9 Ways to Use Your Dead Time Wisely

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You’ve just sent off your latest report to your manager – and before the deadline, too. Great job! You’ve bought yourself a bit of time and can now get a head start on your next project.

But, before you’re able to get going, you need some key information from a colleague, and he says that it won’t be available for a few days.

So, what can you do until then to fill the “dead” time? You don’t want to just “twiddle your thumbs.” Do you catch up with admin? Ask your manager if there’s anything you can do? Or, do you just enjoy the rare downtime?

In this article, we look at why dead time occurs, the challenges that it presents, and how to use it wisely.

Note:

The dead time that we refer to in this article is the idle time that you have when you’re actually at work. This differs from other periods of dead time, such as commuting, when you might choose to work, even though you’re not obliged to.

What Is Dead Time?

You can find yourself facing dead time for any number of reasons.

Perhaps you need someone else’s input before you can begin your next project, as in our example, above. Maybe your software has failed, or your laptop needs to run a lengthy update. A client you were due to see might have canceled, leaving a gap in your schedule. Or perhaps seasonal fluctuations mean that there’s not enough work to fill the day.

It’s likely no surprise, then, to learn that dead time occurs across all industries, and affects employees of all levels.

Research estimates that it costs the U.S. economy around $100 billion each year in wages paid for idle time. The two hours and 45 minutes of dead time that Americans experience each week, on average, can cause people to become bored or anxious that they aren’t doing enough (or doing it right). This can damage job satisfaction and motivation, and may even result in high staff turnover.

9 Ways to Use Dead Time Wisely

You can’t always prevent dead time – its causes will often be out of your control. But you can decide what to do with it.

Taking unfair advantage – having extended breaks or “slacking” – might be tempting, but will likely harm your reputation or career in the long term. Instead, turn this spare time to your advantage with these nine tips:

1. Make a Timely Decision

If you have dead time, don’t waste it by dithering over how to fill it! Decide quickly what you’re going to do. This will keep your motivation levels high and help you to avoid procrastination.

You may need to defer to your manager when deciding what to do. He or she will likely have a better view of current team and organizational needs, and will know where best to allocate your efforts.

However, if you have more autonomy in your role, avoid relying on your manager for ideas every time. It’s more professional to show initiative! For example, you could offer to take tasks off his or a co-worker’s hands, or put your skills to use in other team projects.

Tip:

Taking on additional tasks will help to fill up your spare time, but it may not be the best decision if you’re only going to be available for a short while.

If you’re offered additional tasks, assess the time that each one will likely require. Be careful to avoid taking on more than you can reasonably achieve.

2. Volunteer for New Projects

Check your team’s work schedule to see if you can make a start on any upcoming projects.

You may not have time to complete a project, but there will likely be areas that you could help out with – preliminary research, project planning, or initial brainstorming, for example.

3. Help Out Your Colleagues

Ask around and see if there’s anything that you can do to help out your co-workers. After all, just because you’re facing a slow period, doesn’t mean that they are.

Helping colleagues with project work, technical support, or simple admin will benefit the whole team, and it will make you feel that you’re using your downtime positively.

Simple acts like this can also help you to build positive relationships with other people and will likely “bank” you some favors for later.

4. Develop Yourself

Spare time is an excellent opportunity to work on your personal and professional development.

You could, for example, learn a new skill. Perhaps you’ve been wanting to gain a better understanding of how your team use data, for instance, and want to use the time to explore Google Analytics™ or another data tool. Or, if you’re due to give a presentation in the next few weeks, why not take the time to brush up on your public speaking skills?

5. Recheck Your Work

Go back through the work that you’ve done and recheck that you’ve covered everything – particularly if you’re worried that you rushed some of it. Take the time to properly proofread and sense-check your work, before turning it in.

You could even look at whether there are any ways to improve it. Could you introduce graphs or images, or do some additional research, for instance, to better highlight the key points?

6. Mentor a Colleague

Chances are, you have skills and knowledge that people in other departments or your own team could benefit from. Maybe you’ve even been asked to mentor or coach a teammate in the past, but, until now, you’ve always been too busy.

Before you offer your services, though, be sure to check that the other person is free. She may not be able to spare the time right now.

If she’s not available, you can still use your downtime effectively. Perhaps you could plan knowledge-sharing activities for the future, update a process document, or plan a “lunch-and-learn” session, for example.

7. Review Your Career Goals

Use the time to reflect on your career goals. This can be an unexpectedly revealing experience. If you often have dead time on your hands, for instance, then perhaps the work that you do isn’t challenging enough.

Even if this isn’t the case, you can still take the time to think about what you enjoy doing, what you don’t, and what you’d like to do more of in the future.

Consider re-evaluating your career by carrying out a Personal SWOT Analysis, or using a tool like Schein’s Career Anchors to identify new opportunities.

This could be especially relevant if you’ve taken on additional tasks during dead times that you’ve really enjoyed. Perhaps you’ve uncovered a new passion or a natural talent for something. If so, now’s the time to think about how you could move forward with it.

8. Audit Your To-Do List

Take the opportunity to review your To-Do Lists – past and present – to see what you’ve overlooked or repeatedly “bumped down” the list. There may be tasks that you’ve actively put off or forgotten about, or which weren’t possible at the time.

Don’t forget to add new tasks, too. Maybe an extra project that you took on earlier has led to additional tasks, or your personal development plan has revealed a new area that you want to focus on.

9. Do Some Admin

Even when it seems that everything’s done, there’s always admin to catch up on!

So, take the time to get organized. Declutter your emails, tidy up your file drives, update your diary, schedule your next round of meetings, do your expenses, or book some holiday.

Getting totally up to date with the “little things” will free your time up when the next big task arrives on your desk, and will mean that you won’t have any “nagging” To-Dos floating around.

Key Points

Dead time can happen for many reasons – technical difficulties, canceled meetings, or seasonal dips in work.

However, it can lead to boredom, poor job satisfaction, guilt, and anxiety, and may even have financial implications for your organization.

There are several things you can do manage this time effectively:

  1. Make a timely decision.
  2. Volunteer for new projects.
  3. Help out your co-workers.
  4. Develop yourself.
  5. Recheck your work.
  6. Mentor a colleague.
  7. Review your career goals.
  8. Audit your To-Do List.
  9. Do some admin.

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