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The Importance of Personal Projects

Working for other people can be a horrible way to spend your life.

Even if you’re doing something that you love, doing it 40+ hours per week for other people has a tendency to ruin the appeal.

One way to ease this problem is to create and maintain personal side projects. Below we’ll discuss why this proves true.

What is a Personal Project?

A personal project is something that you can consider 100% your own (or at least 50% if you bring in a partner). It’s something that you create and take on for no one but you. As the common thread that binds the readers of this site together is a love for design, we’ll assume that the project would be design related.

A design related personal project can take any number of forms, big or small. It can be something small like designing an online portfolio, starting a blog or building a personal brand, or something larger like starting your own company or creating the next big thing in web 2.0.

The key is not so much what you do, but that you do something, or even many things.

The Appeal of Personal Projects

As you decide what sort of personal project you should undertake, remember that it should be something that you can get excited about. Something to keep you awake a little at night, to get your brain pumping with fresh ideas and new possibilities. The point here is to find something that will help you rediscover your love of design, not as a profession, but as a hobby or even a passion.

Burnout is something that hits every designer at some point. Being forcefully creative as a way to pay the bills can be mentally exhausting and eventually results in you feeling like you’ve got no creativity left. This is the result of teaching your brain to literally loathe creativity. You begin to associate it with mandatory work and the daily grind.

Creativity should add awe to your world, make life more bearable, and provide you with a fundamentally more enjoyable way to view your existence. That may seem a little abstract or high-minded, but it’s a much more pleasant view than the utilitarian method of being creative simply to earn a paycheck.

The key here is to stop ruining your talent by using it exclusively at work. Instead, channel it through activities that can actually make you happy.

I Have No Time for a Personal Project!

To put it bluntly: bull. One of the best things about doing something personal is that you can go at your own pace, even if that only means spending tiny bits of time on it here and there.

The absolute hardest thing to do is not to find time to keep your personal project going, but to take that first step to actually begin doing anything real at all. Once you have that first victory, however small, the momentum feels good and keeps you going.

Avoid thinking about a personal project as another thing on your professional todo list. This is tantamount to simply taking on more work and will get you no where. Instead, categorize this project under “free time.” Put it up there with starting that novel you’ve been wanting to read and catching a ball game on a weekend. Remember that the way you approach this psychologically will completely decide the overall effectiveness of the exercise. Keep it positive and keep it fun!

As living examples, take the two guys that run this site: David Appleyard and myself. We work together on a number of websites and professional endeavors. We’re both up to our ears in work and share the kind of twisted personality that responds to such a crisis by piling on even more.

Despite the fact that our professional commonalities would provide us no end to current work-related topics, whenever we have any communication beyond a brief email, we discuss crazy new ideas and personal projects. When I really stop to think about it, I realize that I have no time to take on anything extra. However, I also realize that if I don’t have anything new to tackle I’ll quickly become mentally stagnant.

I therefore choose to ignore time constraints and find a way to devote time to enough new endeavors to keep my brain from realizing that what I do every day is actually work instead of a mixture of original and regular activities that I simply enjoy.

Profitability

Whether or not a personal project should be profitable depends on what you’re really looking for from it. My background in business forces profitability to be a key component in everything that I think up (your driver could be something else entirely).

I find that the potential for profitability is a huge factor in the enjoyment I get out of my personal projects. Call me a crazy capitalist, but really I like to constantly consider new means of making an income.

I had a more than full-time design job when I starting writing for blogs such as this one. Despite the fact that I had zero extra time, I began giving up a little sleep to do something new that allowed me to hone my skill as a writer while actually getting paid to engage in what I considered to be a fun hobby.

Before long I had so many new opportunities that client-based design work has had to take a back seat and writing has become my new full-time career.

My advice to you is to find a side project that helps build a marketable talent or product. Find things that you enjoy learning about and doing that can actually make you money someday (why not have your cake and eat it too?). There are far too many incredibly talented people in the world that can’t pay the rent because they lack this key insight.

The world doesn’t need more starving artists. It needs more pioneers like Collis Ta’eed and Vitaly Friedman who took the time to work on side projects that had a high potential for profitability. These endeavors not only led to personal fulfillment for their founders, they rocked the design world by presenting us all with new ideas and possibilities for furthering our own careers.

Closing Thoughts

I’ll conclude by encouraging you one last time to stop creating lists of reasons you can’t start a personal project. Instead, channel all of that thought into actively seeking out something beneficial that you can spend your free time on.

Your goal should be finding something that is exciting and personally fulfilling. Start a project that you’ll actually enjoy spending time on and can help you regain your love for creativity.

Finally, don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that there is a tradeoff between fulfilling personal projects and profitability. Marketability and enjoyability are not opposites, they are a recipe for success!