You’re wasting half your work day goofing off because there just isn’t enough to do — and it’s driving you crazy. Here’s how to make a change so you’re not just killing time on Facebook waiting for the clock to strike five.
Here’s a question, one that has bugged me throughout my professional life. How can I keep myself from going crazy, knowing I am basically pissing my life away twiddling my thumbs? I’ve heard that the average desk worker—which I am—spends about 45% of their workday doing actual work. The rest of the time is spent doing other things, like browsing the internet, texting, just generally goofing off.
That definitely describes my work day. If it were up to me, I would do my work, and be in and out of the office in just a few hours. But because I’m bound by rather nebulously defined “office hours,” I’m stuck here from morning to evening. So I spread work out, and fiddle away the hours in between, painfully aware I could be doing other, more enjoyable, productive and interesting things elsewhere. What can be done?! Thanks, Bored At Work
I’m not sure about that statistic, but the general point is probably true: A lot of us fritter away a lot of the “work” day. I suppose one solution would be a shorter workweek, an idea that has merit, but also requires a society-wide reconfiguration of labour norms. You might not want to wait on that.
And for what it’s worth, time-fritterers even include people—like me—who are self-employed and work at home. I don’t have to “look busy” for anybody, and yet it took me 15 minutes to write this paragraph because I stopped in the middle to Google some supposedly relevant fact and somehow ended up watching a Taylor Swift video.
So the key question to ask yourself is what you’d rather be doing with your goof-off minutes and hours. And the most important bit of that advice is ask yourself. That’s because nobody else is ever going to materialise into your work life and say: “Please tell me what would make your days truly fulfilling, and I will arrange a fresh set of responsibilities and opportunities and a schedule that makes it all possible!” So here are some possibilities.
Let’s say your answer is that all you really want is more stimulation during your work day. There’s a decent chance you can make that happen. Consider what existing projects or initiatives at your company that you can get involved in. Consider what projects or initiatives you can start.
Talk to your manager about areas where help is needed and your skills could be useful. Think about skills you’d like to acquire and what you could do to put you on that path. Maybe this involves working toward a professional goal, or maybe it’s about the acquisition of skill for its own sake.
Help out your peers. Take on new responsibility. If what will satisfy you is a more challenging work day, challenge yourself.
Change your situation
But let’s say all of that sounds horrible to you, because you don’t really like or care about your company or the work you’re paid to do. Fair enough! Consider finding a work situation that’s actually engaging.
In addition to just, you know, seeking a better job, which by itself can be a productive project, consider working for yourself. Maybe you can figure out a way to consult, or work on contracts that give you more control over your schedule. (To have more free time might entail making less money, but perhaps that will suit you just fine?) Or start something new that tracks closer to your real interests. (You may end up working longer hours, but perhaps you’ll enjoy it?)
You may well, like me, still end up wasting chunks of the work day. But at least you won’t be doing it to in acquiescence to someone else’s demands.
Just declare victory
Finally, consider the possibility that your boring, unchallenging, time-wasting job could be an opportunity. Recognising this might require a bit of a mental reset, and for that I consulted my friend (and frequent collaborator) Joshua Glenn, who among other things is the author of The Idler’s Glossary, an excellent book about not working that I suggest you surreptitiously read while on the clock.
“I’ve been in that situation,” Josh said when I described your plight, working for a big company that “didn’t have enough for me to do every day. Or maybe I was just way more efficient at doing my job than they’d expected?” For a while, he killed time shopping on eBay or playing games.
“But then I came to think of my employer as a Medici-like patron of the arts: a source of air conditioning, office supplies, Internet access, and—over the course of each day—several hours of free time,” he said. He plotted his first books and networked with people whose work he admired. And, he adds: “I regularly walked around the whole building, poking my nose into places I didn’t belong and asking everyone about their own work.”
Eventually he quit, co-founding business and producing a series of entertaining side projects. But the point isn’t that you need to become an entrepreneur or write books, per se. It’s that you should think about your free time as a gift of sorts, one that you can exploit.
“I didn’t have a particular plan or end goal in mind,” Josh concluded. “But it was important to me to use that time creatively—which is not the same thing as productively.”
That last point is important. It may take some thought and experimentation. But if you want to make the most of your free time, it’s worth putting in a little extra work—for a change.