How Google’s 20% Rule Made My Job Less Awful

By Carlos Portocarrero

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I used to be in publishing—I don’t know why. But instead of dealing with authors trying to get their brilliant manuscripts into print, I wound up laying out catalogs that included a whole bunch of B-level titles about stuff like crocheting and how to get your kid to stop wetting his bed (Waking Up Dry).

Anyway, I felt a little dejected because it wasn’t what I thought I signed up for, but what else is new? That’s life.

Laying out catalogs meant taking a whole bunch of data from a database, spitting it out into a layout program (Quark), and then going through all the individual pages to add little flourishes that made the whole thing look like we didn’t just spit some database data into a layout program.

That was my job.

Unfortunately for me, the database program and the layout program didn’t talk to each other very well. One was speaking in German and the other had its head in the sand.

This made my job a pain in the ass.

Instead of getting frustrated, I decided to take a proactive approach very similar to the one that Google espouses with its 20% rule. At the time I’d never heard of the 20% rule, but here’s the general idea: Google encourages its employees to devote around 20% of their time to work on new projects that are of interest to them.

They can pull off of whatever they’re doing and devote time to anything they’re interested in. Supposedly Gmail, AdSense, and a host of other applications came about thanks to this 20% rule.

Anyway, I didn’t create anything half as cool as G-Mail, but here’s what I did do: I decided to figure out a better way to do this whole importing process so that anyone laying these out in the future (including myself, of course) could do it much more efficiently with few curse words.

The problem was that I didn’t have the luxury of the 20% rule. I still had a tight deadline to meet for these bad boys to be laid out, so I had to get my work done on time while trying to develop this new system for which I may or may not be rewarded.

And to be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about being rewarded. All I cared about was trying to make the whole process easier on myself and save myself and my co-workers some time.

So I took a risk.

I stopped working on the catalog and drew out some ideas on what might work to speed the process up. It was a risk because I was betting that I’d find a way and that it would be fast enough to make up the time I was “wasting” by stopping the work.

It took a few attempts for me to find a way that worked, but eventually I did. It wasn’t elegant or fancy—it basically involved grouping all the errors into different types and then creating a “search and replace” rule to wipe each group out.

I created a guide with screenshots and everything so that anyone could follow it. The result? Now all we had to do was import the data, run the search and replace commands in my handy little guide, and boom: 99% of the errors were corrected.

Now all we had to do was make it look nice.

After finishing up my guide, I had plenty of time to finish laying out the catalogs because it was so much faster. It probably shaved around 4-5 hours off each catalog.


At the next group meeting, I shared my guide with everyone and told them how great my last layout went because of it. People were very thankful and they used the guides with some small changes to suit their own styles of processing things.

I remember my manager giving me a very thankful look that said

Thank you so much for caring enough to do this. You’ve just made the whole group that much more efficient and you didn’t have to do it.

Let me count the ways that this was rewarding for me:

  • It made my work suck less because it went from tedious and frustrating to just a little boring, which is a huge step up.
  • I had my own little clandestine project to work on, which made me felt like an entrepreneur even though I was working for “the man” the whole time. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to get up in the morning when you have a project like this waiting for you at your desk.
  • It made me faster at my job, which meant I wouldn’t have to stay late if it came to it.
  • I helped my coworkers, who were also my friends.
  • It made me look good. When review time came around, you bet your ass I brought this up. It showed initiative, made us all more efficient, and somehow helped the bottom line. My manager knew she had to reward that somehow, and she did.

Here is the takeaway here: if I found something interesting (and even fun!) to work on in my shitty publishing job that got me more money and made me a more valuable employee, then you can too.

I don’t care if you think your job sucks more than mine did, if it’s “boring,” or if it “doesn’t apply.” It does. You just have to be creative/proactive/persistent in finding out how to get it done.

I didn’t say this was easy, I just said it worked. And the harder you think it is, the better you’ll make yourself look. Just know that there is a way and Google’s 20% rule can help you find it even if you have to work on it at home or outside of business hours.

Now go out there and make your job suck less.

Image by dan taylor

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