Tiff Wood devoted his life to the sport he loved. And devote he did, forgoing career, marriage and all other pleasure for rowing. Documented in The Amateurs, Tiff dedicated himself to training for the Olympic games in 1980 and then 1984. Although rowing was the passion that sustained him, he didn’t make a living this way. The focus of Tiff’s life was something that was technically his side project.

Despite his determination, Tiff didn’t achieve his Olympic dream; other circumstances conspired against him, but the process of rowing, and everything that went with that, were the focus of his life, not the outcome. Primarily, a side project brings fulfilment from the action of ‘doing’ and not the results.

One of my passions is learning, and I devote much of my time to seeking growth and development for myself. A gem of wisdom that I recently uncovered was this: The secret of success is not about how much money you can accrue or things that you can own, it’s about finding what fulfils your soul.

The loss of creative sparkle in the daily grind
Our paid work can very easily drain our creative energy and suck away all passion in the gap somewhere between the daily grind and survival. I have a love and hate relationship with my paid work that tumbles in cycles of enthusiasm from despair to elation to pressure to excitement and so on. The necessity of keeping clients happy, so that you can metaphorically put food on the table, means we often concede on our creative visions to keep equilibrium; the result being that our creative fulfilment becomes lost during the fourth or fifth amend cycle. For the perfect illustration of this process read How a web design goes straight to hell, by The Oatmeal.

The side project is our opportunity to grasp back creative control, assert our own ideas and literally save our creative soul from being ground into the final edit floor.

Labours of love
Tina Roth Eisenberg, better known as Swiss Miss, is the ultimate ambassador for the side project. She felt that her paid work was no longer enough to sustain her soul and that she wanted to move away from client work. She began Teux Deux, Creative Mornings and Tattly as ‘labours of love’ primarily as an outlet to fulfil her creative ideas. “I have a rule: If I keep complaining about something, I either do something about it or let it go,” Her 99U talk, Don’t complain, create, offers inspiration on turning your ideas into reality.

Side Projects Save Your Soul

Forget money; this is for love
The brick wall of procrastination that I always slam into first with my ideas is that I become too obsessive about how to find a showcase or generate income. I slip into ‘marketing mode’ and focus on an end result – Who is my audience? What do they want? Where will I promote this? The free reign of play and innovation becomes stunted by the temptations of additional monetary gain. After all, my time is precious, and I want to make it pay? Not so, the side project should be, as Tina says, a ‘labour of love’. Experimentation, innovation and creative risk taking. Fly in the face of everything that marketing dictates and forget your audience, forget money. This is for pure pleasure. It’s for your heart and soul.

As Tina is a testament to, often the projects that we pour our passion into are the ones that take flight and fly. By putting creativity first we have the space to experiment and the potential to produce our best work, and that level of passion is infectious to others as it pours out of us onto and into the page. People respond to passion.

Do what you LOVE and you will become a master of it and the money will follow.Alan Watts

Overwhelmed with too much choice
The second issue that I have with side project work is that often I become so overwhelmed with the options of what I could do that I’m again faced with paralysis. Too much choice. By restricting possibility, we can encourage and tease out our creativity. 100 Days is a brief for students set by Michael Beirut at the Yale School of Art. The assignment is to repeat an action for one hundred days. Inspiring ideas emerge out of the constraint, such as taking a photograph every day with a person never met, selecting a Pantone colour and responding with short poetic writing, and dancing in a different place every day. The ‘do something in X amount of days’ is now a prolific theme and trend for online showcases.

Side Projects Save Your Soul

Dear Data
After only meeting twice in person, Giorgia Lupi, and Stefanie Posavec began a correspondence of weekly postcards featuring their data visualisations. Every week, for a year, they collected and measured an area of data about their lives and had to represent this with a visualisation on a standard postcard. Dear Data became a vehicle to get to know the idiosyncrasies of the other person and develop their friendship. The process also offered insight and better understanding themselves. The beautifully rendered postcards are a shining example of how precious the almost lost art of mailed correspondence can be and elevated to such an expression of creativity. And, more importantly, how a shared idea can connect two people together. Subsequently, the project has been published as a book.

The love from a side project spills over into all areas
The near legendary Google 80/20 programme (now ceased) offered employees the opportunity to devote 20 percent of working time to side projects. According to Marissa Meyer, as many as half of Google’s products, such as Adsense, are attributed to the 80/20 programme. Apple had Blue Sky, and Linkedin had Incubator, all similar programmes that encouraged creativity and innovation through side projects.

The idea of offering a space for innovation is not exclusive to the tech companies of the last decade. In 1948, 3M launched the 15% programme (progressive in a post-war austerity era) that allowed workers valuable time to pursue ideas which ultimately took the company forward. In 1974 3M scientist, Art Fry created the Post-It Note as part of the programme.

Freedom for innovation, creativity and allowing room for employees to follow their passions benefits everyone. People are happier, more creative and more productive; and as a result, the company has new ideas and innovations that fuel their growth. A study of the positive benefits of creative activity on performance at work indicated that “organisations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work.” offering real evidence for the validity of side project schemes.

Julie/Julia
Within 365 days, Julie Powell of New York decided that she would cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child’s book, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie decided to do this as an escape from her stressful job and to give her life a creative outlet; she needed fulfilment she didn’t get from her nine-to-five. Julia Child’s recipes are infamous for being complicated and time-consuming to cook, so Julie not only had to shop, learn and cook; she had to write up her experience on her blog. After dedicating a year of her life to this, her commitment culminates in a column for the New York Times, a book deal and ultimately the movie Julie/Julia. However, that was all incidental; Julie only started the side project to give her life more meaning, that was the real success.

Give your time management a darn good shaking
As in Julie’s challenge of carving out time, my final barrier to ‘doing’ is finding time in between unrelenting demand. After wrestling with every day ending in a deficit I made a choice to grab my productivity by the shoulders and giving it a darn good shaking. I now get more completed in a morning than I did previously in a full day of disorganised and inefficient time. I considered when my creative energy peaks (early mornings) and accordingly rearranged my schedule to take advantage. I now start the day with time devoted to my side project, and instead of trying to eek out some sparkle from my utterly exhausted mind in the evenings I use this time to research and read. Time and productivity management are a wise investment.

Side Projects Save Your Soul

Just ‘DO’
Above all else, my recommendation is that you start small and just ‘do’. Don’t try to focus on the end, instead, concentrate on the love for developing the craft of the action and throw the idea of perfection into the bin. Allow yourself to play and give expression to unlimited innovation with no barriers to its realisation. Address your productivity and work smarter not harder:


  • Focus on the process and doing
  • Do it for love/passion, not money
  • Small steps every day (eat that elephant)
  • Take a risk and do something unexpected


Please, start a side project and save your creative soul.

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Leave a Comment

  • Wendy says:

    Good article and something I have tried to impress upon others. There’s certainly a lot of discussion in the world today that goes toward “quit your day job” and “follow your dreams” and all of that which can be a pretty defeating message for those of us that are required to work and pay bills.

    It’s nice to acknowledge that doing fun things after work can be a very balancing and rewarding effort. I’m a designer by day and a fine artist by night.

    Also, I think it’s easy to look toward those examples you gave, which are people whose side projects turn into businesses – isn’t that the dream? … but we will never really know if those people have other people in their lives helping to support their dreams and also I think that situation is probably not very common. So, I’m always torn between having that dream and finding happiness in the day to day, as you have stated. It’s something I think about a lot – so, it’s nice to hear someone else having the discussion.
    It puts a lot of pressure on your side project, if you go into it dreaming that it might take off into something else.

    Thanks for the articles!