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Biding Time Doing the Bare Minimum

But mostly, he likes to read. In the past few months, he has read "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith, Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." How can he sit and read a book at work? Welcome to looking busy while you stare at the computer screen: www.online-literature.com.

Admittedly, this worker is not planning for the long haul at this lack-of-work job. He deferred law school to save some money and travel before he really goes to work.

_____Workplace Columns_____
Life at Work
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_____Tech Jobs Headlines_____
Incentives Attract Jobs to Northern Virginia (The Washington Post, Nov 18, 2004)
Four Companies Plan Expansion in Virginia (The Washington Post, Nov 17, 2004)
Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work (The Washington Post, Nov 9, 2004)
TechNews.com: Jobs

Others decide that spending time on things other than work, at work, is well-deserved. One reader wrote that her day is spent doing non-work-related online research. "I grab the opportunity every chance I get since I am working answering phones now after a long career in accounting. And I spend my time this way because I am sooooooooooo underpaid, so this is sort of an extra compensation to me, from me!"

Wasting a lot of time at work is usually a sign that one isn't happy with work. In fact, most people who find they spend their day shopping online, playing fantasy football (sorry, folks) or IMing their old college pals should probably spend some of their own free time dusting off the résumé to find a better job.

But managers should notice this lack of output and think about how they can change their workplace to inspire people, said Nella G. Barkley, a life and work coach with Krystal-Barkley Corp. "Not to be more observant about output demonstrates lax controls internally," she said. "People respond to the fact that expectations aren't very high, and they develop a so-what attitude."

However, there is probably some truth to the thought that some full-time jobs could really be part time. "I can get my job done in less than 20 hours a week some weeks," wrote one woman. "I surf the Web, blog . . . plan vacations I can't afford, read craigslist.com and pretend to look busy (easy to do: huff a lot, and groan! Did I mention I love to act??)."

She works in bursts and furiously until she completes her tasks as an assistant. She has no desire to move on, find a new job or ask for more work, she said. "I'm no high-striving career climber," she wrote. "I make a good living at it, and am fine with my title!"

This woman probably falls into the "rare" category. Most people I speak with who are bored at work are not happy there.

In fact, most of the people who spoke to me about their time-wasting methods were in jobs they despised for various reasons.

About a year ago, four friends around the country in different, but equally miserable, jobs formed an e-mail clique. They e-mailed one another all day long, talking about serious life matters or sending Photoshop e-mails in which they put one another's heads into 1970s TV show still shots.

"Once in a while we'd write round-robin fiction, a James Bond-type story that had a member's bicycle, L'il Pat, as the heroine," wrote one of the former clique members.

She doubted, she said, that any employers would see it this way, but said the ongoing chats built job skills for the members, who held jobs as a New York City public relations writer, an Oregon newspaper reporter and a magazine designer in Atlanta. (It probably didn't help the mining-equipment engineer in New Mexico, however, she said.)

All of the e-clique's members quit their jobs within a year of one another, with no other jobs lined up. "That's how miserable we were," she said. But no more. These days they are all much happier, particularly because three of the four work for themselves.

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

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