Whether you’re a writer, a painter, or an entrepreneur—anyone, really—we’re all guilty of wasting time. What we know is we’re at our workspace and magically, three hours have passed with nothing accomplished. What we don’t always know is how that happened. Enter time wasters.
Time wasters are behaviors, obligations and other phenomena that waste time. It might be anything from social media distractions to busywork. Everyone is vulnerable to these time wasters, and being vulnerable doesn’t necessarily make you a terrible writer, painter, or entrepreneur. The good news is that once you’ve pinpointed the culprit, you can take steps to avoid the time waster in question.
Below, we’ve identified the top 9 most common time wasters at work, along with a list of activities that may seem like time wasters but are not. We also provide tips on how to identify and avoid the time wasters in your own life.
Not all meetings are a waste of time, but meetings tend to take a lot of time, so it’s crucial to ensure that the meetings you call are worth everyone’s time. You can do this by setting a clear goal or agenda.
Without a guiding agenda, a meeting is just people talking—and it’s possible you’ve sat through many such meetings yourself.
Perhaps your weekly meeting somehow turned into a casual group catch up. Perhaps you called for an emergency meeting but ended up having a room full of folks raising their concerns unrelated to why the meeting was called in the first place. Without an agenda, a meeting is likely to become nothing more than a time waster.
It’s hard to imagine how working could be a waste of time, but it can happen. If you have far more important things to do but are laboring away at administrative tasks that could be delegated elsewhere, you might have fallen victim to a time waster.
This is a tricky one because it feels like you’re working—but if there’s a better way to spend your time and another employee who can easily take over this work, this work qualifies as a time waster. Part of being an effective manager is knowing how to delegate responsibilities.
In 2018, The Economist Intelligence Unit released a survey of 403 people on the topic of miscommunication in the workplace. The results revealed that poor communication has a massive impact on business: 44% of respondents said miscommunication “caused a delay or failure to complete projects.”
It’s evident that poor communication can negatively impact a business, but even on top of these numbers, any failure in communication is also a waste of time. You not only have to account for the time lost based on poorly communicated plans, you also have to communicate again to correct these errors.
Most of the time, planning is a great way to avoid wasting time. But there comes a point when it’s possible to overdo the planning process. To borrow from software development, it’s possible to overengineer a system or a strategy to do more than you set out to do, increasing the complexity of the plan but not contributing significantly to the overall goal.
Knowing when to stop planning and start doing ensures that you don’t allow your planning to morph into a dreaded time waster.
When was the last time you went to a coffee shop to work but ended up not doing any work at all? Or perhaps the last time you decided to rent a spot at a coworking space and ended up researching nearby co-working spaces for hours?
These distractions from work, no matter how seemingly trivial or distantly relevant, are time wasters. And they can negatively impact your focus, productivity, and your career.
It seems self-evident that procrastination is a time waster for freelancers and creatives. After all, by definition, procrastinating means that you’re avoiding a difficult task—likely in favor of an activity that provides more instant gratification.
But it’s not just the fact that you’re not working that makes procrastination a waste of time. It’s also the fact that often, procrastination is linked to a sense of guilt and poor emotional regulation.
Push notifications are interruptions, and interruptions are time wasters. It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the original task after an interruption, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, in an interview with Fast Company.
What’s worse is that push notifications are not just any interruptions; they’re appealing interruptions, and it’s not difficult to imagine why. Research shows that humans are “hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance.”
Tech leaders like former Google ethicist Tristan Harris and Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products have argued that these notifications are designed to be addictive. Push notifications are strongly linked to smartphone addiction.
What this means that notifications are especially formidable opponents, but that’s why it’s so important to beware of these time wasters.
Busywork, according to Merriam-Webster, is work that seems productive but only serves to keep you busy. Maybe you’re trying to show that you’re a hard worker and end up doing something that is of little value to the company but keeps you occupied. Maybe your manager has assigned you a task that also fits the bill.
Busywork has many causes, but the result is that time passes and you have not done anything of real value. This is arguably the definition of wasted time.
Multitasking might sound impressive, but as many have argued, it’s a myth. Nobody can truly do two things simultaneously and well. According to neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, multitasking makes us slower and less efficient. This is because what we think of as multitasking is often just really fast toggling between one task and another. And ultimately, all we end up doing is wasting time.
Trying to avoid time wasters doesn’t mean optimizing every single second of your life. Attempting to do that can lead to burnout and poor performance. It’s important to remember while trying to use your time wisely that you don’t deprive yourself of important activities that may not count as work, but aren’t time wasters either.
With media glamorizing the hustle and grind, you might think that rest is for the weak. But everyone needs rest, and rest is key to ensuring you remain on top of your game. You wouldn’t want to burn yourself out.
According to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, resting can actually boost productivity. It’s not for nothing that popular time management techniques like the Pomodoro Technique have breaks built into them.
Socializing frequently appears on lists of time wasters, and it’s true that excessive socializing can distract employees from doing their job at work. But it would be unfair to write off socializing entirely as a waste of time. A certain amount of socializing can be important for building trust and strengthening bonds between team members.
Sleep deprivation is dangerous to your health, and getting enough sleep is certainly not a waste of time. Research also shows that REM sleep can improve creativity. This doesn’t just apply to nighttime sleep—even napping can be beneficial.
It’s important to keep in mind that time wasters are also subjective to some extent. For example, playing video games every day when you should be working might be a waste of time for you. At the same time, for your neighbor, a professional video gamer, video gaming might represent training and professional development.
But although time wasters differ depending on the situation, there is a way to identify the time wasters in your own life. The following guide will show you how to recognize your personal time wasters and what you can do about them.
Not knowing what you’re working towards makes you an easy target for time wasters. You might find yourself spending half the day on busywork without recognizing that you haven’t done anything that matters—for you, or for anyone else.
The first step to rooting out the time wasters in your life is to decide what your goals are. Anything that doesn’t contribute to your goals may very well be a time waster.
Maybe you have a big, broad goal and it’s hard to know how your actions contribute to that goal. For example, if your goal is to succeed at your job as a product manager, it’s hard to see how that relates to answering a few emails. That’s why it helps to break down your goals into smaller goals or tasks.
If a goal is ambitious and abstract, a task should be concrete, like spending 30 minutes a day reading up on product management literature.
Knowing what your goals are and what you have to do to reach them is an important step in identifying time wasters. But rather than pause before every email, meeting, and request to evaluate whether the work is worth your time—which can be exhausting—try tracking your time for a full day’s worth of activities.
Ask yourself how much of your day was devoted to accomplishing your goals and how you spent the remainder. Did a five-minute break on Instagram turn into 25? Did you spend an unusual amount of time trying to pick out a new chair for work?
Equipping yourself with ergonomic furniture is not inherently a time waster—but that’s exactly what this exercise is for. By reviewing how much time you spent on certain activities against the larger backdrop of your day and your goals, you’ll be able to judge whether it counts as a time waster or whether it was time well spent.
A list like the one we provided can be a helpful starting point, but the secret ingredient to identifying your own personal time wasters is self-awareness.
Time tracking can give you a greater awareness of your own habits, and how some of these habits may be time wasters—activities that drain you of energy and leave you with little time to do what truly matters for you.
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