Have vacation brain at work? Try some of these mindless, but productive activities

It’s the Monday before Thanksgiving in the U.S. and if you’re at work, it’s very likely your brain isn’t. Oh look, Sharon from accounting brought in doughnuts! I really should talk about the game/movie I saw this weekend with ALL my coworkers! Now is a great time to make my holiday wish list! Shiny!

On a philosophical level, your employer is paying you to do a job, so you probably should be doing something work related. If you don’t have it in you to focus on creating a viable work product right now, consider doing a little mindless work that supports your work functions:

  • File. Put on headphones (if they are acceptable in your workplace), and start putting papers away where they belong. If all your papers are filed, review your files to make sure you’re not keeping any information that doesn’t need to be archived. Organize your papers so that they help you do your job.
  • Review your bulletin board. How recent are all those items hanging on the walls of your cubicle or bulletin board? Can you easily see all of the most vital information? Is the calendar from two years ago? Is there anything that can come down or be replaced?
  • Clean your phone and work surface. When was the last time you scrubbed either? The dust bunnies behind your monitor aren’t going to clean themselves.
  • Enter information off business cards. If you’ve recently acquired business cards from important contacts, enter the data into your address book.
  • Backup your computer. If it’s not done automatically, now is a great time to backup the information off your computer’s hard drive. Be sure to follow your employer’s system for doing this task.
  • Unclutter your bookshelves. Do you have any out-dated manuals or irrelevant reading materials taking up space on your bookshelves? Now is a great time to recycle, shred, or remove these items from your office.
  • Equipment check. Are you using all of your equipment in your office? Is it in its best possible shape? Could you benefit more by knowing how to better operate the equipment you do have? Make a request to have the item serviced or take the time to read the operator’s manual or get rid of anything you don’t use.
  • Restock. Do you need more tape, more pens, more notepads, or any more office supplies? Go “shopping” in the supply closet if you do.

Mindless work often gets a bad reputation as “not working,” but the reality is that you need some down time to let your brain process all that mindful work you are usually doing. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that “alternating between mindful work (work that requires intense thought and focus) and mindless work (routine activities that require very little processing power) enhances your efficiency and creativity.” In the end, a little mindless work might actually help you do a better job at producing your mindful work — I call that a win-win.

15 Comments for “Have vacation brain at work? Try some of these mindless, but productive activities”

  1. posted by Tiffany on

    In addtion to taking a few minutes to tidy my desk, one of the most ridiculous things that helps me focus is to re-copy my to-do list. I have a job that requires a lot of reaction to other people’s needs (and frequently their total inability to plan) so my to-do list starts out all neat and organized, and then rapidly devolves into scrawled notes in margins, tasks added with half the detail necessary, etc. It adds up to a lot of trouble focusing, so taking a few minutes to start from a blank sheet, group my tasks, note which projects are waiting on stuff from other people, identify the closest deadlines, and leave plenty of blank space for the onslaught I know is coming really helps. I also use this time to put together some notes for the detailed weekly status report I have to give my boss, because by the time that particular deadline rolls around, I’ve completely forgotten what I did in the first half of the week. Getting it all organized back into a coherent list (occasionally with color-coding, if it’s a really stressful week) reminds my brain that it only has to think about the task at hand, and the notebook can keep track of what else is going on.

  2. posted by Max Leibman on

    David Allen often talks about doing simple, mindless tasks like these–“water your plants and fill your stapler”–as a good way to regain focus and energy. The simple act of completion creates the motivation to re-engage and take on bigger things (and, as you point out, these things have to be done some time anyway).

    To Tiffany’s point, I also like to re-organize my tasks and plans when I’m feeling disconnected and burned out. Of course, the line between doing this to re-energize or to be productive when I’m not feeling engaged and doing it to procrastinate real work is very thin! Still, if done only when the list and I both need a break, it makes a world of difference.

  3. posted by Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life on

    Great advice!! Our department is coming out of a very busy and stressful period at work and I’ve been getting a little stressed out by the “things” piling up around me. This is a good week to allow myself to just sort, toss, organize, etc.

  4. posted by Ana on

    Yes, this is so true. I also like cleaning up files on my computer (decluttering the virtual desktop) and updating photos of family, etc that I keep at my desk. I also love my “water the plants” breaks…gets me up from my desk & is ridiculously satisfying.

  5. posted by Stacy on

    Hahaha! I definitely have vacation brain. The first paragraph cracked me up because it’s so RIGHT.

  6. posted by Debra on

    When I don’t want to think about anything, I go through my e-mail box and put everything into file folders or delete or whatever. Yes, I should do this as I go but I don’t…

  7. posted by DawnF on

    Great tips! I would also add paper shredding ~ take that pile of sensitive paperwork (that is no longer needed) and head over to the shredder.

    Perhaps you could rearrange your workspace, too? Perhaps a fresh look would give you a fresh perspective!

  8. posted by Gal @ Equally Happy on

    When I’m feeling unproductive I start answering email. The feeling of getting a lot of short tasks (individual emails) done is usually enough to get me back into work mode.

  9. posted by Brianne on

    I wish I could do this, but unfortunately I only get paid for hours I can bill to a client. That’s why I come in on the weekend to clean up my workspace.

  10. posted by Thrift Store Mama on

    Definitely cleaning out the e-mail. Even though I do it as I go along (okay, that’s a lie, I totally don’t) it’s still good to go back to the beginning and see what can be deleted, attachments saved to the server, etc.

  11. posted by Jodi on

    I just finished Getting Things Done (thanks Erin for always recommending it! Your endorsement created curiosity that was my motivation to read it!)

    Anyway, I am finding that doing these little tasks helps me so much each day…when I start to feel like I have regrouped, and at the end to feel like I tied up loose ends. Amazing how little things can have such a BIG mental impact on my productivity!

  12. posted by Jessica | mnmize on

    It is definitely going to be rough working these next two days. And unfortunately I must be productive and work on a hundreds of square feet of millwork for a deadline. My semi-productive days definitely consist of similar things other people have mentioned, my personal favorite is going through and filing emails! That’s necessary right? :)

  13. posted by Jannie on

    Great post. I also like to browse the training classes offered at my job. And was that a Firefly reference snuck in there?

  14. posted by vermont snow shoe on

    For a worker or a very stress person it is important that you have to take your vacation. It is not good that we always on our work or always facing those problems in life. It is also important that we give much time to ourselves.

  15. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jannie — I am a Browncoat. Shiny!

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