by Jacquelyn Smith
Downtime is a rare thing in most workplaces — but there’s a good chance you’ll experience a slow day every once in a while. (If you’re reading this at work, you might be having one today.)
“These quiet periods can be game changers if you use them to check to see if you’re strategically meeting job objectives, or, more importantly, on track for your longer term career goals. And the New Year is the perfect opportunity to intentionally block out this time,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.
“There’s no doubt that employees have more on their plates than ever before,” adds Mark Strong, a life, career and executive coach based in New York. “However, we all have days when our workloads slow down or our appetite to get real work done wanes. And it’s important to use slow days in a more strategic way because they don’t come all that often.”
Teri Hockett, the chief executive of What’s For Work?, a career site for women, agrees. She says while slow days are few and far between in workplaces today–they’re certainly not extinct. “Most industries have periods of natural downtime, which provides for slower-than-normal days. There is always a chance to catch your breath; the trick is to make good use of the time.”
Unfortunately, employees don’t typically know how to maximize their time on slow workdays “because these rare intervals are about as foreign as your boss saying, ‘You’ve done such good work lately, I think you should just call it day and go home,’” Taylor says. “If you’re wise, however, your to-do list includes longer term projects; back burner, default assignments for slower times. Or, you’ll use the time to reflect on your overall role and whether you’re achieving your larger objectives.”
Strong says it’s fairly common for workers to use slower days to shift into “low gear” and complete tasks such as cleaning their desks, finishing up personal tasks, or socializing with co-workers. “That’s great.” he says. “But a portion of slower days can and should be dedicated to less obvious ‘high gear’ tasks, which is an area that deserves some illumination.”
“Most of what I see and hear is that a slowdown has many employees getting on the Internet,” says Cynthia Kyriazis, president of Productivity Partners, Inc. “Not necessarily to get e-mail or work-related research done, but to play games, explore new sites and concepts, and perhaps do some online shopping.”
Others will take longer lunch breaks, leave the office early, or catch up on personal correspondence—and these aren’t necessarily bad choices, depending on your circumstances, Taylor adds. “Taking some time to do things unrelated to work may be necessary for your mental health,” she says. “Workplace studies have shown that breaks are necessary to refresh the mind and will help your productivity at work. If you work for weeks on end without a break, you’ll suffer the consequences.”
In this day and age, it’s a gift to be able to work on personal and work-related priorities without all the pressure and chaos that a busy day often brings, Kyriazis says. So you’ll want to be prepared in advance to make this time count.
Get organized. Spending time looking for misplaced information zaps focus and energy and heightens stress, Kyriazis says. “Since clutter is symptomatic of delayed decision-making, a slow day might be a great time to make some decisions and get the paper and information monster under control. It helps clear your desk and your mind.”
Now is also your chance to get in front of those e-mails flooding your inbox, Hockett adds. “Use this time to clean up your inbox by following a classic management approach known as ‘Do it – Dump it – Delegate it.’ You will feel good after you make sure things are in good order, and will likely standout in a positive way within your organization.”
Track accomplishments. Most of us don’t have time to take inventory of our accomplishments—but a slow day at work provides the perfect opportunity to do this. “This is critical for so many reasons,” Strong says. “Of course, it makes mid-year and year-end performance reviews much easier to prepare for. But more importantly, this list is invaluable when a position opens up in your company that you want or a promotion becomes available. Always be ready.”
Plan. Five minutes of planning saves 30 minutes of doing, Kyriazis says. “Spend time planning what your next day or week will look like, and especially planning what to do with the next slow day or time that rolls around. The worst thing to do is get the time and not have some ideas on how to spend it.”
Network. Networking with others in your field keeps you on top of industry trends and helps you remain visible in your circle of industry professionals, Taylor says. “Whether or not you plan to stay at your current job for years to come, having a solid reputation in your field is enhanced by your increased visibility. Maybe you’ve lost touch with former colleagues, and it’s time to check in. You may pick up some tricks of the trade, new vendors, or even leads to new hires. It’s always smart to keep your contacts alive.”
Build rapport with your team. Take this opportunity to go to lunch with a co-worker or even your boss, if possible, Taylor says. In the normal break-neck pace of business, it’s difficult to take time out in a social setting to discuss the larger picture; the company and department’s mission; or just to build a stronger bond with team members. “It adds a community feeling of building something together: one of the biggest reasons people find satisfaction at work.”
Hockett agrees. “Pick up the phone, instant message, or better yet, walk around and interact with co-workers. Ask them how things are going, and make a point to listen more than you speak. This will provide valuable insight from a personal and business aspect, while providing great exposure for you personally.”
Strong also suggests using the time to acknowledge others. “Spend some time appreciating those around you. Handwrite some notes thanking people for a great 2013 or highlighting your eagerness to work together in 2014.”
Evaluate your goals and intentions. Both professional and personal intentions for the upcoming months or year are crucial for growth and prosperity, Hockett says. “Make your intentions visible for you to see every day and share them with freely with others.” Intentions differ from goals in that they allow you the flexibility for success, she explains. “For example, a goal would be ‘Increase my network by 15%’ and an intention would be, ‘I intend to spend more quality time growing and maintaining my personal and professional relationships.’” Both are important, though—so take time to evaluate your current goals and intentions, and consider setting some new ones.
Dream. “Spend an hour thinking about how you wish things were, new product ideas, what work could be like without barriers,” Strong says. “None of us do this enough and slow days allow for the brain space to do it well.”
Hockett says daydreaming can be effective on a slow day “because it excites the mind and provides opportunities to visualize the things you want to accomplish at work.” For example, if you daydream about a new role or position within your company, your brain will help you develop a plan on how best to get there.
Evaluate your use of time. A quiet day is a great opportunity to analyze how you’re spending your days, and whether you’re working smart. “Consider yourself your own time management consultant, and examine your past month’s meetings and deliverables,” Taylor suggests. “Create what you think is your general daily work flow on a document, then start making adjustments for greater efficiency. It can be a big wake up call if you realize that you’re spending far too much time on the phone with a particular client or peer; handling e-mails for the first two hours of the day; not prioritizing your e-mails; taking too long to handle business reporting; not using technological tools for transnational activities; or not delegating enough, for example.” If you sometimes feel like your drowning in duties, this is an ideal time to make some real changes.
Learn. Use this time to expand your own professional knowledge, Hockett says. “Catch up on magazine articles you have been stacking up, books collecting dust, or digital activities such as webinars, blogs, or interacting with peers on forums.”
If you sometimes feel like your eyes are glazing over when your colleagues talk about the latest widget, or you quickly change the subject after hearing about that latest trend one too many times – it may be time to bookmark some key sites that keep you up to date, Taylor says. “Browse the top online business, trade and blog publications and sites in your industry, as knowledge is power. Your boss, co-workers and clients will always appreciate articles and links of interest that you send, further benefiting your career.”
Get some exercise. Go for a walk outside or take extra time at the gym. “Do something that will get you up and moving,” Kyriazis says. “Grab a friend if you have to–but clearing the mind and giving it a rest is what we’re after.”
Improve a process. When we’re running 100 miles per hour, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees, Strong says. “Use the slow times to evaluate a particular process or system you use rather frequently and look for opportunities to create efficiency or better way to work.”
Volunteer. Consider volunteering your time to help another co-worker or department, Hockett says. “This can help those who are not having a slow day, and also provide an opportunity for you to acquire new skills, either strategically related to your own career advancement, or for fun.”
Check in with your boss. “After you’ve had a chance to catch your breath on a slow day, reflecting on your projects and goals, you have the perfect opportunity to reach out to your boss,” Taylor says. “Your projects and the big picture are top of mind; what better time to give your boss an in-person, verbal or written update on the achievements you’ve recently made (clearly, you have a few because you’ve earned a break) – and to describe your next steps?” Employees often forget to pass along good news and their future direction to the boss; too often the time is spent putting out fires. What manager doesn’t like receiving some good news and reassurances? This reinforces your capabilities for bigger and better things in the future.
Catch up or get ahead. “This includes deadline-driven work, segments of larger projects that need to keep moving forward, and personal tasks,” Kyriazis says.
If you’ve been putting off personal tasks that can only be handled during the workweek, now would be the best time to get them handled, provided you’ve covered for yourself, Taylor says.
“This is also the time to chip away at the projects you’ve left for a rainy day,” she adds. “Does your to-do list need a proverbial dusting off? Are there new, more mission critical projects? Do you need to re-prioritize and run your revised list by your manager?”
Quiet time allows you to make a dent into longer term, back burner projects. Sometimes these seemingly lower priority assignments will suddenly come to the forefront. You’ll be glad you got a head start on them later. “The hardest part is diving in for the first 10 minutes; after that, you’ll likely be on a roll,” she says.
Slow days in most work environments are rare, Hockett concludes. For that reason, it is important to make the most of them and consider these days a chance to focus on your own interests and be proactive, rather than reactive to the needs of others. “Use this time well, and you will be able to advance your career, gain professional knowledge, and feel more on top of things.”
This article was originally published at www.forbes.com. Read the original at www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2014/01/09/14-things-to-do-on-a-slow-day-at-work/