I don’t have enough work to keep me busy

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talked to a guest who has too much downtime at work. Here’s the letter:

I have never had a job without significant downtime. I make myself available for new assignments and readily volunteer to take on work from stressed colleagues. The problem is that there’s just not more work to do. I work for a local government. My workload is dependent on things outside of my control. Projects have a clear beginning and end. Once they’re done, they’re done.

My workload is similar to that of other colleagues in the same role, although more senior colleagues get more complicated projects that take more time. I’ve been in this role for a year. Our work is cyclical so there are times where I’m fairly busy, but regularly I’m not filling all of my work hours with actual work.

My boss gives me rave reviews and my colleagues know me as a go-to resource if they need help. The work-life balance is great. But I find myself with extra time on my hands pretty regularly. I take decent lunch breaks and often go for a morning walk with coworkers. I read online publications relevant to my field, but that can only take up so much time. I also spend time on my phone, probably too much time.

This has always been the case for me with every job. I have always kept my bosses up to date with my need for more work. One boss didn’t care and said I could do whatever with my extra time which led to me being fired without warning by a higher up for spending too much time online. One boss got mad at me for asking for more to do or trying to take initiative. My current job seems like it might be as good as I can get: a consistent workload with clear deadlines, even if not enough of it.

I feel guilty about spending time browsing the Internet on my phone at work. Should I feel guilty? What should I be doing with my time when there really aren’t additional projects to take on?

The show is 27 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 92 comments… read them below }

  1. Murphy*

    Listened to this on my way to work this morning. I was so excited when I saw the title! This is so a problem that I have (at this job, not all my jobs). I’ve had the soft conversation with my boss about it and that hasn’t lead to any changes. Good advice here.

  2. Owlette*

    The bosses that fired you and got mad at you for doing something not work related when they explicitly said that you could suck. Make sure to ask your current boss for feedback and bring up the fact that you have so much downtime. Maybe your current boss can help you brainstorm something work-related to work on, like helping a different team with a project or doing some continuing education or getting a certification or whatever.

    That being said, don’t spend your extra time on your phone. You need to keep up the illusion of being productive even if you don’t have something to be productive on. Things I’ve done when I have downtime in previous jobs: read a book, write a novel, browse AAM and other job/management-type websites, taught myself basic web programming, took a course on using Excel, and kept up-to-date with publications in my field. I never used my phone for any of this. Even though I wasn’t working on stuff directly related to my work, I looked busy.

    1. JKP*

      Yes, I wrote a 600 page novel while on the clock. Managers didn’t care what we did, as long as we looked busy so other departments didn’t complain.

      One day, they called us each into the manager’s office one by one. I was certain we were all being let go, since we hadn’t had enough work to do for months. Instead, they told us there was an expected big project in 6 mo, and they didn’t want us to leave since we were all trained and ready to go. So we all got a raise in order to keep us working at a job with no work.

    2. The One With The Cooties*

      In my experience, you can try asking for more work a few times, but after that you’d better figure out some projects on your own or at least Look Busy. Otherwise you run the risk of looking easily expendable.

    3. CRM*

      +1 for the online coding classes. This is one of my favorite downtime activities. You’re learning a great skill that will help further your career, and the majority of people who walk by your desk won’t recognize that you aren’t doing work. They will see the wall of syntax, become overwhelmed/impressed, and immediately assume that it’s job related because who would subject themselves to that just for fun?

    4. Julia*

      I probably wouldn’t write a novel on a company computer. I’m not sure if previous comments from people saying that would make the novel the property of the company are true, but I definitely do know that I wouldn’t want the IT department finding my personal creative work on the computer.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        Technically maybe, but only if the company has one of those asinine clauses in their new hire paperwork about “anything you create” while you’re employed by the company belonging to the company—check for this! Even the fast food places I’ve worked for have inexplicably had this clause, but it’s supposed to be for software developers and similar.

        Best practices are to keep up plausible deniability by working only on a thumb drive or cloud-based word processor or personal email; if you can’t use those at your job, definitely don’t write a novel because you’ll never be able to get it out of the building.

  3. Free Meerkats*

    I’ve worked in government since I graduated from high school – military, three municipalities, and one county. In all of these we have to staff for maximum workload, bringing on new people is a drawn out affair. When we’re busy, it’s balls out; during the slow times, not so much.

    I can’t even think of the number of times I swept the same floor when in the Navy. In one school while waiting for the group to start the school, my assignment was to sit in my barracks room, watching across the street to the school so I could warn everyone else that the Senior Chief was on his way so everyone could look busy.

    What I’m doing in my slow period now is updating some of the policy and procedure documents. It’s mind numbing sometimes, that’s why I’m here right now. :-)

    1. Chinookwind*

      “watching across the street to the school so I could warn everyone else that the Senior Chief was on his way so everyone could look busy.”

      And the irony is that the Senior Chief probably knew exactly what was going on but, as long as you all were a) willing to keep up the charade and b) ready to work when needed, he wasn’t going to do anything.

      DH learned this when we were dating because he would sneak off base to come visit me and the guys would call him when someone was looking for him (a big base meant he could legitimately be hard to find during their free evenings). He learned that he wasn’t being so “sneaky” when the Warrant Officer asked for a ride into town to get his car. When DH tried to act like he wasn’t going in, the WO stated that he will continue “to see nothing” as long as DH continued to do nothing that required anyone to be aware of where he was.

      A smart boss knows you have to let people goof off when there is time to kill if they except those same people to work hard when they are needed.

      1. Free Meerkats*

        Oh, no doubt. The classes started every three months, and I was one of the first of the next class to arrive – a week after the previous class started. I think there were 4 or 5 of us, so there was plenty to do. By the month to go point, there were enough of us that everything was finished in the first hour of the morning.

    2. DoDDarling*

      Yep, same here. My supervisor is more than happy to allow me to study for my certification exam(s) during work hours, or really allow me to do anything as long as it’s somewhat tangentially related to my job. Hell, during holidays I’ve brought books and magazines to work when I’m one of few in the office, but nobody cares because they’re all on FB all day.

  4. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’ve been dealing with this since starting my new job. I’ve had several conversations with my direct supervisor and my grandboss (who technically directly oversees most of my work, it’s confusing). My direct supervisor has gotten better about giving me some extra projects lately, but grandboss seems oddly reluctant to add to my workload, despite being pleased with my work by all accounts.

    1. Triumphant Fox*

      Is it possibly because grandboss doesn’t have everything figured out in terms of what to give you? I’ve found that when I’m sitting around, it’s often because the higher ups don’t really know what to put in front of me, or are so busy that even thinking through what to give me is too much. The mental effort of managing a new person is just too much and they’re like…yeah I’ll figure that out later. Meanwhile, I’m on AAM and Lynda all the time. Delegating is an art many people just do not have.

  5. computer says no.*

    I have this all the time. My role is more focused now but I have less to do. I get bored and dream of more.

  6. Bored also and its only 10am*

    I could’ve written this letter. I have an amazing new job with great coworkers, lovely bosses and a short commute. But I am bored to death every single day. I told them in my interview that was what I was worried about the most.. that they didn’t have enough work for me to keep me busy (this is a newly created position). They keep telling me it’s going to get busy.. just enjoy the calm. It’s just not my personality. I hate to be ungrateful since everything else is so perfect.

    1. JeanB in NC*

      I tell every interviewer that I like to be busy, that I’m extremely efficient and get things done fast. Almost everyone of them have assured me that there would be plenty to do. But every office I’ve ever worked, I’ve come in, learned the procedures, got everything organized, and then sat there twiddling my thumbs and begging for more work. It’s extremely frustrating!

      1. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

        Are you me? Every person I’ve replaced, once I got the job down I struggled to understand how they possibly could have made a 40 hour week out of it. At my last job I wound up taking on part of the responsibilities of two different co-workers in addition to my own workload (one was let go, the other was overwhelmed), and I still had enough downtime to write a good bit of my first novel on the clock. I’m a big believer in working smarter, not harder, but I sometimes feel like I’m in the minority on that one.

        1. Lynn Whitehat*

          Yes! One job I had, releasing software to customers was a tedious manual process. Copy this file to that directory, change the permissions, rename to reflect the new version, etc etc etc. It took one person a day to do it every time we released, which was weekly. I wrote a script to automate all that stuff. I mean, duh! Free up a human to do things only a human can do!

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          You are both me.

          I cannot even begin to imagine what the person who was in this position did all day.

          1. Kathleen_A*

            My department’s last administrative assistant whined and whined and whined and *whined* about being overworked…but when she decided to retire, she said that really, the job could be done by a part-time person. I don’t know what she was “overworked” by with all that time, but clearly it her job. I’m pretty sure part of what kept her busy was all the whining. :-) She was a sweetheart, but golly, could she whine.

            It would have been fabulous if she’d spent part of that downtime learning Excel – or even Word. Her Word skills were surprisingly limited for an experienced admin.

          2. That Would be a Good Band Name*

            If I ever manage to find a new job (I’ve been looking for MONTHS), I’m going to flat out tell them this is a part-time job. I’ve been here 2.5 years and since 2 weeks in, I’ve been trying to figure out what the person who had this job before me did all day. And I have more than she did because I asked for more work. It still has a ton of down time.

        3. your favorite person*

          Definitely! I’m in the same boat as everyone else. When I started my new position- a combo of my former position, a management position, and parts of two of my co-workers who left- I assumed I’d be VERY busy and I was… for about 9 months. We are now a little too efficient. We worked to streamline things, tweak manuals and forms regularly and can’t seem for any of us to stay busy all day every day. My department actually dropped from 5 to 4 and we still have lots of downtime. I couldn’t figure out how my past co-worker was always staying busy. Turns out, she was really unorganized and did her work multiple times. The other one went WAY over board with hand holding our members to a point where they didn’t know how to do things they should be doing themselves because she did everything for them just to keep busy.

        4. Hey Nonnie*

          Saaaaame. I once had a (supposedly) short-term position to bridge the gap between someone resigning and the company finding a replacement. The person resigning happened to be someone I knew but hadn’t seen in a number of years, and he whispered to me that the reason he was leaving was that he had almost nothing to do. And it was true, in spades. I was there PART TIME and was still mostly twiddling my thumbs (or even better, doing busywork that almost certainly sat on the server and no one ever looked at or used it in any way). I did a whole bunch of my own writing and project organization while I was there, but by the end my duties for the company were down to one task: create a specific deliverable (templated, usually took half an hour or so), and upload it to a distribution database (5 minutes), which was required no more than twice a week. When I was training the new person they finally hired six months later, she told me that they had taken that task and given it to someone else in the department. It took all I had not to blurt out “Then what are you going to do here?!”

          Kinda wonder how long the new hire lasted.

        5. JeanB in NC*

          Yeah, I replaced two people: one working 30 hours and one working 20. I work 35 and have so much downtime it’s ridiculous. At one job when I left they had to split my job up between three different people. I’m currently job hunting and I will not go to work for a small company – I need to work for a large company in the payroll or accounts payable field. Those type of positions tend to stay busier.

          1. TardyTardis*

            Don’t worry, in accounts payable they will dump a lot of invoices on you, and if they think you’re not screaming loud enough, they’ll dump some more. But I usually end up in the job where I get replaced by two and a half people when I leave.

        6. Ralkana*

          We actually just had someone leave after three months because she was bored in the position and couldn’t figure out how it could possibly be a full time position. The person she replaced — who’d been here for about a decade — was constantly moaning about being overworked, and they were let go almost instantly from the position they’d left here for, because they just weren’t able to keep up with the pace.

          Which is a long, roundabout way of saying that sometimes it’s because the previous person was a bad fit for the job, and the managers just don’t realize how inefficient they were.

      2. Elaine*

        I think the key is “extremely efficient.” I, too, have always ended up with excess time in every job I’ve had involving multiple different industries. Some of us just have the kind of brain that easily sees how things work and can quickly figure out ways to get the job done fast.

    2. Frankie*

      How long have you been there? In my experience a lot of new positions do take some time to be at full capacity–it takes time for people to know you/your new role. You’ll eventually become the contact for this or that thing, a new assignment/project will come up and they’ll give it to you, etc. You have to get embedded for it to really start flowing. This has been true for me, at least, in entry level and mid-professional positions.
      So it might be a persistent problem, but it might resolve itself as you grow into your role/meet people. I think if they’re telling you to enjoy the calm I’d personally take them at their word for the moment.
      I’m kinda impatient so it took me a few jobs to figure out this can happen over months.

      1. Bored and its only 10am*

        I’ve been at my job for almost three months now. But I was recruited away from my previous company to this company thru a previous coworker. I do love everything about it, except the non-workload. I’m glad to see that I am not alone. I just don’t want to think that I am lazy.

    3. Anon anony*

      +1000000 This! This is me! I want to have a life, but my work is very important to me and it doesn’t seem like I’m doing enough. Yet, they don’t want me to take on additional work, even though I would be a good fit for it.

    4. noot*

      ugh i hate the “enjoy the calm” line, especially since i had to turn in a timesheet weekly with what hours i spent on what. if i didn’t do anything, where the heck do i put my time?? i make up support hours for clients (unbilled ofc)

  7. De Minimis*

    I have this issue now, and often have had it in the past. I agree with the advice to look busy [and also to not be seen looking at your phone.]

    But I’m never sure what to do in these situations. I often feel like the downtime is a result of difficulties I often seem to have integrating myself in a new workplace. People have to fit training me into their schedules, and they are often too busy.

    I’m usually hesitant to ask my boss about it until I’ve been there a while and have a better idea of what my regular workload is going to be–I don’t want to take on additional tasks that I may not be able to continue doing once I get fully on-board with my regular work. Sometimes I never ask my boss about it at all….it depends on the workplace. I had one job where there was a lot of downtime but my boss wasn’t familiar enough with the type of work I did to be able to advise or suggest anything [and there was no one else who could either.]

    1. Anon for this one*

      Same here. I started at a job four months ago and of the four files that I was assigned to work on, three have been cancelled, and the last one has been taken over by someone else. I’m so bored I wrote my old department and asked for my job back.

  8. anon for this*

    So many (federal) government employees have side hustles for this reason (just don’t use your government PC, although when I have worked for county government they were super lax about this, I had supervisors who sold vitamins and stuff online during the workday. Many left early for their side gigs too due to generous PTO. This was not a secret by any means).

    I have volunteered for professional associations and know people who volunteer in RAINN chatrooms during the workday. There are probably other orgs that can use online support during business hours.

    1. OtterB*

      If it works for your field, volunteering for professional associations is a good one. It’s good for the association and not something most employers will object to as a use of down time, plus it can give you new contacts and new ideas.

    2. soon 2be former fed*

      Except in federal contracting. It is busier than any private sector job I have ever had. It is o convoluted and complex, systems are unreliable and user unfriendly, the rules are always changing, and we are constantly audited.

      1. TardyTardis*

        I was in USAF procurement for four years. Boy, do I have stories…(fortunately I was not involved in the contract that resolved damage from a fire in a missile silo, but I was the one who pointed out ‘boulders’ in the soil report when a contractor tried for a change order because he needed to blast aforementioned boulders).

    3. Jerry Vandesic*

      The idea to use down time to participate in professional groups is a good one. Build up your professional skills, which should benefit both you and your employer. Present at professional meetings and conferences, developing the presentation materials on the job. That will force you to hone your message and story telling about what you are working on. Before you present to the professional group, present the material internally.

  9. Bekx*

    I’m in the exact same boat. Every job I’ve had I’ve had tons of downtime. I finish my work so much faster than my coworkers. I’m almost afraid to say “I have a ton of downtime” because I don’t want to admit “Yeah I’m only working 3 hours a day with this current workload.”

    1. JeanB in NC*

      Yeah, I don’t want to tell my boss I only have about 15-20 hours of work per week, because I can’t afford to have my hours cut.

    2. CMart*

      Same. Though I do often wonder if my coworkers are equally as underutilized as I am and we’re all just really good at hiding it!

      For me, I meet myself halfway. If there’s a deadline (perceived or real) of Friday and I finish the task by Monday afternoon, I’ll sit on it until Wednesday, do some review, and then send it off. That way I look efficient and can be given bonus work, but also still maintain an extremely leisurely pace. I’m not actually good at knuckling down and focusing/working for 8 hours straight a day! I’m grateful for my time to faff about on the internet and reorganize my email folders.

  10. NYWeasel*

    My last job was like this—I used to joke that I’d hit the end of the Internet bc I quite literally ran out of things to look at each day—even following all sorts of blogs and boards. (It’s where I found AAM!). Now at my current job I’m drowning in work, but I greatly prefer being busy to how it felt having nothing to do.

  11. Bigintodogs*

    I’m so bored at my job. I’m remote and my team is offshore. I get ignored most of the day. Actively looking for a new job/interviewing, but I signed up for an online graphic design/social media management/email marketing course because I have so much free time and I was getting depressed just sitting on Facebook all day.
    I and my manager have talked to my team lead multiple times, but to no avail so far. Luckily I’m remote so I don’t have to look busy.

  12. Ron McDon*

    I am soooo jealous of everyone who is saying they also don’t have enough to do! I’m always trying to get on top of my workload, and almost never have any downtime – ever.

    My boss has said they’re going to advertise for an extra part-time assistant, but that was a couple of weeks ago and they still haven’t advertised the job so…

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all somewhere in the middle, with just enough to do to keep busy without being stressed, but able to goof off for about 10 mins a day?!

    1. ACDC*

      I had this exact conversation with my husband last week! All of the jobs I’ve worked at have either been 100mph all the time, or barely enough work to fill a half day. I’ve never had a happy medium, and it certainly would be nice!

    2. MsChanandlerBong*

      Me too! It’s our busy season, so I’m working 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., taking a three-hour break to nap and eat dinner, putting in two to three more hours each evening, plus working a few hours on the weekends. It will slow down again in mid-December, so it’s temporary, but I am exhausted.

    3. Mm*

      Seriously, I work 50 hours a week and rarely have even a few minutes of downtime. I’m wildly jealous of the OP.

  13. MK*

    I have always been very fast too, At some jobs I had a lot of downtime, at others I was worked too hard because my employer knew I would handle it. My current position is perfect for me, because it is 2/3 work from home. I get everything done at my own pace, give it an extra once-over and have much more free time.

  14. Anon From Here*

    Gearing up for an online learning certificate course in a couple of weeks, here, so I’m doing preliminary reading during slow times. Uh, when I’m not reading AaM.

  15. Smarty Boots*

    The job I had right before I started grad school was like this. When I did my exit interview, I told them to advertise for a part-time position, 20 hours max, because that’s all the job needed. If that.

  16. Geneva*

    I’ve been in your shoes twice OP. And in both situations once it became clear that the workload would never pick up, I used my extra time on freelance work and job searching. Sometimes I felt guilty, but then I realized my employer was paying for my time, and if they couldn’t make full use of that time, then I could quietly do other “work-like” things.

  17. BeenThere*

    I once had a job where I had zero to do about twice a month. I perfected that art of walking around with a clipboard of papers and a pen in my hand. I could chat with people all day on “my way to the next thing” and never do a thing. The rest of the time I was busy enough that those two days were a very welcome break!

    1. TardyTardis*

      I know someone (not me) who worked on a novel with post-it notes, because writing in a notebook or on screen would have been detectable by anyone who came by (she was also scanning stuff, but had down time once she’d lined everything up in the document feeder and the papers were processing through).

  18. ACDC*

    I’m in this same situation right now, only a little more dramatic. I was brought on 2 months ago because of the “insane” workload that the department needed help with. The gentleman I am supposed to be getting work from works minimum 11 hours/day, but refuses to give me any of the work out of an obsolescence fear (funny part is he’s the one who fought so hard to bring anyone on to help). To date, he has given me approximately 1/2 to 1 hour of work to do a day, and I’m expected to twiddle my thumbs the rest of the day.

    I’ve talked to every possible stakeholder about this matter, but the problem is the management team (i.e. my direct supervisors) travel about 75% of the time, so they aren’t in the office to really do anything about it.

    I’m bored out of my mind and it’s starting to affect my mental health (I’m a creative type that gets depressed from prolonged boredom). However, this is the most money I’ve ever made at a job so I’m not very inclined to make a fuss out of out. Alas…

  19. MP*

    This comment is for some of the people chiming in today on not having enough work to do. It’s just a suggestion, and definitely won’t apply to everyone or all types of work, esp. the more seasonal or project-based roles. But . . . Have you considered that you’re rushing through your work too quickly, and possibly sacrificing quality? I have a co-worker who really tries to get through her items very quickly, and definitely ticks off more “dones” than I do. She prides herself on this quite a bit, and looks down her nose at me for not doing as many of our data pulls as she does. The thing is – she makes mistakes. She also misses opportunities to add extra detail and context to make them more useful to the users. It’s all about ticking off the “complete!” for her. I’m very thoughtful with my work, and though I don’t get as many items done as she does, I rarely make mistakes, and my finished products are more insightful to the end users. So maybe slow down some, and see if you’re missing opportunities to provide higher quality work products.

    1. Chinookwind*

      I am one of those who has chunks of time with nothing to do and, while there are times when I have missed something, I can almost guarantee I would’t have noticed it if I had gone slower because the slowness almost makes my brain think it can take a break.

      That being said, there are times when I appreciate having the down time because it means that, when something goes sideways (like a bunch of time cards with errors in them that I have to track people down to fix), then I know I can still meet my deadline. Like someone said earlier, we are staffed to working at maximum capacity (or in my case, 80%) and I appreciate the downtime because it means that, when I need it, I have enough time to do what needs to be done and pitch in with other requests. And I have time to take a vacation. If I was super busy even 90% of the time, I would be thinking they have given me too much to work and never be able to take a day off without risking never getting caught up.

    2. CMart*

      I think for some people this may be the case–I know when I’m legitimately pressed for time and need to get something out really quickly I often make careless mistakes. Rushing is not great for my quality.

      But I also suspect for a lot of us it’s just some mix of traits that result in efficiency. I build in downtime between finishing a task and reviewing it (say, I finish it in 20% of the time expected, I go do something else for another 30% of that time, and then come back to review and tinker and still have it done in half the time expected). For me I think it’s a combination of being a fast reader with high comprehension so I don’t have to keep referring back to procedures or e-mail updates, not actually rushing through so I make limited mistakes so that when I’m done I really am done, and being very good at grasping the “big picture” and underlying principle behind things so that I’m able to deliver what the end user is truly looking for.

      Others likely have a different mix of traits that allow them to be more efficient than their peers.

      But of course, self-reflection can’t hurt! Getting things done quickly but then sent back with a lot of feedback/suggestions/corrections probably would point to needing to slow down.

    3. Amber Rose*

      I have two jobs, more or less. One of them is made up entirely by me, and is only reviewed by me and one government person every three years. I could definitely be more thoughtful and insightful about what I produce, since I’m making it up, but to what end? I guess I’d have more to do, but I find it impossible to not have apathy for busywork for it’s own sake.

      The other job I have only ever made one mistake, so I think I’m doing pretty OK on that front.

    4. ThursdaysGeek*

      And I had a co-worker who got things done a lot faster than me. But he didn’t consider the documentation to be part of the job, nor making sure it was deployed completely and correctly. He was fast at coding and got that done quickly. And the rest was cleanup that someone else should be doing.

  20. 2 years til Retirement*

    I am currently doing three people’s jobs. I still have times, like now, when there is not much to do. I have no idea how the others before me kept busy.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Same. I have four main tasks and a handful of smaller, occasional ones, and while I do go through busy periods and mornings are fairly full, I have a lot of painfully slow afternoons. Like this one.

  21. Nope.*

    How have those of you who don’t have enough work dealt with the tendency to procrastinate what you do have? I think my problems in this area are compounded by working from home (it’s way more fun to walk my dog and work on house projects than wait by the computer for more work to emerge), but I’ve really struggled with being fast enough that something will “only take a few hours when I sit down to do it ” — only to wait to start until it’s crunch time or very nearly overdue.

    1. computer says no.*

      I procrastinate some tasks because I know they only take 5 minutes but then I worry that I will be bored all day and I don’t like being bored I dawdle the 5 minutes into 10.

    2. Typitytypetype*

      Yes! I work 100 percent remotely too, and having not enough to do can make it harder to do the work when it does finally come in — it’s just sometimes really difficult to shift gears when I’ve had little or nothing to do all day.

      Also, the workflow is very erratic — I spend a lot of time waiting for other people to finish their part before I can get started, or my department can be asked to sit on things that are ready to go ahead because the sales side wants us to hold off, etc. And also, things can go from zero to “We need this NOOOW!” with no warning and at any time. (That also makes it hard to do something useful like take an online course — even on the slowest day, the spectre of panic ‘n’ drama always looms.)

      It’s not a bad job, but the unpredictable workflow is very frustrating, and I have to struggle to keep it from affecting my work habits overall.

    3. Two Dog Night*

      Yup. I work from home, too, and I’ve found it’s easy to put things off during slow periods. I’ve found that breaking projects into tiny chunks helps–it’s easier to convince myself to do one little piece than to sit down and work until the whole thing is done. But I do work much more efficiently during busy periods.

    4. MJ*

      another work-from-home who struggles with this! I’ll often muck around at home because I know when I go into work the one or two days a week I do, I’ll need to look busy, and I can just get it done then.

      The only thing I’ve found to even kind of work is to make a cringe-bust list: just write a to-do list in as small chunks as a I can, start at the first thing (no matter what it is) and work down. That feeling of not having to prioritize seems to help, and my work often generates new tasks, so I know the list won’t run out. (Except on *truly* slow weeks. At which point I just try to keep to a schedule and do a lot of stuff on Khan Academy.)

  22. Bored and Underworked*

    I also don’t have enough work and have asked for more work and have volunteered for more projects. However I am terrified to come right out and say that some days (often weeks at a time) I have zero work to do. I am terrified my employer will decide they don’t need my position anymore and I will lose my job. I have always received extremely positive performance reviews and do good work when I have it. Do folks have suggestions for what to do in this type of situation?

    1. Oaktree*

      No advice but I can totally sympathize. I’m terrified of that. The only thing that gives me a little hope is that I’m well beyond my probationary period, so they’d have to at least try to fix the situation before canning me.

  23. Chocolate Teapot*

    I relocated to another country for a job which involved setting up an office from scratch. There was going to be me and somebody who was slightly senior to begin with, then at least one other employee, possibly more, with regular contact with Head Office (which was in another country).

    Except it didn’t work out like that. The third employee was never recruited, and Head Office didn’t contact us very often. We tried to be enthusiastic, suggested projects, offered our assistance, but it all got squashed. It transpired that people from Head Office would regularly visit the country where we were situated, but never once came to our offices. We could have opened for a couple of hours every day and they wouldn’t have noticed!

    In the end, we asked what the future was for our office, and once the people from Head Office had stopped laughing, said that this was it. At this point, we used our nice well-paid jobs to find something better paid, which kept us busier.

  24. Theresa*

    I totally feel for this LW. I had a temp job a few years ago. They told me it was an accounting temp job for 6 months. No it wasn’t. It was in the accounting dept but they wanted me to re-write all these instruction manuals for things I knew nothing about. I did it the best I could and then I ran out of work. I’d ask for work and the person I reported to never would follow up with me or was always in meetings. After 2 months they let me go because I was always playing on my phone and not doing my job…yeah b/c you weren’t giving me work! It made me so mad!!

    But I also can relate to the LW in terms of working fast. Once I learn something I become super fast at my job and often deal with this problem as well. My current job used to take me 35 hours a week and now I can do it in like 28 hours. I hate how I end up losing money because I’m efficient at my job.

    1. ACDC*

      I’m in that same boat right now! I’m basically a professional temp (salary, benefits, etc.) so my company sends me on assignments to various companies for anywhere from 2months to a year. I’m an accountant by trade and my current assignment was sold to me as an opportunity to learn a new software from a department I’ve never worked in before. The assignment is close to home and I really don’t have any authority to say no to these things.

      Anyways, I’m doing admin work for the supply chain department. I’ve been given about 1/2 hour to 1 hour of work a day and it’s mundane work on its own regardless of the workload. It’s killing me slowly and I feel like I got played.

      1. Theresa*

        Yeah. I am a bookkeeper and also do bookkeeping on the side and read a lot about how you should charge for bookkeeping services. And the hot word right now is “value pricing” where you charge say $500 a month for a job that may only take you 2 hours of work. And basically how we need to be paid for our knowledge and skills and not just for us to work somewhere for 40 hours a week. Because basically us becoming super fast and efficient at our jobs is making us lose money when we should be gaining money from the scenario.

  25. CheeryO*

    I’m in state government and feel similarly. I give people here major side-eye when they complain about being busy, because I truly think most of us could do our jobs just as well in about 15 hours per week. You can only do so much when your work is reactive. It does take time for things to ramp up, though, especially in government jobs where things move slowly. I’m almost four years in and still building momentum.

    Do the work that you do have carefully and with a high degree of quality, keep your files organized, and let it be known that you’re open to taking on more work. Beyond that, as long as your supervisor is happy, just try to just adjust your expectations and make sure you at least appear busy and engaged while you’re at work. If it’s still unbearable, the role might not be right for you. We’ve had people leave for the private sector over the years because they need more of a challenge. A lot of them come back, FWIW.

  26. Lynn Whitehat*

    I’ve had this issue basically my whole life. In school, I was always the first one to turn in my test. And by “school”, I mean “through grad school”. I always assumed I would not have that problem at work, because wouldn’t there always be more work to do? Especially as you move out of direct customer-service jobs, where no customers = nothing much to do.

    I’m a very fast reader (600 wpm), and when I watch other people do stuff, I find I naturally find little ways to do things more efficiently that other people don’t. Like, we have a coffee-maker at work that makes one cup at a time (not with the pods, don’t worry.) And I will go across the kitchen to get creamer and put it in the coffee *while* it is brewing. Yeah, it only saves 30 seconds, but I think finding the efficiencies everywhere adds up. It’s not a stressful thing for me, it just comes naturally.

    Assuming you have some kind of desk/office job, here are ways I have found to pass time without being super-obvious:

    1) online classes and learning.
    2) some form of writing, like a journal or blog
    3) take care of personal business, like bill-paying and signing your kids up for soccer.
    4) Side research project semi-related to your core job. Some places will even let you use company resources for this within reason
    5) Depending where your job is physically located and how long you can be gone at a time without it being an Issue, you may be able to run multiple errands per day
    6) political text banking. Often done through a web app.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      But as an efficient person, WFH at least part of the time is the way to really win. Do a little work, go for a run, do a little work, do some laundry, do a little work, etc.

  27. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    I would really like to know what all these non-busy jobs are, in particular, and how the heck do I get one? I know that OP is worried about this, and doesn’t seem to have a basis for comparison, but maybe this is a blessing to be grateful for? (After spending 2+ decades swamped at work at all times, I’m exhausted!) Are there really no value-adding projects that OP can initiate, that aren’t core work but would be good for the organization? What about learning new skills/knowledge by volunteering to help co-workers in different areas? To get promoted to the next level up, what competencies would OP have to demonstrate, and how could OP use down time to develop herself/himself in that way?

    I have occasionally observed that some people (in corporate office environments) aren’t busy at work because of certain factors that may be addressable, such as: (1) others don’t trust that person, and thus won’t give that person more work and may even start giving less work, or (2) the work is done too quickly and is low quality, or (3) the person only does the bare minimum asked, doesn’t go the extra mile or (4) the person doesn’t take initiative and come up with value-adding new projects, or (5) the boss won’t delegate more work to the person, which perhaps can be addressed with the boss. OP, maybe you don’t fall into any of these categories, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

    1. ex fed*

      at a lot of these kinds of jobs, they like to shut down any new initiatives or projects because it would make everyone else look bad/lazy/reveal the truth that no one else works either.

      when promotions are available in these kinds of environments, they tend to have guaranteed promotions where even mediocre people get promoted – so it’s not like there are rewards for high performers. there are no bonuses, and there is no room upwards in many positions once you’ve topped out.

      you probably can’t get a job in a place like this because they actively select for other mediocre people who won’t outshine them. if you want one, you must make yourself seem dull and slow in the interviews. also, please note that federal culture is NOT like this outside the DC area. my friends who are federal employees in the midwest who moved to DC for huge promotions, ended up doing less work at higher levels. grade inflation in DC in the federal government is real.

      there are a lot of DC readers on this blog. so a lot of people are talking about federal jobs specifically in the DC area. the regional governments in the DC metro area are also messed up. these are truly sick workplaces.

      1. E*

        +1. I have had two jobs like this, both in government. The worse of the two (where sometimes did literally nothing at all during a day) was in a department of an enormous federal agency that had gotten de-prioritized after an administration change. Morale was terrible and it was a horrendous place to work.

  28. ArtK*

    Years ago, I was a team lead in a group that didn’t have much work to do, relative to the talents of the people on the team. There wasn’t much new work, thanks to some very dysfunctional management. So, I would do a crossword first thing in the morning, and possibly read at my desk if my work were done. I got chewed out by a VP who told me, explicitly, that it was more important that I look busy than have meaningful work. I left shortly thereafter, figuring that some other company had work for me to do.

  29. Alf*

    I have the same problem at my job due to me overhauling my departments procedures and making them more efficient. Over the past 4 years I have been studying in a totally unrelated field and writing my assignments in the down time; problem is I have now graduated and have no assignments to do. Whilst hunting around I came across the udemy.com website and now I have a whole world of subjects I can study, at relatively little cost, when not busy.

  30. chickaletta*

    I heard a podcast (not Alison’s :) )a couple weeks ago about the same thing and it’s believed that a ridiculously large number of employees, like 40%, don’t have very much work to do during the day. I believe it, I’ve held several jobs in the past like that. They went into why this happening and the thing is, it’s not the employees’ fault. Employers are creating jobs where little work exists for several reasons – bureaucracy, or someone in the past was inefficient so a new job was created to take over their work and then a new person eventually fills the old position and finds there’s nothing to do. My favorite excuse that’s pretty common is that positions are created to support people with big titles in order to make them appear as important as they are. For example, a provost needs two or three assistants surely, so let’s give him/her some. They’ll find work for them to do! Only…they can’t.

  31. Junior Dev*

    I’m dealing with a boss who is mad at me for doing stuff that isn’t quite my job, but is relevant and valuable to the company, when I don’t have other stuff to do. Getting her to articulate what she actually wants me to do is an ongoing challenge (it’s a long story and I’d rather not go into it, but trust that I don’t need advice on that front). I’m wondering if she’d be happier if I were less visibly productive on things that are not for her. That is, if I were using my down time to write a novel instead of helping out other departments.

  32. Oaktree*

    Oh mna, I could have written this. Except that I’ve approached my supervisor numerous times, and she only gives me busy work (that I finish quickly), and is reluctant to let me do more (I really don’t know why). I don’t understand how this job is a full-time position, but I’ve heard my predecessor literally slept on the job, so I guess that’s how he filled the time. I’m also overqualified for the job and bored by it… I’ve been applying to other jobs for months but haven’t been hired for anything yet. Time to take an online course during work hours, I guess.

  33. Tee Pot*

    I’m half in this boat. My job is to help outside companies with their customer support when they move their teapot software to our platform for two weeks a month. That’s the busy half of my job. The other half has us calling our teapot business contacts on campaigns. We have two full time + six part time people doing calls. The campaigns we’ve been getting lately can be done by us in an hour and it’s getting boring sitting there for the rest of my shift trying to look busy. Luckily my teams in the basement and we are left alone for the most part.

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