How to use ‘20% time’ to manage pet projects

Inspired by a Google initiative, Carsten Lund Pedersen describes how he balances personal projects and the demands of a research programme.
Person sitting in a garden shed while working on a laptop computer

Stepping out of your normal research environment to devote time to side projects can lead to fruitful outcomes.Credit: Peter Cade/Getty

I’m now two years into my postdoc in data-driven business development at Copenhagen Business School, and have started to realize that academic life rarely provides you with enough time to stimulate your curiosity and motivation. Yes, it can be argued that academia is especially accommodating for curiosity-led work, but it is also filled with a heavy workload of less creative tasks: writing papers and grant applications, teaching classes, and administrative duties.

I have adopted a system that gives me time to work on pet projects that might seem unconventional and far-fetched, or out of my comfort zone — but which I find fun and interesting. I adopted my system after encountering several examples, such as Google’s 20% time policy, which allows employees to work on side projects for 20% of their time; Twitter’s hack week, in which employees are given a week away from their day-to-day work to collaborate on ideas they are passionate about; and the experiments of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, UK, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for an experiment they initially did on a Friday evening they had dedicated to working on crazy ideas.

Inspired by these initiatives, I decided to carve out time for personal passion projects on a regular basis. I did this because I wanted protected time to be able to experiment and play with topics that were interesting to me, but which did not seem directly publishable at the beginning. The reasoning behind systems such as 20% time is that it forces you to free up pockets of time that can be dedicated to curiosity-driven exploration in an otherwise busy schedule. Doing so can, in my experience, help you maintain motivation and curiosity, and lead to interesting research results.

I have predominantly worked on early-stage research ideas in my 20% time, and several of these have subsequently been published in prestigious journals. For instance, I have for a long time been interested in how the digital age involves new and seemingly paradoxical requirements, such as the ability to balance the distraction of constant push notifications with the focus to digest important information. Although this area of interest is beyond my core research, I managed to publish a short piece on it in a notable journal.

I’ve also had more esoteric projects. For instance, my colleague and I have built a small physical ‘museum of strategic projects’ with artefacts on display and explanatory texts concerning our own and others’ research on the topic. For example, we have a statue of a white elephant with a label describing ‘white elephant projects’ (expensive projects that fail to live up to initial expectations). We use this museum, which is located close to our offices at Copenhagen Business School, as a way to disseminate research in a different, more-experiential way — and we now have a mandatory visit to the museum included in our class curriculum.

I have had many passion projects that didn’t lead to tangible output, such as learning to use Condor, a software package for sociometrics, that I have not used in any research. It is not uncommon that what you spend your 20% time on does not materialize into any tangible output, but that’s OK. The objective of 20% time should be curiosity-driven learning, and you can often learn more from ‘failures’ than from successes.

Implementing a 20% rule does not come without challenges, and it does require a certain amount of trial and error along the way.

Initially, I scheduled a specific weekday for my 20% time, but this wasn’t ideal — each of my weeks were different, and there have been many weeks when I’ve been forced to prioritize urgent tasks. During these periods, I’ve either tried to ignore my passion projects or devoted time to them outside normal working hours. When this has happened, I’ve either felt guilty for neglecting my passion projects or stressed from trying to do too much in one week. I’ve learned that neither 0% nor 120% are sustainable solutions.

I’ve overcome this predicament by assessing my 20% time on a quarterly, instead of a weekly, basis. Each quarter, I ask myself if I’ve spent about 20% of my time on passion projects, and, if not, what have been the underlying reasons that have prevented me from doing so. Sometimes there may be a good reason for deviating from 20% time. But if this is no longer the exception rather than the rule, it shows me I’m moving in the wrong direction. I’ve been able to transform the guilt and stress I have felt over weekly deviations (either because I have not allocated 20% or because I have and my other work has suffered) into meaningful reflections about longer-term trends.

Taking the time for passion projects has proved invaluable for me in stimulating my motivation, curiosity and creativity, and is something I would like to keep for the rest of my career. And, in case you’ve been wondering: yes, this was written in my 20% time.

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