How to still add value to your company during downtime

Here at WillowTree we hate to say ‘no’ to a client. If we get a new project that needs ten team members tomorrow, we like to be able to deliver those ten team members. To accomplish this, we maintain a constant pool of people who can be available on short notice. We call this state of not being assigned to a client project “unallocated.”

A number of organizations have some form of planned unstructured time: think Google’s 20% time policy, monthly hackathons, etc., and while a lot of people thrive with a bit of time to pull our heads out of the weeds and take a breath, this kind of situation can be a natural stressor; no one wants to feel like they aren’t contributing.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to contribute while being unallocated. At WillowTree, some of our most exciting emerging tech research is carried out in the form of passion projects by employees who are unallocated between client assignments.

Whether you’re a student with a free summer, taking some time off, or you’re project-less at work, here are some suggestions on how to keep yourself busy, sane, and (most importantly) productive: divider 600

First, let’s get organized.

Clean your desk, organize your file system, clear your inbox. Do all the little chores that you wish you had time to do yesterday. Hopefully this will help you clear your mind a bit so you can get into flow easier once you settle on something to work on. divider 600

Track your accomplishments.

Reflect upon your recent achievements. Some people keep a work journal, this would be a great time to start one. This will help you consider what recent learning opportunities were valuable, and perhaps what you would like to dive into further. It’s also great to add to your LinkedIn profile or your resume.

You’ll never have a more detailed memory of recent work than right after you finish, so be sure to document it right away. You’ll also find this processing is a great way to decompress and clear your head for the next thing. divider 600

Now, make a plan.

Let’s walk through a brainstorming session:

Take a few minutes to consider how much time you have and what sorts of projects you may be able to fit into it.

Use ten minutes to consider your long term goals, and how you may work towards them. If your long term goals are fuzzy, solidify them. Look to a mentor or a peer if you need guidance.

Grab a sharpie and a blank sheet of paper and jot down some broad words relevant to your goals, like ‘accessibility’ or ‘machine learning’. Things that can turn actionable in a minute.

Once you run out of steam (usually around five or ten words) take a minute to gather yourself.

Grab a pen. See how you can flesh out these large ideas into actionable projects. Bring in recent experiences, interests, pains-points, and see if you can use these ideas to create something interesting.

Here’s a rough example of one, notes from the other side of the page included:


It looks like creating an app based on the HIG would be a great use of time. Now start cranking! divider 600

Other Ideas

If you struggled with your brainstorming process, or don’t feel you have the time to flesh out a full project, then here’s a rapid-fire list of smaller suggestions that can still prove immensely valuable:

  • Look over your bookmarks. Keep a rolling list of articles and tools that you want to check out but don’t have the time to, and then knock them out during these times.
  • Ask around to see if anyone needs help, even with their non-essential tasks. Take something off their plate.
  • Find someone to learn from. If someone is working on a cool problem, they’ll likely want to share it.
  • Pair program, shadow, or at least be a rubber duck for someone to help them work through a problem while absorbing some of that sweet, sweet knowledge.
  • Daydream for a little while. Think about processes in your workplace, consider the ideal environment to work in, and see if you can make improvements. Find a redundant task and automate it.
  • Meditate. Learn some stress-reducing techniques and share them with others. You could even organize a daily guided meditation session.
  • Sit in on meetings. Learn about other parts of your organization. See if you can apply their methods to your own team, or suggest new ideas to them. divider 600 Unstructured time is a great opportunity to grow and learn at your own pace. If you have any other great tips, share them with your peers or tweet us, we’d love to hear your ideas. Spread the knowledge!

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