Why You Should Follow Google's 20% Rule

by Carlos Portocarrero on 8 November 2010 4 comments
Photo: carlosluna

Google is consistently mentioned as one of the greatest companies to work for, and it's not hard to see why. They have sweet perks, super-smart people creating products that millions of people use, and a unique mentality about work.

It's that very mentality that drives their policy of 20% time. Google encourages their employees to devote 20% of their time to working on any project they want. The idea is to spur innovation by letting smart people do what they’re interested in.

Think about how awesome that is: No matter what your boss tells you to do or what tedious task you have on your plate, you could take some actual work time to focus on something you find interesting. Gmail, AdSense, and Google News were supposedly created thanks to this very policy. Can you imagine a world without those applications?

I'm a huge believer — Google's 20% rule made my job suck less. That's all well and good for me and Google, but why should you try to devote some of your time (be it at work or outside of work) to a pet project?

It can make you happy

Working on something you find interesting is one sure way to be happy at work — no small feat. If nothing interesting is given to us, going out and picking something is a surefire way of finding a little happiness in the workplace. That can make a huge difference in how you approach the other 80% of your work.

It encourages innovation

Your company will keep producing the same stuff over and over at the same rate unless someone changes something. Anything. You might think that it's the boss's responsibility to enact change or take some risks, but if you have an idea that could potentially make the company better or more efficient, people will pay attention.

It sparks creativity

You can be creative no matter what kind of job you have. Even if you work in a field that isn't typically considered "creative," thinking up new ways to get things done within the context of your accounting job (for example) is one way to get the right side of your brain fired up.

It makes you look good

Say your idea/project isn't feasible for any number of reasons — you'll still come off as someone who cares enough to devote serious time and energy to an idea. It shows that you're trying to make the whole company better and more innovative, and the brass will be impressed. And if your idea is executed successfully? You might wind up becoming the brass.

It's entrepreneurial

Think of it as starting your own business — you'll teach yourself about planning, managing your time, selling your concept to other people, and executing a game plan...all valuable skills to pick up. Remember: This is on top of all your current responsibilities.

It can be lucrative

If all the other reasons don't stir anything in you, maybe this one will. When it's time for your review or when you're asking for a raise, this is something you can point to and say, "I attempted to make the organization better with that project." If it was successful, it'll be hard for them to not see the value you've added (and could potentially keep adding).

It looks good on your resume

Trust me on this: Potential employers love seeing something like this on a resume. A project you started on your own, without being told to work on it, especially if it succeeded...that shows you are a go-getter who cares. This is rare and makes people feel a lot better about hiring a new person.

It's fun

It's more fun that filling out TPS reports all day, that's for sure.

Your company may not give you 20% of your time to devote to new projects, but if you can steal a few lunch hours away and maybe think about it on your commute, I bet you can find the time to come up with a compelling idea that will keep you motivated and make you stand out at work.

If anyone has examples of how they’ve used the 20% rule (or an equivalent) to get ahead at work, please share in the comments!

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Guest's picture

Love this idea. Innovation and an entrepeneur's mindset is essential in this economy. In challenging times, your company needs to know what differentiates you from all of your other competitors (co-workers). Also, we are not necessarily going to be at the same company for a long time, so these projects are the best way to showcase our skills.

Guest's picture

Not only do I love this idea, but I am stealing it and making it part of my business plan for 2011.

Much of my growth has actually taken place after I tried an experiment that just simply worked. This is why I need to formalized the 20% Rule.

Guest's picture

My take-You're much more productive if you break up work with other activities! And life is better too :)

Guest's picture

Ha! TPS reports. Peter, what's happening....Im going to need you to come in on Saturday...Yeah we lost some people...

Sorry, brought back some fond memories :)

I would add that Google's campus is also pretty sweet. It seems they make it so their employees aren't stressed about "normal life stuff" Need stuff dry cleaned, no problem...Baby sitter canceled? Got one lined up. Dont want to drive to work? No Worries, we have our own buses.