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This is the first of a three part post where we asked a bunch of productivity experts three questions. Read after the jump to see their answers along with my commentary about each one. Thanks to everyone who participated.
What is the single biggest way people waste time without even realizing it?
Surfing the web. Maybe that doesn’t count, though, since most folks actually do know they’re wasting time. Biggest time waster without knowing it is being chatty. For real. Chattiness is a total time sink!
Brendon Connelly from Slacker Manager (rss)
I’m starting to experiment with a Firefox plugin called PageAddict that is supposed to show you how much time you spend on various websites throughout the day. I think very few of us realize how much time we spend browsing. Being chatty isn’t something I would have thought of, but that is a good one. Which ties in nicely with our next time waster…
I have a love/hate relationship with IM. One tip I’ve heard of people using is to always leave your status set to busy or hidden. That way you can interrupt other people, but they won’t know you are available to interrupt yourself.
In my opinion, one of the biggest ways that people waste time without realizing it is by not having a basic agenda for their day, a routine if you will. Many people get up in the morning and just start doing things without being organized about it. The same applies when they get to work. I have had plenty of jobs, and have seen so many people come in and putter around, getting coffee, searching for something in their desk from the day before, generally being unorganized about getting through their day. They often waste an entire hour trying to “Get started”, and then wonder why they feel like they are behind the 8-ball all day long.
Stephen Smith from HD BizBlog 1.2 (rss)
Stephen makes a good point about having a routine. Most of the highly productive people I’ve known have a routine for at least certain parts of their day.
I think communication tools, of all types, get in the way of productivity. Of course, it’s not the tools themselves that is the problem, but rather our attention to them. If we allow every incoming communication to take our focus away from what we’re doing, we quickly lose chunks of productive time.
Ian McKenzie from Ian’s Messy Desk (rss)
If a communication tool is breaking your flow of concentration, it probably is hindering you more than it is helping. I’ve heard people talking about only answering their email twice a day or even once per week in order to keep it from becoming a distraction. When I think about the number of devices I have that other people can cause to beep, vibrate or shriek it is amazing I get anything done. Fortunately I’ve turned most of them to silent so I can deal with them on my own schedule.
Multitasking is something that I think in 10 years will have major negative connotations. It was brought to the fore because of computers, so for a while it carried the idea of being fast like a computer. In the near future I think it will stick out as a negative term. Kind of like the name ChemLawn does today. When ChemLawn was created it probably sounded scientific and sophisticated. Now it sounds toxic. (And they have changed their name to TruGreen.)
Watching television. Although we realize that TV is a waste of time, we don’t notice how much time it really consumes. In most households it’s constantly on and it has a way of sucking you in longer than you plan. Just try going without it for a weekend and you’ll be amazed at how much more productively you spend your spare time. It increased my productivity 500-1000% easily and I felt great too.
John Wesley from Pick the Brain: An Analytical Approach to Self Improvement (rss)
When I read this time waster, I immediately thought of a blog entry I read where someone was describing going the weekend without TV. After doing some searching I discovered it was actually from Johns blog here. My wife and I have gone without a television for several years now. We will watch DVDs for entertainment, but we don’t sit down and channel surf. If we are bored, we’ll go for a walk, but we don’t let television just consume our time. Attacking television has been a common theme at Productivity501, but it is a pretty easy target. According to a study, Americans spend half of their free time watching television. So on average, cutting out TV will double the amount of free time you have. Not bad.
Not having a purpose for being productive – they don’t understand the difference between being busy and being effective. When you’re busy, you may look like you’re getting lots done, but it’s actually energy being scattered. When you’re moving in pursuit of a goal, then you’re doing things effectively.
Alvin Soon from Life Coaches Blog
This is a very good point that is often overlooked. It isn’t how much you do that matters. I see this problem a lot when people start buying all kinds of gadgets to “help” them get work done. Unless those things are part of an overall plan toward a particular goal, it is unlikely that new electronic toys will be of any benefit.
Staying busy, without really working. What I mean by this is doing lots of activities — checking email, making phone calls, meetings, reading feeds and Websites — things that keep you busy, but not working towards a goal. Staying busy, and accomplishing your goals, are two very different things. I’ve fallen into this trap myself many times
Tony D. Clark from Success from the Nest (rss)
In Productivity and Values I said: “It isn’t a matter of doing a lot of things. Productivity is accomplishing important things.”
Busyness. Most people don’t realize that being busyness is just disguised laziness. I’m talking about doing stuff that makes you feel productive without contributing any value to your life. Productivity isn’t about becoming a robot, it’s about becoming smart. Learn to do the things that count, and think critically about the stuff that really doesn’t.
Scott Young from Scott H Young (rss)
Wow. Three in a row about busyness. Honestly, this is one of the problems I have with time management and organizational systems and processes. They often give people an easy way to track minutia that really should be forgotten or passed off to someone else. If you really want to be productive your goal should be to narrow down the things you do to just the things where you add the most value.
I actually suffered from this problem in putting this post together. So many people participated that just organizing all the responses was getting daunting. I finally decided to just deal with the responses from the first day. Once I got on a roll it was easy to finish the rest. However before I gave myself a small manageable amount, I spent a bunch of time thinking about the task instead of actually doing it.
Mindless routines. You get into a habit of doing something a certain way, but because you’re in a groove, you don’t notice when the situation changes and you keep doing things that way. Over time, this accumulates and results in a lot of lost time.Here’s an example: before my son was born, I had a highly efficient morning routine. When he was born, I simply added taking my son to his daycare to that routine, which made sense at first. What I found out, though, was that a bit of analysis of this change would easily shave fifteen minutes a day off of the overall routine.
I see this a lot when I work with clients and look at their business processes. Often times something is being done by a worker who doesn’t really understand the entire process flow and as a result they are performing senseless tasks that don’t add any value. It is amazing how easy it is to overlook simple ways to save time once we get into a habit. The order of things can make a big difference in the amount of time required. In fact As I’m writing this, I’ve thought of two or three things in my morning routine that can probably give me an extra 20 minutes if I just switch them around to different times.
I know this is good advice, but I’ve given up on cleaning out my inbox. I keep everything in there unless I know it can safely be deleted. However, I’ve created other systems to deal with todo items that come in. I like the idea of a clean inbox, but the ability to easily search for any email from my computer or the web has always outweighed the benefits of having my inbox completely clean.
For me, I’ve found my biggest problem is when I read an email and think “Ok I’ll deal with that later”. If I deal with it now whether that is by replying, moving it to a to-do folder or deleting it, I fare much better. Maybe I need a better system.
People waste time making the same little decisions again and again. They keep asking themselves things like “do I have to wake up now” “should I work out today,” “can I watch another 30 minutes of TV.” Success is a habit. Train yourself to always wake up at a certain time, make your workouts mandatory, schedule your TV watching and stick to that schedule. The constant plea bargaining in your mind not only wastes your time, but it also lowers your motivation to get things done.
Will from Wise Bread (rss)
This very much relates to the idea of having a routine. Someone who gets up and goes jogging every day for the past 5 years isn’t going to spend much time wondering if he should go today. Part of the trick to doing this is to start small with things that you will actually follow through with. I see people decide they are going to get up at 5 am every morning and it lasts exactly 0 days. They would be better off getting up consistently at 7 and sticking with that commitment and then see about moving it back. Instead of committing to yourself to workout for 2 hours a day, maybe you should start with doing 50 sit ups and 25 push ups and sticking with it.
Not making decisions consciously early. Often they set papers aside or leave emails sitting in the inbox to go back to the later. They sometime don’t go back, sometime loose papers under other papers, and sometime create an unmanageable backlog. Thus, they waste time in handling mail and email too many times. Another place decisions ahead of time could help is in interactions with others. For example, time is wasted in meetings without agendas and during visits at cubicles without defined purpose.
Susan Sabo from Productivity Cafe (rss)
It is very easy to deal with a grouping of items (email, mail, papers, etc.) with the idea that you’ll find something you want to act on and do it. This creates a terrible environment for productivity because instead of getting work done, you start shopping for your favorite task. When I was 12 my mom gave me a book on how to clean my room. It said that once you pickup an item you should put it away. Don’t put it back down and just pick something else up that you’d rather put away (or fiddle with). This is good advice for almost everything.
I would have to say that the largest time sink (at least, in my humble opinion) is the simple act of thinking about all of your responsibilities and commitments (called “open loops” in GTD parlance). Having your own mind constantly interrupt you with other things you need to be doing (or forgot to do) can absolutely cripple your productivity and effectiveness in most areas of your life. Not to be too much of a GTD evangelist, but knowing that all of my stuff is written down elsewhere makes it much easier to focus on what I’m doing, and doing that task well. And obviously, the clearer your head is when doing something, the better you’ll be able to perform.
Brett Kelly from Cranking Widgets (rss)
To me this is the most valuable part of GTD. I’m not really that big on particular systems because I think it is very easy to start working your system instead of accomplishing actual work. But the idea that you need to put your ideas, thoughts and commitments somewhere you trust so you can concentrate on other things with a clear mind is very valuable.
When I was practicing the piano for 4 hours a day, I would keep a notepad with me in the practice room. If I thought of something important, I would right it down and go back to giving my full attention to the music I was working on. If I didn’t part of my attention would remain distracted. Over a 4 hour session, it was easy to come up with so many things to think about that half of my attention was on things other than the music. Writing things down allowed me to focus just on the task at hand.
Not de-cluttering and simplifying their lives. Knowing where everything is saves on time and stress, compared to having to dig around in a drawer, cupboard or even something as small as your wallet (stuffed with receipts) to find what you are after.
James from Organize IT (rss)
I’ve been doing a lot of this. It can be incredibly difficult. My wife and I have moved several times in the past year and this has allowed us to really trim down on the things we have that we didn’t really need. It isn’t cheap to do because you end up giving things away only to discover that later on you need them again, but that is just part of the cost of simplifying things. It is amazing how good it feels to know that you have exactly what you need–nothing more and nothing less.
Tweaking your productivity system. It’s great to have a spiffy system, but don’t forget to actually do the tasks on your list. It feels productive to tweak and change systems, but it’s so wasteful. Just do!
Andrew Flusche from Legal Andrew (rss)
I think sometimes we have a romantic idea of how nice it will be to work when we are perfectly organized. It is easy to keep chasing a fairytale instead of just doing what needs done. The perfect tool is not always the best.
Auto-pilot and routine have got to be the biggest culprits. We are creatures of habit, and our comfort zones get us to justify all sorts of behaviors that are less than productive for us. The up side to this is that we can consciously create good habits which work in our favor instead. Auto-pilot now becomes well-placed faith in a trusted system.
Rosa Say from Managing with Aloha (rss)
I have recently started looking at some of my routines trying to be objective. I’m amazed at how many things I find myself doing that make me think “what in the world?!?” They usually aren’t huge time wasters, but just a bunch of small bad habits that waste a few minutes here and there. Obviously I’m working to correct these. :)
I believe it is a combination of two things that causes people to waste time without even realizing it. First, as Stephen Covey put it eloquently, people may be climbing the “ladder of success” very efficiently, but if this ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, they won’t be effective. In other words, they may find that they have been very busy doing the wrong things without even realizing it, and therefore wasting their time.
Second, people may be “doing” a project or trying to achieve a goal, without having a clear idea about why exactly they are doing it. In other words, they haven’t given the desired successful outcome of the task or project any significant thought at all. Again, they may find themselves wasting their time on finishing a project that turns out to have no real value to them.
gtdfrk from Getting Things Done (rss)
I see a lot of people doing this with their careers. They spend years working for someone else without ever really thinking about where they want to be later on in life. One of the strengths I see in the Franklin Planners is that they try to help you figure out your values first and then decide your goals to base your tasks around.
Not knowing their life purpose. There is no bigger time waster than putting a lot of effort in doing things only to eventually find that they have climbed the wrong ladder for years. People could even waste their entire life this way.
Donald Latumahina from Life Optimizer (rss)
A few years ago my wife and I decided to take a much different path from the norm. This involved selling our huge house and giving up other things, but the result is that we’ve been able to spend a lot more time focusing on things that are actually important to us. It is surprising how difficult it can be to really sit down and decide what is important in life because we are so conditioned to think of a particular path and lifestyle as the way to success–even if the result isn’t somewhere we want to end up.
I’m going to give an answer to an assumption that’s implicit in your question: That there is a uniform single problem for everyone. Instead, I think everyone’s challenges are different. When working with clients I’m always a bit surprised when one thing leaps out at them. For example, one client loved the simple A-Z filing system – she was very excited to try it. Another found my email tips most helpful. However, generalizing one experience to everyone is limiting – it’s why I teach a consistent, complete system instead of tips and tricks. That said, email is huge, and presents a big opportunity for many people to improve how they use their time. Some of my suggestions include scheduling fixed times in the day to process messages (AKA “time blocking” or “time mapping”), quitting the program afterwards, and making sure the “new mail” alarm is disabled. In workshops I ask clients to think about email as they would a chainsaw – it’s powerful, dangerous, and should not be fired up just to “check the trees” :-) Start the program, so the work of dealing with each message (getting them out of the inbox), then move on.
Matthew Cornell from Idea Matt (rss)
I like the chainsaw idea! It is my understanding that the banks in Switzerland only allow their employees to check email twice each day to help keep it from becoming a huge waste of time.
I think people who attempt to handle all of the inputs of our communication obsessed culture, without having some sort of system, process or plan to deal with it, is the biggest time suck. A lot of people I know receive scores of e-mails, dozens of phone calls, and a few hundred IM messages and other “small” interruptions a day. Yet, they try to handle the assault of these things with no plan in place. No wonder they are overwhelmed, wasting time and dropping balls left and right. I certainly was, until I figured out that having some simple habits, a plan that worked for me and some ruthless changes in what I was willing to accept in order to regain some control.
Patrick Rhone from Patrick Rhone (rss)
I think some of this goes back to the idea that people don’t really know how they add value. Since they don’t really know what is important and what isn’t they default to doing whatever makes them feel important and feeling busy often fills this void.
Email. Definitely email. Email stealthily hides under a title of a “productivity application”, while it quietly sucks the time out of your day. With little applications that pop-up on your computer screen every 3 minutes (or more) demanding your attention to forwards to funny videos, email ensures that your productivity flow will be interrupted at regular intervals throughout the day.
Glen Stansberry from LifeDev (rss)
Our computer desktops are becoming more and more like pinball machines everyday. A light starts flashing and dinging notifying us that we can score 2,500 points if we respond right now, etc. The term “productivity application” is grossly misused in my opinion. A productivity application is something that lets you focus on your productive work. Most “productivity applications” are full of all kinds of features to allow us to do things that add no value whatsoever. We can add animation to our PowerPoint slides, change the color of our fonts in Word, and use email to subscribe to jokes. If you need to write the content for a document, Notepad with spellcheck is probably a better productivity tool than about any wordprocessor.
“Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.” The idea of trying to do everything at the same time sounds crazy, but this is exactly what a lot of people try to do. They try to answer emails while instant messaging and catching up on the morning news, while drinking their coffee and sorting through yesterday’s mail. For a computer to multitask, it has to change its context, which means moving one process out of the processor and moving another in. The computer can do this very quickly. People can’t.
I believe most people waste time thinking about unimportant things. I would call it ‘unproductive thinking’, it’s those moments when we have arguments with people in our heads when we’ve not actually had an argument. If we were to become more aware of our thoughts we could think more productively.
Steven Aitchison from Change Your Thoughts (rss)
What I like about arguments in my head is that I always win. :) Seriously this is a good point. It is difficult to train your mind to be focused and most healthy people have a constant barrage of other thoughts competing with their current task. Training yourself to focus and to “turn off” unproductive thoughts is a difficult but valuable skill to acquire.
And another vote for turning off the TV. Where I grew up in the country, we only got 2 channels anyway, so it was a lot easier to avoid watching television–there wasn’t anything to watch. There have been some studies that link television watching with small children to autism. This is pretty scary when you think about how much TV kids watch.
- Perfectionism – like taking an half hour to fold laundry perfectly
- Looking for things that should be routine – like keys, cell phone, remote controls, clothing, etc.
- Long phone calls
I use to work with a lot of graphic designers. The perfectionism thing was always a tough issue. I wanted them to create a quanity of nice brochures for our clients, but they wanted to produce work of art master pieces with absolutely no flaws. For any type of work, you have to understand the acceptable margin for error. Otherwise you end up with gilded bricks for building a dog house.
Good point. This kind of goes along with the idea of busyness. When you are doing things that aren’t priority, it a matter of being a busy instead of being productive.
Watching television. For some reason, sitting in front of the TV makes clocks move faster. I know that even I get lost in it sometimes, with all those channels to pick from. Seems to always be something on that I am interested in, even though I know I have much better things to do.
David from My Two Dollars (rss)
I like the point about TV making clocks move faster. So basically the more you watch television, the shorter your life expectancy. :)
Confusing “busy-ness” with productivity. You can be completely busy all day, uber-organized, on-top-of your calendar, next action lists, reference material, etc., and yet still not get anything done. It’s not just about Collecting, Processing, Organizing. You really need to get to the Doing and Reviewing.
GTD Wannabe from GTD Wannabe (rss)
I know a lot of people get too hung up on their organization process and use it as a way to avoid doing actual work.
Managing email constantly, instead of setting aside time, a couple of times a day, to focus on it. If you are slave to your email inbox, you will waste an incredible amount of time chasing things that are “urgent” instead of focusing on the most important things.
Jason Echols from Blackbelt Productivity (rss)
The old Franklin Quest training use to show everything in four quadrants. Important and Urgent. Important and Not Urgent. Not Important and Urgent. Not Important and Not Urgent. They pointed out that the more time you spend in Important and Urgent, the less time you have to focus on things that really help you in the future. When email is used wrong, it falls into the Important and Urgent category.
There are a million ways we keep ourselves busy when we’re actually not really accomplishing anything — phone calls, emails, reading blogs, IM, Twitter, etc. The biggest reason people waste time this way while still thinking they’re getting stuff done is that they don’t identify the 2-3 most important tasks they want to accomplish today, and focus on them.
Leo Babauta from Zen Habits (rss)
I like the 2 or 3 task ideas. If we’ve organized our lives correctly, 2 or 3 tasks should be all we need to really move ahead.