When I used to work in an office environment, my days consisted of working on little projects and tasks that would fill half an hour or an hour or so, then I’d have a bit of downtime. I would either be doing some internal thinking about the next thing I needed to work on or I might be waiting on someone or something.
The same thing is true now that I’m a self-employed writer. I’ll work on an article until it’s finished or I’ll edit an article and submit it and then I’ll find myself with a little pit of downtime while I’m thinking about what to do next.
I’ve found that, both then and now, using that “downtime” in a smart fashion is vitally important in terms of building a successful career. Why? Two reasons.
It is really easy to waste that downtime. It’s that period when you’re in between tasks when it’s very easy to find something to do that isn’t useful. You’ll find yourself visiting an entertaining website, wandering around the halls, hanging out at the coffee pot or the water cooler, or going on an aimless walk. I’ve done all of these things and, frankly, they’re not very useful by themselves.
Using that downtime smartly can produce some impressive results over time. If you can channel that useless downtime into something more useful, you’ve just found some time to devote to an impressive project that can change your standing at work or even to a simple task that can improve the workplace.
If you add those two together, it’s easy to see why using your downtime in an intelligent fashion can put you ahead of many other people in a similar position. During the time that they’re wasting by looking on eBay for collectibles or bargains, you can do something that can boost your career and make you stand out.
You’ll walk out of the office as the same time as them, but you’ll be the one getting ahead. You’ll be opening doors with a greater reputation, more skills, and improved relationships.
Here are twelve things you can do during those little periods of downtime to improve your career path.
Prepare for Your Next Meeting
During the final year or two at my old job, I had a weekly face-to-face meeting with a presenter, a weekly conference call usually with a presenter, and other meetings on an irregular basis. Even today, I still have irregular mettings with presenters. This doesn’t include things like conferences and conventions, either.
Those meetings weren’t just times to sleep (though I may have essentially treated them as such at early points in my career). They were times to learn new things, build new connections, and make a name for myself.
Here are some things you can do immediately to prepare for your next meeting.
Find Out Who’s Presenting
The first step is to figure out who’s actually presenting at the next meeting you’ll be attending. Perhaps you have a schedule available, or perhaps you can simply email the meeting organizer. If you can find out the presenter’s name and what he/she is presenting on, you’re ready to go.
Develop a Few Good Questions for the Presenter
Do a little research. What exactly is going to be presented? Figure out the basics of the topic as well as the presenter’s connection to it. Along the way, come up with a handful of relevant questions to ask.
Choose Questions That Don’t Undermine the Presenter, But Make You Both Shine
The goal isn’t to “stump the speaker.” That’s usually something of a negative outcome. Instead, your goal should be to toss up questions that the speaker can handle, usually ones with an answer that’s relevant to people in the room. Look at the presentation from the angle of connecting that presentation’s content to the people sitting in the room without delving into too much nuance.
Yes, a good presentation will probably already address some or most of your questions, but not all presentations are good ones. Good questions can elevate a bad presentation and keep everyone in the room informed and entertained, and if you’re the one asking the questions, then the result reflects well on you (at least a little).
Volunteer to Present Your Own Work
If there are holes in the meeting presentation schedule, volunteer to present your own work. The key to a good work presentation is to simply make everything you say as relevant as you can to the people in the room. What are they going to care about what you’re presenting? Address that and you’ll always do reasonably well (at the very least).
Touch Base with Your Professional Contacts
People you know in your field outside of your immediate workgroup are invaluable people to know. They can keep you up to date on what’s happening in your field, help you get your foot in the door at another company or at another position in your own organization, mentor you in your career growth, or offer assistance when you’re running into problems.
Naturally, the best way to cultivate these kinds of relationships is to offer them yourself. If you do your best to pass these things along to people you know professionally, all of it will naturally cycle back to you when you need it.
Here are some things you can do right now to build connections with your professional peers.
Maintain a Nice Contact List
Keep a list of people in your field that you know. Make sure that their contact info stays up to date and that you have at least one channel through which you can contact them. You can keep this in an electronic contact list or address book or any other format you feel comfortable with.
Send Emails to Your Contacts Regularly
I try to send an email to the people on my professional contact list at least every two months or so. I write directly to them, asking what they’re up to and usually touching base on the last thing or two I heard about from them. I’ll often touch on common interests as well. Since my mind is not infinite, I usually note these things on the “notes” field in my contact file.
Send Handwritten Notes for Special Moments
If one of my professional contacts has a major event in their life – a new job, a major professional success, or even a marriage or the birth of a child – I’ll send them a handwritten note. If I care about them and am happy for their event, I’ll get that note in the mail as soon as I can. It’s a simple touch that can forge a much deeper connection.
Build a Connection with a Mentor
One of the best types of professional contact is the mentor, usually someone with more experience in your field who isn’t directly competing with you in some way. If you can find one, take extra care with that connection. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional advice regularly, but also find ways you can help your mentor, too. It should be a deep connection. Here are more details on finding and utilizing a mentor, no matter what you’re doing in life.
Take Initiative and Work on a Much-Needed Project on Your Own
Most workplaces have tasks both large and small that are simply left undone. Maybe there are some computer programming issues that can be worked out. Maybe a storeroom needs organized. Perhaps some documentation needs to be completed. Maybe there’s a simple “proof of concept” that needs to be constructed for a possible side project.
Whatever it is, you can help with it during your spare time. Completing a useful work project solely from your own initiative can be very valuable to the company.
Here are steps you can take right now to develop and implement independent work projects.
Identify Needed Work Projects
What exactly needs to be done in your workplace? Take a look around and identify things, both in terms of the product and in terms of the space you work in. I can usually find several projects to work on without much effort.
Identify “Next Action Steps” on Each Project You Tackle
You should probably stick to just one or two side projects, but whatever you choose, take a moment to figure out the next action step for each of those projects. Those are the actual things you should be doing in your spare time, and when they’re done, come up with the next action step. I actually directly add these to my to-do list with a special symbol/tag identifying them as side project tasks.
Skip During Crunch Time
If there’s a major project going on at work that should be demanding your full attention, it’s probably not the best time to push your efforts into a side project. Side projects are a great way to get ahead when things are a bit slower, but during crunch times people will ask why you weren’t working on the big project.
Make Your Work Quarters Presentable, Useful, and Inviting to Outsiders
If your work area is a disaster, people are going to avoid your work area. They’re not going to stop in. Your opportunities for good meetings goes down. Your ability to subtly impress management goes down, too.
This is one area that I struggle with, as my work space tends to devolve into a disaster given enough time. Still, I’ve witnessed the value of an organized and clean yet somewhat personalized workspace. They’re inviting and people feel comfortable there.
Here are actions you can take right now to improve your workspace.
Be Inspired by Workspaces
Look online for examples of great workspaces and organization techniques. I particularly like checking out the Featured Workspace category at Lifehacker. Look for ones that match what you do and really click with you.
Most of these ideas won’t work exactly in your situation, of course, but elements of them can always be used.
Aim for Cleanliness and Order First
Before you get all excited about transforming your workspace, your best move is to make the most of what you already have by getting it clean and sensibly organized. Get rid of the rubbish, clear off your desk, organize your shelves. It doesn’t have to be amazing, but it doesn’t need to be a pigsty.
Transform Your Orderly Space
From there, build on top of your clean space. Take a specific element from one of those workspaces and incorporate it into your own. Perhaps you can create a clever bookshelf in one area. Maybe a smarter monitor arrangement might make sense. Take it one step at a time and work toward making a space you’re proud to work in and proud to have others visit.
Learn a New Skill or Build an Existing One
Skills are the backbone of a successful career. The more skills you have under your belt, the better you’ll be at tackling projects, handling the unexpected, and meeting the demands of a wider array of positions. Skills open up job opportunities and lead to raises.
It’s not just about new skills, either. Old skills can be honed or the basis for those skills might evolve as new tools arrive on the scene. Both deserve some attention.
Here are some things you can take on immediately to start sharpening your skill set.
Be Inspired By the Resumes of Leaders in Your Field
What skills set apart the leaders in your field? Look at the top person in your field in your workplace – or in other workplaces. What do they offer that sets them apart from you? You’ve just identified several skills worth developing. I recommend choosing one of those skills and focusing on improving that skill before developing others.
Develop a Plan for Learning That Skill
You’ve identified a skill to improve. How do you improve that skill? A little research can help. Look for books to read, activities to participate in, videos to watch, and learning projects to tackle.
Use the Skill in a Project-Oriented Fashion
As you begin to acquire this skill, look for workplace-related projects you can take on to really put this skill to the test. Real projects do far more to elevate a skill than the learning process (though you still need to know some basics first). Plus, completing a project using a particular skill is demonstration of that skill.
Keep Up to Date on Your Field of Expertise
Many modern fields move at a fast rate, with changes arriving at a nearly constant basis. Even if your workplace isn’t on the bleeding edge of change, you can still take advantage of the latest information in your field.
Not only that, being up to date on the changes in your field makes it much easier to communicate with others in your field. If you’re up to date, then you have common material to discuss and share with many others in your field.
Want to keep up to date? Here are a few things you can always do to stay on top.
Identify Sources of Professional News
What publications and websites cater to your career path? Virtually every career path has some source of professional news – and some, like computer programming, have a veritable flood of news. Find those sources through Google searches and by following links.
Subscribe to These Sources and Keep Up
When you find highly regarded sources for information in your field, subscribe to those sources. If it’s a print publication, subscribe to that publication (and see if your workplace will pay for it). If it’s an online source, bookmark it. You can also subscribe to almost any website by email using BlogTrottr.
Share Appropriate Pieces with Peers
If you find a great article or other source of information, don’t be afraid to actively share it with your professional peers. Be careful with this and save it for the truly impressive things; one great link every week or two is worth far more than three good links a day. You’ll want to create a sense that if a link or a resource comes from you, it’s really worthwhile.
Build Your Public Speaking and Presentation Skills
People who can present their work – and the works of others – have a unique opportunity to connect with lots of people at once and to make a name for themselves in their field. Public speaking is an opportunity, not a punishment to be dreaded, and knowing how to take advantage of it is incredibly valuable.
I highly recommend the book Confessions of a Public Speaker as a source for learning more about public speaking. Start there if you’re looking to learn how to speak in public, as the tips in that book are invaluable.
Here are a few tactics that can help you with your public speaking and presentation skills.
Learn How to Effortlessly Describe Your Company and Your Projects
What is your company’s mission? What are the key products that your company creates? What do you do at your company? Who are you (in a professional context)? You should be able to explain these things effortlessly in front of an audience of any type and size. These things are the foundation for making great professional presentations. Develop great answers to these questions and be able to spit them out without skipping a beat.
Volunteer to Present Within Your Organization
If there’s an opportunity to present within an internal meeting, volunteer for it. Spend your spare time leading up to the meeting preparing for a great presentation. Know your material and how you’re going to voice it. Keep the slides simple and instead think about how you’ll present the key idea on each slide.
Volunteer to Present Outside Your Organization, Too
Presentations and speeches are just as valuable outside your organization, too. If you have a chance to speak at a trade show or conference, take advantage of it. If you can speak to a local group that might be interested, jump on board. All of these things are resume builders, confidence builders, and connection builders.
Work on a Degree or Certification
Many career paths value advancement in your degrees or certifications. If a better degree or a new certification can bolster your resume, you’re never wasting time by working toward those things.
Many workplaces encourage this type of individual advancement and will play for classes or coursework that will guide you toward new certifications and degrees. Check with your HR office before you slap down money here.
Here are steps you can take to help you get started on adding degrees and certifications to your resume.
Identify Degrees or Certifications That Can Enhance Your Career
What can you do that will genuinely help your career? One place to look, as always, is at the resumes of true leaders in your field. What kinds of certifications and degrees do they hold? Striving to match their degrees and certifications is always a good place to start.
Look for Programs That Can Achieve Those Things
Many professionals lead very busy lives and adding a degree program or certification coursework to the mix can be challenging. Look for programs that can actually fit within your lifestyle. If you need to take an hour or two a week to take a class, talk to your supervisor about it. Many workplaces are very flexible with professional improvement.
Study and Do Classwork During Downtime
Again, almost every workplace will welcome time spent in direct self-improvement for your job, so most won’t mind if you spend true downtime studying. Don’t be afraid to take your study materials to work with you and take advantage of slow periods and breaks to hit the books.
Find Out What Your Coworkers Are Working On … And Help Where It’s Sensible
In the workplace, it’s likely that there are at least a few skills and areas of expertise for which you are at the top of the food chain. It makes sense to use them whenever you can because you’ll be able to handle problems in those areas with less effort than the people around you.
Offer up those skills. Use them to help others in the workplace for those situations where your skills make sense. They’ll often reward you with credit and sharing of their own expertise.
Many people are afraid to do this because of a coworker or two who acts in an antisocial fashion in the workplace. One bad apple does not spoil the bunch. You can be selective in who you offer help to.
Here’s how to make the most out of helping coworkers.
Know What Projects Others Are Tackling
Find out what projects and problems your coworkers are dealing with. What are they facing? Are they able to handle it easily? What issues are holding them back from doing the best that they can?
Identify How Your Key Skills Could Effortlessly Help
If you can identify specific ways where you can help them with their stumbling block, offer it, particularly when the effort level is low for you. You don’t need to jump in and offer to help with a bunch of busywork, but if they’re struggling with something that’s in your wheelhouse, you can achieve more in an hour than they can in a day.
Offer That Help (Within Limits)
Again, the key is to offer targeted help on specific problems where your skills are truly useful. This doesn’t mean doing their jobs for them. You’re looking for way where you could step in for a moment and handle an element of a project quite well, then step away again. Don’t be afraid to ever offer that kind of help in a friendly and collegial way, as it usually ends up reflecting well on you.
One of the best ways to continue connecting with people in your field and to discover new people is to join in the conversation on social media. In my eyes, this is the true value of social media – it allows people in the same professional arena (and in related arenas) to network and communicate with each other.
This doesn’t mean broadcasting what you had for lunch. It means finding worthwhile conversations and jumping in, or asking questions of people you know to start an interesting professional discussion. It means finding people who are saying interesting things in your field and getting to know them a little.
Here are some simple tactics for building a social media presence for your career.
These are the two best options for professional conversations. Facebook tends to work better for businesses wanting to talk to customers. Professionals tend to interact more with their professional peers on Twitter and LinkedIn. Start there. If you already have a Twitter account, don’t be afraid to start a more professional one and migrate there.
Connect with Professionals in Your Field
When you have these accounts, use them to find professionals in your field, including both people you know and leaders in the field. Endorse them where it makes sense on LinkedIn and follow them on Twitter. See what they’re saying and posting.
Get Involved in Conversations, Particularly on Twitter
If you see an interesting conversation starting, respond. Get involved. The goal isn’t just to learn something from the conversation, but also to start building a connection to the people on Twitter. I find Twitter works incredibly well for these types of discussions.
Document Your Efforts
When a performance review comes around, it’s incredibly valuable to have a record of all of the work you’ve done throughout the year. A simple documentation of your efforts can take care of that.
It can be as simple or complex as you need. Keep in mind, however, that the goal of documenting your efforts is to show how much time and effort you contribute to meeting the demands of the workplace.
Here are some strategies for documenting your work efforts.
Maintain a Daily List of the Projects Worked On
Just keep track of the tasks you work on throughout the day. You can do this on your computer or by using a pad that you keep next to you. Just find a system that works well for how you work.
Keep These Lists Together in a Central Place
As you generate these lists, keep a central copy of all of them so you can easily retrieve them all at once and tabulate them if needed. Again, you can be as rigorous as you choose with this process, ranging from a minute-by-minute time recording or general data on your efforts.
Maintain Personal Copies of These Lists
Don’t simply rely on storing these lists on workplace computers. You may want to have a copy of them in the event of unemployment or hardware failure. Keep a personal copy on a memory stick or on Dropbox or Google Drive.
Build Your Written Communication Skills
Workplaces thrive on communication. Your verbal communication skills are probably used each day and your written communication skills are likely tapped pretty often, too. It can pay to work on both types.
Written communication skills shine with things like emails, documentations, and reports. If you can build a strong knack for the written word, it will pay off in many different aspects of your professional life.
Here are a few things you can do to enhance your writing abilities.
Get Involved With Documenting Workplace Procedures
If your workplace has a central warehouse of procedure documentation, get involved in contributing and editing this information. My old workplace had a wiki where all of this information was stored; today, I use a personal wiki for all of this stuff. Not only does it help with written skills, it creates valuable material that can be really useful later on.
Make Personal Documents Outlining Your Own Procedures
If you work in a smaller environment and don’t have this type of central procedure documentation, don’t let that stop you. Make your own documentation explaining how you take care of the various procedures at work. These procedures can be very valuable if you were unable to do your job for a while and they also can be incredibly useful for training new workers. Such documentation also makes for a great line on a resume.
Start a Blog Related to Professional Topics
If your professional documentation is taken care of, consider starting a website related to professional topics. You can easily start one over at WordPress. Work on writing articles that document things you can’t easily find online but would like to share with others or on your personal take on professional issues. Take the time to revise these and make sure they make sense and are grammatically correct, then post them. These are great things to share on social media when building up a presence there, plus a good professional blog is a solid addition to a resume.
If you’re spending time at work browsing entertainment sites or doing some online shopping, you’re missing out on prime opportunities to enhance your career and earn some more money. Every time you make the choice to improve yourself or contribute in a measurable way instead of wasting time, you secure your current job, enhance the possibility of promotion and raises, and build up your resume for other jobs outside the company.
Your spare time is valuable. Don’t waste it.