bored but not broke
February 9, 2009 8:12 PM   Subscribe

I need to keep myself busy at work, and actually look like I'm doing work—even if I'm not really working.

I have lots of downtime, but can't stray from my desk for too long, and must look busy (downsizing is in the air), so no computer games.

One option is to make myself useful, which would actually require me giving a damn about my job. (I'm looking for new jobs constantly). But I find it difficult to get motivated and creative with what I've got. Also, boss keeps a pretty close eye on me.

I need to fight the boredom. I like to write, and do plenty of that in my spare time. How else can I be productive (i.e., fulfill my own needs, and maybe even tune into the company) while on the clock at my desk? Resources include the internet and paper clips.
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Work & Money (39 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Study. Learn new skills. Look around the company for less boring work.
Be glad you have a job.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:21 PM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: to clarify, I actually do enjoy my job when I'm budy. but it's 80% downtime.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:21 PM on February 9, 2009

Answer ask metafilter questions, after extensive research.
posted by knile at 8:22 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: ^busy
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:22 PM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: yes knile, I'm quite up to date on Ask Mefi material. sigh.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:23 PM on February 9, 2009

Work open in one window. Fun open in another. Minimize fun window when others are around. You'll look like you're working if anyone sees. Research anything fun. Organize anything you can on the computer. Keep up with chums.
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:25 PM on February 9, 2009

Read at Work
posted by springbound at 8:27 PM on February 9, 2009 [16 favorites]

I know that all too well. Randomly clicking the mouse of keyboard to look like you're doing something. I complained to managers that I needed more work, no change, sigh.

Find something that interests you and work on that. It's not like anyone is going to notice or care as long as you appear to be busy. Yes, it's company dime, but if they don't care, why should you. (puts on flamesuit)

An alternate suggestion, that can backfire, is to chat with your co-workers and see if they need help with anything.

Otherwise, find a better job where your skills are appreciated.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 8:28 PM on February 9, 2009

Need to know what kind of work you do.

Office work - filling/writing reports?

Get yourself a dual-monitor setup. Have something typical of work (excel?) on the second monitor. Angle the primary monitor (if it's an LCD) to an angle where you (chair set to lowest setting) can read the screen but someone standing over you would have a hard time.

Me - I wish metafilter could be made a different colour combination. Or hidden in a frame surrounded by something user-selectable.
posted by porpoise at 8:28 PM on February 9, 2009

If you like to write, do it. Start a novel. Start a blog. With a novel you can write the parts in emails to yourself. Emails look busy. Actually same email trick with the blog.
posted by magikker at 8:28 PM on February 9, 2009

Find a big mess and fix it.
posted by intermod at 8:28 PM on February 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you can, read. I managed to get paid to read a couple hundred books over the course of a few years while working at a museum. The goal was to look like you were doing SOMETHING, not just staring into space and it was fine. Might work for you too. I actually miss this job, since my pile of books continues to grow taller every day since then....
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:34 PM on February 9, 2009

Springbound, that is the best site ever!!!

I have the same problem as OP; my work actually is rationed out to me by my manager due to contract constraints.

I read the green - a lot.
posted by jgirl at 8:35 PM on February 9, 2009

Oh man, finally a question in my area of expertise!

1) You say you can't stray from your desk for too long, but I respectfully disagree. In my experience at boring office jobs, I was often busted by busybodies for "wasting time."

People get busted at their desk all the time. For whatever reason, it's considered perfectly acceptable to reprimand someone for "goofing off" when the problem was is simply that he's done his work too fast and is now browsing the internet for lack of anything better to do. But here's what I realized: no one yells at someone for getting up to go to the bathroom, or to the snack machine, or even just for a quick stroll outside. (I assume your office has smokers. Pretend to be one if necessary). it would be considered psychotic to criticize someone for taking these kind of short breaks. I learned to make the most of them. They're blessed relief and, paradoxically, they lessen your chances of getting in trouble.

2) When you do get an assignment, make it your best Friend.


Now I know what you're thinking: but what if they bust me for not doing the work? Do most of it. ALMOST finish. But never give up that precious little last bit. "Just finishing this up now" sounds way way better than "I finished that hours ago and I've been playing Minesweeper ever since."

3) You say you like to write? Gmail drafts is your best friend. You can easily get in a lot of trouble for playing games, or typing your own stuff in Word or Final Draft. But it's the rare person who will come and read over your shoulder when you're writing a "personal email real quick." it can be to your mother or spouse or sick uncle in Florida if you want. But really, just keep on with your writing project as an email to yourself, hitting "save draft" when needed.

I hope these tips bring you as much joy (or as close to joy as one can get in a cubicle) as they have me. I'll probably think of more later.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:35 PM on February 9, 2009 [11 favorites]

A lot of the potential answers depend on what your job is. What kind of things would normally be on your screen, if you were actually doing work? What kind of field are you working in, that we might suggest avenues for personal growth that might be relevant to your work?

That said...

Maintaining a personal budget spreadsheet looks like work to a casual passerby. Depending on how closely they are checking up on you, grocery lists, to-do lists, weight-lifting plans, and other things that fit into Word or Excel can all benefit you while looking basically like work. If you take an online class, you might be able to do some reading and/or essay writing at work.

On the other hand, you're probably better off spending your time slacking on something that could be spun as a bonus for the company, in case you get caught. Find something about your field that is interesting to you, and potentially helpful to your employer, and research it online.
posted by vytae at 8:35 PM on February 9, 2009

Oh, also... Kegel exercises. They're not just for the ladies.
posted by vytae at 8:39 PM on February 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

How about taking a free class online?
posted by lhall at 8:47 PM on February 9, 2009 [9 favorites]

Jgirl I can't take credit: I'm sure I read of it on Metafilter!

Ah, life without this site would be a sad husk of a thing...
posted by springbound at 8:58 PM on February 9, 2009


Help others. Following up on my "get away from your desk" advice above, I found one of the best ways to kill time was to help a co-worker, usually a friend, with his work. It had the blessed effect of getting me on my feet and away from my desk, with all the attendant benefits enumerated above. Not only that, I could lose myself in the problems of his work and forget my own soul-crushing boredom for a while. (If you're feeling saucy, this can also be a good way to connect with an attractive co-worker)

Start a blog. it's hard to concentrate on writing in an office, unless you're blessed with more personal space than most. But I found keeping a blog, even if it's just a few lines per day on the mundanities of office life, is a great way to stay sane and remind yourself you're not alone. (I myself maintain a blog on what I eat for lunch each day) As above, i recommend typing in Gmail first, then pasting into Blogger or whatever. And you may want to anonymize details if you fear discovery.

Creative timekeeping. You're probably going to get in trouble for taking a two hour lunch when you're only supposed to have an hour. but it's the rare office psychopath indeed who will bust you for leaving at 11:56 and coming back at 1:04. Remember, you left "right around 12" and got back "at one, according to my phone." Creative rounding is your friend.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:59 PM on February 9, 2009

What if the computer games happened inside Excel?

Also, you mention the internet as a resource, but if you'd get busted for playing computer games, would you also get busted for doing non-worky things on the internet? Because if not, you've got lots of options.

You could read public domain books on Project Gutenberg, or get the eReader desktop reader and read non-public-domain ebooks on your desktop.

You could learn Chinese at Chinesepod, always a handy way to make yourself more useful to prospective employers.

You could research your own company thoroughly from the inside and then use that knowledge to get yourself a job at a competitor.

You could use StumbleUpon to find unique and interesting content around the internet and post it on a blog, linkblog style and with witty commentary, which you then slyly promote elsewhere and then start charging for ad space (or post cool stuff to MetaFilter blue)

You could do interesting Amazon Mechanical Turk tasks for edification and profit.
posted by Askr at 9:05 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

It won't help you fight boredom, but don't underestimate the power of looking annoyed.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:05 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Learn to do pivot tables in Excel if you don't know how.

Learn to make Excel sing; Project, too, if you have it.

I research genealogy, read the green, read lifehacker, and apartment therapy, plus the news. Part of my job is to monitor the press in my field, so I'm lucky in that regard. I'd like to read Wonkette, and TWOP, but that's pretty risky.
posted by jgirl at 9:08 PM on February 9, 2009

When I used to temp, I taught myself mad, mad skills on every standard piece of office software. Sure, it doesn't have the same stick it to the man appeal, but it actually useful, and defensible as being work-related.
posted by desuetude at 9:36 PM on February 9, 2009

I use this time to search for apartments, check bank accounts, check email, and watch Spaghetti Cat..

Or.. start smoking ;) Just kidding.
posted by 0217174 at 9:57 PM on February 9, 2009 - copy and paste cool articles into a word document!
posted by Grimble at 10:33 PM on February 9, 2009

Getting educated on someone else's dime is sweet. If you have any professional licenses or certifications you could be studying for, go for it. If you're lucky, your company might even spring for your tuition.

When I freelanced as a temp, I listened to BBC World Service Radio every day for the better part of a year. The local programming from Africa really opened my eyes, and their weekly analysis series are superb. I also watched a lot of Frontline, and read every week's Economist pretty much cover to cover. When I didn't have internet access, an Ipod full of educational podcasts did the trick.
posted by aquafortis at 10:40 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't have any specific activity recommendations to offer but rather some general strategies that I have utilized at times in the past to appear productive in less-than-productive times:

1) Whatever "non-productive" activity you choose, do it with authority and purpose. People won't question you if you seem like what you're doing is what you're supposed to be doing. You gotta sell it.

2) Always have a reason made up in your head for why you're doing what you're doing. Think about it ahead of time. This way, if you're called out, you can respond confidently and calmy, thereby selling it further. Stuttering and being caught by surprise will blow your cover.

3) Keep a reasonable amount of documentation, papers, books, and sticky-notes on and around your desk/work area. Busy people don't have time (typically) to keep their desk neat and tidy. Lots of books and papers gives the impression that you're knee-deep in your work. It doesn't hurt to keep some empty soda cans, coffee cups, and/or food containers around your work area as well to show how much you've been at the desk "slaving away."

4) Make your boss's life easier. Do the little things he/she doesn't expect but that really make an impact for them. Listen for the little hints they drop about information they need or tasks they don't have time to do. Become a golden child in their eyes and you'll find it easier to fly under the radar.

If people think you're busy when you're actually not you will have the freedom to do more of the great things other Mefites have posted above. Definitely try to venture away from your desk whenever you can! Gotta stretch, ya know...ergonomics and all.

Hope this has been at least slightly helpful. Good luck!
posted by karizma at 11:08 PM on February 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm with Intermod - find a big mess and fix it.

You don't actually have to care about your company to do this - it's in your interest to find something that's broken/inefficient/stupid and fix it. It's these above-and-beyond things that really stand out in job interviews, and most of us are too busy doing our actual jobs to find time to do them. Your boss might be a complete arsehat and not let you implement half the stuff you plan, but just making those plans gives you something to tell your dream employer besides "Um...I'm good at looking busy?"
posted by embrangled at 11:35 PM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'll sometimes download a book from project Gutenberg and fit the book window to match up to the comments window of the company database. It looks like I'm reading something work related, and I'll have a notebook in front of me and pen in hand. Works like a charm.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:37 PM on February 9, 2009

TWiGs would have been ideal for this, but they all got yanked for copyright violation and the site no longer exists.

You can still find some of them through assiduous googling, but Tiny Space Invaders seems to be lost forever. (Which sucks because it was the most discreet of them all. Chess was pretty big by comparison.)
posted by the latin mouse at 12:55 AM on February 10, 2009

I'd personally start looking for a big mess, like Intermod was saying, but if anyone here is decent with Javascript, it should be pretty easy to make Metafilter look like a more boring, business-y site. White background, black text, possibly in (ugh) Times New Roman. I'm suggesting this, as I'm no good at Javascript and would need a good 8 hours to figure something like this out.

Bonus points for the hypothetical script: Have it load a corporate logo of your choice to make MeFi look like a document from your company.

Read at Work is cool, but I think the Greasemonkey solution is a better idea.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:44 AM on February 10, 2009

It sounds like the OP isn't trying to hide goofing off, but to fill occasional downtime that's part of his work.

Instead of looking busy and making the work fill the time, add more work. If you love what you do, why not do more of it?

- Organize your work area. And then reorganize it.
- Keep a list of good ideas. For example, when you are working on real work, and have one of those fleeting ideas to improve your workflow, write it down. When the downtime comes, work on that as a side project.
- Help others. "Hey, I have half an hour until my next appointment, got anything I can help with?"
- Maybe I'm projecting, but I'm assuming your bosses know that this downtime is part of the job. Ask them for small non-time-sensitive tasks that they might need done.
- Organize the supply closet.
- Fill the printers with paper.
- Pick one thing to clean every day. Glass on the copier, the nasty coffee pot, etc.
- Re-engineer some process.
posted by gjc at 5:49 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been spending hours and hours finding ways to automate very small tasks that I do. I'm spending so much time writing python scripts that I wouldn't see a time savings return for a year or more. But it's nice not having to do task x EVER AGAIN. All I have to do is maintain the code for task x in case anything goes awry. Marketable skills-building, fun personal coding, and at its core the process feels satisfyingly lazy. It's like building a robot butler.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:32 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Burgomeister's Books has gotten me through some long days.
posted by thenuts at 8:32 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The NY Times had an article about this recently -- may give you some ideas :).

You can learn an awful lot on the internet -- why the economy is in such bad shape, what to do about the U.S. health care system, how to improve your personal finances, etc... by following one or more blogs on the subject.
posted by elmay at 9:27 AM on February 10, 2009

When your boss is around, always act like you're upset or angry about something.
posted by Zambrano at 10:26 AM on February 10, 2009

How would it feel to spend that time writing about what your dream job would be like, where you could find it, who else does something like what you want to do, how to talk with them, etc. Don't know if you consider yourself a creative type, but yes or no, you might be amazed if your spent those long hours looking at a blank document and insisting on filling it with whatever comes into your head about your life and what you wish you were doing with it.
posted by buzzv at 12:41 PM on February 10, 2009

People who want metafilter to look more professional should use the plain theme (in preferences).
posted by jacalata at 3:56 PM on February 10, 2009

One of my favorite strategies is to think up something easy the boss is likely to ask for in the future, and do it.

When he finally gets around to asking for it, you produce it out of nowhere as if you do that sort of thing all the time in your spare time.

Do that a couple times, and he starts to assume you DO do that in all your spare time.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:44 PM on February 10, 2009

« Older OK, you've got my life, but I won't get fat...   |   How to find member details for Australian... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.