There never seems to be a good time to look up from your desk.

When business is booming, the temptation is to push on while you’re hot, and get even further ahead of the competition. When times are bad, everyone is focused on feverishly climbing out of the hole.

We’re encouraged to think of our careers as a 24/7 pursuit, with every hour of the day feeding into our goal. Efficiency. Productivity. Focus. Graft.

But what if stepping away for a second actually got us closer to that goal, or showed us a path we’d previously overlooked?

Increasingly, people from all walks of life are discovering the value of hobbies and side projects. But how do you justify that regular retreat in a culture that demands Return on Investment?

1) It’ll pull you out of a rut when you need it

It’s all too easy to build teams for the journey you anticipate. When that path seems clear, you hire people with certain skills and experience, and refine processes that make regular tasks easier. But what happens when you hit an unexpected turn in the road?

When you’re focused on getting things done, the natural impulse is to lean on what’s tried and trusted. But that’s not always a guarantee of success. Imagine being the world’s best cassette tape manufacturer in the age of Spotify and iTunes?

Hobbies, interests and side projects encourage curiosity, and help people master different skills. One of Google’s most famous management philosophies is “20% time”, an approach in which employees were given space to explore side projects that might benefit the company. This philosophy was credited with playing a large role in the creation of Gmail and AdSense, which became notable parts of the company’s portfolio of products.

Modern business can feel like a slalom course at times, and if your team is packed with people with the same background and perspectives, you may find yourself sliding rigidly down the slope, bashing every pole on your way. Every decent team — from Google to the Power Rangers — draws on the abilities of different members when the heat is on.

Broaden your mind, and it’ll keep you nimble.

2) It could make you work better

Could a hobby even improve your work performance? A 2014 study by San Francisco State University surveyed 341 employees and 92 active duty Air Force captains about their creative habits, and compared their responses to evaluations by bosses and colleagues. The study identified a correlation between creative activity out of work, and problem solving and high performance in the workplace.

While the authors did not recommend that companies impose creative initiatives on employees, they did see the benefit in encouraging them to express themselves creatively through competitions, events and discounts for artistic or creative pursuits.

On top of that, a paper by Michigan State University noted that exceptional scientists were 1.7 to 1.9 times more likely to have a creative hobby than less prominent ones. It implied that there may be a link “between scientific talent and arts, crafts, and communications talents so that inheriting or developing one fosters the other”. In fact, even Einstein himself credited his success to his love of playing when he reached a mental block, saying “the theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition”.

3) It will help you recover

Work can be hard. For many, “downtime” might mean crashing in front of the TV, but is this providing us with the recovery we need?

A hobby or creative approach can offer a break from the mental grind of the work-day, without resulting in feelings of boredom and under-stimulation. Spending an hour or two in a different part of your brain can build a sense of purpose or peace, and introduce you to a different social circle and environment. That can be extremely valuable in reducing the risk of burnout.

While a career can be a very empowering thing, hobbies and interests can encourage us not to define ourselves solely as one thing, and provide us with different perspectives and ideas. So — sometimes — stepping away is the best way to push yourself forward.

The Open College of the Arts offers distance-learning courses in subjects such as fine art, photography, music, graphic design, creative writing, sculpture and film. It is part of the University for the Creative Arts. To find out more, go to

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