What do you do when you've got nothing to do?
September 13, 2011 11:13 PM   Subscribe

Please help me not go insane whilst under-employed and under-stimulated.

I work contract and/or freelance and a few months ago came off a three year long period of intense work. At the moment I'm doing bitsy jobs, general crewing, some admin, labouring, etc. I don't ever have anything approaching a full work week and most of the work I do have is very low on the intellectual and social stimulation side of things. This is in complete contrast to the last few years, during which I worked what were often very long work weeks (80 hours was the record, 40-60 was usual), was intensely challenged mentally and had a very strong social aspect to work.

I thrive on that kind of stimulation and I'm having a lot of trouble adjusting to not having it, to the point where I'm periodically quite worried about my mental health. (Note that professional health people are aware of this.)

My question: What can I do to keep myself occupied, challenged and not running in circles mentally, with my brain doing figurative burnouts in a figurative parking lot - going nowhere?

I have hobbies and I now have time to actually do some of them, while this is great I find they don't provide the challenge that I need, mainly because other people aren't involved - I think. I catch up with friends regularly however almost all work during the day and a lot of the work I am getting is at night. I don't have as much money as I used to, due to the whole not-much-work thing, so new expensive activities are out.

I turn it over to you, wise hive mind. What have other people done in similar situations?
posted by deadwax to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
See if you can volunteer somewhere.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:18 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

In your position, I sought to add some structure to my day so I don't sleep in all the time and waste daylight. Wake up at set times, get dressed, and do stuff!.

Work out. It's sounds like you haven't had time to, and it will help burn off some of your frustration and fill you full of nice endorphins. Running, swimming, pushups...etc. are cheap or free.

In the short term, there's probably stuff you haven't done that you've been meaning to do for ages - clean out the cupboard, rationalise your wardrobe, fix the broken shelf or the wobbly chair. It won't really help you with the social stimulation, but there's value in the sense of achievement you get from those small tasks.

Learn some new stuff - read books, listen to podcasts, watch some online lectures (e.g.,TED). A lot of that will be free or cheap. Can you take a class, perhaps? That would help you with social stimulation.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:23 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have added that much of the work I have currently is not at all predictable in its timing. It has no routine and hence neither do I.

I'll shut up now and not thread sit. Thanks all.
posted by deadwax at 11:38 PM on September 13, 2011

You need goals with clear steps towards their fulfillment. I get a lot of down time at work too, and I'm keeping myself busy in my office (and non-office) hours by studying math on www.khanacademy.org, studying for the United States Customs Broker License Exam, and working on the B210K program (the sequel to the popular C25K program, which I finished last week). You need to be able to check off little accomplishments often; that motivates you to keep working towards the goal of finishing them. Structure is a HUGE part of making the most of your downtime.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:48 PM on September 13, 2011

You're a freelancer? Then you don't have time to dick around.

I have freelanced for three and a half years. Almost all the time, I work from home. In the beginning, motivation was definitely something I had to get the hang of -- and that was when I had plenty to do.

But be in no doubt: if you don't have enough work to keep you occupied full-time, then the remainder of your allocated working time (more on that in a moment) should be spent finding work. As a freelancer, finding work *is* work: and your most important work, so right now, you should be busier than ever. It may not all be tapping up potential clients: it might be writing or making something cool that shows off who you are. It might be getting out and meeting people. It might be going to see an exhibition related -- however tangentially -- to your work. But some of the time it *is* tapping up potential clients and customers.

Regardless of the sort of work you're doing, there's no reason you can't adopt an entrepreneurial spirit about it. If you can get to the point you have more work than you can handle, you can start shipping it out to other people. You may even be able to get to the point where you can run a team of people doing the work without actually doing it yourself. Not doing exactly the type of work you want to be doing? Segue into it. Or even start doing it. Be ballsy.

I wouldn't talk anyone out of volunteering, but volunteer because you want to, not to fill time. Because you don't have the time, especially if you don't have enough work. It may seem like a paradox, but I'm at my busiest when I have gaps to fill, working out how to fill them.

I realise your current work may take you out of the house, but think of your home as your base of operations. That's where you are when you're bringing the work in, even if you do get out to actually do it. You're a home-worker, whether you realise it or not, so I think some tips that have worked for me on home-working may be relevant:

1. Have allocated working hours and work them. Why not set a 40 hour working week as a starter? Got lots of non-work interests? 35, then, perhaps? Have core working hours in the day. I recommend 7am to 3pm -- go and do something interesting afterwards. If you feel like slacking off, do so, if you deserve it, but do something good and brain-nourishing, and make up the time in the evening if you can. I'll say it again: finding work is work -- so fill those hours -- as creatively as possible.

2. If you work from home, go for a walk in the morning "to work". A 10-minute brisk walk round the block will help get you in the work zone. When you get back home treat it as your work place, not your home. Do the same at the end of the day if it helps.

3. Dress for work, even if you're at home. Dress as smartly as you can comfortably tolerate. That's smart by your definition: the only one that matters. No one does their best work in their jimjams, though.

4. Have breakfast. Have lunch. Eat healthily. It makes a difference.

5. Get out of the house and meet people 2-3 times per week, minimum. The isolation of working from home can drive you mental. After 3 years I had to go and work in an office in a bit -- but I'm getting over the novelty of that again. Working from home is better, in my opinion, but you have to manage your sanity. It's as easy as having a conversation with someone. Anyone.

6. Go for a walk any time you feel like your sanity needs it, but don't use it as an excuse to slack.

7. Keep a clean house, but keep household chores out of work hours. No washing up, no laundry, no hoovering during work.

8. Have a part of your home dedicated to work even if it's just a desk in the corner of the room. Keep it ordered in a way that works for you, even if that appears to be a total chaotic clusterf**** to the untrained eye.

I understand these may be difficult times, and you may not even love the type of work you're doing at the moment: but with freelancing and contracting comes a freedom that full-time staff work cannot match. There's an opportunity for this to be an extremely fun, busy and rewarding part of your life and I will personally be very angry with you if I don't make the most of it.

DISCLAIMER: I don't follow my own advice anything like to the extent to which I should.

Get to it. Have fun.
posted by nthdegx at 2:20 AM on September 14, 2011 [21 favorites]

Erm, if *you* don't make the most of it. Freudian slip of the decade, there, as my disclaimer probably illustrates. I should probably do some work now.
posted by nthdegx at 2:27 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You and your freelance business need something resembling a boss, or at least a coach. Someone who would say "What's the most important thing to do right now for your business? How would you go about doing that? What are you going to do first? When will that be finished? Good, come and tell me how you're doing in a couple of days."

Maybe you can team up with some other freelancers to check in with one another every so often about what you've been up to and what you plan to do.

Maybe you can just get a grumpy looking stuffed animal in a chair and report back to the stuffed animal on a regular basis.

Maybe you just need a dummy "boss" email account which you can email every so often.

Maybe once you internalise the idea of having a boss, you can run a "boss check" in your head every now and then that does the job without the need for props.

Do you have a business plan for your contracting business? Do you have a really good idea which directions your industry might be going in? Do you know what skills might be required in this new direction? Are you as good at marketing your business as you could possibly be?
What could you do to get better?
posted by emilyw at 2:52 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, there are some really great, thoughtful answers here. I've got some thinking to do on a number of them.

I'll just make a note about the finding work thing. I work in a very small corner of an already small, incestuous industry. I'm well known, well thought of and I have feelers out everywhere. If work in my specialisation arises I will be very surprised indeed if I don't hear of it. However, it's widely regarded that this is an unusually quiet time and I'm not asking so much about how I go about finding work - this is much more about how I cope until that happens.

I'm still grateful for the comments that address finding work, nthdegx particularly has provided a lot of genuine food for thought - some of which I really need to act on.

(The tininess of my industry is part of the reason I'm not being terribly specific about what I do, I like keeping my internet and real life identities vaguely separate and if you are familiar with my occupation, industry and city you probably know who I am, if not, you definitely know someone who does. Come to a meetup and I'll just tell you what I do...)
posted by deadwax at 5:02 AM on September 14, 2011

Is the thing you do important to small business and start-ups? Contact your nearest business incubator organization or chamber of commerce or professional organization or similar, and offer to present a seminar on the topic - why they need it, how to get it, what to avoid, what results they can expect. If you're well known and respected in your business you shouldn't have trouble being accepted. Or, if you don't know any such organization, consider doing it on your own at your local library - write up what your seminar is going to be, reserve a meeting room, and place some PRs in your local paper. It's fun, and great advertising for you.

Are your skills transferable to an industry outside your usual industry or specialization? Try getting a freelance gig outside your usual circles. Having to learn about a completely new industry, and how to apply your skills there, is a great mental stretching exercise and can be both painfully challenging and invigorating. You will have to do some thinking and talking to people just to figure out how and whether you can market your services to the new industry.
posted by evilmomlady at 5:39 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don’t know if this will help you, OP, but I also have the problem that if the work is not challenging, my mind tends to drift and I can take 2 to 3X the amt of time required to finish a task. I’m also a freelancer and have highs and lows at different times of the year. Also nthing nthdegx and will try some of those things myelf.

First, can you identify other things that you want to learn (to expand into another area of freelancing that is related?) If the info is discussed on podcasts, videos,etc.,can you run those while you do the monotonous work? If there are expensive programs that you need and you don’t have the $ for it now, many companies offer a 1 month trial and Lynda.com has pretty affordable monthly rates for videos that you can learn from.

If I were in your shoes, I would probably go nuts just based on the unpredictable schedule. Is there any way that you can tell this client, “Work that comes in between X time and X time will be done between these hours” so that you are not working at unpredictable intervals, which sounds like day and night from your description. I used to be bounced around by clients popping in the night before and dropping off work –I now tell people up front and post it on my website “evening/weekend work has a different rate.”

If this is predictable each year for the high and low times, what about putting aside the $ during the high times of work and just not working (or only take certain type of work) during the low times of year? Then spend the time and do things you really want to do – you could even take a month long vacation, or take classes to expand your business, etc.

I still wonder if there is marketing that you are not doing (I don’t do great at this either), but a few things that occurred to me are: 1) what about volunteering for a non-profit that you really like and can produce quality work for (perhaps down the road it could turn into something, and even if not it would give you the social stimuli that you need and you could contribute to something that you believe in or 2) have you looked into finding international clients? I’ve been surprised that UK companies sometimes reach out across borders for projects (to the USA)—I don’t know if it would apply to your industry, too, but just a thought.
posted by Wolfster at 5:47 AM on September 14, 2011

Create a list of things to get done that you didn't have the time before to do:
Repair around your house
Mending or ironing of clothing

Network, network, network:
Attend free events at your local library
If you are religious - perhaps functions at your church
Attend local meetups for organizations you support
Join a local entrepreneur group
Network in any societies you belong to in your line of work

Start a Small Business
Here is an article that explores 3 small businesses that started on less than $150 -
Start-Ups on Shoestring
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 6:49 AM on September 14, 2011

Could you contribute to open-source projects?
posted by krilli at 6:50 AM on September 14, 2011

When I was in a similar situation, I learned to play with javascript, since that had always been approximately magic to me. Zero cost, since I got a book from the library and used online resources. My wife had a slowdown at work and did some access / VBA tutorials and online lessons. If you do admin, learning more tricks with office software is always useful in the long-run.

These were kind of like hobbies, but mentally challenging and work-like enough that I could treat them like it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:17 AM on September 14, 2011

No matter what I do for mental discipline at home, for me there's no substitute for a pretend office. Besides public libraries, school libraries, and cafes, there might be Writers' Room-type places in your field where you can rent a desk for less than typical rent-a-desk places. Or perhaps you can cough up for a membership to a private library (like Mercantile in NYC, though these aren't everywhere, for sure). A professional association may have a private library even if they don't have official desk space. Unless you are absolutely flat broke, the small cash outlay may serve as an incentive to get up and go there.
posted by skbw at 8:11 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about delving into (public) emergency management? It's a conceptually interesting field (IMHO), where there's lots of activity and opportunities for interaction, learning, and other diversions. Guovernment defunding is pushing more and more disaster planning onto volunteer organizations. These take several forms, including civic emergency planning and outreach, medical preparedness and volunteer staffing, and security/infastructure preparedness.

When I was (sorta) in your shoes a while ago, joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary cured my cabin fever. If you get into it, CGAUX can basically teach you how to boat, or perhaps even fly, for practically no money. And even if you don't have a boat, you can always go out with other people to do waterway and vessel inspections. CGAUX also offers whacks of technical, procedural, and practical training classes (via FEMA and other agencies) that they'll pay you to attend. And there's always opportunities to pursue offshoots, such as oh-so-social ham radio clubs or search-and-rescue activities.

Of course, since CGAUX is mostly on coasts, it may not be available to you. But there are almost certainly similar types of options in your area. Most larger cities (and many small ones) have volunteer medical reserve corps that train and mobilize citizens to support medical staff in the case of earthquakes, floods, etc. Medical qualification isn't required for theses groups, since they need administrative volunteers, too---but you'll have opportunities for free/low-cost medical training, too, if you find you're interested.

MRCs also run disaster drills; and once you start looking, you'll likely see periodic opportunities to spend a few hours as a volunteer victim. Drills are rather fascinating, as are their participants. And afterwords you can wear your moulage on the bus for bonus kicks.

Anyway, I know these sorts of things aren't for everyone. But they seem to fit your general objectives. Feel free to shoot me a message if you have any questions about what I've mentioned.
posted by diorist at 5:23 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about doing surveys on Amazon Mechanical Turk? They are usually short enough to not feel like an imposition and you can earn quarters toward a movie or book or something else. Use the search box to find surveys that pay over 20 cents so you don't have to go through 10,000 listings.

Can one of your hobbies lead to paying work or contacts? Going to a meetup for a hobby group can get you out of the house and you might learn new techniques or luck into a material swap. Good luck.
posted by dragonplayer at 9:07 PM on September 14, 2011

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