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In my workplace (developer, but I assume this question would apply to all environments), we get a few months of manic work with loads of tasks to do, which tend to get rushed for deadlines, and then we get periods where we have hardly anything on and we are just sitting there trying to find things to do, which may be helpful, but realistically we could be doing something more productive.

I know this is down to bad management, however we did bring that up and we were told to 'self-manage'

So how do you self-manage, when working with an unreliable source of work?

Sorry if the question is a bit vague.

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

I work as a freelancer, so this question pretty much defines my life. In my market, due to holidays and budget years ending, I pretty much have a vacation from mid-November through Valentine's Day. During the rest of the year, it's frantic feast or famine.

While a workplace situation may be somewhat different, I tend to be "productive" during my downtime by studying industry trends, working on personal pet projects to stay on my game, and do a lot of the "personal development" type activitites that keep me ready to pounce when the feast approaches again.

The reality is that in my world (due to market conditions) and yours (poor management), consistency in the workload may be a pipedream. I've learned to live WITHIN this paradigm. I've always got a couple things waiting on a back burner for when there's a slowdown. Pro-bono work for non profits, taking more time for professional networking, online classes or even reading a book that helps me run my business more effectively.

While it may seem like downtime, I fill it with--and here's the secret--applicable skill-building tasks and activities--instead of surfing the 'net and beating myself up for being "unproductive".

It sounds like self-management isn't necessarily going to solve your workflow problem, but perhaps viewing a slowdown in the workload as an oportunity for self-development with workplace related skills may be a better solution.

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Good answer, but as I'm not a freelancer, I'm not sure my company would be ahppy with me not "working" and building my own skillset (not that they would actually notice). I suppose sticking to a strict schedule of working and learning throughout the day to make sure I achieve the same results but also improve my skills would work. Currently I've been fiddling with our IT infrastructure and trying to learn more about windows server. – Adam Jun 20 '13 at 15:05
That's what I'm talking one of my assignments, I filled time improving processes by learning PowerShell to automate some maintenance tasks. Work-related, but also gve me some new skills. – dwwilson66 Jun 20 '13 at 15:23

I spent nearly 18 years in professional consultancy, which, similarly to dwwilson66, has periods of extreme load (100hr weeks) and very light periods (30hr weeks) so making best use of this time is essential to being successful. Options include:

  • Write up documentation. The bane of everyone's life, so it often isn't done, or is done badly. Use this time to document processes, code etc.
  • Self study. Become proficient in whatever is hot in your market, or study whatever you found most challenging on your previous project
  • Develop training for others - share your skills or experience. Mentor others.
  • Business generation - meet new stakeholders, identify needs, develop solutions etc
  • Develop non-core skills - like start a rock band, write a book, take up a hobby
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Solve this problem by using agile methodology Scrum. If implemented properly you will not experience the ups and downs in workload you describe, as Scrum mandates you to add no more items to your current sprint than your team will be able to handle, as given by the experience of previous sprints. As Scrum backlogs typically never are empty, you will be sure to have enough work to do every sprint.

Note: If you cannot produce what is required from your team when doing normal sprints, it is a signal to management that your team needs more resources. This is also a great benefit of Scrum.

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The reality of life is that most all activities are cyclical. The steady paycheck, 40 hours/week, etc. are all artificial luxuries that more & more of us can no longer afford. So the first thing is to try to understand the rhythms in your company and industry. There's the big cycle you mention, but there may be other things that you can anticipate.

Obviously, the first thing with downtime, to the extent you can anticipate it, is try to shift more vacation there. Next, you need to become aware of things you can do that effectively 'store up time', because you won't have to do them later (or else can just update quickly) when things are busy. Make a list of things like that - maintaining records, refactoring code, training (self and others), hiring (and training). These last are particularly important when you know you're going to be slammed in a few months, because hiring during crunch times can actually REDUCE productivity.

Of course, a lot of this may be restricted by budgets, but as much as you can, get your systems maintained & upgraded, just as a farmer would repair & expand his barn in winter. It's unrealistic to completely level out the load, but there are a surprising number of things you can do to bank time, once you're aware of them.

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