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How to Use Downtime at Work Productively

by | Nov 12, 2019 | Productivity

As we head into the dreary winter months, I am reminded of the seasonality of business. In most organizations, there is a natural ebb and flow that occurs. Things get predictably busy at certain times of the year, just as things get predictably slow at other times. For my business, the month of December is always blessedly slow—and I like to take advantage. In fact, I have a whole list of projects I’ve been saving up all year! I can’t wait to dive into it.

Unfortunately, even though slow times are totally normal and often very predictable, a lot of professionals fail to adequately plan for them. As a result, they find themselves complaining of boredom and struggling to keep busy. They’re hardly able to enjoy the slower pace, for fear that they’re not being as productive as they could or should be.

If you’re currently experiencing some downtime at work, or if you’re likely to have some in the near future, here are a few ways you can use this rare period of peace productively.

Note: These suggestions are offered in no particular order.

1. Keep a running list of downtime projects.

Sometimes we’re so focused on dealing with urgent priorities, we put important projects on the backburner…indefinitely. Keep track of those important, but not necessarily urgent items. This list will be a helpful tool whenever downtime shows up, whether expected or not. You can also ask your managers if they have items like this they’d like you to tackle when things are slow. Be sure to prioritize those projects that will help you develop important skills and/or experience for your future career goals.

2. Do things to get ahead.

This should without saying (but I’ll say it anyway): Use slow time to be proactive! What can you do now to set yourself up for success in the future? What preparation and planning can you do to put yourself ahead of the game the next time it gets busy? Get started now, while you have the bandwidth, even if things seem a long way off. Deadlines have a way of speeding toward us much faster than we think they should.

3. Engage in professional development activities.

When things are slow, it’s a perfect time to focus on YOU. Catch up on all of that training you’ve wanted to do, but haven’t had the time for. (FYI, you can access replays of ALL of the training webinars I’ve hosted for the past two years in the Career Success Library. Learn more and sign up here.)

4. Solve a problem / create a business case.

Now is a great time to tackle those pesky problems you’ve been dealing with all year! Take some time to dive into the issues, brainstorm solutions and identify a path forward. Then, document your ideas and the value they would contribute in a formal business case. (FYI, there’s a Business Case Template available for members of the Career Success Library.) You can then share your Business Case with decision makers and use it to advocate for necessary improvements. 

5. Reorganize/clean out your physical workspace.

Over time, any work area will accumulate stuff—dust, junk, an over-abundance of paperclips, etc. Spend some of your downtime clearing out the clutter and re-evaluating your space. Maybe it’s time to add a new plant or find some better lighting; turn your desk a different direction or replace your wall art with something more interesting. You’ll be surprised how a few simple adjustments to your environment can positively impact your mental clarity and attitude.

6. Reorganize/clean out your digital workspace.

Just like your physical space, your electronic space can get cluttered as well. Go through old computer files and archive or delete anything that’s no longer needed. It’s also a good time to review your filing structure. Does it still make sense? Is there a better way to organize things? If so, drag and drop until you’re satisfied!  

7. Create/update procedural documentation.

Creating comprehensive systems and procedures is one of those projects that always sounds great in theory, but it’s a little daunting. Consequently, it’s often perpetually put on the back burner. When things are slow, however, you can at least get started on it. You may not finish completely (procedures tend to evolve slowly over time anyway), but you can definitely make some real headway. Check out to learn more about why procedural documentation is so beneficial and gain access to some great tools to help you get started.

8. Create/update your professional development plan.

If you don’t have a PDP, use this time to put one together—and if you do have a PDP, spend some time revising and updating your plan. This is such a critical tool for career-minded professionals, but it does require an investment of energy. If you have no idea where to start, don’t worry. My step-by-step guide will walk you through it from beginning to end. Get yours here.

9. Attend networking events.

All too often, people only network when they need something—like a new job. By then, it’s too late. People need to know, like and trust you before they do favors for you. And it takes time to build those kinds of relationships. So, no matter what your career ambitions may be, networking is a valuable strategy to engage in consistently. You never know when you’ll need to call upon your network for support, but you want it to be strong when the time comes. Attend networking events in your field or area of interest, and then follow up with people individually for coffee or lunch meetups. If the idea of networking makes you anxious, check out my Networking Naturally e-book for some tips to help boost your confidence.

10. Start a new mentorship relationship.

Generally speaking, a mentor is someone who is at a more advanced stage of their career and has valuable experience from which you could benefit. If you know of someone who would make a great mentor (or if you would like to mentor someone else), now is a great time to open up the conversation. Spend some time getting to know one another and defining how you can help each other. Whether you’re the mentor or the mentee, you may be surprised just how powerful this kind of relationship can be.

11. Plan out large projects.

Some projects are constantly put off because they just feel too overwhelming to think about. Use your slow time to break those projects down into more manageable pieces. Define all of the individual steps involved so that, when you get busy again, you can keep your project moving forward by just following your roadmap.

12. Take time off.

Try to coordinate your vacation time with slow times at the office. That way, when you return, you won’t have as much catch-up to do!

13. Offer to help a colleague.

Remember that YOUR downtime might not necessarily align with your coworkers’ downtime. They may still have a lot going on—and they don’t want to see you twiddling your thumbs or complaining of boredom! Offer to lend them a hand where you can and you’ll build some important goodwill for the future. Maybe next time you’re overloaded, they’ll even return the favor.

14. Enjoy this pace while it lasts!

Look, this is only temporary. Things WILL get busy again and you WILL feel totally overwhelmed at some point again in the future. So, relish this time. Take a mental note of what it feels like. Bask in the glory of having to actively seek out work and find ways to fill your time! Take things slow while you can and use this time to re-energize. Build your strength for the future, because you’ll certainly be needing it again soon.

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About the Author

Chrissy Scivicque is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and certified Professional Career Manager (PCM). She is an author, in-demand presenter and international speaker known for engaging, entertaining, educating and empowering audiences of all sizes and backgrounds. Learn more here.

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