What to Do When You Have Nothing to Do at Work

Zach Hughes
4 min readFeb 22, 2019

I’m really busy at work. Most days I have a hard time squeezing in everything I want to accomplish. However, that hasn’t always been the case. Back in my early career I had seasons of downtime. Looking back, what I did with that downtime was critical for developing me into the leader I am today. If you have nothing to do, read-up. This article is for you.

Before I started my professional career I worked a few teenage jobs. I got paid to work. That work was physical and exhausting. If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. I wasn’t used to the idea of standing around and getting paid.

Hurry up and wait

I remember my first tech job. I was a contractor on a large project to roll out a huge number of workstations across an enterprise. On my first day of on the job, I was told that there could be long periods of waiting for work-orders to materialize. My team was specifically instructed that we needed to conduct ourselves in a professional manner when there was absolutely nothing to do. Getting paid to do nothing sounded weird to me.

About eight years later, I found myself in a similar situation. I was more advanced in my career at this point. I was a senior engineer and was used to working on high-stress, long-running strategic projects. That was continuous and normal until it wasn’t. The mortgage meltdown of 2007 changed everything. I watched my company go from rapid growth into shutdown mode in a hurry.

I remember walking into my office building at 7 am, reading and responding to all of my email, fixing all of my open tickets, closing all of my project tasks, and it was 8:30 am. The next day, it was the same thing, and the next, and the next.

It’s easy to complain about being too busy at work, but it sure beats the alternative.

I’ll remind you about the baseline expectation set by my first boss: don’t act like an idiot because that would be embarrassing. That was it. I decided I could do better than that. Here’s a list of things I did with my idle time:

  1. Educate. I bought technical certification books and studied my brains out. I took practice tests until I aced them consistently, then went for the real thing. Sometimes I passed and sometimes I didn’t, but I kept on learning new skills that would make me a more valuable professional.
  2. I watched my boss. Just because I wasn’t busy, didn’t mean the same was true for my boss. Being a manager is always a lot of work. I’d consistently ask for work that I could take off my boss’ plate. That act served my boss, but it also served me because it gave me opportunity to do things I had never done before.
  3. I socialized. I’m not a naturally social person, so this was hard for me. I forced myself to invest in building relationships with the people around me. This built my networking and relational skills.
  4. I read tech news. Yes, sometimes there is nothing to do but surf the internet. While my peers read sports or political news, I stayed up on tech trends. I became fascinated with emerging technologies and sought to understand everything I read. That also had the side effect of giving me something productive to talk to my peers about in social situations.
  5. I went out. I went to user groups, networking events, vendor workshops, and conferences. The teams we work on can be an echo chamber of ideas. I learned early on that it’s important to talk to people outside the company for fresh insight and perspective.
  6. I shot my co-workers with nerf guns. OK, I’ll admit that this was probably outside the boundary of “professional conduct,” but we did it anyway. Perhaps you shouldn’t do exactly that, but it’s really important to find ways to have fun at work. It builds community, friendships, and makes the monotony a whole lot more enjoyable.
  7. I learned how to solve the Rubik’s cube. During that short phase of my career, work wasn’t mentally stimulating. I needed a mental challenge to keep me sharp, so I found one.
  8. I talked to recruiters. If work is boring for too long, you just have to get yourself out of there, and I eventually did. I found myself another opportunity with strong continuous challenges. That was 12 years ago, and I haven’t been bored since. If you work at a cool company like CHS, you can leave your job without leaving your company. Talk to your HR business partner or internal recruiter.

There you have it. I just gave you eight things to do when your own boss couldn’t give you one. How you approach your work is very important. Equally important is what you do with your idle time. Idle time is a rare gift. What I did with it absolutely had a significant impact on my career trajectory.

If you are not bored, thanks for taking your precious time to read my blog article. Please do me a favor and take one more moment to share this with your colleagues.

Read this article on my blog site: https://zachonleadership.com/what-to-do-when-you-have-nothing-to-do-at-work/

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Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.