How to Find Growth Opportunities Through Side Projects

Do you want to get the most out of your time? I’m sure you do. But for it you must do two things: you must focus on a project while exploring new opportunities.

I learned something from the way Google’s developers work. At Google, the developers have the so-called “20 percent time” policy.  It allows the developers to use 20 percent of their work time to work on informal projects of their own. The developers can use the time to work on whatever crazy ideas they have. While giving away 20 percent of their work time may seem counterproductive for the company, it has produced a lot of innovative new projects. Google News, for instance, came from the 20 percent time.

Side projectIn my opinion, this 20 percent time idea is good to implement personally. While you should have a main project to work on, you should also have a side project.

Why You Should Have a Side Project

There are some reasons why you should have a side project:

1. It gives you time to refresh your mind

Working continuously on only one project may cause burnout. You may work longer hours but get only few results since you lose your creative energy. By working on other project, you will have time to refresh your mind so that you can go back to your main project with enthusiasm.

2. It allows you to explore growth opportunities

Having 20 percent project allows you to explore growth opportunities that will otherwise be ignored. These opportunities may open the way to the next level in your career. While working on your main project will mostly give you incremental progress, exploring new opportunities could give you breakthroughs.

3. It challenges you to be creative

Finding what to do with your 20 percent time pushes you to be creative. You need to find new ideas you may want to explore as opposed to just doing things normally. It pushes you be on the lookout instead of just being passive.

Choosing a Side Project

To implement this idea, the first step is to choose the side project to work on. Since 20 percent is a significant amount of time, you must choose the project carefully. Here are some ideas on how to choose a side project:

1. Know what you want

First of all, you should have a goal. What is it that you want? It starts at the highest level from your life purpose. You can then move down to your long-term and short-term goals. If you don’t know what you want, not only will you spend more time on choosing project, you may also waste time working on the wrong project.

Knowing what you want acts as a filter that makes it easy for you to spot the right opportunities.

2. Subscribe to many, diverse feeds

One of the best ways to spot growth opportunities is by subscribing to many information sources. It’s easy to do this thanks to RSS. Of course, you must find the number of feeds you can manage, but having many sources will give you more exposure to good ideas. Subscribe to sites in your field, related fields, and unrelated fields that interest you. Diversity is important since it helps you develop your ideas exponentially.

3. Find potential new projects

In your feed reading, look for potential opportunities. If you know what you want, even seemingly unrelated information can give you fresh ideas. Write down every potential projects you find.

4. Assess the potential projects

To choose what project to work on, you should carefully assess each of the potential projects. There are two kinds of projects you could choose:

  • Low-risk high-reward: If you have potential projects that fall into this category, then they are the obvious choice. They may be projects that leverage your main project or extend it in a creative way.
  • High-risk high-reward: When you have no projects that fall within the low-risk high-reward category, you should choose a high-risk high-reward project. While this kind of projects may give you nothing for your time, it may potentially give you a breakthrough. This kind of project is especially attractive if you feel that your main project has reached or almost reached its full potential.

Implementing the Side Project

Here are some tips on implementing the side project you choose:

1. Set aside time for the side project

Of course, “20 percent” here doesn’t mean that you must literally give it 20 percent of your time. It could be 10 percent or 30 percent. Just find a proportion that works for you. Find a balance where you can still manage your main project while sufficiently exploring the new opportunity. One way to implement this is by setting aside one day in your week for the side project while leaving the other days for the main project.

2. Fail fast to learn

To make sure that you get the most out of your side project, you should fail fast. The reason is you learn most through failures. People who don’t fail are usually those who don’t try. Find ways to speed up your learning process. Here are some ideas:

  1. Set a deadline
    Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. When you give yourself pressing deadlines, you will automatically ignore the less important details to focus only on the important. You can apply this principle for simple tasks as well. Set a deadline of 15 or 30 minutes and try to accomplish a task within the time limit.
  2. Find role models
    To make sure that you learn fast, you should find role models. These role models will save you a lot of time since you can directly adopt their best practices and avoid many pitfalls. Each failure you get will then be quality failure since you have avoided the common mistakes.
  3. Enter the real world.
    To fail, you must work on something real. Just reading the theory without practicing won’t make you learn fast enough. Don’t be afraid to directly get involved in the real world.


One word of caution: be careful not to spread yourself too thin. You must have the necessary focus to achieve results both in your main project and side project.

This idea is definitely something I’d love try. In fact, I just started a side project and I feel good about it.

Do you have thoughts about it? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Photo by frischmilch


  1. Thanks for the information shared! Doing something outside the set schedule always brings in excitement and a sheer sense of achievement.

  2. Love your assessment of potential projects! I hadn’t ever thought about all my potential side projects as low-risk v. high-risk or low-reward v. high-reward, per se, before. But this is an excellent way to crystallize my thinking about which projects to choose and why. I have several writing projects on the back burner at all times. Trying to decide amongst them is stressful, so I pretty much let them all simmer or the heat die out under them. Now, I’ll give all my choices a fresh new look with this model in mind. In fact, just sitting here and mulling it over has helped me realize that setting aside 1 of my 5 designated full work days to my lowest-risk, highest-reward project makes complete sense. I feel energized just thinking about it! Thanks, Donald, for this amazingly inspirational post!

  3. These are excellent suggestions. You’ve just described my entire career. I always had side projects that complemented my main work, or in some cases contrasted with it. Some of these side projects turned into my main work and I found new side projects.

    The greatest benefit of these side projects is the refreshing of the mind. I always come back to my main project with renewed effort.

  4. Ishani,
    That’s right. I’ve experienced it myself again and again.

    I’m glad it can help you! This idea has certainly helped me see the possibilities in the right perspective.

    I did try to work on just one thing for long time, and it didn’t go well. As you said, the side project helps us get back to the main project with renewed effort. I also find that some of the side projects eventually become my main projects.

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