Ideas to better use my free time at work. Short attention span version.
September 6, 2013 9:08 AM   Subscribe

I frequently have a lot of free time at work between projects (I work fast, maybe). I usually sit here and flip between Reddit and Metafilter, and maybe Facebook. I want to put this time to better use.

I just calculated the amount of downtime I have had this last year and it's...obscene. My employer is very happy with my performance, and the people in my department are largely unsupervised, and only report to management to take assignments and report completion.

I have tried studying languages (German, Spanish, Esperanto), but I literally (in the original sense) have an attention span of maybe like 5 minutes, and I am a chronic procrastinator. I started out trying to do things work related in my downtime, like read design blogs or tutorials, but my position doesn't have a lot of creative freedom and I am knowledgeable enough about word/photoshop/illustrator that I could probably teach, so I got bored with that quickly. There's also no more responsibility to take on at work, and no other projects that need to be completed. I'm not an extrovert and I don't want to lead at all, or be responsible for anyone but myself (not that such positions are available, just heading that off).

I don't want to just read a book, since my computer will go idle and don't want people to think I am just sitting in here napping. I don't want to end up doing meaningless busy-work, since that'd be worse than the boredom I deal with now, and aside from said boredom, I like my job. Sometimes it's almost unbearably hectic and stressful, with long hours of overtime, so the slow periods do balance out a little, I think.

So yeah, basically I am looking for ideas for ways to better use my time. Anything online is fair game, except I try to not watch streaming videos. I like learning, and Metafilter and Reddit (the more obscure subreddits, at least) feed that addiction, but won't occupy my mind for a whole day, and my inability to focus means I can't really undertake any serious efforts without frustration and failure. It's disheartening to think of what kinds of things I could have done with 1000 hours, and to not mentally abuse myself for being a lazy slacker.
posted by polywomp to Education (17 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Code Academy!
posted by sweetkid at 9:09 AM on September 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you like language learning but only have short bursts to do it, have you tried Duolingo? There's a website and an app, so you can do it at your desk and on the go, and the bite-sized gamified approach is fun and addictive.
posted by Sublimity at 9:22 AM on September 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yeah, what about a computer language? I'm in a similar situation as you -- from the excessive downtime to the short attention span -- and it drove me crazy till I installed Cygwin on a USB stick and started teaching myself shell scripting. It's not enormously practical, but it sure does pass the time.
posted by Zozo at 9:30 AM on September 6, 2013

How about Foldit? (
posted by Mouse Army at 9:35 AM on September 6, 2013

Best answer: How about listening to podcasts?

It's disheartening to think of what kinds of things I could have done with 1000 hours, and to not mentally abuse myself for being a lazy slacker

You're getting paid, that's what you're doing (more than anything else) with those 1,000 hours, don't worry about that lost time too much. That's more on your employer than anything. That you're not being productive (for them) is not your concern, you're building your bank account then for you.

Southeast Asia 2015 (or whatever)!
posted by charlemangy at 9:42 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Duolingo lets you break language-learning down into 2-3 minute modules, which is nice for short bursts of downtime!
posted by coppermoss at 10:10 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Read books on a kindle/etc app on your computer.
posted by jacalata at 10:35 AM on September 6, 2013

Try getting into the New York Times crossword puzzle. That evil thing will eat up all small blocks of free time. You can turn it into something social by discussing it online, and it doesn't feel like a complete waste of time because it's such a cultural phenomenon. Check out Wordplay.

I have also wanted to try out Lumosity ever since I heard that Tyler Hinman, the crossword phenomenon, works there.
posted by BibiRose at 10:38 AM on September 6, 2013


I use it to refresh on geography stuff. The game side of learning makes me actually start paying attention to things I've always been meaning to spend time looking up.

name that country

ok that was hard maybe just name the ones you know

highest rated games
posted by skrozidile at 10:51 AM on September 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Get into online roguelikes. Nethack has filled countless hours for me.
posted by gentian at 10:59 AM on September 6, 2013

You can find great hand-picked articles to read on TheFeature. Really interesting stuff there (for example, right now I see the first article listed is "The strange story of Skype - As Skype turns ten, a look back at how six Europeans changed the world." That sounds really interesting!)

If you want to learn things, you could also lose yourself in Wikipedia, just following whatever links interest you. Start with one article, and then click on a link in that article to another, etc. You can get absorbed for hours (or minutes) doing that.

You might also find some video-learning topics of interest to you on Khan Academy.

If you want to do some rote memorization stuff, learn all the state capitols if you don't know them. Learn to recite all the states in alphabetical order. Or backwards. Learn all the capitals of foreign countries. Learn the NATO phonetic alphabet. Learn the lyrics to various songs. Memorize a famous speech or document.

And I also agree that duoLingo is fun.
posted by Dansaman at 11:20 AM on September 6, 2013

I could have written this question nearly word for word. My summers at work are often slow and there is only so much busy work one can do that's actually useful to anyone. I'm definitely going to try out some of these suggestions.

I like Codecademy, but it's hard to jump in and out if you have a slow time for a few days, then you're busy for a few weeks. Hard to pick up where you left off.

Pinterest can be fun, especially if you are looking for specific things, but it can also bring on feelings of great inadequacy if you're not a super-crafter or cook.

I might play with some new web tool. I'll sometimes check out IFTTT and see if there are any new recipes/channels that could be useful to me. Making the web services I use more efficient makes me feel better when I'm not as efficient as I'd like to be.

I'll sometimes read recaps or lurk on message boards about my favourite TV shows. Those folks pick up details I would never think to pick up on and it makes me pay closer attention during future episodes to see if I can pick up on these details. Easy reading to pick up and put down as necessary.

Longform is a site similar to TheFeature mentioned above: "a collection of new and classic non-fiction".
posted by melissa at 12:07 PM on September 6, 2013

Response by poster:
I like Codecademy, but it's hard to jump in and out if you have a slow time for a few days, then you're busy for a few weeks. Hard to pick up where you left off.
This is exactly why I failed at keeping up with Duolingo. I can have period of several days of constant work, then the next day there are small breaks where I find myself checking email or the news, and it progresses to hours long stretches of web surfing without me even noticing. By then I have completely forgot I had even signed up at website X.
posted by polywomp at 12:28 PM on September 6, 2013

Make a list of those "someday I should ...." tasks. A sort of chore jar for yourself.
posted by gjc at 2:40 PM on September 6, 2013

Short stories, plays, and poetry are great if you only want/can read in short bursts, and so so much of it is available for free online. Even if you only devote 10 minutes at a time every now and again, by this time next year you could be able to breezily say "oh sure, I've read all of Shakespeare" and everyone will gasp in awe and ask for your autograph.*

*results may vary
posted by blue_and_bronze at 7:19 PM on September 6, 2013

Edit Wikipedia.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:29 PM on September 7, 2013


"Freerice is a non-profit website that is owned by and supports the United Nations World Food Programme. For each answer you get right, we donate 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger."
posted by Dansaman at 2:00 PM on September 9, 2013

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