Underemployed? Make a too-easy job work for you

The hours can go to waste quickly at a low-demand job. Here are a few ways to make the most of your time.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
Zen hotel desk clerk Marisol Gay helps out a guest at the hotel where she works in Palo Alto, Calif. Working behind a service desk can seem monotonous, but there are ways to make it worthwhile.

About twelve years ago, I had a job as a computer lab monitor at the college I attended.

The job was easy. All I had to do was go to that room during designated hours, sit at a particular desk, and answer user questions, along with a few other minor tasks such as reloading printer paper and changing print cartridges. The vast majority of the questions were very basic.

This left me with quite a bit of time where I wasn’t really doing anything but filling space.

Those hours – and there were many of them – are actually one of the biggest regrets I have of my college years.

I spent a lot of that time just sitting there web surfing. Occasionally, I’d dig into a homework assignment. Once in a while, I’d read a paperback. More than a few times, I stared at the wall and the clock.

I was underemployed, in other words. While there was a need for someone to be sitting in that seat, most of the time there wasn’t enough actual work for me to be doing.

I’m not alone in this. One of my closest friends used to work the graveyard shift as a convenience store clerk. She said that customers would come in at a rate of about three an hour during the night and she spent most of her time staring out the window or moving bags of potato chips around aimlessly. She usually had a nighttime checklist of things to accomplish, but those tasks were usually out of the way in the first two or three hours of her shift.

In each of our cases, we wasted our underemployment. Instead of taking advantage of open time where we’re actually being paid to just sit there and use that time for some sort of self-improvement, we just wasted that time.

I would give almost anything to have all of those wasted hours back. Those hours held the key to a lot of different potential avenues in my life.

Here are four incredibly useful distinct things you can be doing if you find yourself in an underemployed situation.

Look for useful things to do
There are always things that can be cleaned or organized better. There are always procedures that can be improved a little bit. There are always things that can be documented.

Sure, one might argue that these things aren’t really your job. And you’d be right. That’s not the point of doing them, though.

The reason to do them is twofold. First, you’re being paid to do something, not just sit there. You are earning money for your time there, so you might as well do something with it. Second, doing things like this earns you positive attention at work from your supervisor, which can help a lot if you’re in an emergency situation or if you’re hoping for a raise or a promotion down the road.

Improve your skills for this job
What skills are on display at this job? Communication skills with customers? Efficiency at making food or pouring drinks? Techniques for the technical field you’re involved with? Can these things be practiced or improved upon?

There are always ways to work on the skills you use in the workplace. Working on those skills when times are slow is a sure way to make sure the job goes much more smoothly when times are busy. Plus, an effective employee is one that stays around and is often in line for promotions and raises.

Prepare for your next career step
If this job is a jumping-off point, use your idle time to prepare for whatever it is that comes next.

There are a multitude of things you can do in this regard. Put in some extra studying time for a class. Work on that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Investigate a topic area you’ve always been curious about. Polish up your resume. Find leads on new jobs.

Improve yourself
If all of those fail, you can always spend the time there improving yourself. I know one person who used to take a barbell to work with him and do various exercises with it during downtime to build up his arms and shoulders. You can always take and read a challenging book – one that forces you to think deeply about the world in some way. Perhaps you can spend some time writing a handwritten letter to someone you care deeply about. The key here is to leave work a better person in some fashion than when you arrived.

Underemployment doesn’t have to mean idleness. In fact, it usually means opportunity.

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