My job often involves tasks that puts me on hold - running 10 minute commands for searching, or restarting the server, or generally, any tasks that require me to run a single command then wait for it 10-20 minutes after to finish in order for me to move on with my work.

Now, in this 10-20 minute idle time, would it be bad to just wait? Meaning, I choose not to actively work while waiting, not hunting down tasks I could cram down in that 10-20 minute idle time.

Sometimes, I spend that time reading up on my current task. Sometimes, just surfing the net. What's in my mind is "Yes, I'm working. There's just this background task doing that for me for a few minutes"

I guess it's important to bring up that I am a contractual and am paid hourly.

This might be an ethical issue so I don't expect hard answers.

  • 1
    xkcd.com/303 should be your answer. – It'sPete Jul 14 '14 at 5:00
  • depends, is there something you could reasonably finish in that time? (email triage, etc?) if so, probably best to do it. If it'd take several minutes just to get the next task going... shrugs that's just the nature of work wait away! – Eric J Fisher Jul 14 '14 at 17:29

I don't think it would necessarily be bad to just wait occasionally. But to just wait all the time? It could look bad to your boss, but it could also - bluntly - get boring for you.

On the one hand, waiting means that you will have a percentage of downtime every day, and it isn't time that can be easily allocated to other tasks because of the scattered nature of this downtime. There is also the issue of managing client (co-worker/superior) expectations: if a task takes you five minutes of focussed effort, but that five minutes is broken by a fifteen-minute period waiting on the processing, you can't tell people that the task takes only five minutes or you could wind up on the road to burnout-from-overwork. There's also the issue of what happens on those rare occasions when something goes wrong with a task, you come back to it, and the task has to be restarted.

On the other hand, if some task has an extremely low probability of failure and you don't have to watch that particular pot boiling, you can easily work on other short tasks (checking the email queues is a biggie, at least for me) while those "background" tasks are going on. This lets you stay ahead of things without trying to overbalance your own plate, and it will require you to be familiar enough with each task that you can take a fairly good guess at whether or not it will require close attention and possible operator intervention.

The trick will be finding the balance that works for you, uses your time as efficiently and effectively as possible (ie, NOT cramming it chock full of stuff to do, because sometimes five minutes of mental downtime can boost a day's productivity more than reading an answering just two more emails) and gives the client what they expect/need.


You are not a Batch File

If someone has allotted these tasks to you with a cost, it is considered that time frame X minutes is related to the current task only. If you, through multitasking, end up completing all tasks in an hour which was estimated of 3 hours, you will probably be at loss.

Also, let us assume you start a task, and in the waiting time you try multitasking with another job. What if the command fails? What if the server restart process fails? It would be tough for you to manage the failed job and the new job you have started. So, you should concentrate on the current task only.

In few conditions you can work with the new tasks in the waiting time -

  • You have a lot of pending work and you are running behind schedule(provided the tasks involve low risks).
  • The waiting tasks are low-level, low priority or not inter-related.
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    If you spend three hours on tasks that could be performed in one hour, sooner or later someone will turn up that outperforms you by a factor of three. This sounds like bad career planning. Multitasking comes at a cost, so you need to find your balance, but spending up to 20 consecutive minutes on things that does not directly benefit your client and still charging for all those minutes feels, for me at least, ok only if there is no other task to work on. – Buhb Jul 16 '14 at 22:45

The real question is, if another employee came along and did do their work in that downtime would they outperform you?

If so, your behavior is making you expendable. The fact that you sit waiting for a machine to do your job so much of the time is emphasis to how much of your labor has been automated away. You're being paid for outcome, rather than labor, which means that another person could realistically come along and offer to do twice the work in the same time/salary as you. If and when your employer finds this out, it'd make sense to come up with another solution.

If not, then don't do anything. It may be that the reason you aren't doing things on that down time are because it's impractical. Maybe the sequence of actions is important. Maybe the other tasks are in different physical locations. Maybe the context switch of going between tasks is too much to yield a benefit.


Now, in this 10-20 minute idle time, would it be bad to just wait? Meaning, I choose not to actively work while waiting, not hunting down tasks I could cram down in that 10-20 minute idle time.

This is a question for your manager/supervisor.

You understand the "what" of the job you are performing, but not the "how". In some shops, it's appropriate to sit around and wait 10-20 minutes periodically. In other shops you would be expected to be doing more than one thing and switching between tasks.

In my shop, I tend to hire fairly senior folks. Here, if you had frequent idle periods of 10-20 minutes several times each day, the question would be "why aren't you finding a better way to get this task done?" You would be expected to use your experience and intelligence to find ways not to be so idle.

In your shop, perhaps you aren't very senior and/or you are expected to do all your work serially and are just expected to wait around.

Your mileage may vary. But nobody here can tell you what you are obliged to do - that's something only your boss can determine.

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