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Tracking Down Time-Wasters

Of all the resources available to us, time is certainly the most precious. Unlike office supplies or even money, it’s impossible to get more; there’s no box marked “Time” in the supply closet where you can grab a spare minute or two. Once time is spent, it’s gone, and you can’t get it back. And yet, we invariably waste it. Every minute wasted keeps us from doing things we’ve determined we should be doing.

You can’t afford to waste time at work. A firm grasp of time management is absolutely crucial if you want to succeed in your workload reduction efforts. When you “manage time,” you’re ultimately just managing yourself.

Where do you need to practice better self-management? Let’s take a look at the biggest self-inflicted time-wasters in modern business and how to avoid them:

Email. If you drop everything and immediately attend to every email as it comes in, you’re derailing your productivity, over and over again. Not only do you waste whatever time it takes for you to read, ignore, or act on a given email message, but you also require more time to refocus your attention on whatever you were doing prior to the interruption.

Email can be a phenomenal productivity tool, but it will eat your day alive if you let it. If you simply can’t resist looking, then you’ll need to shut down your email completely to focus on other tasks. Turn off your alerts as well in your email options, so the tone or the envelope in the system tray won’t constantly remind you that there’s e-mail waiting.

The Internet. The Internet has to be the single worst productivity thief in the modern business era. Sure, it’s useful, and it can and has built fortunes—but it’s also a siren that lures workers onto the rocks of unproductivity. In recent surveys, workers have admitted to wasting an average of two hours per workday, and approximately an hour of it is online. Yikes!

If meandering around the Web is relaxing for you, it’s fine when you’re ready for a purposeful break. Just make sure you do it at an appropriate time and place, so it doesn’t interfere with work time. Otherwise, treat the Internet like any other tool: Use it when you need it, and put it away when you’re done.

Social media. From a productivity perspective, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be time-sucking vampires. I use all three strategically in my business, because they serve a valid marketing purpose for me, as they do for many other entrepreneurs. However, in many jobs and companies, employees aren’t using social media to boost annual earnings. To the contrary, they’re squandering those earnings. Even those with a valid business reason can waste inordinate amounts of time reading postings and commenting on nonbusiness issues.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this:
Bob uses Twitter every day for just 20 minutes during business hours. No big deal, right? Wrong! That comes to 100 minutes of lost productivity each week. There are 52 weeks in a year; let’s say Bob gets two weeks of vacation, so that’s 5,000 minutes of lost productivity annually, just from Twitter alone. If Bob works for the organization for 10 years, that’s 50,000 minutes of lost productivity over the course of Bob’s career. That works out to more than 833 hours—21 weeks of lost productivity! And all because Bob is a mild Tweetaholic. Now imagine what happens if you have an organization with five, 50, 500, or 5,000 Bobs.

Socializing. We all want a workplace where people get along and enjoy spending time together. However, too often we’re chatting when we should be working. Chitchat is fine for lunchtime and breaks, but otherwise you should be working. You should especially avoid chattering outside someone’s office or cubicle, because then you’re not just wasting your time, you’re distracting someone else, too. So it’s a good idea to set limits on your social behavior, no matter how much you might not want to.

Some socializing is needed for relationship building, bonding, camaraderie, and mentoring. Still, there should come a certain point in the conversation when you realize, “Okay, I’ve been here long enough…time to move on.” That’s when you should wrap it up— immediately, without spending another 10 minutes winding down.

Negativity. We all have things in our lives we’re unhappy about, but grousing about them accomplishes very little. As for gossiping, all it does is spread negativity, and who needs more of that? In particular, you should avoid complaining about the amount of money you make, and how dissatisfied you may be with your job or coworkers. Instead of moaning about life, readjust your attitude. If you’re disgruntled about things you can’t change, learn to accept them, and move on. If you find yourself complaining about things you can change, then by all means try to.

Handling personal issues. These days, it’s too easy for the rest of your life to intrude on your workday. You can be interrupted by personal messages in myriad ways—IMs, texts, email, and calls—and you know the remedy. Turn off your electronics, don’t check your personal email, and end any personal calls on the company’s phone or your cell phone as quickly as possible.

I’ve known people to balance their checkbooks, book vacation travel, or sort out their mortgage applications while at work. I suspect people do these things during the workday because they work so many hours. By the time they’re home, it’s late and they’re exhausted. This is obviously counterproductive. If possible, finish up work on time, leave, and conduct your personal business on your personal time. Some of our globe-trotting schedules don’t allow for this nice, neat compartmentalization, but it truly does help with focus to the extent you can make it happen.

Better yet, try to gain flexibility. It’s true that life happens, and it isn’t always convenient, and some things can only be arranged during the week from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Fortunately, companies are starting to realize that it’s in their best interests to assist employees who are attempting to manage their lives during the day, rather than standing in the way. That can mean anything from allowing workers to access the Internet for incidental personal use to offering flexible schedules to accommodate personal appointments.

Smoking. Some workers have a ready-made excuse for wasting time: they’re smokers. Of course, it is your choice to smoke; however, you should only do so on regularly scheduled breaks or at lunch, within the parameters your employer has set. Not all smokers follow the rules, because they need more cigarettes than the rules allow. Many smokers often take extra time here and there to nurse their addiction. Given that most employers don’t make this easy anymore, it can take 10 minutes or more to get to the designated smoking area, smoke a cigarette, and get back to work. That can add up to a lot of wasted time per workday. The solution? Kick the habit.

Arriving late/leaving early. This one’s self-explanatory. Many of us pare a few minutes off the day occasionally, and some of us make a habit of it. It may not seem like much, but get this: if you’re late or leave early an average of just 10 minutes a day, that adds up to about a week’s paid vacation over the course of a year. Better start setting that alarm earlier.

Boring or unpleasant tasks. You’ll focus much better on your important work if you don’t have all those less-interesting tasks hanging over your head. So jump in and get them done! About 99% of the time, those nitpicky tasks are dramatically easier and less painful than you expect. Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re really having trouble, schedule a five-minute appointment with yourself to begin the chore. When the designated time arrives, start working on the task. If you feel like stopping at the end of five minutes, you can. The only rule is you must schedule an additional five minutes for tomorrow. When you begin to see some progress, five minutes soon becomes 10, 15, and then 20. Sometimes you just need some momentum.

© 2012 Laura Stack. Excerpted and adapted from What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do: Reduce Tasks, Increase Results, and Save 90 Minutes a Day, by Laura Stack. Used by permission of the publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

You can learn more time management strategies at these AMA seminars:
Managing Chaos: Dynamic Time Management, Recall, Reading and Stress Management Skills for Administrative Professionals

Organizing Your Work: New Techniques for Administrative Professionals

Your time is invaluable, and being productive requires effective prioritization. Learn how to manage your workload with this AMA webinar.

About the Author(s)

Laura Stack is president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a popular keynote speaker. She is the author of What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), Execution Is the Strategy (Berrett-Koehler, 2014), from which this article is excerpted, and four previous books.