Constructive ways to spend copious amounts of free time at work
December 19, 2010 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I have an excruciatingly boring job with lots and lots of internet connected downtime. Help me think of constructive things to do with my copious amounts of "free time".

I work in an office where I am essentially finished with my work by noon, but I don't get off of work until 5:30. During the rest of the day my only real responsibility is to answer the phone, which only rings 3-4 times most days. I sit in a very visible part of the office where I am expected "look busy" so just reading or drawing are out.

For a while this was great, but now I am starting to starting to feel bored and useless. I would love suggestions for some online resources that could help me pass the time in a more constructive way- i.e. studying for the GRE, learning web design, online community projects, anything really.
posted by forkisbetter to Work & Money (30 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Read ebooks on-line. As a start, try, and all of which have some free and some paid content, and the ability to read on-line right in your browser.
posted by JoannaC at 9:37 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to have a job similar to yours in that I was on the clock for 9 hours per day, but only had about 3 hours of work. I got really good at tinkering with spreadsheets to make it look like I was working, and also spent a very large amount of time reading my local newspaper's website every day.

The one thing I would be cautious about - do they track internet usage at your place? If so, I'd be very reluctant to go too in depth - you don't want your boss getting an email from the IT department saying "Subby spends 5 hours per day browsing all these non work related websites, and has been doing so for the last X weeks."

If they don't track, then you're set. Go find your local paper's website (or NYT, WaPo, etc.) and enjoy!
posted by AMSBoethius at 9:41 AM on December 19, 2010

... anything on your work computer sounds like pretty fair game. I had one job about five years back that allowed me to completely reorganize, re-tag, re-everything my 40,000 plus mp3 collection. Talk about productivity.
posted by philip-random at 9:47 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take classes from Really good stuff. Sign up for the "all you can eat" package of training and try lots of things out.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:48 AM on December 19, 2010 [11 favorites]

posted by neushoorn at 9:53 AM on December 19, 2010

I find editing Wikipedia satisfies a need for internet-connected productivity when I don't have so much of it in other areas of my life. Read it, click "random" a lot, start by fixing small things, gather up a "watchlist", learn the rules and syntax, avoid engaging in battles. I can look at my list of contributions and say "hey, I've helped lots of people in the world understand many subjects more accurately" and improved my writing and research skills along the way.
posted by dreamyshade at 9:59 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If they do track Web time, the Kindle app is a good alternative. There're a lot a free books (not all of them old 'classics' e.g. Red Mars) including a dictionary so you could claim you had that window open to consult it.
posted by mojohand at 10:14 AM on December 19, 2010

Write a novel on Google docs.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:21 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would first do as many personal chores as possible so I wouldn't have to do them at the weekend .... paying bills online, staying in touch with family members via email, writing xmas cards, making vet/dentist/etc appointments, updating my resume, optimizing my cellphone and internet contracts, writing shopping lists, preparing a menu for the week and getting recipes .... all that good stuff can all look like office work if nobody's paying too much attention.
Beyond that, I'd definitely suggest pushing giving help to other departments on live projects or preparing proposals or whatever. However menially it's all experience. And learning all the software that's used in the department, even "just" getting really proficient at excel or powerpoint or, hell, repairing the photocopier if that's what's available. I'd be thinking wht could be useful for the next job because this one sounds pretty hellish!
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:46 AM on December 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you don't want to look like you're spending a lot of time on the internet, you could go to magazines and find articles online, view it in "one page" or "print" mode, select and copy the text and then paste it in MS Word. This helped me get through many hours of having nothing to do at my last job without spending lots of time online. I would either read in-depth industry things that I was interested in learning more about or just general magazine articles. Publications with long and interesting articles include the New Yorker and Texas Monthly (anything written by Skip Hollandsworth), but you can also find lots of interesting reads at sites like:

Give Me Something To Read
Arts and Letters Daily
3 Quarks Daily
Virginia Quarterly Review
posted by triggerfinger at 11:03 AM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

You need to become more valuable, or prepare for a new job. At some point, someone is going to say, hey, we can save (half of forkisbetter's salary) by making that job half time! Find a skill to work on (programming, etc) and start learning it. If it makes it so that you can get a better, less boring, better paying job in the future, fantastic. You might also find an issue at your current workplace that needs to be solved. Work on that. You have hours a day to improve yourself and get paid for it, which many of us do not have. Take advantage of your situation!
posted by rockindata at 11:22 AM on December 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

1. Learn to program. Install LogMeIn on your home computer and an IDE for whatever language you'd like to learn. LogMeIn lets you hit your home computer remotely via a web-browser. Programming involves typing and lots of digging around through web-based reference material, so you're set for "looking busy" as you will, in fact, be busy. But you'll also keep your mind occupied and learn a useful skill. Get a Safari Books Online account for web-based access all the tech reference books you'll ever need.

2. Be a self-starter: pick a project at work that needs to be done and add value by finding and implementing a solution for it. Every office has inefficient workflows that need improving.

3. Do you like to write? Get a Google Docs account and you're off and running.

4. Seconding the learn-to-be-an-Excel (or whatever other app you have handy) guru tip and the become-a-Wikipedia-editor tip.

In sum, contribute to something, either some web-based project, or your own store of knowledge.
posted by wheat at 12:09 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take online classes and get a degree, or just learn lots of stuff.
posted by theora55 at 12:11 PM on December 19, 2010

Mango Languages? I happen to get this for free by going through my public library's login portal.

Reviewing the Kanji - companion to a book, but the site will let you download enough of the book for free to keep you going for quite a while until you really need the book. Even then, you kind of don't really need it.
posted by ctmf at 12:11 PM on December 19, 2010

Ask your boss for more work or come up with some stuff that needs to be done, and do it.

I had this problem at work a while back and in response to it I started picking up responsibilities that were being dropped. I got my 3rd pay raise in under 2 months.

For those times where I actually have _nothing_ to do at work and nothing that needs to be picked up, which seems to be everyday for you, I do some website contracting for another company. Keeps me plenty busy, looks like I'm working, and it doubles your pay rate :D
posted by egranlund at 1:54 PM on December 19, 2010

Best answer: Teach yourself some new skills! When I'm bored at work I try to learn a new HTML skill. I'm very much a beginner, and the W3Schools website has lots of tutorials.

I've also taught myself to program in Java using nothing but free online tutorials. I have some experience in programming, which helped, but even with very little experience you can teach yourself the basics. The tutorials at the official Java site worked well for me.
posted by auto-correct at 3:06 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Buy a dozen cheap sketchbooks. Start drawing... anything and everything... for an hour a day. It doesn't matter if it is any good, because you will destroy the sketchbooks. Draw every day - 1 hour.

One year from now, buy a very nice sketchbook. THAT is sketchbook #1.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:53 PM on December 19, 2010

I am expected "look busy" so just reading or drawing are out.

Oy, my mistake....
posted by R. Mutt at 3:59 PM on December 19, 2010

What is your ultimate goal for yourself with this job, for example do you plan to stay with them for a while? If so, you may ask for more responsibilities and they will really appreciate that you have initiated effort and respect for their business. If they have nothing to give you, then what about asking them to help enrich your and their future with online courses that are relevant to what they do and assist in achieving their core execution? I cannot imagine that in the current workplace that *any* employee would be left empty handed, most are taking on multiple positions as the company goes leaner. This could be a great jumping off point for a career.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 4:19 PM on December 19, 2010

Can you read and write any languages other than English? If so, help translate free software. Here's an example.
posted by PueExMachina at 5:20 PM on December 19, 2010

You could play Crimefighter.
You could learn LaTeX.
You can do anything with LaTeX. Brochures, slideshows,'s amazing.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:56 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Write articles for content farms like or someplace like that. No experience necessary, and you could get paid!
posted by wwartorff at 6:00 PM on December 19, 2010

You could play inconspicuous games, such as interactive fiction

You could solve riddles

You could learn web development
posted by aesacus at 7:19 PM on December 19, 2010

Response by poster: I already spend most of my time reading newspapers and blogs online, which don't get me wrong is pretty great, but I'd really like to try to do something less passive with at least part of my day. One site I came across that seems really awesome is which is a "micro-volunteering" site where you can sharpen your design/editing/blogging skills for a good cause.

The way my office is structured is very bureaucratic such that I am not really allowed to do work for other departments because of timecoding. Also, my boss just doesn't like it for me to be asking other people in the office for things to do. This is just a temporary gig while I get my graduate school applications in order.

Thanks for the Galaxy Zoo suggestion! This looks really cool. I also came across a site via Stanford where you can help contribute to a project on protein folding.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:35 AM on December 20, 2010

Every other week, have a Wikipedia day. Just keep following interesting links in there.

What do you want to go to grad school for? That could very much help us answer.

Go through the Khan Academy for whatever subject you'd find interesting.
posted by talldean at 11:27 AM on December 20, 2010

I'm in a similar state and this is my general plan:

1. Look around. Who nearby has a similar job to you, but makes more money, gets more perks, or is otherwise in a better place professionally?

2. What do they know how to do that you don't know how to do? Is it a programming language? Management procedures? Familiarity with an obscure piece of software?

3. Learn that thing.

4. Profit?
posted by chaff at 1:02 PM on December 20, 2010

Can you take freelance jobs where you do not need to be onsite? For instance, I edit scientific papers in my spare time, communicating with prospective clients primarily through email.
posted by so much modern time at 5:16 AM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: That would be amazing, as I have a science background and am interested in science writing. When I do have work to do it is usually copyediting. How did you get started editing for money, and do you have any suggestions for how to get started?
posted by forkisbetter at 12:30 PM on December 21, 2010

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