17 Ways to Be Productive at Work (When You Have Nothing To Do)

This post originally appeared on Britt & the Benjamins.

Flashback 5 years, and I was in the midst of my very last tax season. If you can imagine months full of long hours behind a computer, weeks spent away from home in monotone hotels, and an extreme vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight, then you can empathize with what living through one is like. And while I would never want to go back to working those 60-70 hours per week again, those months weren’t the worst part of the job. In fact, it was the summer.

Yes, when our schedules slowed down is when I hated going to work the most. Why? Because I couldn’t stand the endless hours with nothing to do. We were a small CPA firm, and sometimes we simply didn’t have that much going on. So while I tried to rack my brain for things to do in that downtime, I still spent too much of it reading Buzzfeed articles on the internet. Sounds great for the first 3 days.  Not so much on the 30th.

READ MORE — Get the Raise You Deserve: The Ultimate Compilation

That’s the reason I’ve compiled this list of 17 ways to stay productive when you’re twiddling your thumbs at your desk.  Whatever stage of your career you’re in – from internship to executive – there are going to be times when things have slowed down for a short bit or you simply need to take a break from what you’re working on to keep yourself sane.  These can help you stay busy when the hours seem to drag AND boost your career in the process.  You know I love win-win situations.

1) Do a little research

In a field that constantly has new findings or technology? Browse the web to see what’s out there, and share anything you find that could help your company with your boss and co-workers.

2) Create a "how-to" guide

At some point , whether that’s due to a promotion or you moving on, someone is going to have to take over your responsibilities.  Make it easier for them to understand your role and how to do it by writing it down.

3) Give a compliment

Want to build some great morale? Send an email to a co-worker thanking them for their help, commending them on a great product, or complimenting them in some way.  Those little things go a long way, especially when they come out of the blue.

4) Brainstorm value-add projects

Want to get noticed? Come up with a project that will a) help earn/save your company money or b) create efficiency.  Double bonus if you actually come up with an action plan to implement it.

5) Clean your freaking desk

Even I can see that dust piling up from here.

6) Improve your knowledge/skill set

Want to learn more about Excel? Mailchimp? SEO? Find a how-to article, Youtube video, or free webinar online to help you gain knowledge, improve your skillset, and become a better employee.

7) Help a sista (or brother) out

Sometimes your peaks are others’ valleys and vice versa.  On those days when you have time to spare, help out those who are about to pull their hair out from frustration.  Hopefully they’ll do the same for you in return. (And if not, never help them again.  Just kidding. But seriously.)

8) Create time-efficiency

Sometimes I’m so pressured to get something done, I take the scenic route to do it because I just don’t have time to sit down and figure out a better way.  But now you do. So do it and help your busy self out in the future.

9) Watch TED talks

But only on work-related topics, or those that increase your skillset.

10) Organize Your Files

All that paper that’s stacked 2 feet high in the corner of your cubicle? Yeah, do something with it.

11) Update/renew certifications (webinars)

If you’re a licensed professional who needs to gain continuing education credits to keep your credentials, try to use this time to browse for quick one-hour webinars you can utilize towards them.

12) Take on a pushed-aside project

You know those projects that no one has time to tackle? Well, now someone does and that someone is you.  Take it off the plate of someone who is overloaded and overworked, and earn great karma in the process.

13) Clean out email/drives/cookies

Have you looked at your disc space recently? Yikes. Spend some time cleaning our your email and deleting old documents you no longer need.

14) Do a personal performance review

It’s always a great idea when you have downtime to do a personal assessment of your work. Be honest with yourself and make sure to identify a few factors you can improve on. 

Need help? [Download Britt's work week review tool here!]

15) Think of something positive to do for your team/co-workers

I’ve been in situations where employee morale is low, and it you can literally see and feel the tension in the office day after day.  Brainstorm ways you can give it a boost, whether that’s bringing donuts in on Monday morning or coming up with a weekly newsletter spotlighting an individual who performed well that week.

16) Download a new audio book

Again, increasing our skillset is always a plus, so use this downtime to find a new audio book you can listen to at work that will help you in your job and career.  Audible is a great resource for this, and while you’re there, download some of my personal favorites: Year of Yes, GirlBoss, and Yes,Please. 

17) Meet some people

Maybe you don’t fully understand what the marketing department at your firm does.  Or maybe you’re interested in what others in your field are currently doing to solve the same problems you have. Reach out to people in your company to gain a better sense of your business and use LinkedIn to schedule meet-ups with others in your industry to discuss best practices.

If you have any other suggestions that you’ve used while bored and at work, please feel free to share! (And no, online shopping doesn’t count.  Unfortunately.)


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Charlie: My go-to (free!) budgeting tool that tracks your spending and progress towards goals.

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Status: Wanna see if you’re on track when it comes to your monthly spending and total savings? This (again, free) tool compares your financial numbers to others in your age group, city, etc.

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