How to Deal When a Slow Workday Stresses You Out

We tend to think of busy days as the biggest stressors, but research shows that's not always the case.

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Frederick M. Brown/Stringer/Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown/Stringer/Getty Images

When we think about the causes of job-related stress, workload tops the list. Facing an overflowing inbox and back-to-back meetings is no one’s idea of a good start to the day, and it can leave you longing for an empty schedule.

However, research shows that you might want to rethink that wish. Boredom-related stress, caused by having too much idle time at work, encourages employees to engage in unhealthy work habits, like social media scrolling and ineffective time management, while disengaging mentally and emotionally from their jobs. Naturally, their well-being and motivation plummet as a result.

“When work slows down, you might find yourself drifting — unable to get excited about the tasks you could do, moving more slowly than usual, maybe reading articles and watching videos that have no particular relevance to your job. You just feel bored,” Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach and author writes in Harvard Business Review. “We all feel these ebbs and flows… Most people are able to focus on getting work done during the peak. But how you handle the valleys also has a dramatic impact on your overall productivity and happiness.”

Rather than simply losing yourself in Instagram the next time you experience a work slump, try these strategies to keep yourself productive and engaged.

Structure your day

It can be easy to get off track when you suddenly have a ton of unexpected free time. To avoid wasting that time on unhelpful tasks, Saunders recommends creating a “clear plan” for each day, including prioritized tasks and goals you’d like to accomplish.

“You have to be more deliberate about planning than you would during a busy period,” Saunders writes. She adds that it can be helpful to budget in the time it will take to accomplish each task (for example, plan to work on a larger task from 10 a.m. to noon, then spend 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on another task.)

Breaking your day into bite-sized chunks can help you stay engaged and productive, even when the pace slows down.

Work ahead

When we’re busy, work- and life-maintenance activities tend to fall to the wayside. Use your extra free time to get ahead on less-desirable but necessary tasks that you’ve been putting off. Need to file paperwork, or schedule a long overdue meeting? Now’s your chance to get it done early — and avoid the stress of an approaching deadline.

Focus on your personal development

Don’t just get ahead on routine tasks; use this time to develop yourself, too. Is there a networking event you’d love to attend? Have you been meaning to sign up for a professional development training offered by your job? Slower work periods are great opportunities to pursue activities that foster personal and professional growth, but often get nudged off the to-do list during the busyness of daily life.

“Instead of frittering away time when work is less pressured, choose to remain focused. Then reallocate the extra capacity to activities that would be stressful to fit in during busy times… but feel hugely satisfying to accomplish when you have breathing room,” Saunders suggests.

Try making a list of all the lower-priority tasks you haven’t gotten around to completing, and use that as a reference whenever work slows down.

Take a vacation

Time away from work is essential for preventing burnout, but taking off isn’t always realistic during peak work season. A light workload is the perfect opportunity to take a day off or ask for that vacation you’ve been putting off.

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