is it okay to take advantage of calm weeks at work?

A reader writes:

Is it okay to take advantage of calm weeks at work? I am an exempt employee, I genuinely love working, and I have always received good feedback. I am always available to deal with emergencies, and I always always finish my tasks in a timely manner and hand over quality work. When my workload gets big, I have no problem working late. And I am always happy to help out colleagues if they are swamped.

However, I sometimes feel a little bit guilty. For example, before the Christmas holidays, I had very hectic weeks, and I worked accordingly, sometimes until 9 pm. However, the week between Christmas and new year, I was in the office, and honestly … I barely received five emails the whole week. So yeah, I allowed myself to re-watch Seinfled during my working, yet very very calm, hours. For my intellect’s and dignitiy’s sakes, I did also watch webinars concerning my field of business…

I usually go to the office three days per week during our current Covid crisis. But today, I am working from home. It is 11 am on my side of the world, and I haven’t really done anything yet apart from reading scientific articles about hornet nests. I do have a couple of tasks on my to-do list for today, but I know that I will have time to finish them this afternoon.

I feel a little bit guilty about taking advantage of slow weeks, whenever they come. I will definitely ask my boss for more work on Monday (or even today, depending on the intensity of my guilt feelings, which, knowing myself, will increase).

But my question is: is it okay to sometimes (not always!) take advantage of a low workload and to “chill”? And do employees usually do this? Is it unethical?

It’s okay, most people do it sometimes, and it’s not unethical unless you’re shirking work that you really need to be doing.

In fact, sometimes there’s even benefit to doing it.

When your work comes in cycles of busy times and less busy times, it makes sense to use those less harried periods to let your brain calm down, so that you’re ready when the next busy time comes. Otherwise, you risk burning out and being less inclined to go all out the next time the work calls for it.

You were working until 9 pm when things were busy, so you’re clearly willing to lean into work when it’s needed. And you finish the things that must be done during slower times too, so you’re not abdicating core responsibilities of your job. You’re just managing the ebbs and flows in a way that makes sense — for you and for the work itself.

There are situations where I’d give a different answer. Let’s say that you never had to work late — you were always done by 5. But sometimes your work slowed down, and your “must do today” stuff took up a couple of hours a day at most … but you still had a long-term to-do list with projects you were supposed to get to as time allowed. In that situation, if you were spending hours reading about hornet nests instead of tackling that “as time allows” list, I’d tell you to cut it out. Time-sensitive work slowing down isn’t on its own justification to slack off on the rest of your job, when your job as a whole is easily handled within a normal 40-hour week.

But that’s not your situation. Your work has peaks and valleys, and it’s okay to rest in the valley a bit, knowing the next peak is coming. (You shouldn’t live long-term in the valley though! Think of it as a time-limited break to refresh.)

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. MGirl*

    I am so happy to read this letter. The first half of last week was crazy, but now here I am watching YouTube videos because I haven’t received a single work email since 930am. I feel so guilty, especially during this work from home, but all of upper management is tied up elsewhere, making things very quiet on my front. There’s only so much catching up you can do…

    1. twocents*

      Honestly, when it’s slow, I’m glad for WFH. It would be absolutely mind numbing to have to find something halfway productive to do when there legit isn’t anything actually needed.

      1. English, not American*

        I spent 11 months at a job like that. I kept asking for more (any) work, but most of the time there just wasn’t any. Meanwhile I sat between two incredibly busy people (open plan office, we basically had one loooong desk with ten computers spaced along it). So I made financial models in Excel. It started with a budget sheet, then a take-home pay calculator, then a house-purchase mortgage model, then a retirement calculator..

        Finally I found another job, and when they asked in the interview to tell them something that wasn’t on my CV I cited the spreadsheet so it may have even helped. But never again will I think someone is lucky for having a ton of downtime at their job when they’re not working from home.

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yes, me too. My colleagues are very busy but because I’m a support role that has almost zero overlap with their positions, there’s only so much I can do to help them out when there’s nothing for me to do. When I was at the office I read a lot on the internet but it was pretty mind-numbing a lot of the time. I finally realized late last winter that I could take advantage of my hour-long lunch breaks by eating in the office and then going to a coffeeshop or someplace and knitting, but then 2020 happened and now that I’m WFH I can knit in the comfort of my own home when I have nothing else to do.

      Yes, I do feel guilty that I can’t help out my busy colleagues but I literally cannot do their job so there’s not much I can do about that except feel less guilty that I’m knitting presents for people to try to make their lives a little better right now.

      1. Calrayo*

        Knitting at my WFH desk has been such a relief! Early on in the pandemic my public agency was focused on our field staff, and anyone who could WFH was more or less on hold until field staff safety was figured out (a decision I wholeheartedly support). I had very little to do for a while there, and it was great to just knit and be available by phone/email without having to find busy work. I did some online training but there’s only so much time that takes up. Things have picked up now, but it was nice to just take a breather for a bit.

        1. blue*

          Sometimes I’ll put on a work-related webinar (there are endless amounts of those in my field) and then knit while I watch and listen. I consider it a win-win.

    3. lilsheba*

      My job is different from day to day. The day normally starts out busy but then the tasks are caught up and we end up with a lot of downtime. Which is fine by me. I’m working from home so I read a book, watch youtube, read stuff here, whatever. Works out great.

  2. FormerTVGirl*

    OP, if you changed the schedule of when you’re busy versus not busy, I could have written this exact letter! I think it’s an indicator of your strong work ethic and responsibility that you wrote in with this note in the first place — but I sincerely hope you take Alison at face value and don’t feel guilty. Working like crazy all week, every week, 52 weeks a year will burn you out, which is the last thing you and your employer should want.

  3. OyHiOh*

    Same here. Last week was busy, today is not. By middle of the week, the tempo will pick up again. Trying not to feel bad about taking it easy today.

  4. CatCat*

    I used to worry about this A LOT until a former manager basically told me what Alison said here. I’d still worried about it a little, but not to the degree that I did previously.

    Since working from, I have stopped worrying about it at all. Probably because I don’t have to worry about “optics” around what I am doing in my workspace.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Unless your company tracks you by webcam or Internet or computer actions. Remember at the beginning of the Pandemic when that was a thing?

      Seems to have dropped off now.

  5. KHB*

    It is healthy and normal to have some amount of slack in your work schedule – whether that takes the form of hectic weeks interspersed with slow weeks, or a bit of regularly scheduled time each day to check out AAM. If somebody on your team gets hit by a bus (or has a family emergency, or just up and quits), the rest of you will need to absorb their work until their replacement can be hired. That’s not going to be possible if everyone’s pushing themselves at 110% nonstop in the best of times.

    1. KaciHall*

      If someone could please explain this to my company, that would be great. We’ve gone from have 6.5 employees in my department to 3. Some of the tasks are moved with a person who switched departments, but not that many. We’re keeping up with work okay. The problem is that this is our SLOW period. In four months, we’ll be getting 5 times as much work to do. They’ve already told us we won’t be getting anyone to help because numbers look good!

      1. raktajino*

        When we had a similar reduction in staff on my team in 2019, we started reporting morale in addition to performance metrics: Sure, we’re meeting 90% of our goals but look how tired we feel! Also look at this long list of stuff that we’ve actually put off in order to field your last-minute requests.

        We’ve hired two people since then, and still give that morale metric to demonstrate that yes, both were needed.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          I’d love it if you’d give us more information on how that works – maybe the Friday open forum?

    2. Glitsy Gus*

      I have a lot of issues with my department, but one thing I do like is they get this. The goal it to have everyone at right around 80% time utilization. So, basically, when you submit all your trackable tasks it should be round about 20% less than your overall worked hours for the month. That leaves that extra 20% for incidentals (checking email, answering quick phone calls, using the restroom, taking a couple 15 minute breaks, etc.) and helping your coworkers if they get slammed or are on PTO.

      We aren’t at 80% right now, we are way over because we have a couple of open positions we’re trying to fill. I do still appreciate the GOAL of 80%, though.

  6. MedGal*

    I have always looked at it as a balance. Some days I work extra to get things done. Some days I take some time back for myself. It tends to balance out over time. My manager and grand boss have endorsed this balance.

    1. CoffeeIsMyFriend*

      agreed and if I don’t let it balance out, I get really stressed and risk burn out, and burn out can impact my overall quality of work

      1. TL -*

        yea, I can’t write if I don’t take it easy after a hectic period.
        I still get stuff done, including stuff on the long-term to-do list, it’s just at a much more relaxed pace than my normal or my busy. (But I do keep an eye on those times, because they’re a catch your breath, not a new normal!)

    2. Liz*

      Same. I also struggle to work from home, although I’ve gotten better. and there are some days where it may be slow, aka nothing time sensitive but I have other things that need to be done, and well, I don’t. But i make up for it with days where I am going from morning until quitting time, so I don’t stress over it too much

    3. Beth*

      I agree. It’s a little different in an hourly position, but in an exempt role? The whole deal there is that your compensation is based on the work you put out, not the number of hours worked. Some days there’s a ton that needs to get done right then and you work more than 8 hours. Others, there’s not so much and there’s some flexibility to take a breather. As long as it averages out, in the end, to an amount of work that feels fair to all parties for what you’re being paid to do it, all is good.

  7. J*

    Yeah if you don’t have anything to do there’s no point going looking for make-work.

    I used to have the same thing going on in a previous job where some weeks were crazy busy, and others not so much. On the quiet weeks I’d work less hours to make up for the extra I worked during the busy ones. This had the full support of my boss, since it was very much an “as long as the work gets done, work when you like” type of place. Your boss might be okay with this too if you ask! Depends on your boss and workplace whether it’s likely to be granted or even a good idea to ask in the first place.

  8. Kate Daniels*

    I am really glad you asked this question! Last week, I had a ton of pressing deadlines, so I ended up working 60-65 hours (in fact, twenty of those hours this past weekend so I didn’t really have a weekend this week) but later this month will be much quieter, so I was wondering if I could “make up” and reclaim that time during an upcoming week. I’m also exempt, so no overtime or comp time!

    1. TimeTravlR*

      If I have to do this my boss lets me keep unofficial track of my unofficial comp time and flex as necessary.

      1. My boss rocks*

        Do we have the same boss? Last week I talked to my boss and ask for a couple of vacation days (not traveling, just need to rest) and he told me that given all the hours I worked last month to meet a deadline I didn´t need to ask for vacation, he would gladly give me those days to make up for that.

      2. snoopythedog*

        Yes! The key here is communication with your boss. You can’t just claim your time back without checking out the company norms.

    2. Alison*

      The policy at my office is for exempt employees to flex their time when this happens. You should just ask if it’s ok. Honestly if a work place expected me to work 60-65 hours in one week and not comp some time in the next week or two I would be asking why I worked there.

  9. EPLawyer*

    Some days you just shuffle papers. Your brain — AND BODY — need a break from the stressful times. It’s okay. You are still available and ready to jump in if something comes up. You are more effective if you take it easy during calm times. A body can run on adrenalin for only so long.

  10. LifeBeforeCorona*

    Yes! Take your well earned break. We spent the last year working and stressing out to the max. Right now we are in a quiet spot that won’t last and everyone is enjoying it. For us, it means we can focus more on our wish list projects that make life a little easier for everyone.

  11. HS Teacher*

    It’s not as much of a concern with my current job, but when I worked in an office, I considered my being available to act or jump on a problem as part of my job duties. If nothing was going on, I was still available if something happened. It helped with any guilt I would’ve had.

    1. Corporate Lawyer*

      YES! I recently started using this framing for myself, and it has helped enormously with the guilt I feel during slow periods.

    2. Wintermute*

      I’ve talked about it before here, but I think there are, in general a few categories of “slow job”.

      There’s jobs where latency of response is extremely important, so having people not working at 100% so they can leap on a problem or incoming work item and triage it immediately and already be working on it if it turns out to be important is one huge category of “slow” jobs.

      Another is jobs where you are doing emergency response, like mine. Flat out, I am not being paid as much as I am for a “good day” I am paid and we are staffed to the level we are so that when it’s a very bad day during a busy time of the month we still have the manpower and capacity to keep the business afloat.

  12. DG*

    OP (and others),

    There is a great book that came out recently called “Laziness Does Not Exist” by Dr. Devon Price. I can’t sum up the whole read here, but I highly recommend buying it or getting it from your local library if you can. Among many other topics, the author cites studies that suggest periods of rest (whether a full-blown vacation or 20 minutes scrolling mindlessly on your phone) are actually beneficial to our productivity and physical and mental wellbeing.

    Over the last few years I’ve made an effort to separate my identity from my job and prioritize rest (logging off at a reasonable hour, taking all of my allotted PTO time), but this book made me realize how much guilt around “productivity” I was still carrying around. I used to equate how good my day was with how much work I produced. I would feel guilty if I pushed out an item on my to-do list. I thought I had to earn time off by working myself to exhaustion for months beforehand. Etc. I’m a lot more forgiving of myself these days and allow myself to enjoy the “slower” periods in my usually stressful job.

    1. Third or Nothing!*

      I still clearly remember one professor in my business school who strongly advocated for periods of rest throughout the day! She said a cycle where you focus and work hard for a while then take a break works far better than working furiously until everything is done because you’re less likely to burn out. It changed how I studied and made things better for me, and I still use the principle in my work today (hence why I’m commenting on AAM at 2:25 PM on a work day haha).

    2. Lindsey*

      I just picked this up from the library a few minutes ago! Dr. Price is a friend of a friend and I’m very excited to read their book. I’m plotting how to get my husband to read it because he definitely needs to hear this more than I do.

    3. pbnj*

      I am reading that book right now, and I would also recommend. It’s already changing my thinking on breaks. I took breaks before, but always felt a little like I was being naughty.

  13. Crivens!*

    At my last job, I’d have slow days frequently enough that I replayed Dragon Age: Inquisition mostly on company time (salaried, not hourly). When I talked to my boss about downtime he said “we pay you for quiet days so that you’ll be the rockstar you always are during the crazy busy ones”. That finally put my mind at ease.

  14. TimeTravlR*

    This is my life. Most weeks are pretty busy but I occasionally get some down time. I know I give it my all when there is plenty to do so I don’t feel bad about taking it easy on those rare weeks when I can. Fortunately, my boss even acknowledges this!

  15. Not (Usually) a Slacker*

    There were points in 2020 where I worked harder and longer than I’ve ever done in my life. January and February 2021 were a pretty normal amount of work and I felt like I was filling my weeks well. Now, however, I find myself on the precipice of A Lot More of what I was feeling in 2020. This is likely to be more difficult and more detailed than anything I’ve ever done, with the added bonus of more personal responsibility for the outcome than any of my work in 2020. And all of this on a project nobody at my place of business could have predicted.

    I have been responding to this upcoming crush by dialing my normal days back. I’m certainly not leaving folks hanging, but there are projects worth doing that I could probably be further along on. I’m looking forward to starting the “real” work, but the last few days (specifically Friday and today) have been a lot less rigorous than I usually am.

    It was nice to read this letter right now. Hopefully I’m as “off the hook” as OP is. Even though I admittedly do have long-term projects, my peaks are about to be incomparably high and it has felt okay to take advantage of this relatively shallow valley.

  16. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

    If you feel bad, track all your extra hours. “Spend” them on hours watching Seinfeld, you earned them.
    If you run out and still have down time, watch industry relevant webinars etc. and don’t feel bad about it.
    After all having you up to date on industry trends and news with up to date skills is beneficial to your employer.
    So, no more feeling bad allowed. You sound very conscientious.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      For me personally, I’d be delighted to do nothing but read industry or work related articles. And if you snuck in an occasional article about the murder hornets or to read AAM… oh well.

  17. Not A Girl Boss*

    This is something I’ve really struggled with since going to WFH. Especially because my overall workload has reduced because of projects being paused due to COVID, and my boss genuinely not having extra work to give me.

    When I worked in the office, it would be fairly normal for me to ‘waste’ an hour or so of my day mindlessly scrolling the internet. Even if I work 10-12 hour days, I still find I need a break midday to keep my productivity up. When I went to WFH, I tried to use that time to do productive things like dishes and laundry. But somehow, I feel so much more guilty about doing these things than the more unconscious kind of internet scrolling slacking.

    One thing I am terrible about is working on my longer term list. I’m definitely someone who likes to let tasks pile up until I have a backlog, then knock them all out at once. So I’ve started setting a timer and forcing myself to find something, anything, to be truly & ruthlessly productive on for 2 hours each morning. After that, I feel much less guilty about ‘slacking’ off on slow days.

    1. Third or Nothing!*

      Oooh, I have the same problem with putting off long term items on the checklist! I’ll have to try the timer idea. I think I’ll use an interesting podcast as my timer to make it more fun. :)

      And yes, I definitely also need a midday break. I usually spend it exercising because it brings me joy and keeps my body from getting too sore from the prolonged sitting.

      1. stampysmom*

        Look up the pomodoro technique. I’m like you and I find it super helpful. Its basically this – “The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that encourages people to work with the time they have—rather than against it. Using this method, you break your workday into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks.” (excluding lunch)

    2. MissDisplaced*

      I think in the office people tend to socialize a lot more and that time gets frittered away without people even noticing because you’re still PRESENT.

      1. allathian*

        Indeed. That’s why I definitely noticed a hike in productivity when my office went fully WFH a year ago, in spite of having my son in remote school at home (mid-March to mid-May).

        I’m a chatty introvert and when the office chatter breaks my focus, I’ll join in because it gives me pleasure even as it saps my energy. I was lucky in that even in before times, I was able to WFH occasionally when I really needed to focus. I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity as much as I might’ve done, because then I worked at our kitchen table and only had my laptop and a mouse. I really prefer working with an external monitor, so when we moved to full-time WFH, I upgraded my monitor to 32 in 4K with 3 cable connectors, 2 HDMI and a DisplayPort. I use the latter for my work computer and one of the HDMI cables for my personal computer, and it works really well.

  18. Pantalaimon*

    I’m really feeling this question. I have been in the same role for about four years, and up until about a year ago that meant a very steady stream of work. I had meetings in the mornings and would do my paperwork in the afternoon. I was always way out in front of my deadlines but I always had more to do. I could pace myself, go easy one day and hard another. I’ve never had to stay late to get all my work done, but sometimes if I was in the middle of something interesting, I would.

    Since the shutdown/work-from-home/everything started, I had a lot more time in the (home) office. I didn’t have any meetings for 4 months, and then when the meetings came back, they were online and took up half the time from my workday as they used to. I ended up catching up to everything in my pipeline in about September and now every single day is a light day and I really don’t know what to do with myself.

    1. allathian*

      Ouch, that sounds tough. Can you ask your manager about getting more work assigned to you? Are other people in your organization as under-employed, or could you cross-train on something else to help out someone else who’s busier than you are? It sounds like you might be at risk for bore out, unless you get something more to work on.

      1. Pantalaimon*

        I’m the only professional (non-partner) in a small firm so I’m really the only one doing the work I do, which would be a great situation to be in if I wanted to lean a little bit into the lightness. Luckily we aren’t on any kind of billable hour system.

        The total amount of work needing to be done hasn’t really changed, and the admin staff’s daily schedules are largely unchanged compared to mine. I’ve been taking a little bit of work off their hands, but that’s not helpful to them so much as it just keeps me busier.

        The sooner everything opens back up, the sooner things normalize for me.

  19. Becca*

    I end up in the same situation some days – I need to be available in case something does come up, but occasionally it’s slow or someone can’t review something right away.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      That’s where my slow times come in – I’m waiting for review or guidance from someone else. I don’t feel guilty about all the time reading AAM on those days!

  20. ebbandflo*

    Most of my jobs have been like this, in some form or another. In fact I had one (pre COVID era) that sometimes I was done for the day at 11am. Sometimes I would run a quick errand, come back and made sure there was nothing pressing to attend to and then did something else. I made myself available during work hours but if there was nothing to do, there was nothing to do ::shrugs::.

    Right now my current job, has a slow week the first week of every month. This week and the next however are usually pretty busy. Its just how it is.

    1. allathian*

      This letter really spoke to me. Admittedly I don’t feel particularly guilty about taking it a bit slower when there isn’t anything urgent on my to-do list, because I’ve shown in the past that when it’s busy, I step up and do what’s needed. My manager has also been really great in that she doesn’t expect us to do busywork when there is nothing to do. We’re expected to work shorter days during less busy times to recharge for the next busy time, that’s why we track working hours although we’re exempt in the sense that we’re paid for output rather than hours worked and there’s no such thing as overtime pay.

      One of these days, I might even take a look at our e-learning portal if there are any online courses for me to take that look interesting or valuable enough for me to actually put in the effort. I admit that after taking a professional certification last year, I’m not exactly jumping with excitement to learn anything new.

      Now it’s been a lot slower than I expected, because my job is usually cyclical, and now should be one of our busy times. This time last year was crazy, mainly due to Covid. It feels weird to say the least. Last week I even finished an important but not urgent project that I hadn’t had much time to work on for months.

  21. AnotherSarah*

    I heard something recently that might be helpful–think about the ebbs and flows of your own productivity–some people are more productive on Mondays, or in the springtime, or whatever. Then remember that you can’t always be as productive as you are on your most productive day. If you need to recharge, do it! That will help ensure that you can be fully present for work when it’s necessary.

  22. Elps*

    My previous job was an after-school program, and there were very clear hectic and calm times. I actively encouraged my team to take time off and plan their work loads so that during the slow times, they’d be able to recover from the hectic times. I also noticed an uptick in mood and morale on the days the whole team was working until 9 or 10, because everyone knew we could all take a breather later. I agree that I wouldn’t want to see long-term projects ignored, but if productivity slowed down when all of our schools were on spring break? Yeah, no problem there.

  23. Sabine the Very Mean*

    I think the working world is finally realizing that butts in seats is dumb. I get the same amount of work done now than when I was in the office and yet I often find myself in my garden, doing dishes, cleaning house, making dinner, enjoying life.

    40 hours a week was an arbitrary number based on car manufacturing. Let’s take it back!

  24. Alison*

    I do this as an exempt employee – just now I went for a walk! I worked for 5 hours on Saturday (in addition to my regular 40+ hr work week) and so I feel like if I want to take a break during “working” hours I can, because I’m working like 50 hours a week otherwise. I just think of it as flex time. I’m not completely off like no phone calls no emails everyone leave me alone vacation day off but I’m not completely on either. How else can you work so much and stay sane?

  25. Ben*

    For every time I work til 9 pm without anyone else feeling guilty about it, I try to allow myself one slow day of knocking off at noon without feeling guilty about it.

    Employers are good enough at ratcheting up work expectations without employees guilting themselves over whatever time they are able to seize for themselves. If I can’t keep my evenings and weekends for myself, you better believe I’m gonna take back an afternoon here and there.

    1. Alison*

      “Employers are good enough at ratcheting up work expectations without employees guilting themselves over whatever time they are able to seize for themselves. If I can’t keep my evenings and weekends for myself, you better believe I’m gonna take back an afternoon here and there.”


    2. always in email jail*

      THIS! The “exempt” system only works if a workplace extends the same flexibility they expect.

  26. The Vulture*

    Alison, can I ask why you can’t stay in the valley? Maybe not for this person, who says they love working, but in general?

    Many people on this site have said they had a boring, slow job that didn’t require much from them and they hated it – if you’re a person who can appreciate and wants all the downtime, why not get one of these boring jobs and stick with it? If you’re not an ambitious, advancement oriented person, why doesn’t it make sense to settle into a valley you like?

    I’m genuinely trying to work through if I need a mentality shift or a new job.

    1. English, not American*

      As someone who is not an ambitious, advancement-oriented person, it definitely depends on what you can do with the downtime. If you’re stuck in an office where you can’t read a book, use your own electronics, or access anything fun online, even the most unmotivated person is going to get bored. Maybe you could write a book, but not research it. Or draw, but not look up references.

    2. Alucius*

      Well, if you’ve got a job that’s almost always slow, then there’s often a worry that management will notice that and decide this position isn’t really needed anymore. Also, if you’re down in the valley for a long long time it can be a really rude shock to the system when you’re dragged out of it for whatever reason.

      I say this as someone who had a bunch of slow jobs back in my 20s (retail, summer curator at a small museum) but those were temporary so I definitely enjoyed the slack periods as much as I could.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, because of the first half of the sentence you’re referencing :) It was in the context of talking about jobs that have both peaks and valleys in their workflow. You can’t live in the valleys during the peak times and still do well at that job.

      If you find a job that’s valley all the time, go for it! But that’s a different situation.

  27. Anonosaurus*

    I’ve got a job like yours. I am doing 12+ hour days just now. Next week, when Big Project is done, I may not have a full 7 hours’ worth of work to do in a day. That is fine and I fully intend to have gentler starts to the day, go for lunchtime walks, sign out at 5pm. I work in professional services where all my time is billed to projects so it’s easier for me to show that I net out ahead timewise. Thankfully that is accepted where I work, as I could not and do not want to work at this pace continually, and would quit if expected to. I don’t think it is possible (or at any rate it’s not possible for ME) to produce quality work without the downtime periods. Maybe if you thought of this as a way to maintain quality rather than quantity output?

  28. English, not American*

    Since covid forced me into full-time working from home, there have been one or two days where I was so depressed and exhausted from everything being terrible that I got into bed, left my work laptop on next to me, and only replied to emails if I got any. I have a job where there are long-term projects that need working on, and some days I get no emails at all, so I never really have “downtime” like OP. I was so scared of getting “caught”, but when I actually confessed to it, both my boss and a member of HR brushed it off (two unrelated conversations, both about how I’m coping with pandemic life).

    On productive days I’ll put in extra hours without noticing because I get engrossed until my partner gets home. Bad days I might realise it’s lunchtime and I’ve accomplished literally nothing. Actually that can happen on productive days too if I’m trying to find a fix for a sticky problem. Point is, if you’re the kind of person who’ll feel guilty about not working, it evens out. If anything the company probably comes out ahead.

    1. Beth Jacobs*

      This resonates with me. I too have done the work laptop in bed twice this pandemic, but looking at my overall achievements, I’m fine.

  29. AMT*

    Don’t hold yourself to a standard to which your employer would never hold itself. Did they ask themselves, “Is it okay to take advantage of busy weeks and make my employees work longer hours?” Do they worry about “time theft” when they ask salaried employees to work unpaid overtime during your busiest months? Would you actually be rewarded for working more right now, or just assuage your sense of guilt?

    1. Allonge*

      This, this. Also, whoever taught you that you have to be Productive!All!The!Time! otherwise you are a bad person was wrong, wrong, wrong and also a liar. Get rid of that voice in your head, it’s not helping you.

      It’s perfectly possible to do a good job without this attitude.

  30. SoCal Kate*

    Something else to consider is the consequences of asking for more work — it may result in more work overall, not just additional tasks for the day / week — and this may not be sustainable. I learned this the hard way at my previous job. I was extremely busy most days. On the very rare occasion when I didn’t have much to do, I would ask my boss if they had any additional tasks for me. But often these were large projects that spilled over into weeks of work.

    I learned to wait, to catch up on random projects, and if it was still slow after a week or two then I would ask for additional tasks. Otherwise it was just contributing to over-burdening myself. (Since my job was generally so busy, I rarely actually had down time, just the occasional slow day to catch up on neglected tasks.)

  31. No one calls me that*

    My job can be like this, and one way I dealt with it during in-office times was by having some remark prepared to show that I was thinking ahead. So if someone poked their head in and said “Slow day?” I could respond with “Yeah, I’m just trying to enjoy it before [the XYZ project hits/the June crunch/some other job that is probably incoming]. ”

    Perfectly deployed, it might even remind the asker that the XYZ project/whatever it was would soon be crossing *their* desk before it got to mine…

  32. M*

    I’m so glad I read this. I work for a tiny law firm, and some weeks are just really slow. I’m also in grad school and planning a wedding, so when my attorney doesn’t have anything for me to do I can work on either homework or look at floral arrangements. But I always finish things ASAP when they come to me, and the weeks that are super busy I take everything as it comes. Since I can’t really go around the attorney and do things without their approval, I sometimes have to wait until he has time to delegate to me. This letter made me feel better about those slow times.

  33. 653-CXK*

    When I worked at ExJob, I had production and quality quotas to meet, so I had no luxury in taking a break or to slack off, because The Powers That Be would question any slippage or errors.

    In CurrentJob, there are frantic times, busy times, and then some down times where I can catch up on other work (e.g. phone calls that might be more involved, cleaning out files and bins, etc.), even doing my laundry or taking a walk to the mailbox.

  34. MissDisplaced*

    I think it’s fairly normal to do this to some extent. I’m not sure I’d agree with the “watching Seinfled” part, but slow weeks are times I use to try to catch up reading or research I almost never get time to do (but should do because they are supposed to be part of my job).

    Things like:
    >Catch up on industry news
    >Attend an industry webinar or two
    >Look for stock photos, illustrations or trade show stuff for work
    >Read some industry publications and articles
    >Review upcoming event websites, such as trade shows or conferences
    >Browse LinkedIn industry related stuff or companies I want to research
    >Research that relates to my job (SEO, Keywords, marketing, new technologies)

    I don’t think this is slacking off, but some see it that way.

    1. Sasha*

      This is all stuff that will make you better at your job, and indeed in some industry it’s mandated (physician cpd, for example).

      There comes a point in my job, usually after a difficult consultation, when I am emotionally tired and not really able to focus on dictating letters or whatever. Having the option of spending an afternoon clearing my email inbox or watching webinars is better than the alternative (hiding under my desk).

      1. MissDisplaced*

        I actually enjoy reading and find it relaxing and calming. And I’ll basically read anything even work stuff!

        Once I got yelled at because I was browsing stock photos at work. And I was the graphic designer!
        Some companies will still claim the Internet reading isn’t real “work,” even if it’s for work! I don’t get that mentality.

  35. Finland*

    Oh my goodness, I would not feel one shred of guilt. I give 150% to my job when it’s needed, so when it’s time for them to give it back to me (in the form of rest/leave breaks, slow times, easy projects, etc.), I definitely, definitely, take those breaks when I can get them. There’s no use working yourself to the bone all the time because then you won’t be as effective when it comes to the high intensity times. Also, people won’t notice when you’re starting to burn out; even you won’t notice. But everyone will notice the drop in productivity. Self-care is always priority #1 when it comes to being a superstar employee for the long term!

  36. Toasty Bacon and Eggs*

    If you situation is that you experience more valleys then, would that be a good time to start looking elsewhere for work? A person could only spend so much time reading up on the industry, updating your technical skills, or asking managers/other team members before you realize you spend more time not working then working.

    1. HungryLawyer*

      In normal times, yes. But if you have job security and generally like where you work now, it may be safer to stay put until the world returns to normal. Changing jobs in the middle of the pandemic, especially in order to take on more work, could be pretty taxing.

  37. PSF denizen*

    Lord, yes. Taking some personal downtime during the lull between projects is a survival skill at professional services firms like banks, law firms, and consultancies!

    1. lost academic*

      Not at mine. My firm tracks those metrics week to week and refuses flex time as is described here. You could be 120% billable one week and still get questions and scutiny if the next week you were 5% below.

  38. Moose on skates*

    Every org is different for sure, but I look at these ebbs and flows as really the only way to maintain some balance. I do project-based work for customers, so all that matters for my job is being reasonably responsive to customers and hitting my target number of customer-facing hours. Because of that, I can easily work as much as I want to every week, but my sanity can only tolerate that for so long. I’ve learned to balance 60 hour weeks with 20 hour weeks where I literally bop around the house and play video games (though I can easily drop what I’m doing if a customer email comes in or they need to jump on the phone). It has taken time to feel guilt-free about this, but my manager literally told me to do it, so I’ll take it (and you should too, op!).

  39. Chickaletta*

    I was just talking to someone about this today because I’m currently in a valley too. They made the point to me that if you’re able to economize your job, i.e. be efficient and still do your job very well, then most employers would rather have that than the person who is constantly playing catch-up and working at 110% non-stop.

    Reminds me of a conversation I once overheard between a Dutchman and a non-Dutchman. Non-Dutchman chides the other that employees in the Netherlands work fewer hours a week than any other European. “Well”, replied the Dutchman with a grin, “that’s because we’re the most efficient!”.

  40. SAL*

    What do you do when your whole job is a valley. Sure, there are times I’m “busy”, but it’s actually just busy work and pointless meetings. I can easily do my job in 4 hours or less per day, and working from home has been glorious, because I can do stuff around the house while being available for emergencies or impromptu meetings.

    Soon I’ll need to go back to the office though, and the thought of sitting in an office all day while my brain rots from boredom is giving me so much anxiety…..

    1. HungryLawyer*

      Maybe you could pitch your boss to keep WFH permanently, sounds like you’re more efficient at home than in the office. I was able to secure a 100% WFH set-up in 2019 because I’m more productive at home (even though it takes me less time to get stuff done here than in the office).

  41. cncx*

    My first job was in a very fast-paced, high-stakes white shoe law firm, and one of the paralegals told me on a slow day to take it slow when it is slow because that way i was banking bandwidth and energy for the 12 and 18 hour days. This was almost 20 years ago and i still take her advice- i don’t stress myself on days nothing is urgent because otherwise i won’t be able to cope with the urgent times, or, in the case of my current job, things people think are urgent but really aren’t and they stress me out anyway.

  42. Bookworm*

    OP, I think right now, *especially* right now, you might as well take advantage of the “slow” times at work. You never know what’s coming around the corner and so long as you get your work done, does it matter?

    Your mental health is important, too. And sometimes that means taking it slow.

  43. Scout Finch*

    I work in IT in higher ed. We have been going gangbusters for a year remotely, trying to support our students and users in the “new normal” and keep cyber attacks at bay & deal with all that our jobs usually entail.

    Yesterday, we had our regular zoom meeting for entire department. After the usual meeting fodder, CIO encouraged us to cancel unnecessary meetings & to ease up where we can (without affecting user support). He came up through IT (desktop tech, help desk & just about everything else) and understands what our jobs take. He encourages us to take time (vacation & just breaks during our workdays) to avoid burnout.

    I am so proud to work for this school & for him. It is so different than many higher ed orgs.

  44. HungryLawyer*

    It feels really important these days to take breaks when you have down time at work. So many people are still WFH right now, and it’s unfair and a bit clueless for employers to expect that folks aren’t taking breaks to do a load of laundry or walk the dog. My work also ebbs and flows for longer periods, and I love having days or even a week at a time where I’m “on call” but have no active assignments because I can enjoy being in my home more. Feels like I can sorta reclaim my working-from-home environment a bit during these periods.

  45. annalisakarenina*

    My job has its busy periods that require OT and being constantly in meetings or in calls, and not-so-busy periods where I’m mainly paid to be available and take care of small things as they come up. Now that I’m WFH, I use those times to clean up a bit around the house, get dinner started, do my admin work with a TV show playing in the background.

    It’s like when you exercise and you do a high cardio stint then active recovery. The occasional slow pace is good for you.

  46. always in email jail*

    As a manager, there are certain people on my team that I know aren’t always putting in 40 hours a week, because they can give me the equivalent of 40 hours of work in fewer hours. AND they’re willing to put in 50-60 when things get busy (we’re all exempt). The idea of them taking some time to relax, catch up on housework, catch up on articles on our field, clean out their inbox, etc. does not bother me in the slightest. I think it’s necessary to prevent burnout. Also, to me, that’s part of being exempt. You give us more than 40 sometimes, less than 40 sometimes, and it all comes out in the wash. I think that’s the whole spirit of the FLSA exempt system. You give us flexibility when we’re busy, we give it to you when we’re not!

  47. Not the Mama*

    We tell new employees that our office is often feast or famine. Sometimes you will have so many urgent documents to prepare that your head is spinning. Other days you will be watching the clock tick begging for 5 pm. We also tell new employees that so long as they have done everything work-related that needs to be done or that they could be doing, we have no problem with them reading a book or browsing the internet or doing a crossword puzzle.

  48. Not a Dr*

    Something that really helped me with this was to track my extra hours like an hourly employee, and then see how much downtime I actually take. Usually, it is pretty close. It helped me get a feel for how much down time I was actually having and it turns out not nearly as much as my guilty brain wanted me to think.

Comments are closed.