How to choose a side-project that will benefit your career

Side-projects are more than hobbies, they help you recover from the demands of the day job while teaching you new skills to achieve the end goal.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and coaching others on how to cut through the fog of busyness and the demands of our ‘always on’ working lives. It therefore seems somewhat counterintuitive to write about the benefits of taking on another project and more work.

However, recent research finds that creative side-projects can actually help people to recover from the demands of their job. As someone who has been managing a side-project alongside my job for over three years, I can attest to this.

Side-projects help you to learn new skills, meet new people and provide a different context in which to showcase your strengths. They can also help you to fail in safer environments, which allows you to take greater risks and increase your impact.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve talked to people who have had some amazing side-projects. Someone I work with now runs an observatory; I know someone who has written a book on property development, even though their job was unconnected; and someone else who is on the board of an experiential theatre company. These people all manage their projects alongside lots of other priorities, including their ‘normal’ job.

Side-projects help you to learn new skills, meet new people and provide a different context in which to showcase your strengths.

As well as making them more productive and happier in their roles, these projects provide new ways to build relationships within their organisation as well as the network they build outside it. The more interesting you are to other people, the more interested they are in you. Your side-projects make you unique and distinctive.

Many people I speak to have a desire to explore their side-project, but they aren’t sure where to start. The easiest starting place is to think about the definition of a side-project. Side-projects are more than a hobby as they have a specific goal or output. For example, in my case writing is a hobby, but being a writer for Marketing Week is a side-project.

You’re not looking for another job, which will compete for your time in an unhealthy way and create tensions with your employer. To ensure a side-project is enjoyable and creates energy for you, it shouldn’t have to provide you with a living and should be something you truly love doing. It should not become something that is a source of stress for you.

Narrowing down options

To begin, write down the things you love doing that give you energy and then think about whether you could formalise any of those and take them from a passion to a project. Could you write, teach, design or create something for example?

After coming up with the idea and the intent to start, many people struggle with finding the time to get it going. My own learning here is to formally create space in your diary for your side-project and be consistent with keeping that time. For example, commit to one night a week being your project night or get into to work early two days a week to spend a hour on your project before your ‘work day’ starts. This is particularly important in the beginning when you need to build some momentum.

It can be helpful to do your side-project with someone else who can keep you motivated and inspired when you may be distracted. Also, sharing with others what you are doing and why it’s important is key to getting their support. You’re likely to have to sacrifice something else in your life to introduce your side-project. Having the understanding and support of people in your work and personal life from the outset can make a big difference.

A side-project takes a consistent amount of incremental effort over and above the day job.

Every organisation is different, but I believe that the more open you can be with your employer about your side-project the better.

You’ll need to give them confidence that it doesn’t detract from your work and make sure you’re in line with your company policy, but I have found that a clear articulation of how it benefits your organisation to be one of the most powerful ways of gaining support.

For example, I am able to demonstrate how my side-projects enable me to be a better leader and developer of talent for my business. When you can join the dots between what you do inside of and outside of work, it can feel liberating and motivating.

How to stick at it

So, you’ve got your idea, you’ve made time in your diary and you’ve got the support of people around you. The final challenge is to keep it going. Don’t forget, side-projects have a distinct output. Whether it’s launching a website, creating an event or submitting an article, a side-project takes a consistent amount of incremental effort over and above the day job.

When you’re under pressure, it can be easy to let a side-project slip. It is crucial to remember not to beat yourself up if that is the case. As soon as side-projects become stressful, their ability to help you recover from your day-to-day demands significantly diminishes.

Instead, keep focused on why you’re doing it. If it’s truly a passion worth pursuing, you won’t be able to quash the need and you will come back to your side-project when time allows.

The second thing to remember is that the big end goal can seem dauntingly far away. If your aim is to launch a weekly podcast and you’ve not yet bought your equipment, the scale of the challenge that lies ahead can stop you moving forward. Instead, identify the two or three milestones along the way and use those as progress markers.

Not everyone needs a side-project. Some people do have all the fulfilment they need from their role, or find their hobbies meaningful and enjoyable enough to provide the recovery time from the demands of their job. However, if you want to create and build something of your own and find yourself frustrated by your ability to do that within your role, a side-project can be a fantastic outlet for that energy, as well as a way of showcasing your talent and broadening the understanding of what a happy career really looks like.

Helen Tupper is commercial marketing director at Microsoft and founder of Amazing If