By January 26, 2015

Should I Work On Non-Work Things At Work?

I've received a lot of questions lately about whether or not it is appropriate to work on non-work things at work.

This isn't an easy question to answer and every situation is a bit different, but I thought I'd offer some general advice that can help you figure out the answer for yourself.

Doing something is better than doing nothing

First of all, I think it is important to establish a common agreement that it is always better to be doing something than it is to be doing nothing.

Of course you never really are doing “nothing,” unless you are just sitting at your desk staring at your screen in a trance, but in this case I'm talking about not doing anything productive.

Now, let's be real here. I know plenty of corporate environments where doing nothing is the norm and expected.

I know plenty of work places where your boss, and everyone else, would prefer if you just sat there in a trance staring at your monitor, rather than doing something productive when you have downtime.

But, that doesn't make it right—and it certainly doesn't make it anything close to the best thing you can do for your career.

I'll put it pretty bluntly.

"John Sonmez is such a dick!"

“John Sonmez is such a dick!”

The advice I am going to give you in the rest of this post might very well get you fired, if you work in an environment like that.

But, I'd much rather be fired than continue to work in an environment where doing nothing is held in higher esteem than doing something–even if it is not necessarily work-related.

I understand that you might not have a choice in the matter.

I understand that you might be stuck in the job that you are at, no matter how crappy it is.

But, if that is the case, do not waste a second longer than you have to in a place that rewards laziness and sloth.

Bide your time, if you have to, but plan your escape–and start planning now. (Escape From Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur)

First try and work on something work-related

I understand that things might be “slow” at your job, but that doesn't mean you should immediately jump to doing your homework or working on your side-project at work.

It's not that I am entirely opposed to doing those things. I don't think it's necessarily a violation of ethics if there is absolutely nothing else you can do work-related, or you have asked for and received explicit permission to do so, but there almost always is at least something else you can do that is work-related.

Testing Procedure Specification Report  or TPS ReportYes, your boss might not have any more TPS reports for you to fill out.

You may not be allowed to write any production code, because you are waiting on design approval or a committee to decide whether or not you should indent the code with 4 or 5 spaces.

But, that doesn't mean you can't find some work that you could do that could in some way benefit your employer.

After all, you are being paid by your employer, so you should be trying to provide the highest return you can for your employer on what he or she is paying you.

If you owned a company and hired an employee, you would appreciate someone you hired taking that attitude, therefore that is the attitude you should take as well.

But, I don't have anything to work on

Again, we are back to this tired old argument about not having anything to work on.

Do you have to be explicitly assigned work in order to work on it, or can you take up the initiative yourself to decide what needs to be worked on and start getting things done?

Just because you don't have any assigned work, doesn't mean there isn't anything to work on.

You can almost always find something you can do to be productive and benefit your employer.

When I used to be “bored at work,” I would take up the initiative to develop tools for our team that would help us get our work done faster, or I'd look through some neglected piece of code and see if I could refactor it to make it easier to work with in the future.

Oh, and here come the excuses again.


I can't just start refactoring code.

What if I break something?

It it ain't broke don't fix it.

I'll get in trouble for gold-plating, etc, etc.

Look, here is the thing: you can make a million different excuses about why you can't find some kind of productive work to work on or why you need to ask permission–which surely won't be granted–or you can just start doing something.

Sometimes, you have to choose what is right, even if it isn't what is “blessed.”

Sometimes, you have to take a little bit of a calculated risk, knowing that once you complete that developer tool or write those unit tests for that neglected code or even refactor that beastly rules engine, the end result will be appreciated even if the permission to work on it would have never been granted.

You don't even have to take risks

There are plenty of mundane, boring tasks you could do that I'm sure no one would be opposed to and that are infinitely better than staring at your screen watching your screensaver.

You could:

  • Write documentation for features or code that already exists in the system.
  • Map out the architecture of your application.
  • Write up a on-boarding document with tips and tricks for new developers on your team.
  • Help with tasks that aren't even part of your job description–perhaps QA could use an extra hand.

It's really difficult to imagine a scenario where your employer is going to insist that you sit at your desk and browse Facebook or Twitter instead of doing one of these tasks.

And, like I said, if you are employed by someone that stupid, it's your fault if you stay there, so I'm going to have a hard time feeling any sympathy for you.

What about personal development?

One thing I've always done, when I worked for someone else, is set aside a small amount of time each day for personal development.

I often found there was slack-time, and like I said, most of the time, during this slack-time, I would create tools or find some other work-related way to be productive, but I would also set aside a small amount of time to improve my technical skills in a way that directly related to my job.

Yes, I realize this is controversial and you might not agree with me on this, but I've never been fired for sitting at my desk reading a technical book, directly related to my work, during “downtime.”reading-at-work

I found there was at least always 30 minutes or so a day, that would otherwise be wasted, where I could instead develop my skills further and ultimately benefit my employer.

So, I'm a big advocate of some personal development activities during work time.

Yes, I know some employers will frown upon it, but some employers will try to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

Sometimes, you have to be enough of a professional to do what you know is right and most beneficial.

I know plenty of people who have been fired for doing “non-work-related-activities” during working hours, like reading a book about the programming language they are working with, but guess what? Those employees weren't very productive during their working hours either.

I've never heard of a person who actually put in the time to work hard during working hours who was fired for spending some paid time each day on personal development.

I'm not saying it doesn't happen, I'm just saying that it's something I've always been willing to risk.

But, if you don't feel comfortable risking it, don't. Instead, do one of the work-related things I suggested earlier during your down time.

I just wanted to throw this out there as an extra option.

Getting permission

What if you are going to school and you have some classwork or studying you could do at work–during downtime of course–is it ok to do that?handsome young college student in a library (shallow DOF; color

For something like that I would suggest getting permission first, and even then, you are going to be taking a risk.

In a big corporate environment, at a fortune 500 company, your boss might not care, because your boss might be so far removed from the bottom line that it doesn't really matter.

Or perhaps you are in a small company where the philanthropic owner cares more about employees succeeding than about making as much profit as possible.

I've been in both, and in those environments, working on something that isn't work-related is much less of a risk.

But, it's probably still not going to be the best thing for your career, and while it may be permissible, my own personal conviction says that if I am being paid to do a job, I should be focusing my efforts as much as possible to benefit the person or entity that is paying me to do that job.

Again, that doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong.

If your boss tells you that you can do homework at work, and you decide to take him up on it, I'm not going to look down on you or shake my finger in disgust.

I'm just saying that even though it may be permissible, it probably isn't the best habit to get into and it is probably not going to be something that is going to help you move up the corporate ladder. (The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business)

What about working on my own side-project?

I've actually been in work environments where my boss was so “cool” that even this was permitted.

Does this mean you should actually go ahead and build your side-business while being paid by someone else?

I donno. I mean it really depends on your situation and the environment.

I would strongly urge against it, because even if you have permission right now, it's one of those things that is easily forgotten about.

What do you mean, we told you that you could build Android applications while at work?

I don't recall that!

Why would you think this is ok?

You could also end up having a legal dispute over who actually owns the software or company you create.

Most employment contracts stipulate that any work done during company time belongs to the company. So, whatever you produce during your work hours, or using company resources, could belong to your employer. (Ah, that's why they said “go ahead and build the next Dropbox while you are at work.)

Anyway, it's a sticky situation and the ethics are quite questionable no matter how much permission you have, so I'd really just try and avoid it.

Instead, if you want to work on a side project, wake up an hour earlier each day and work on it before you get to work.

What about blogging and community involvement?

This is perhaps one of the areas where I make an exception to my general thinking.

If you have some downtime at work, it's of course preferable to use that time to do something work-related, and in many cases, I consider blogging and other forms of community involvement to be work-related.

The real question is whether or not your employer agrees. So, you might want to have that conversation before taking my advice here. (Feel free to point your employer to this post.)

I think having developers that blog and are involved in the community can be a real, tangible benefit to many employers.

I know that my blogging and speaking at community events has helped some of my past employers attract talent that they would have otherwise not been able to attract.

In fact, many companies actually pay developers to be active evangelists in the community.

The key here is balance, and again, permission.

You can't just assume you can spend your working hours blogging, and even if you do get permission, it's up to you to make sure you aren't taking advantage of the situation and benefiting yourself to the detriment of your employer.

Female preaching with megaphone

It all comes down to the golden rule

I can't give you an absolute answer to whether or not you should work on non-work-related things during work.

I can only give you some guidance.

The best piece of advice I could give you would be to turn the tables around and think about it as if you were the employer.

What would you think if an employee of yours was doing what you are doing with your downtime hours?

Would you frown upon it and think that you were being taken advantage of or would you feel like that person was taking extra initiative and going above and beyond the call of duty?

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About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."