What to do with your free time at work

Even workaholics have occasional quiet moments on the job. Here’s how to stay focused so your downtime doesn’t turn into wasted time.

What to do with your free time at work

What’s more mythical than a mermaid? Free time at work. Or is it?

In the 45 hours per week you’re working, you may not get much free time, but it happens. When you do find yourself with a few hours (or even a few minutes) with no meetings, no deadlines and “nothing to do,” it’s easy to squander that time, or just sink into a state of unfocused inertia.

But whether it’s getting on the boss’s good side, learning new skills, or creating alliances with key coworkers, jumping on that free time will set you apart from your peers, and keep you from losing interest in your job. “Maximizing downtime at work is the difference between maintaining the status quo and innovation,” says Allie Grill, assistant director of career development at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

We asked three career experts for their top tips on how to take advantage of unexpected free time. Check out their advice before you get back to work.

Help your boss

Quick quiz: who is the person that decides whether or not you get promoted and earn a raise? That’s right, it’s your boss. He or she is most likely busier than you are, with added responsibilities. When free time comes around, it’s the perfect opportunity to lend a hand and get noticed by your decision maker.

“What does the manager/leader need solved, accomplished, or delivered?” asks Jared Buckley, a Phoenix-based millennial skill coach and talent development consultant. “Become their greatest asset and help them get promoted. You cannot fail by helping your managers or leaders.”

But be careful—the last thing you want to do is annoy your boss by making it seem like you don’t have enough to do or are bored. The way you communicate your willingness to help makes all the difference. Buckley’s advice? First, make an effort to know what projects your boss is currently working on. Then, be specific in asking if he or she needs help as it relates to the project:

“Becky, I just finished my last task and have some extra time. I can help you on the [blank] project if you need help. Anything specific that would be helpful or free up your time?”

“Be specific, be beneficial, and be practical,” suggests Buckley. “Even if they do not need help, they will see that you are aware of other people's work and you want to help. This will increase your value in the eyes of your boss.”

Use underutilized skills on a new project

You were hired because your skill set was perfect for your role. But there are probably a few skills you have that your company doesn’t even know about that could be benefitting the company. Have extra time? Pursue your interests and those of the company.

“Try to solve a company problem related to your own personal interests i.e. if you're a Snapchat queen, you can help the marketing department include Snapchat in their social media strategy,” advises Bianca Jackson, founder of JAX Digital, a career coaching company in Washington, D.C.

Just be sure to not overcommit when jumping into a new project outside your normal job responsibilities, especially if you’re new.

“There is a definite ramp-up period for new hires and you don’t want to end up in a position where you are overwhelmed,” says Robin Goldstein, founder of Job Sparker, a career coaching firm based in New York City.

Organize your email inbox

You might not have a few hours fall into your lap—it might be just fifteen minutes. In that case, there is still something you can do to make the rest of your workday and workweek smoother: organize your email inbox.

“It’s really easy to keep track of items when you don’t have much going on, but it will make a huge difference when you are swamped,” says Goldstein. “As a former manager, I saw the individuals on my team who struggled the most were the ones who didn't organize their email.”

Goldstein is right. In fact, email overload often leads to an increase in stress, as proven by a study from UC Irvine. Relieve that unneeded stress and clean up your inbox once and for all. How? These three steps will do wonders for a clean slate:

1. Unsubscribe from anything you don’t read.

When was the last time you actually read that newsletter you subscribed to? If the answer is “over a few months ago,” it’s time to unsubscribe. Just by virtue of not receiving the stuff you don’t read, you’ll have much less to sift through on a daily basis.

2. Create some rules.

Chances are you aren’t taking advantage of the rules that allow you to tell your email provider to take specific action when a message arrives. For instance, you might create a rule that stars any email from your boss, thus making them stand out, or delete those pesky social media alerts that distract you from getting work done.

3. Schedule specific times to check email.

No doubt you’re familiar with the slippery slope of just taking a minute to check email when you’re in the middle of a project. You risk derailing your focus because you get sucked into responding to new emails. Plain and simple: if you stick to specific times throughout the day to check email, you’ll be able to concentrate on other projects better without getting sidetracked.