After decades of working in a corporate environment, I’ve seen many rise through the ranks, often to executive-level positions, while others work away at the same level for years.
There’re dozens of reasons why some make it into top leadership positions, including performance, consistency, emotional intelligence, communication abilities, and a certain amount of luck.
But I’ve seen in my own experience that minor differences in performance can mean huge career impacts over time—one of those slight differences can be how you use downtime at work.
What if you don’t have any downtime at work?
With so many people changing companies and jobs, there’s a good chance that all the shuffling has left you with no downtime. Maybe you had no downtime to begin with.
Don’t give up.
Consider how to gain efficiencies or set boundaries to allow for more downtime at work. Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill the time available to complete it. So practice compressing the time it takes to complete tasks. Try setting a timer for 40 minutes and getting as much done as possible, or try another productivity hack. There are likely ways to make some more time in your day.
Once you’ve created some space in your schedule, or if you regularly have downtime at work, make the most of it with these ideas.
7 Ways to use downtime at work
1. Finish something
Look for areas where you have incomplete projects or have failed to get closure on something.
Maybe you agreed to complete a task you should have said no to, or perhaps you have a project you’re not sure how to move forward.
One common technique to resolve this situation is to list all incomplete tasks, projects, or conversations. Write every single incomplete item you can think of, no matter how small. Then next to each item, write one of the 4 Ds. Do it, Delegate it, Delay it, or Dump it.
The key is having action steps next to most items (‘Delay’ should be used sparingly and with good reason) and doing the action as soon as possible. Have the conversation, create the closure, and knock the item off the list.
We can only pay attention to so many things at a time, and each unfinished item takes attention away from the present moment.
2. Clean or organize something: your email, your desk, your bag or purse
You may be struggling with too much clutter, too many papers, and a never-ending email flow.
Create mental space by cleaning up the cutter.
I believe many of us crave the simplicity of having fewer things. I certainly do, and I’ve followed The Minimalists for quite some time to help me simplify my life. The Minimalists are two men who realized they had no control over their lives after achieving career success and financial security. They took back control using the principles of minimalism. Their experience has inspired so many, and they now have an incredible 20 million people in their audience.
The Minimalists believe that removing things from your life creates room for more. More time, peace, creativity, experiences, and contribution. How beautiful is that?
They challenged their audience to an experiment. Get rid of everything on or around your desk today (box it up), and then slowly reintroduce items to your workspace as needed over the next few days. Anything not reintroduced should be tossed or donated.
Alternatively, I’ve written about my love for Marie Kondo and her method for eliminating things that don’t bring joy. Her approach is life-changing if you embrace her unusual way of thinking about stuff.
Regardless of your approach, make a plan and purge unneeded items in your work (and life) to create mental and physical space.
Most of us are more stressed than ever with work demands, home demands, world events, and the chaos of life.
All this stress, if left unchecked, can take a toll on our mental and emotional health. Not to mention the long list of physical issues and illness stress can cause.
Meditation is the perfect solution to combat the effects of stress.
There is now a ton of research showing the benefits of meditation, from easing anxiety and depression to improving mood, sharpening concentration, and reducing inflammation in our body. It’s like a miracle drug without any adverse side effects.
I’ve written about my journey with meditation — it’s changed so many things about how I live my life. I’m calmer and happier and don’t feel the need to react to every stressor that comes my way.
I learned to meditate with Emily Fetcher’s book Stress Less, Accomplish More. In this video, she describes what to do.
4. Take a walk
Want to boost creativity, increase energy, and improve your mood? Go for a walk! Walking has many benefits and can be a great addition to your work day.
Walking is the perfect physical activity since it requires no unique clothing or equipment, and it’s free (just make sure you wear your flats!)
As a bonus, if you walk outside, you can catch some extra vitamin D, boosting your mood and productivity even more.
If you don’t have a space to walk, the stairwell is an excellent alternative to get your heart pumping.
So get out of the office, clear your mind, and boost your energy with 15 minutes of walking.
5. Problem solve
We’ve all got problems at work that need to be solved, but we don’t know how to solve them.
One good practice is to keep a list of problems you notice, regardless of how small they are. They could be things like inefficient processes, annoying tasks, or unnecessary approvals.
Set aside some time to brainstorm solutions. There are a lot of techniques to brainstorm, but this YouTube video provides a simple methods to think through and develop ideas to solve problems.
6. Learn something new
According to John F. Kennedy, leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.
In fact, many successful leaders attribute their success, in part, to continual learning and curiosity.
On top of that, science now shows that learning new things and doing new activities can physically change your brain for the better. Check out this TEDx Talk by Dr. Laura Boyd to learn more about learning and the brain.
There are many ways to learn. Try the following:
- Check out your company’s Learning & Development team. They’ve likely got classes (both online and in-person) where you can learn job-related and soft skills.
- Go to a popular learning platform such as Udemy or Coursera to take an online course in just about anything. I’ve taken classes to improve my writing, design, blogging, and finance skills. It’s a great way to get exposure to something new.
- Start a habit of reading during downtime. I have an app from my public library where I can check out books and audiobooks for free.
Also, check out our post on unconventional professional development ideas.
7. Build your Professional Network
My network has played a big part in the most important things I’ve accomplished at work. People love to help others, so it’s essential to be out there and develop professional relationships.
In your downtime, brainstorm ways you can build your network. Here are a few ways I’ve developed my network over time:
- Join groups in your city that host in-person networking events. Young professional groups, discipline-focused organizations (e.g., finance or HR or technology focus), university alum groups, or industry-specific groups often have networking events.
- Develop a list of people you’d like to have lunch with. Start within your company. Maybe you are in an audit function, and it would help to know people in technology, law, or accounting. Plan to reach out and set up a lunch meeting with a person from each group.
- Use social media to build connections. You can find and reach out to people with similar career goals and interests at you worldwide, and it may be a more comfortable starting point than meeting in person.
If you get an opportunity to do some networking, try to get there! Many of us feel too busy to go to a sporting event or happy hour with colleagues, but that is where the magic happens.
Pro tip: Spend time developing your career story to help people understand what you do and why you do it.
The more people you know and genuinely connect with, the more opportunities (and fun) you will have.
Downtime at work
While it may be more entertaining to check social media, gossip with friends, or hit the vending machine during downtime at work, finding ways to use the time productively can make a difference in your career trajectory.
It’s important to point out that while we at Latterly advocate for using your work time to be productive, we are equally passionate about using all of your time off from work! One recent study found that 75% of Americans didn’t use all their earned time off in 2021.
U.S. Travel even declared a National Plan for Vacation Day in January to encourage employees to plan their travel and vacation days for the year. Vacations matter — time off work reduces burnout and improves physical and mental health, among other things.