Dear Lifehacker, I have a desk job that involves a lot of mindless grunt work. Is there a way I can use that time to learn something new or work on a personal project? Most of the day I work in an office back to back with my superiors. How can I pull this off? Sincerely, Teach Me Master
Dear Teach Me,
Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work (and commuting to and from it), so trying to maximise that time makes a lot of sense. Besides freeing you from the boredom of tedious tasks, side projects can make you more productive overall and keep you motivated. Your manager, however, might think differently. Here's how we would go about handling this tricky situation.
Find Out How Your Company Feels
Unfortunately, we don't all work at companies like Google and Apple where employees are encouraged to work on personal projects for 20 per cent of the work week. Even though working on learning a new skill is a better use of your office hours than, say, watching cat videos on YouTube, both could get you fired if you're not careful.
It's a good idea to review your employee handbook and employment agreement for any legalese that might limit what you can do at work. For example, there may be sections that talk about use of your work computer, but others that provide for limited personal activities during lunch breaks. Or there might not be any provisions at all. Either way, it's good to know what your contract states so you can act within those confines. The last thing you want to do is get yourself fired. Picture: Edinburgh City of Print/Flickr
You might be surprised to learn that your managers are OK with you exploring personal projects and developing your skills on company time. In response to my question on Google+, several people said that as long as they get their job done, their bosses are fine with time for other things. Some jobs (such as being a Lifehacker writer) are well-suited for personal exploration. Eden Mack, a computer programmer/analyst, writes:
Part of my job directives are to stay current and innovate. That requires constant research and experimentation. Obviously my "hard" tasks come before these "soft" ones, but I can usually find a few hours a week for some personal project that expands my skill set. And I don't feel like I'm sneaking or being unfair to my employer.
If going behind your company's back to work on personal projects or learn something new feels risky to you, you could also try getting your manager to give you time during your workday. Just frame your request in a way that makes it seem beneficial to your job or your company: "I know the company has been thinking about expanding into new territories. I was thinking of learning Spanish, which might help with my customer support duties. I'll pay for the online classes myself, but can I take them during my downtime?" If the skill you want to learn or project you're working on has the potential to increase your value as an employee, position it that way.
Integrate Learning/Side Projects into Your Workday
Even if your employer frowns upon you doing anything outside of your job description during work hours, there are ways for you to integrate learning or outside projects into your workday without having to be sneaky.
Use your breaks: One of the most obvious but still life-changing time management tips is to make better use of your time on the bus and your lunch breaks. You could reclaim your commute time by dictating ideas into your phone and getting a service to transcribe it for you or listen to podcasts, audio books or foreign language tapes. The same goes with lunch. That hour is a great time to view a lesson from one of the many free online classes available. Picture: Claudecf/Flickr
Start earlier: Another solution is to get to work early and use that time for your personal education needs. Your co-workers and manager might even be impressed that you are so dedicated.
Kill two birds with one stone by pursuing work projects that fit your personal interests: You could also try folding your personal interests into work. For example, if you want to learn web development, you could volunteer at work to help out on the company website. Or, as a few people suggested on Google+, if you are doing research for a work project, you could widen the net to cover topics you're interested in personally, perhaps folding them back into your work project.
Use technology to make you constantly learn: Apps and services can help. If you want to learn a new language, Language Immersion for Chrome will turn select words on web pages into your target language, so while you're surfing for work, you're also learning. You could also sign up for email lessons like Hack Design for learning design. A Google search for "lessons via email" or something like "Spanish lessons via email" may turn up something you're interested in. Finally, lots of people wear headphones at work; why not put on a pair and listen to some audio books? Open Culture offers hundreds of free ebooks, audio books and textbooks.
Be Clandestine At Work
Many people have successfully pulled off using their work time for personal projects without their employers knowing. (Heck, one guy outsourced his entire job to China so he could surf Reddit.)
The Paid to Exist blog details a few clever strategies that helped one person launch her own business during the leftover time at work. Here are a few of those tips:
- Always having something work-related open on your desktop
- Master the art of looking busy
- Do any writing for your side project within your job's document. For example, start writing in the middle of a document for your day job.
- Keep one work-related browser window and one smaller-size window for your side project. Centre the side project window in front of you so people behind you can't see it.
Some people might consider this borderline unethical, but if you feel like it's not interfering with your day job, you might feel that it's OK. Make sure you first find out if you're being monitored at work and that you are comfortable with the risks. Good luck!
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