implementing, improvement, collecting feedback, marketing…
    At that point it work again… :-(
    Back to square 1.

    Not sure that 20% is applicable to small biz unless its more a general rule of openness to try new ideas.

  5. When I was freelancing full-time, I always had 1-2 hours in the morning for my own stuff. That would include writing in my own blog, reading interesting articles, and catching up on emails. I also started a lot of cool projects, like writing an e-book and creating an affiliate site.

  6. Thanks for the really helpful suggestions. My partner and I just came through a “3-C” test — just one of those storms that occurs occasionally when you work online at home: In one week, the car, computer and cat all broke down and required intensive care! Fortunately, just prior to that we had taken some time (approx 20% of our workdays for one week) to follow our creative hunches and create a new product for one of our membership websites. It started selling immediately. And even better, the new product is now helping us pay for the new car! (Cat and computer are nicely recovered ;)

    Thanks again for the great ideas.

  7. I do set time aside for my own personal projects already and built that into my schedule when I started WebDepend a couple of months ago.

    I also work on personal projects first thing in the morning for an hour before moving onto client work and think it is a great way to start the day.

    I’ve noticed that as client work increases I move other personal project timeslots into evenings or weekends but then my productivity does start to drop when I haven’t got some personal stuff breaking up the day.

    In my quick weekly review I’ve completed today I have vowed to bring back some personal project work into the day, which I hope will keep me going for longer.

    Thanks for the article.

  8. Highly productive employees will usually manage to fit this 20% time in to their day — regardless of whether it is condoned by the company or not.

    Firms should consider making it an official perk and part of the culture. It sends a powerful message to employees that they are valuable, appreciated and respected for their ideas.

    And it gives the firm access to a lot of creative thinking that may have been kept on the DL.

    excellent article. the most productive, innovative and ultimately successful companies use measures of productivity to review employees. such employees should be free to work on projects of their choosing, provided they are