I hate 20% projects

Actually I don’t — I love them. Bazinga. I’ll try to explain why in a three-minute read.

For the uninitiated, 20% projects are things that happen in 20% time. No kidding. For all practical purposes these terms are interchangeable and pretty boring. The concept however is, as I said, pretty amazing.

Made famous by Google, 20% time refers to a philosophy where employees get to spend one day per week on projects that don’t formally fit their job description. In other words: do what you want for one day a week.

There are a lot of theories about why 20% time is important. For employers, points on the advantages of 20% time often include:

2. Expanding the skill set of the team;

3. Promoting team spirit;

4. Letting your workers have fun and

5. Maybe your workers figure something out in 20% that you can sell for millions.

These points are pretty obvious, but I had to list them. The avid reader would have noticed that my list is numbered from two onwards. This is because the number one advantage of 20% time is often overlooked. For me, at least, the number one reason for 20% time is:

1. Sometimes you just need a win


Making something work is a great moral booster, but unfortunately most problems worth solving aren’t exactly trivial. Refer to Figure 1. I love Figure 1. It perfectly depicts how frustrating “doing science” can be.

Figure 1: Scientific process rage. (Source)

After struggling with a problem for ages, 20% projects enable us to take a step back, refocus and tackle a smaller, maybe easier problem. Making something work is a great moral booster and often just what you need to sort out problem you stuggled with earlier.

Enough about that though. Let’s get back to the depressing stuff. Research can be very lonely. This isn’t because no one cares, but because often only you know your project in enough depth to understand your problem. After spending weeks, months, years or decades alone, it is great to be able to work with people for a bit. I’ve found that I often end up discussing my work with “the 20% people” anyway and figure stuff out as I go along explaining.

Still on the teamwork topic, 20% projects allow you to choose your own team. Like a boss. I happen to work in an office where everyone is pretty awesome, but I feel I don’t interact with everyone on an academic level enough. By choosing different people for 20% projects, I get to learn from everyone in my office, instead of just the few working with me on my official work.

Excited to go start a 20% project? Well, here are a few tips I found to be useful when deciding on a topic:

1. Keep it simple.

You don’t want your 20% project becoming a 100% project. Choose something challenging, but small enough that you can actually finish in 20% time.

2. Keep it creative

Employers want us to think outside the box, but they also want to be assured that they’ll get their money’s worth from our projects. It’s a tough balance.

Use the 20% project to forget about money and just do whatever you want. I believe we need creativity and a sense of adventure is to do great work, but these kills need to be carefully honed. Here’s your chance.

3. Keep it a learning experience

Remember, this is the one time you can work with whoever you want, so learn from them. Choose a project that you don’t know everyhing about. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn.

I’m an electronic engineer and I often team up with computer scientists to improve my programming skills. So think about what you want to learn more about and choose your projects accordingly.

4. Don’t change the world here

Change the world with the work you do in your job, or in your free time. (Free time is a thing some people have where they don’t have work to do.)

Depending on your contract, if you develop something that changes the world during 20% time, your employer will probably end up owning it. As amazing as you might think your employer is, they will make millions from your idea and you will probably end up losing in the deal. Unless you need company resources for your project or your employer’s customers can benefit from it, why do that specific project in company time? Use 20% time as a tool for well-being, not changing the world. That’s what your actual job or personal projects on the side are for.

Keeping the above points in mind, I believe a 20% project can really contribute not only to your productivity, but also happiness. So tell me, what’s your 20% project?

One Comment

  1. 1
    John Gilmore on Monday 16 January, 12:32 PM #

    Hi man,

    Baie cool post! Het dit werklik geniet om te lees en nou sien ek selfs die doel vir die temperatuur monitor stelsel :-)

    Maar seriously, cool post.

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