How to Do as Little Work as Possible Without Getting Fired

By Andrew Tarantola on at

Just after college, I spent nearly six soul-crushing years in business casual clothing pushing paper from one side of a desk to the other. But a crippling caffeine addiction isn't the only thing I picked up from my time as a cubicle monkey. I also discovered the art of doing nothing without arousing the suspicions of my superiors.


The Boss Key: Know It, Use It, Live by It

The "boss key" is an essential tool in your slacking arsenal, able to instantly swap between two or more active programs—say, your browser window and that TPS report you are supposed to be working on.

Sure you could set up a custom boss key, but the entire point of this exercise is to do less work, not more, and teaching yourself scripting sounds suspiciously like extra effort. If you're on a PC or Chromebook, just tap Alt-Tab (Mac users can press Apple-Tab) to quickly cycle through the active programs on your desktop and pull up the one you're supposed to be on.

One drawback from the alt-tab method is that you've got to make a very conspicuous and easily recognizable hand movement in order to activate it. Instead, invest £30 in this foot-activated boss switch from H-Mod. It does the exact same thing as alt-tab but with much more subtlety. Just make sure you don't inadvertently hit it while your boss is reading over your shoulder.

I also should point out that your monitor's position relative to your boss's normal approach route is vital. If you have your back to the walkway, that means the monitor is facing out and anyone walking by can see what you're looking at. That's not good. Rearrange your desk so that the screen is facing away from all doors, cubicle windows, and high-flow traffic routes—basically anywhere that your boss could potentially sneak up on you from. You'll be surprised how often that extra half-second of lag time—as your boss cranes his neck over the cubicle partition to see what you're working on—comes in handy.

Similarly, turn down the screen brightness as far as you can stand to make it as difficult to read from distance as possible. If you insist on wearing headphones while slacking off, be sure to leave one ear uncovered so you can hear your boss approaching. And if you can't quite get the hang of alt-tabbing out of danger, don't bother switching at all. Instead, download Arena.Xlsm for a complete RPG that runs right there in your Excel window.


Get in Late, Get Out Early

If you're not going to be accomplishing anything, there's really not much point in actually being physically in the office. Obviously the following techniques won't work if you're hourly or your company employs punch cards to track attendance but if you're salaried, just show up five minutes late. See what happens.

If your boss starts breaking your balls over five measly minutes, don't lose hope. Instead get some props—namely a half-eaten bran muffin and half a cup of iced coffee. It has to be iced coffee otherwise the fact that it isn't steaming will give you away. Store these two items in your desk drawer and pull them out before you leave each evening (preferably after the boss has already cut out).

Leave them on your desk along with some open file folders to make the next morning look like you're not only hard at work first thing in the AM but that you've also beaten all of your colleagues into the office.

Getting out of work in the afternoon is a bit more of a challenge, at least until your boss goes home for the night. I mean, there are only so many times you can claim a sick pet or parent-teacher meeting before your supervisors get hip to the scam. So while you may not be able to actually go home early, there is one tried and true method of slacking in the afternoon: the PM coffee run. Offer to not only fly but also buy. If performed about a half hour to ninety minutes before the end of the day, not only will you have a legitimate excuse for being out of the office during the end-of-day work crunch, you'll earn brownie points for being such a team player.


Look Busy Without Really Trying

Shaving five minutes from the start and end of your day can only do so much. If you really want to slack like a pro, you're going to need to figure out how to appear occupied even if you're not. First off, read this most illustrious guide from Lifehacker on how to look busy. It's packed with helpful hints and tips on how to keep your boss satisfied with your workflow even when it's more of a "work trickle". That's not to say you should be doing zero work—unless your endgame is unemployment—but this guide explains how to keep your boss from piling a bunch of busywork on your desk.

Once you've memorised the Lifehacker guide, you're ready to take your slacking game to the next level. We're not talking about standing around with a clipboard or staring intently at your computer screen whilst wearing headphones; those techniques are as played out as licking your palms to fake clammy hands and get out of school. No, what you need are a legion of unknowing allies, namely, your co-workers.

In short, be a Chatty Cathy. Roam the halls of your office building, stopping by any open door, break room, or cubicle stall to "synergise" and "collaborate" with any co-worker that is even halfway willing to listen. Be sure to ask about their kids, people love talking about their kids and will do so at length—allowing you to not only "build rapport" with your co-worker but also shave valuable hunks of time off your work day. Just keep them talking.

You can try a similar technique with your supervisor. At my old office, we'd routinely receive memos from management so laden with industry buzzwords and random acronyms that could only be deciphered with a Cracker Jack decoder ring. While some see this as just one more office-place hassle, you can easily spin it to your advantage. Take the memo to your supervisor and ask for a detailed explanation of what on earth it's talking about. You'll be shocked how often Hey, I don't really understand how we're supposed to collate the GRE reports with the ACTA file turns into a 30 minute discussion of proper sorting and stapling methodology.

The best part of this technique is that it doesn't even need to be done face-to-face. With a little practice, you can turn any email chain into an eye-glazing morass of replies, corrections, and clarifications. Just be sure not to overdo it; you want to be just persistent enough to keep stringing people along, not so obtuse that they get fed up with your endless line of questioning.

And while we're on the subject of emails, you should strive to craft the perfect email. Every. Single. Time. Don't say in five words what can be said in five paragraphs. Don't assume that your reader has a single clue about the topic at hand (even if they're the ones that started the thread); explain every single detail in as much detail as possible. If it takes less than 45 minutes to craft a response to "where are you going for lunch today?" then you're doing it wrong.

But sitting at your desk, staring at an email client can get lonely, so be sure to break up the monotony by taking as many meetings as possible. Even if you aren't directly involved in the project, sit in on the meeting. Slink in just right and nobody will notice you're there until the house lights come up. Just remember to have a feasible excuse for sitting in ready before-hand in case someone calls you on it.

It can be hard work not doing any, but with a little practice, you can get away with just about anything—or doing just about nothing—on any given weekday.

top image: Paul Vasarhelyi