We all waste time now and again. Sometimes it’s because we make random, silly mistakes. For example, I just watched my daughter put dirty dishes into a dishwasher full of clean dishes. Undo! But, when they are behaviors we engage in regularly, it’s worth taking a closer look. We’ve all had that experience of coming up for air after an hour of internet “research” or looking for something and eventually thinking, “well, THAT was a waste of time!” Usually, this happens because we haven’t been purposeful about what we’re doing or organized with our things. Of course, there are the unpredictable events that arise to interrupt the day and derail your plans. And certainly there is a time for engaging in certain mundane, mindless activities. But the more you can identify your personal time wasters and plan accordingly, the more effectively you’ll use the time you have…to make more time for Netflix binging later!

The key is to identify and predict time wasters, so you can consciously take control. We’re all familiar with the classic time sucks like social media, internet surfing, and binge TV watching. It’s definitely a good idea to be aware of those and do your best to avoid or engage in them less if they’re becoming a problem for you (more on that in a future post). But you should also become aware of some sneakier culprits, because we don’t always notice how they get in the way of getting things done. Here are some common ones, and what you can do about them.

Multi-tasking – Despite decades of effort to hone this skill, even I have to admit that this is generally not the most efficient use of time. In fact, trying to do a variety of things at one time makes you less efficient at all of them. Switching back and forth between tasks expends mental energy. You end up getting scattered, diverted, and derailed. Focused devotion to one task at a time is really the best way to go.

The physical environment – A cluttered or messy environment can be distracting and contribute to not being able to find things, having a big effect on your productivity. Make sure everything has a “home” and make a point to return things there. But even in a tidy workspace or home, light, noise, temperature, time of day and “co-workers”/family are elements that can affect your well-being and ability to get things done. In what kind of environment do you do your best work?

Your digital environment can also become an issue. It can become cluttered, making things harder to find and slowing the performance of your computer or phone. Make sure you have cloud backup enabled, and a backup system for your computer.  This is one time multi-tasking is okay: When you’re waiting in line, on hold, or otherwise not doing much, delete unnecessary documents, photos and videos, or clean up your apps. Another big problem is in notifications – all those distracting tones, slides, banners, pop-ups; limit them whenever you can!

Email, in general. Processing email is a huge challenge on a good day. Decrease what comes in by unsubscribing from promotional and other repetitive emails. Check email only at set times per day. Quit your email app when you’re working on something else, and silence email notifications on your phone. You don’t have to be aware of every email as it arrives.

Over-stuffed to-do lists – Is yours only getting longer and longer? Is it spread out across sticky notes, random pieces of paper, and who knows where else? Have one place to list your to-dos. A pad of paper, planner, an app on your phone…pick one and stick with it.

Being too nice – Have you taken on more tasks than you can manage? Are you doing things for others that you don’t have to do, don’t like to do, but feel like you should do? Chances are you’re not doing them well, and you are sacrificing some of your own self-care in the process. Saying no can be challenging, but for many reasons in many scenarios, it is the right thing to do. I call it the “ugh” test – if a request makes me say or feel, “ugh,” I make every effort to decline.

Perfectionism – I have worked with many incredibly smart people who know on paper how to be organized and productive. They “could” do it themselves. What’s holding them back is a concern that they won’t do it perfectly, or complete it in a certain amount of time. Is this you?

Difficulty starting – this leads to a classic time waster: procrastination. This usually encapsulates all of the above strategies of time wasting, because we start doing anything BUT what we should do. In writing, it’s referred to as the “blank page syndrome.” If we don’t know how to get started or understand the steps involved, this leads to feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated. Breaking a project down into small, actionable steps can help you get past that “blank page.”

List your time wasters to bring them front and center. Keep a pad of paper in a central location, or use the Notes app on your phone, and keep track of when and what you’re doing. You can set an hourly alarm to prompt you to do this regularly throughout the day. If it helps, use this 168 hours time tracker.

  • When do they happen?
  • Where do they happen?
  • How are you feeling when you’re choosing to engage in them?

The first step to making change is identifying the problem. So quit procrastinating and get started!