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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

What to Do When You Don't Have Enough to Do

For anyone who’s dealt with an overwhelming workload, a lighter load—or even a week or two where you don’t have much to do—sounds like a welcome reprieve. However, to quote those ’90s motivational speakers the Spice Girls: “Too much of something is bad enough, but… too much of nothing is just as tough.”

Meaning, when every day is a slow day at work, it’s hard to stay motivated. It can even make you question whether this job is really worth your time and talent.

The first step, of course, is to inform your supervisor that you have some free time and that you’d be happy to take on a few more tasks or projects. And in ideal-outcome world, that’s all it takes. This piece, however, is for those of you who’ve done that, but still can’t seem to stay busy. Read on for your three-step plan.

1. Check for Old Projects and Brainstorm New Ones

The first place you should go is your parking lot—not the physical place you leave your car, but the folder (in both your email and your desk) where you park the “someday projects.” You know, the projects that sound like a great idea, but that no one has gotten around to because they’re not time sensitive.

Don’t have a parking lot? Start there. Cull through old meeting notes and review old to-do lists. Is there something you pushed off during busy season? Or an idea that languished in the ideation stages? By beginning with something that has already been discussed—even peripherally—you know you’re staying within your job description (making it easier to get approval).

Don’t have any old projects? First, the fact that you’ve scoured so hard means you can preempt any assumptions that you should have been able to find something to do. Second, you can feel free to brainstorm—which brings me to step two.

2. Confer with Your Colleagues and Supervisors

Odds are, if you could simply think up a new pet project—if there were some obvious unmet need or task you’d been dying to tackle—you would have proposed it already. So, this is the time to reach out to others.

The simplest approach is to ask around and see if anyone could use a hand. Yes, this means you could end up helping with a mailing or some other “beggars can’t be choosers” task you’d later lament, however it does provide you with the opportunity to strengthen your workplace relationships and build your in-office network (which is always a good thing!).

Another option is to ask colleagues or your supervisor what they identify as unmet needs in the department or areas for growth. For example, say you’re tasked with managing social media efforts, but because of your company’s reach, there is only so much you can do. Could someone in tech or PR think of a way you could assist with building community or publicizing the organization, such as making the website more user-friendly or examining continuity between hashtags and taglines?

This approach will make you seem like a team player and coalition builder. Moreover, the next time you check in with your absent manager (er, extremely busy supervisor), you are coming to him or her with a team need, as opposed to a personal one, which means your project is be more likely to be green-lighted.

3. Schedule a Meeting

If you’ve worked through your personal project list, as well as that of everyone in your department, you’ve taken plenty of initiative to try and solve the problem. Still find yourself Gchatting, twiddling your thumbs, even contemplating searching for other positions at your desk?

It’s time to move beyond discussing your lack of work as an agenda item during general conversation and schedule an official meeting with your supervisor. Send a calendar request so that the time is blocked off, as well as an agenda that titles the meeting “Insufficient Amount of Work Discussion” and lists that detail what you’ve done to create more work (see steps one and two).

Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of your boss being busy or scatterbrained and assuming you’ll “figure it out.” This meeting is a way to get his or her attention and demonstrate that you have already exhausted your options, and now you really need some help.

If you get no results, or if you get one project and then the struggle begins all over again, it’s time to go elsewhere. That could mean HR, that could mean your boss’ boss, or that could mean putting the word out to your network that you’re looking for a new job.

Too little work sounds like a good problem to have—until it’s the one with which you’re faced. Be creative, but don’t be afraid to stand your ground: You are talented, and you deserve the opportunity to put your skills to good use!

Photo of blank to-do list courtesy of Shutterstock.