Deadtime vs Downtime

Deadtime vs Downtime. They aren’t the same – they just feel like it you’re not paying attention. Let’s do some definitions first, so we’re all using words in the same way.


Deadtime is time when you’d like to work, when you’re trying to work, but something stops you being productive. Typically it might be because you’re waiting for someone to get back to you with a piece of information that you can’t move on without. Or it might be waiting in the dentist’s waiting room – all the more annoying if you arrive five minutes early and they’re running 15 minutes late.

For me it’s often an issue as I travel – it’s hard to read a book and drive a car at the same time 😉


Downtime is the time you need to recharge. It’s where you go when your head has melted and you can’t be productive any longer. Holidays count. Weekends off count. Even coffee time counts!

Most of us spend too much time running on empty, in need of downtime but not able to take it – either because we feel the pressure to be seen to be being productive or because we can’t let ourselves off the hook and fool ourselves into thinking we’re better of working. Obviously you need to think long and hard about if you want to work for a boss or an organisation that doesn’t allow downtime: and you need to talk a long hard look at yourself if you’re not giving yourself the downtime you need.

I’m going to look at downtime another time – but let’s take a look at what to do with deadtime.

Using wasted time to be productive

I think there are three things you can do with your deadtime – the first of which isn’t helpful and it’s just to get frustrated/annoyed that you can’t do something. It doesn’t change your ability to be able to do things, just makes you unhappy and less productive. The other two options are:

  • to find something to do to change deadtime into (at least partially) productive time
  • to turn it into downtime.

I don’t think I’m pushing the boundaries of reality with those observations!  🙂

Dead time to productive time

Making things productive is the obvious starting point and I’ll spend a lot of time looking at it in other places (for example pre-loading your Kindle or smartphone with something to read/listen to as you sit twiddling your thumbs in your dentist’s waiting room. I’ll write shortly about how productive you can be in those circumstances but for now, let’s just go with the idea that any productivity is better than totally wasted time.

My advice is to keep it simple and not expect too much of yourself. It’s better to regard time like this as time gained from zero-productivity upwards than as time lost from maximum-productivity downwards. Firstly, you’ll not get as annoyed, but secondly (and perhaps more importantly) you’ll then start to think more realistically about what you can do in this kind of situation. For example, getting out your laptop and starting to write a blog post isn’t on the cards – there’s simply too much overhead before you start being productive. On the other hand, having a lower expectation (and perhaps thinking more about passive productivity such as listening to a podcast or reading a blog) leads towards ideas that only take you a few minutes to set up and get going.

To be honest, there’s a lot of obvious ideas you can think of for yourself here, once you’ve got the idea of going for passive productivity, because of it’s convenience.

Dead time to Down time

A bit of time not being productive might be just what you need to make you more productive!

This is the clever one, to be honest! 😉   Or at least, it’s the one that’s less obvious to most people.

Instead of either getting bugged that you can’t do anything useful with that time, or trying to do something useful with that time (see above!) there’s a third option – consider using this time as a gift of a bit of downtime. I’m not even going to pretend this is a comprehensive list, but off the top of my head, here are some ideas…

  1. What about doing a mindfulness exercise? To be honest, there’s a heck of a lot of good advice about mindfulness all over the net, but the basics of it are very (very!) simple! You just stop faffing around and pay attention – real, hardcore attention – to something. Typically that would be your breathing for a whole variety of reasons but whatever it is that you ‘become mindful’ of it’s a handy way to use a few minutes of downtime.
  2. Check out your breathing!  Yes, I know, I’ve just mentioned breathing as part of Mindfulness but that’s just an example. Right now I’m thinking more of just using a simple, mechanical breathing exercise: for example, breathe in for four, hold for four, breath out for for, and hold for another four.  Then repeat  🙂
  3. People watch. C’mon, admit it, you love it… looking at the people around you and then picking one (or a couple or a small group) and play the speculation game. Pay real attention to what’s being said and what’s not being said.  Where are they going? Whose idea was it? Why is she cross at him? What did they last have to eat? Where do they live? What jobs do they have?
  4. Daydream. Yup, that’s right. Some of my best ideas have come from times when my head was in the clouds but even if that doesn’t happen, a few minutes chilling out won’t end the world.

That’s not all, folks!

To misuse the old cartoon comment, there’s more… but you’ve probably got the idea by now. So tell me, what sorts of things do you do in those little dead moments? Find something to do?  Or find a way of not doing? 🙂  Let me know – share your wisdom!

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