Stuck In A Rut? How Passion Projects Can Reignite Your Motivation

use passion projects at work to boost motivation and productivity

What do Gmail and “Green Eggs and Ham” have in common? The second most-used email provider and the classic children’s books by Dr. Seuss both started out as passion projects—side work that was given the freedom to flourish. That’s right, if Google and publishing company Houghton Mifflin hadn’t embraced their employees’ interests, the world would be a very different place today.

We all have those “crazy ideas”, nagging at us from the back of our minds. But, unless you’re really, really lucky, your full-time job usually doesn’t align with those interests. Maybe you’re a software engineer who secretly wants to write a book. Or, a graphic designer who wants to speak fluent Spanish.

When you’re working 40+ hours a week doing something other than what causes your heart to flutter, it can be easy to feel disengaged and burnt out. But, rather than jumping ship in pursuit of the dream job, take a page from Ted Seuss Geisel’s colorful book and look for ways to pursue your passion in your current role. Not only will you feel happier at work, but you’ll also be more productive. Oh, the places you’ll go!

Don’t Put The “Pass” In Passionate

Almost two decades ago, Yale School of Management professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues conducted a study on how people find meaning in their work, focusing on a cleaning crew at a university hospital. 

Some employees viewed their job as a means to an end: They did what was asked of them to earn a paycheck, but didn’t find the work soulfully satisfying. Some employees, however, found their work highly meaningful.

The difference? The second group of employees performed tasks that weren’t listed in their job description, like spending time with patients who seemed upset or walking visitors back to their cars. They took initiative and added extra tasks and interactions to their day that interested them and brought them joy.

These cleaning crew staffers took a creative, proactive approach to their jobs that the researchers called “job crafting.” They took the mundane and found a way to incorporate their passions and interests. And it paid off. Employees who engaged in job crafting were happier and performed better than those who didn’t go through this process.

when you love your job

Companies have taken note of this trend and have created programs designed to give their employees time to work on their passion projects. For example, Apple created Blue Sky to give select workers two weeks to spend on pet projects and Microsoft has The Garage, a space for employees to build their own products using Microsoft resources.

Job crafting isn’t limited to the technology industry, either. Research suggests that teachers who nurture their own passions inside and outside of the classroom are more successful at cultivating creative mindsets among their students. Makes sense, after all, J.K Rowling and Albert Einstein were both teachers who clearly benefited from being able to pursue outside passions.

Pinpointing The Right Passion Projects 

Having the freedom to work on something you truly love, while on the clock, can seem too good to be true. And, if you’re imagining yourself baking cakes or playing with cats at work, open up a cat cafe and don’t look cat...err, back..

dream job meets passion project

Before we go any further, let’s clarify two things about passion projects:

  1. Don’t abuse the concept. This doesn’t give you free rein to fill up your calendar with all your hobbies and interests. Always prioritize your main responsibilities and hitting your real-life goals.

  2. Your passion project should not replace the job you were hired to do. Don’t try to phase out your current role by taking on more passion projects.

To help you identify the right passion project to pursue at work, here are three questions to ask yourself:  

  1. Does your passion project complement your daily work?
    The beauty of having a side project at work is the freedom to do something different— to use another part of your brain, develop a new skill, and get out of your comfort zone. But, make sure to consider how this passion project will impact your daily work. For example, if your 9-5 job involves a lot of deep, critical thinking, you may want to avoid a passion project that also requires the same level of concentration because, in the end, you may feel even more burnt out. Instead, pursue a project that lets you relax those deep thinking muscles and channel your creative, fun side.

  2. Is there some sort of connection to your current job?
    Most companies can be flexible, but only up to a certain point. Let’s say your passion is learning how to master the trapeze. If your day job primarily involves a lot of screen time in front of your computer, it’s going to be tough to persuade your manager to let you “swing” from the office to practice. On the other hand, if you’re interested in public speaking, that is a much more transferable and beneficial skill to your company. This isn’t to say that your passion needs to directly impact your employer, but it helps to have a clear connection.

  3. Is this work meaningful to you in some way?
    As Amy Wrzesniewski’s study found, side projects only increase happiness and performance when they are meaningful to you. You won’t reap the same benefits if you simply view a passion project as a way to avoid your daily work or to use company time to develop new skills. The key is to find joy in the extra goals you take on. If your passion project makes you excited to go to work the next day, you’ve identified a good one. Again, that cat cafe could reallllllly take off. 😺

Tips For Making The Case To Your Boss

Once you’ve identified the passion project for you, it’s time to talk to your manager (*gulp*). Stay calm, watch some puppy videos, and do some power poses: This discussion doesn’t need to be intimidating.

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Some tips to keep in mind when talking to your manager about pursuing your passion project at work:

  • Lay the groundwork: Do you always meet your deadlines? Do you get positive feedback from your peers? Building your reputation as a reliable employee will make it much easier for your manager to trust that you can balance new projects with your current workload.

  • Address concerns before they arise: Don’t wait for your manager to voice concerns about workload and time management. Instead, share your solutions right from the start. In your initial pitch to your manager, explain your current bandwidth and in-flight projects, and how you will prioritize your work. Create a place where they can find status updates on your side project, so they won’t be left in the dark.

  • Highlight the value-add: Be sure to articulate your personal interest in your proposed project, but be sure to clarify what the benefits are for your manager and the company. For example, if your passion project is developing your public speaking skills, perhaps you’ll volunteer to lead a Toastmasters club for your company and help develop other employees’ presentation prowess. Or, if you’re passionate about learning Spanish, you could help with internal translation projects or customer service tickets from Spanish-speaking users.

  • Give them $1 million: Kidding. If you could, then you wouldn’t be in this scenario in the first place now would you?

Infuse Passion Into Your Job

Don’t wait around for the “perfect job” to magically appear or for your manager to suddenly start giving you engaging projects. Take control of your workday and find a way to infuse your passion into your role.

If you’re worried about doing non-work projects in the office, just remember this: Setting aside a few hours a week to do something you love will impact everything around you—Your happiness, motivation, productivity, and creativity. Those sound like pretty irresistible traits for any employer.


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