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Making "What If" Time

Feb. 2020
By Drew Beamer


(Reading time - 6:00)


Clients are amazing. Let’s go ahead and get that out of the way. When the stars align, clients trust you, listen to you, and pay you. Our jobs wouldn’t exist without them. So, thank you to all of our clients both past and present.

But sometimes those stars don’t align. Strategies shift, people get new jobs, and personal motivations become clear. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a good working relationship, but it does mean that sometimes the big idea gets missed and the work suffers.

 I firmly believe most people (the ones who give a damn at least) got into this business for two reasons.

  1. They like to solve problems - They’re curious by nature and want to see success and meaning in their work.
  2. They have an insatiable need to create - Depending on their role in an agency, the output could look vastly different, but the passion exists nonetheless.



Why We Need Side Projects

This brings us to the main point. Side projects are part of a healthy balance between fulfillment and making a living. Client work, while crucial to financial success, doesn’t always fill the needs of problem solving and creativity. And that’s ok. It doesn’t have to.

Enter, side projects.

These little gems are the things you make because you want to make them. Because they fill the need to be released of constraints. They open a world of possibilities where you don’t have to justify any of your decisions. You don’t have to think as hard. There is no second-guessing yourself, and there are no consequences if it doesn’t serve a purpose.


"Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it of hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art."
- Andy Warhol


The great thing about side projects is that even if you believe in the moment that they don’t serve any purpose, they do. They’re sneaky like that. They allow you to shake off the cobwebs, do something fun, release the stress of deadlines and then get back to work in a more positive and energized state of mind.

A good side project can be completely unrelated to your current skill set or right in line with it. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have fun doing it, you have something to show for your time spent on it, and that you feel good about it when you’re done. Oh, and you might just learn something new that will help your client projects—bringing it full circle.




Planning “What If” Time

The biggest problem about side projects is that people don’t plan for them. They are so in the weeds with their daily workflow that they don’t stop to make the time for side projects. I can’t remember who said it, but I’ve heard many times that a goal without a plan is just a dream. A dream is something that would be nice to do one day when you have the time. The thing is, we don’t have the time unless we make it. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the act of creating in a free and open way actually needs constraints. It needs a plan.

One of my plans for 2020 is to create “what if” time. What if I draw this? What if I build that? What if I blow it all up and start over? Does it matter? No, because the simple act of doing will push me forward. That’s the merit of doing something for yourself.

This year, I’m using my calendar to build “what if” time into my schedule—to remind me to shake off the constraints and do something cool. I block off one day every couple of weeks where I don’t have deadlines, I don’t go to meetings, and I can focus on not focusing.

And I have to be intentional about it. If I don’t take steps to pull distractions out of my day, I’ll get pulled right back into the weeds. For me, I turn off email, slack, social media, phone calls (while giving my team a green light to interrupt if there’s a true emergency). All of these are robbing your brain of what it’s meant to be doing during this time. Bonus: Stepping away from inboxes and slack messages can actually help prevent burn out and keep you motivated in your daily work.

Just like changing any habit, making space for side projects doesn’t happen overnight. Things pop up that you can’t account for and that require your attention, but at least trying to step away begins the process of being able to truly do so.



The Challenge

 So my challenge to anyone in our business is to set aside time to use your brain in a way that isn’t directly tied to a purpose. If your current job doesn’t allow for that, it might be time to find a good manager that sees the value in side projects and empowers you to keep pushing on your own.

After every few “what if” sessions, use one of your sessions to reflect on what you’ve accomplished so far. It will help motivate you to keep up with your plan. It can also lead you to recognize patterns in the work and perhaps think of a way that this kind of work could benefit your day-to-day. 

You’re all smart people, but sometimes it’s hard to see that your daily task list isn’t letting you flex your brain in the way that fulfills you. This year, start the habit of making room in your work and your life to be fulfilled by something you create. It will serve you, your clients, and your business well in the long run.



Bonus: My Personal “What If" Time Checklist

Work offline

If you need the web for your work, that’s cool. But steer clear of social sites, email, slack, and texts. Set aside a couple of 10-minute breaks during the day to check in on the important stuff, but don’t let it suck you in. You scheduled this “What If" time for a reason.

Find a starting point

Pick a song, buy some new gear, use a tried and true tool in a new way. Whatever it is, you need some sort of creative foothold to get you going. Don’t worry about messing up. If you don’t like the work when you’re done, there are absolutely zero consequences.

Take yourself on a date

Pack up and go to a new coffee shop. Stroll around a park or zoo to give your mind time to open up. New environments create new connections in your brain. Fill it with as many as you can.

Have a drink

I highly suggest a good caffeine boost or mellow cocktail depending on the time of day.


Drew is a Senior Art Director at FoxFuel Creative. He loves movie quotes, jellybeans, and the fact that most very funny people are also very smart people.

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