Almost everyone’s work has ebbs and flows. Most people focus on how to stay productive during the busiest stretches. But doing the same in slower periods can have a dramatic impact on your output and well-being. There are five key ways to manage these slower times. First, make a plan to help you turn a potentially boring day into a series of mini-sprints. Next, focus on your professional development; this could mean brushing up your LinkedIn profile or taking an online class. You can also use the time to get ahead on work you know is coming down the road and to build relationships with coworkers. And don’t forget to give yourself a break, too. This is an ideal time to take a vacation.
When work is flying at you, you know you have to execute at a fast and furious pace. Deadlines loom, you’re busy and engaged, and, sometimes, just barely keeping up. Having breathing room in your schedule seems like a dream.
But when work slows down, you might find yourself drifting — unable to get excited about the tasks you could do, moving more slowly than usual, maybe reading articles and watching videos that have no particular relevance to your job. You just feel bored.
We all feel these ebbs and flows, whether they’re seasonal or due to events like a conference, project, or new client on-boarding. Most people are able to focus on getting work done during the peak. But how you handle the valleys also has a dramatic impact on your overall productivity and happiness. As a time management coach, I often counsel people on how make the most of slower times at work. Here are a few strategies:
Make a plan
When the pressure is off, it’s easy to let any little thing distract you. You might over-invest in email, wander the internet, or focus on unimportant items or errands, thinking “I have plenty of time.” To counteract this tendency, aim to start each day with a clear plan. Write down your two to three most important tasks and any smaller ones you would like to check off your to-do list. You have to be more deliberate about planning than you would during a busy period.
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It’s also a good idea to estimate how much time you want to invest in each activity. For example, by 11 AM I want to finish my first most important task. From 11 AM to noon, I’m going to knock off three small to-dos. Break for lunch. And then from 1 PM to 3PM, I’ll work on my second large, important task. This granular plan can help you turn a potentially boring day into a series of mini-sprints.
Slower times at work present an opportunity to enhance your entire life, if you take advantage of them. Consider professional development activities that you wouldn’t normally have time for and add them into your daily plans. These might include attending an industry conference, meeting up with a former boss, brushing up your CV and LinkedIn profile or taking an online class. You are making an investment of time that will either help you in your current job or open up future doors.
Off-peak times also offer a chance to get home and office administrative work done before emergencies arise. You can file paperwork due in June or finally fix that old printer during some down time in May, so it’s not an anxiety-provoking annoyance before a big deadline. Or schedule your annual wellness visit and a trip to get your driving license renewed at a time when taking a personal day is no big deal. Being proactive keeps you from having to squeeze in these life maintenance activities at other times when you feel exceptionally tight on time.
If you typically decline when colleagues ask you to join them for lunch, this is the time to say, “Yes!” You can get to know your coworkers through lunch, coffee, or simply stopping by their office when you’re not rushed. Building rapport in this way paves the way for effective collaboration down the road and give you some relationship capital for times when work is more stressful.
Take a break
Finally, off-peak times open up space to invest in life outside of work. This is an ideal time to take a vacation or stay-cation or even just a half day on a slow Friday, which some of my colleagues do in the summer. You can even take smaller amounts of time away from the office to reengage in personal relationships, maybe by having lunch with your spouse or taking a friend for coffee. Or you can tackle household projects like purging your closets.
Instead of frittering away time when work is less pressured, choose to remain focused. Then reallocate the extra capacity to activities that would be stressful to fit in during busy times when work is really busy but feel hugely satisfying to accomplish when you have breathing room. It is important to manage your time in an intentional way and maximize your output through not only the peaks but also the troughs.
Author: Elizabeth Grace Saunders