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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Bored at Work? 4 Productive Ways to Fill the Time

If your company subscribes to the “results only” philosophy, when you’re done with your work for the day, you’re free to go. (Hello, happy hour!)

But if you’re like most of the corporate world, you’re stuck to a rigid schedule—even if you’re done with the day’s duties, you have to sit at your desk twiddling your thumbs (or clicking your way through the wilds of the internet) as you wait for the clock to strike five.

So, it’s barely tea time, and you’ve had a cuppa, finished all your work, and nobody seems to need a helping hand. What are some ways you can spend this free-yet-caged time productively?

My advice: Embark on some continuing work education. Here are four suggestions for self-directed learning that you can easily fit into the last hour or so of your day.

1. Immersion

Sure, there’s flood of information on the web, but are you using it to your advantage? Do you know about (and keep up with) all the media streams that are relevant to your field? What are people talking about on industry blogs and LinkedIn? When you find yourself with a few extra minutes in your workday, immerse yourself in that stream of current events and catch up on relevant news.

And if you keep up with your industry happenings already, why not take steps to be recognized as an expert, too? Tell people about what you’re interested in—whether through writing your own pieces, answering questions on Quora, or interacting with social networks. Sharing your opinions is a great way to connect with others in your field and establish your own voice on topics that are important to you.

2. Expansion

If you miss the classroom or just love learning on your own, consider taking some courses to expand your knowledge base and skill set. There are tons of free online courses available, whether you choose a class in your current field or try out a completely separate interest. For example, you can learn to code (a superstar skill in this modern age) at Codecademy or visit MIT’s website for management lessons.

And don’t be afraid to branch out to subjects that aren’t directly related to your work, as long as they help you develop skills that you could use for the benefit of your company (after all, you are on company time!). For example, if your firm has locations in other countries, consider learning a new language—which, as an added benefit, has been shown to help keep your brain in tip-top shape!

Check out Open Culture for a great collection of links to free courses and language lessons, and Lifehacker for great course picks that change every semester.

3. Time Restoration

The repetitive Office Space aspect of work (TPS reports, anyone?) is almost inescapable, no matter how cool your job is. So, one effective way of spending your extra time is to pinpoint particularly redundant or time-consuming little tasks that you or your colleagues do regularly, and search for ways to help you streamline those processes.

For example, if you type the same thing over and over again, TextExpander can save those frequently used snippets of text to help you breeze through repetitive forms. If you use multiple interacting apps (like Facebook and Twitter, for example), IFTTT allows you to connect them (so, for instance, a tweet could trigger an identical Facebook status). Tech blogs and sites like BestVendor are a great place to brush up on your app knowledge, so you can always have suggestions ready for your co-workers.

4. Reflection

We spend so much time at work doing stuff that we rarely take a moment to step back and evaluate how we do that work. But taking a little time to reflect can increase your self-knowledge, help you maximize your potential, and shed some light onto areas where you can improve.

To do this most effectively, keep a regular work diary. There’s no one right way to journal, but start by taking a few minutes each day to write down what you accomplished (it’s important to focus on the positives!), as well as any challenges or setbacks you encountered. Over time, you’ll be able to identify patterns in your productivity and creativity, recognize unconstructive habits, and capitalize on your strengths. (Check out The Progress Principle for an example of how an engineer, who was fraught with anxiety after several of her team members were laid off, used a work diary to develop a plan to move forward.)

There’s more to your career than your assignments and task list—so when you have the extra time, take advantage of it to further your professional development. By cultivating new knowledge and self-awareness, you’ll become more engaged with your field, understand how to work better, and perhaps even discover something exciting about yourself.

Photo of woman bored at work courtesy of Shutterstock.