what to do if you’re stuck working today

If you’re at work today, you’re probably in a half-empty office, with most people away for the holidays, and might be finding it hard to stay focused and productive.

Here are five things to do today that don’t require a ton of concentration but that will help your team, rather than just giving in and streaming Christmas movies from your office. (Although who’s to say that you can’t get work done while Elf plays in the background?)

1. Send warm personal messages to people who have been especially helpful to you this year. If a colleague or vendor made your life easier this year, send them a short note (email is fine!) telling them what you appreciated and why. So few people take the time to do this that it’s likely to make a big impression; in fact, some people save these sorts of notes and treasure them for years. Bonus points: Also send an email to the person’s manager, letting the manager know how much you appreciated their employee’s work and why. Managers tend to love hearing this kind of thing, and you could make a real difference in how someone is seen and valued.

2. Do some planning for your priorities in January. Go through your to-do list and figure out what will be most important to tackle when you return to work after the new year. If you have big projects on that list, break them down into smaller components, and schedule interim deadlines for yourself and work blocks to tackle them. That way, when you come back after the holidays, you’ll be able to hit the ground running.

3. Spend 20 minutes doing something you’ve been putting off. Why only 20 minutes? Because it’s easier to get started if you’re only locking yourself in for 20 minutes – 20 minutes is nothing! You can do that! – and often when the 20 minutes is up, you’ll be in the zone and just keep going. And even if you don’t, you’ll feel better about the day for having some of it done.

4. Give yourself some room to just think. In the normal rush of day-to-day work, it’s often hard or even impossible to carve out time to step back and think creatively and big-picture. And that’s a bad thing, because innovation rarely results when you’re stuck rushing from one task to another. Take advantage of this quiet period to give yourself some breathing room to just let you mind wander. (Keep it on work matters though; don’t let it wander all the way to online gift shopping.)

5. Reorganize your space. Cleaning out your office is a time-honored way to spend a few hours when you’re stuck at work near the holidays. Because there are fewer people around to interrupt you, you’re likely to be able to make a serious dent in clutter. It probably wouldn’t hurt to sanitize your desk, keyboard, and phone while you’re at it.

And don’t limit yourself to physical space either – now’s a great time to clean out and organize your email so that you don’t come back in January to an in-box stuffed full of yet-to-be-dealt-with emails from a past year.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Not me*

    THANK YOU. I’m the only person in my office and there is nothing at all to do. I feel so guilty sitting here and reading blogs for half of the day, but there is just. Nothing.

    1. Part-Time Employee*

      Should we feel guilty because there’s nothing to do? Or, should we be irritated because we still have to be here while there’s nothing to do?

  2. Hotstreak*

    Desk is cleaned, old files recycled, out of office is set for vacation, performance review self assessment is complete, coffee is brewing.. I think I’m set!

  3. De Minimis*

    I got stuck working a couple of days ago, my boss was there too but we were the only ones in the entire office [which is technically supposed to be closed but I was told to come in anyway…]

    The only positive is, I have the type of job where there is always something to do, so it’s actually a good chance to try and catch up or at least work on the things that always end up being put aside for more urgent tasks. Thankfully I’m off till January now.

  4. Rebecca in Dallas*

    There are a few of us rattling around. I’m the acting manager while mine is out.

    Most of my team is done with their work, so I’ve gone around and told those folks that if they feel like their workload is in order, they are welcome to leave early.

    Problem: I have two coworkers who have plenty to do but are not being productive. One was visiting with a colleague in another department for I’m not sure how long. I walked by 3 times within an hour, the second time stopping to ask coworker how her workload was. Response: “It’s fine.” Me: “What about x?” Her: “I don’t know, I haven’t checked.” Well…. check.

    The other coworker has been slightly more productive, but on personal calls for a lot of the morning. And I know she has a big workload.

    So… would it be wrong if I just didn’t mention to them that I’m ok with them leaving early (since really, I’m not at this point)? Or should I just tell them, “You’re welcome to leave when your workload is complete,” and let them be the judge of whether their workload is complete?

    This is pretty par for the course for both of them. I’ve talked to my manager about both of their productivity before and she basically just blows me off. It’s getting pretty frustrating.

    1. Fluffernutter*

      Since you are the “acting” manager and your manager has made it clear that she doesn’t care … I would not try to prevent your coworkers from leaving early today. It’s not likely to reflect well on you, even though you have the best of intentions!

    2. Rebecca in Dallas*

      Thanks! That’s pretty much what I decided. Besides, I’m planning on leaving early, not sticking around to be a babysitter. :)

    3. Liane*

      I like the wording you suggested, “You’re welcome to leave when your workload is complete.”

      And enjoy the holiday when you head out early.

    4. Anonsie*

      I would do exactly that: let them use their judgement, even knowing their judgement may be poor in that regard. They will either 1) realize they should get more done sooner, since they didn’t know they didn’t have to pad out a full day and were floating around under that impression, or 2) will leave without doing much. It’s tricky excluding them, but also it sounds like they might be distracting people so it will probably be helpful to everyone either way.

    5. anononononon*

      I’m pretty much the de facto “senior assistant”, everyone is hourly. Boss lets Productive Employees A and B go home early. C was not told to go home early because C is routinely unproductive.

      C suddenly says “well obviously you sent home A and B early because no work has been getting done, so can I go home now?” And starts packing to leave.
      Boss says “you’ve been here, and you’re finally acknowledging that nothing is getting done, and you want to know why you can’t go home early?! You can absolutely leave when you want but you better not submit that time!”
      Me thinking: C basically left as soon as C walked in.

      Santa doesn’t give presents to bad kids.

  5. Nanc*

    We’re moving offices next week. I have to work because I don’t think little elves are going to magically appear and pack for us!

  6. Part-Time Employee*

    I think I’ll spend the rest of the day job searching on my tablet. I’m here by myself anyway since the full-timers get the holidays off with pay. If I want the money, I have to come in and work for it.

  7. Cat*

    I cleaned my office, went out for a manicure, and maybe will take care of a task I’ve been putting off now. Probably.

  8. Anonyby*

    I’m at work, though we’re closing early for the holiday. And it’s a quiet day here, but there was plenty of busywork left for me to do. lol

  9. Not Gloria*

    It’s actually snowing here today. Security has twice now gotten on the PA to ask everyone to move their cars to the covered garage spots. I want to move my to my covered garage spot at home. Can I do that?

  10. ThursdaysGeek*

    I’m at home! I’m reading AAM while I wait for the other half of the newspaper. But I cleaned out my cube yesterday, and I organize my work at least once a week. Ooh, the paper is available.

  11. Doriana Gray*

    I’m at work with a few others, but I’m actually getting a lot done without all the noise. An hour and 15 minutes left until I get to go home and start my Christmas Eve drinking….

  12. Chantal*

    We’re about half-staff today, but not all that productive. Sadly my boss wouldn’t dream of letting us go one minute before 5 pm. I do have real work to take care of, so there is that.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      Last year my director came round at 10 to 5 and said you might as well get away early. I don’t want to be ungrateful but it really was pointless.

      1. Chantal*

        Ouch … That’s like getting tipped a penny … so awful you have to laugh! What happened this year? Hope you got out a bit earlier.

        My boss actually told us to get going around 3 pm, which was a very welcome surprise. ‘Tis the season for miracles, I suppose.

  13. Anlyn*

    Oddly, I didn’t have much to do yesterday, but today has been crazy. Everyone trying to cram in last-minute items, I suppose.

    I do get to leave in about an hour though.

    1. Fluffernutter*

      Well. IT can see your searches. It’s really never a good idea to job search on a work computer. You can probably get a way with tweaking your resume, but even that is considered unprofessional.

      1. Anonsie*

        I mean, in my line of work we have to send out a current resume to sponsors and collaborating institutions periodically. So it wouldn’t be suspicious to see someone working on or even printing their resume around here.

  14. Grey*

    #1: Thank you, Alison, for this informative and often entertaining blog. I appreciate the time (and money, I’m sure) that you’ve put into it over the years. It’s a great resource for anyone looking to advance their career and it’s presented in a way that makes it interesting for even a casual reader.

    Happy Holidays. May you have have the success you deserve in the new year.

  15. Anonsie*

    Oh man. I already exhausted all this earlier this week, since literally everyone I work with/for is gone and has been for quite some time. It’s pretty rough this time of year (and again in July/August) when your work is largely to support Big Important People who are big and important enough to get many weeks vacation and leave for several weeks on vacation several times a year. The rest of us don’t get that much time off, so while most people are gone today, we’ve already had a week + where none of the people who actually give us work have been around and we couldn’t possibly just take that time off ourselves. Womp womp.

  16. azvlr*

    I’m the only one in the office in my area and I’m getting so much done because no one is around. I put my headphones on and can actually sing along, which keeps me super-focused on my tasks. The only trouble is that there is no one around to ask questions. I think next year, I am going to plan to work during the last week of the year!

  17. Rubyrose*

    I have plenty to do that requires no interruptions. And guess what – I have no interruptions right now!! And I get to leave a couple of hours early. It does not get better than this..

  18. Stephanie*

    I thought I’d be off today, but no. Going in in an hour. Not even sure what’s getting shipped out tonight and we’re not delivering tomorrow (Sunday through Tuesday were our busiest days this season). I think they just need to put something on the jet.

    Yesterday…I farted around for like two hours. I made the mistake of picking up paychecks for all the employees. Yikes….I had so many people chasing me down. I could barely take a bathroom break.

  19. Gene*

    Now that I’ve read the entire archive of Breaking Cat News, ‘ll finish up the last of what I need to get out before I leave for the year.

    Ten consecutive days off while only using 4 days of PTO (two floating holidays which HAVE to be used by year end.) So I’m only using 2 days of vacation to get those 10 days off!

  20. StillHealing*

    There were only three of us today, in our section. One left at noon, the other at 2:00pm. I was told “there’s no real reason for you to be here, go home” three times before the second person left.

    But I had a stack of stuff I really wanted to get through since I’ve had too many interruptions lately. I left about two hours after the person before me left. The custodian came in early so she could leave by midnight and said, “Why are you here? I think you are the only person on whole floor still here!” So, I left thinking she’ll be able to leave once she is finished and me staying might delay her being able to leave early. Well, that’s how I justified my leaving early, LOL.

    Next week though, I will work three days and have some bigger messy projects I’m going to tackle. One of my co-workers is planning to do the same since there will be so very few people in our section of the building. Perfect time for physically purging old files, moving furniture, etc. I live for these “down times” to get organized, re-organize, and clean!

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