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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Right Way to Run Out the Clock at Work When You Can't Leave Early

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It’s 4 PM and you’re having a hard time focusing. So, you stare at your computer and click in and out of lots of tabs. But when you look up, you see it’s only 4:03 PM. Then, you get a glass of water, which takes all of seven minutes. You’re not feeling inspired to tackle something important, but ducking out early—or sitting at your desk and twiddling your thumbs for 50 minutes—aren’t options either.

Sure, this may sound like a dream problem to someone who’s buried in piles of work, but if it’s your reality, it absolutely sucks. If you have a smaller-than-usual workload, or are lacking motivation, the feeling of being trapped at work—with time passing agonizingly slowly—can be especially strong.

How can you beat this? The answer is soft projects. They don’t demand much attention, investment, or effort, but they’ll still get you through that final hour of the workday—and help you make some progress on your to-do list. Bonus: They’ll also make you look busy (read: dedicated) to your boss.

But since you just reorganize your workspace one day after the next, here’s a list of what you can do to be productive. As a bonus, we paired each task with a certain day to maximize how much you get out of it.

Monday: Organize Your Emails

The average person spends more than three hours a day checking work-related email. And I’ll bet that number is even higher on Mondays, when you've let your inbox lie dormant all weekend.

And while you’re right to stay away from writing tricky messages when your brain is fried, getting your inbox organized doesn’t take a ton of focus, and it can help cut down on wasted time in the long run.

Here are easy ways to get started:

  • Unsubscribe from any newsletters you never read.
  • Create folders (or labels) for different types of emails, such as ones from different departments, or based on who they’re from, or what projects they’re related to.
  • Delete or archive old messaages that are just cluttering your inbox at this point.
  • Mark the emails you still need to take action on.

Tuesday: Think Through Your Next Big Project

Sometimes people avoid starting something new after a certain time of day because they know they won’t be able to finish them. If you have a four-hour task, the last thing you want to do is get started only to break your train of thought in the middle when it’s time to go home.

In this instance, I suggest you start thinking about how you’ll go about it and getting organized. How often have you started that four-hour project to realize you actually don’t have everything you need or you have questions? A short burst of proactive research could equip you with better information—and spare you that time when you’re more motivated and ready to work on the project itself.

Pull this off early in the week and you’ll be more likely to put those plans into practice over the next few days.

Wednesday: Work on Your Thought Leadership

Being a better professional isn’t all about executing tasks and planning projects. It often pays to take a step back and work on your knowledge, skills, and reputation—and it doesn’t take much effort to do it.

Work on becoming more of a thought leader in your industry by catching up on the latest content in your niche. Get up-to-speed on any new developments and engage with others by sharing articles on LinkedIn and starting discussions. It’s a great way to feel productive during your mid-week slump.

Thursday: Declutter Your Desk

There’s research that implies that creative, intelligent people tend to be messier. However, there’s also a study that shows that clutter distracts you, inhibiting your overall productivity—plus, I doubt it’ll go very far in impressing your boss.

So, cleaning up your desk is a great task for a day when you’re counting down the minutes until Friday and don’t want to do much more than straighten up. It’s as simple as discarding unnecessary papers, filing away anything urgent, washing out your coffee mug, and giving your desk and keyboard a thorough clean.

Friday: Make a Schedule for Next Week

The most successful people create and adhere to a schedule. Not only will it save you time in the days ahead, it can help you transform a “meh” afternoon into a plan to be productive moving forward. That, in turn, can boost your mood and positively affect your momentum.

So, pull a plan together in three simple steps:

  1. Make a task list for everything you’d like to accomplish next week. Include everything that’s currently on your radar—big or small. Break any larger projects into smaller, more manageable tasks.
  2. Rank everything on your list and assign priorities.
  3. Create a realistic timetable for getting everything done.

It’s a perfect Friday task, because even you were lacking focus at this week was winding down, you’ll be getting a headstart for the week ahead.

No matter how optimistic or energetic you are, you’re bound to have off days—and that’s perfectly okay. Forcing yourself to tackle a complex task (assuming there’s no deadline leaving you without a choice) can result in shoddy work and dissatisfaction, so embrace those free hours and do what you can with them.