Serial entrepreneur Daniel Hauser hates side projects. "Don't shoot yourself in the foot by stringing your employer along and delaying the leap to becoming a full-time entrepreneur," he's warned those contemplating starting something extra after hours.

Others disagree entirely and have research to back up their ideas. "We examined businesses' survival times from the date the founder is full-time self-employed (i.e., the date the founder leaves his or her day job), and found that companies initially founded with a hybrid model [i.e. as a side hustle] were 33 percent more likely to survive than companies whose founders were full-time entrepreneurs at the time of founding," researcher Joseph Raffiee has written of his findings on the subject.

So who's right? Are side projects under-committed distractions or a smart way to diversify your bets and experiment with new ideas?

Writing for 99U Matt McCue offers an intriguing answer to this question. In short: it depends. Some types of side projects are "a flat out waste of time that don't pay anything upfront and do little to immediately advance our careers," he says, while others "ultimately benefit your craft and career." How can you tell the two types apart? McCue helpfully spells out the five types of side projects that are actually worth pursuing in the article.

1. The "crazy idea that could lead to a big future commission" project

Go ahead and "make the next side project that you would ultimately want to make with a company," writes McCue. "After all, you're hired for the work you've done, not necessarily the work you want to do." For creatives and makers, investing time and money in a proof-of-concept-type project that shows off the full extent of your capabilities, can pay off big time.

 

2. The "I'm scratching an itch project" project

"What's the idea that gets you talking really quickly, the one stuck in the back of your head that you return to again and again?" asks McCue. Got an answer? OK, now feel free to actually do it. This sort of work may never make you any money, but it can be transformative for your psychology, claims McCue, who tells the story of a 3,000+ word article he wrote out of sheer curiosity. He never published the quirky piece, but "the whole experience made me feel like a writer," he concludes.

3. The "I'm getting myself unstuck from a rut" project

"If you're starting to feel smothered from pumping out the same kind of artsy chow every day, try picking up something that allows you to escape your creative logjam," suggests McCue. Again, there may or may not be any immediate financial payoff, but the psychological benefits make it worth doing.

4. The "I'm adding a new tool to my toolbox" project

"Sometimes a personal project can be a stepping stone to a bigger project down the road," explains McCue. If you're using your side project to hone valuable skills that will benefit your career later on, the idea gets the go ahead.

5. The "I'm on vacation" project

Does working on vacation make you a workaholic? Maybe. But if the idea appeals and you approach it correctly, it could just be a sign that you're truly passionate about what you do. "This is a go-at-your-own pace project and the overarching goal is to explore your surroundings by doing something you love (after all, sometimes you just need a new perspective). At best, you might return home with a new idea to bring to a client. Otherwise, you've got a cool keepsake," writes McCue.

What's your personal yardstick for deciding if a side project is worth your time?

Published on: Jun 2, 2016