Rush Hour

Don't let downtime turn into lost time. Learn how to make the most of it.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the August 2008 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As with any project-based business, there are months when employees at Chevy Chase, Maryland-based Creative Strategy Inc. can barely breathe under the deadline pressure. At other times, how-ever, the pressure is off, and it gets quiet--almost too quiet for Sally Roffman, founder and president of the $1.5 million brand-building and marketing firm. "Those are the days I walk into the office and everybody just ducks for cover because then I micromanage everything," she says.

It's one thing if you're working 14-hour days just to keep up with all the orders customers are placing; it's another if you've suddenly got time on your hands, whether it's a slow day, a slow week or a slow quarter. Many people react to open, unstructured blocks of time in their schedules by trying to keep things hectic, which often just makes them less productive. "You get very used to [being busy] and almost addicted to that pace," says time management and organizing expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out. "So you try to recreate it in the slow times when it's not the best use of that time."

Workers in the U.S. aren't using their time wisely, whether it's busy or slow. A recent survey by organizing products company Day-Timers found that one-third of workers never plan their work and seldom or never schedule time to work on their high-priority goals. "The biggest time-management mistake people make is not knowing how much time they waste," says Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert and the author of The Time Management Memory Jogger.

You have to approach a slow day differently to make it productive. Morgenstern distinguishes what she calls staccato work--short-burst tasks like handling deliveries and answering e-mail--from legato work, the deeper, analytic work that requires at least one hour of intense thinking. Legato work includes writing, creating customer profiles, studying industry trends, analyzing data, developing relationships, and in-person meetings. "The legato work is where you can distinguish yourself as a business and as an entrepreneur," Morgenstern says. "And the slow periods are ideal times for this stuff if you plan in advance."

Roffman keeps a rainy-day list of projects, such as promotions to pursue, articles to read and share with staff, new contacts to make and new processes to implement. She also uses downtime for postmortems on recent projects. "You're not just initiating something new, but you're also following through on something that happened when you were busy," she says. "Avoid the temptation of letting networking, sales efforts, brainstorming and processes slide when things are really hopping."

Plan how you'll spend company downtime, which tends to be cyclical for many companies. Morgenstern suggests designating a section of your planner for legato-type projects. "If you have an unanticipated slow period, you turn right to that section and there's your list of projects," she says.

Developing relationships, organizing, and designing new systems are good activities for quiet periods, but don't multitask, because it can hurt your efficiency. "Once you get into a flow, you're better off staying in it than going in and out," Morgenstern says. "If you're doing relationship networking calls, do a bunch of them in a row."

For Roffman, making a slow day productive requires a hands-on approach instead of a knee-jerk reaction. "The least productive thing I can ever imagine doing is sitting in front of my computer and clicking 'get mail,'" she says. "Take your downtime and turn it into uptime."

Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area.

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