When we refer to working 40 hours a week, are we really working 40 hours—or are we waiting on colleagues to respond to emails, chatting with coworkers, and wasting away in meetings for a sizable chunk of that time? There are simply some hours that aren’t true work hours, even if they occur during the work day. Times like that are known as idle time or downtime—but there’s a difference between the two, and knowing that difference can actually help you work smarter.

The difference between idle time and downtime

These terms don’t just refer to the time experienced by people in the workplace; they also refer to—and come from—the tools we use to get our jobs done. Per FlowPath, a facilities management company, idle time is any time when an asset is waiting to run or isn’t scheduled to run, and downtime is when the asset can’t run, due to an outage or planned maintenance. For example, idle time happens when you’re waiting for your computer to boot up; downtime happens when the computer just won’t turn on.

And the concept is basically the same for people: According to UpKeep, a software maintenance company, idle time is nonproductive time that occurs when there’s a lack of demand or an unforeseen work stoppage. When you have all the tools you need available to you, but no reason to use them, you’re in idle time. If you’re working on a pitch deck, for instance, and need approval from a higher-up before you move forward on it, you’re idle while you wait for that approval, even though you could open the program to work on it.

Downtime isn’t necessarily bad, either. Sometimes, you need a break from working. In some instances, that “planned maintenance” is actually for you. According to Indeed, you can run into idle time that is caused by what corporate psychologists call “the dead-time effect,” which is when you’re overworked and stop being productive. It’s better to pre-plan downtime than let idle time occur because of burnout. The trick to making idle and downtime work for you and your company is scheduling.

Scheduling around idle and downtime

Downtime can also occur when too many people are away from the office, say, on vacations or out sick. In that case, unlike idle time, a job can’t just be done whenever everything is ready, as the key tools—in this case, the people—are completely offline.

To avoid losses from idle time and downtime, you need a solid scheduling plan. First, you should personally schedule around idle time. For instance, if you work in an environment that depends on the delivery of certain assets or products, pad time into your schedule to account for how long that might take. If it should take one day, leave padding for two, and fill up any idle slots with work you can accomplish without the shipment, if any. Use timeboxing, or the complete filling of your calendar, for this, and set two deadlines: the ideal date the shipment (or whatever you need) will be there and a flexible time that you could still make work.

For scheduling around downtime, make sure that you update your company-wide calendar whenever you’re going to be out and check for others’ outages when you’re making your personal schedule. Others’ downtime could lead to yours if you don’t account for the things you’ll need from them and get those before they’re gone.

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