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How to Stop Wasting Your Time

Photography: Robert van der Steeg

In a survey conducted in 2008, the cost of production lost in the United States to interruptions — and the time it took to get back to work after those interruptions — was put at more than $650 billion. That’s the fee the world’s largest economy is paying for the unscheduled phone calls, an average 50 email checks each day, and 77 daily uses of an instant messenger made by the typical information worker. When the bill falls on the corporation, that’s someone else’s problem. But when you own the corporation, or when you’re working for yourself, it’s not just your problem, the wasted time becomes a giant productivity challenge that has to be tackled head-on.

The most common advice usually consists of task listing and prioritization. Some experts will recommend the Eisenhower Method, a system said to have been used by the 34th President in which tasks are accorded space in a table divided into areas marked urgent/not urgent; important/not important. Others will suggest Posec, an acronym that stands for  Prioritize by Organizing, Streamlining, Economizing and Contributing. And for the truly brave, there’s always Getting Things Done, David Allen’s system of folders, lists and sub-lists.

While these kinds of methods may work for some people, they’re often the disciplined types who are most organized anyway. Most timewasters find that the complicated process of listing and prioritizing tasks takes up more time than it saves.

There are easier methods.

How Much is Your Time Worth?

The first is economic. Practitioners of the “dismal science” base their ideas on the assumption that money can be a motivating factor in personal choices: make people pay more for their petrol, for example, and they’ll drive less, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Know how much money you’re losing each time you re-check an email, take another look at Facebook or get up to pour another coffee, and you should find that you’re doing those things less too. That’s always been the principle in time and motion studies in which companies look for ways to squeeze greater efficiency out of their workforce. Because they can measure the improvements in financial terms, they’re motivated to bring in the consultants and implement their suggestions instead of turning a blind eye to worker inefficiencies.

Freelancers and the self-employed might not be losing $650 billion a year, but they can put a value on their wasted time by calculating their hourly rate and being aware of the amount they lose for each ten minutes they waste flicking to their browser and back.

In practice though, awareness alone may not be enough if only because remaining constantly aware is just about impossible. Forget the cost for ten minutes, and you can easily find yourself forgetting that you should have been working for the last ten minutes.

Combine that awareness with time-blocking though, and you might just be on to something. Gina Trapani, founding editor of Lifehacker, has described one method that she used to beat office distractions while working as a programmer in an open plan office. With designers, coders and engineers sitting elbow-to-elbow, interruptions were constant and distractions a part of the office environment. To meet her deadlines, Trapani would schedule a meeting with herself in the conference room, shut the door and turn it into a private office.

That didn’t just help because it took her away from the designers’ elbows however. It also worked because the time was limited. Trapani would only have had an hour or two in the conference room before her booking ended. Knowing that she only had to focus during a set period of time would have helped her to beat distractions caused by email, messaging and status updates. She could always catch up on the latest lolcat when the appointment was over. One of the easiest strategies that David Allen recommends is to only check your email twice a day (once at the beginning of the day, and once at the end.) It’s a strategy that effectively blocks out one major source of distraction for the entire day.

Cutting yourself off entirely can work for short bursts. Head to a café with no Internet connection and turn your phone off, and you might just find that you’ve got nothing to do but work until the time runs out or the task is complete, but it’s not a strategy that you can use all day. Time blocks must be limited if they’re to be effective. At some point, you’ll need to turn the phone back on, reopen the browser and hit the Internet again.

Know What You’re Doing

A third strategy then is to make your time-wasting more productive. Perhaps the biggest, newest time-suck in the last few years has been the growth of social media. A Nielsen survey conducted at the beginning of 2010 found that Facebook users spend an average of seven hours on the site each month, a loss of almost an entire work day. Much of that will be fun time spent by students and friends chatting to each other, rather than the loss of productive hours and much of it too will represent investments of time by businesses promoting themselves on the site. With little awareness though of how social media can actually benefit a business — beyond the vague idea of “branding” and networking — much of that time really will be wasted. If you’re finding that you’re heading over Twitter or your Facebook page on a regular basis, then you can convert that time into production by making sure you’re posting the kinds of messages that generate business, build relationships with key influencers or distributing coupon codes. You’ll still be spending time, but at least it won’t be entirely wasted.

Perhaps the best way to make better use of your time though is Lee Silber’s suggestion. The talk show host, speaker and graphic designer, ends his book Time Management for the Creative Person: Right-Brain Strategies for Stopping Procrastination, Getting Control of the Clock and Calendar, and Freeing Up Your Time and Your Life, with the suggestion to just say “no” when projects pile in.

That’s certainly the best way to stop wasting time: don’t use it for work.

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