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How to make dead time useful

Written 07 November, 2018, 4 minutes to read

“Work smarter, not harder.” This one catchy phrase appears in almost every online discussion thread on productivity. But how do you actually put it into practice? How do you get more from your set resources? One of the easiest places to start is by looking at your dead time – all the trapped minutes where you could be doing something productive. Once you know how to exploit dead time, you’ll end up with much more useful time on your hands.

What is dead time?

Dead time is all the time we waste every day. It’s futile. For you, dead time might be the 20 minutes you spend commuting to work each morning, the 10 minute lag between meetings, or the half hour slump after lunch where you just can’t bring yourself to get anything done. Most of us let this time slip through our fingers, preferring to skim through our phones or read the latest news. But if you can master the art of utilizing dead time, you’ll be surprised at the difference it can make.

Find your dead time

Before you can address dead time, you first need to work out where it occurs. While some of it is obvious, like travel, a lot of dead time occurs beneath our notice. Small tasks, routine admin, lengthy processes, managing email, attending meetings, responding to colleagues on Slack – while these all count as “work”, most of them are massively unproductive. Then there’s the time spent waiting for other things to happen, like morning stand-ups or a response from a colleague.

All of these can be identified for you with the help of a solid time tracker. It can map all the unproductive details of your entire day: showing how long you actually spend on tasks, where you get interrupted and distracted, what websites you visit and for how long, how long you spend traveling and on the phone. It can be a pretty intense exercise in self-knowledge! Just make sure you choose an automatic time tracker so you don’t have to put any of your own time into gathering this key information.

Make use of dead travel time

Once you’ve identified your dead time, it’s time to revive it. Making dead time useful doesn’t mean you have to work – it just means you should get something of value from it. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, consider using dead time to:

Get inspired. As well as providing distraction, the internet offers huge opportunity to learn. Find sites that are relevant to your specialisms or interests for inspiration and motivation. Find something challenging that can help you grow and develop, or educate yourself on that a you’ve heard about. Alternatively, just read a really good book.

Reply to emails. If you want to use dead time for work, travel time is ideal for answering emails and calls (not if you’re driving, of course!). Instead of interrupting your focus at work reacting to email and slack, have a set period of communications availability which coincides with your morning and evening commute.

Learn a language. Apps like Duolingo prove that just five minutes here and there can help you hone your language skills. It’s a great thing to do on your morning commute: it’ll kick your brain into gear, you’ll learn something useful, and you’ll also enjoy a gently productive activity before you even get to work.

Make use of dead time at work

Dead work time amounts to much more than you think; studies suggest it costs the U.S. economy $100 billion every year! So whether your computer’s updating, a meeting just got cancelled or you’re waiting for the go ahead on a project, here’s what to do with your dead work time:

Help a colleague. It’s nice to be nice – so what better way of using dead time than to help others? Just because you have free time doesn’t mean others do, so see if you can lend a hand. Using dead time so productively will make you feel good, and it’ll help foster meaningful relationships, too. You could even consider putting your knowledge to good use by mentoring a more junior teammate.

Develop Yourself. Just like using your commute to learn a language, using dead time at work to develop yourself professionally is a great way to boost productivity. You could master a new skill, learn how to use new software or simply update up your work portfolio.

Complete your small tasks. A lot of us suffer from completion bias – we seek out short tasks over bigger ones, so we can quickly strike them off and get a hit of self-affirming dopamine. But it’s a hugely unproductive habit; while small tasks are simple, they usually aren’t the most valuable use of our time. Protect your uninterrupted work hours for meaty, complex tasks that actually move your career forward, and save these enjoyable smaller ones for periods of dead time at work.

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