How to fight time wasters

Most of us don’t realise how much time we waste until we really think about it.

This morning I sat down at my desk at 6:50 am. I quickly sent an email to my colleagues, which lead to sending another two emails.  I popped on to LinkedIn and uploaded an Eleanor Roosevelt quote to my status and then posted a blog to a group I manage.

Next, I replied to a Facebook message I’d received overnight from a friend asking me to catch up when she visits town this weekend.

I tidied my desk and then sat down to work on my book.

It’s now 8:06 am and it feels like five minutes has passed.  While I’ve handled a number of tasks, they’ve all been low value tasks. Morning is when my mind is sharpest and most creative. An hour spent on writing will usually produce the first draft of an article for a business publication, or will allow me to proof read a chapter of this book.

It’s easy to get sucked into reactive and unimportant tasks.  There are so many distractions and tasks, which waste our time.

The secret to achieving more with less is setting boundaries around low value tasks, and blocking out time to complete high-value activities.  

We need to get brutal with our time.  I’ll repeat this a few times as it’s so important. With the right framing, we can do so without offending anyone.  

Universal time wasters

Ever have those days when you feel as though you’ve been running at full pace and you didn’t actually get anywhere?  Chances are you’ve been caught up in time wasting activities which have found their way onto your “to do” list.  

Depending on the research you read it may take up to 24 minutes to refocus each time you’re interrupted.  Sometimes we never get back to the task at hand because one interruption leads to another.

Too many unproductive and unnecessary meetings

When we work with clients one of the first things we do is to ask them to introduce better meeting disciplines.  

Usually they’ve developed the habit of accepting any invitations which hit their mailbox by simply checking if they’re free and clicking the accept button.  It only takes a few seconds to give away 30 – 120 minutes of your time with little thought.

The trigger is the invitation, the habit is to check your availability and accept the invitation, and the reward is you’ve replied quickly to the requestor.  You think you’ve been efficient in getting the task of considering the request off your list. The impact is you’ve given away time which could be better used elsewhere.

Trigger:  New invitation hits your mailbox

Action:  You ask yourself:

  • “Is this meeting really necessary?”
  • “Am I the best person to attend this meeting or should someone else attend?”
  • “Can the issue to be discussed be resolved by a phone call, or email more efficiently?”
  • “Is there an agenda?”

Diarise between 5 minutes and 20 minutes after the meeting to action any agreed outcomes.

All meetings should have agendas, and outcomes.   They should start on time and finish on time.

The Benefit:  We’ve had clients save 2 hours per day by introducing better meeting disciplines and habits.  

Email overload

Very few jobs actually require us to constantly check our email. Most of the email we receive are other focused on other people’s priorities.  Essentially, we are letting other people tell us what to do. 

The trigger is the email notification, the habit is dropping everything to read our email, the reward for this behaviour is knowing the content of everything that comes into the inbox as it arrives.  The impact however, is we lack focus on the high-value work that moves us towards our goals.  As mentioned previously, it takes between 1 minute and 24 minutes to refocus on the task at hand when we let ourselves get distracted.  When you consider the average professional receives an email every 13 minutes it’s clear the maths simply doesn’t work.  

New habit

Trigger:  Instead of relying on email notifications to trigger your email checking habit, diarise two or three 30 to 60-minute appointments in your diary to batch your email each day.

Action:  During batching times, you will first triage your inbox to decide what should be actioned, what can be replied to straight away, what needs to be delegated, and what needs to be scheduled for action later.

The Benefit:  Email batching is life changing.  Not only will you be more focused when working on high-value tasks, but you’ll action your email more methodically and mindfully improving your communication with clients, colleagues, staff and stakeholders.  

Case study: Hal takes his performance to the next level

Hal was already a good performer when he started working with me.  He knew the work he needed to do and when he needed to do it. 

His goal was to reduce his time at work to four days per week so he could work from home one day per fortnight, and also hit the golf course one day per fortnight.  He was in a sales role and wanted to keep making the same amount of money or more after reducing the number of days he worked.  This would involve bringing on more clients and being more efficient.

Hal didn’t have a lot of administration support, and wanted to use his technology more efficiently. To reduce the amount of time he spent on low value tasks, we worked on Hal’s workflow management, email and technology habits.

Hal had nearly 20000 emails in his inbox.  He cleared out this clutter and developed the habit of email batching three times each day.  He started scheduling in time to complete client notes and required administration after client meetings.  He also started delegating better by sharing leadership responsibilities with senior members of his team.

Every time we talk I ask Hal how he’s going his golf handicap has improved.  It is now in single digits.  His team are topping the country with their financial results and he was recently rated as manager of the year via employee engagement surveys.  

Interruptions and Distractions

People may interrupt you,

But you distract yourself.  

Triggers include requests for our attention from phone calls, email and colleagues.  Our current habit is usually to immediately switch our attention to answer phone calls, jump all over email correspondence, or speak with colleagues.  The rewards and impacts range from feeling needed to feeling annoyed.

We may become passive aggressive as we give half of our attention to the distraction and try to keep working.  We can also become frustrated because we may be seen as the “go to” person for tasks and responsibilities that should sit with others.

The new habit to develop is to create non-interrupted time.  Here’s how:

Introduce “do not disturb” protocols to your environment. 

I use noise cancelling headphones that cover my ears when I’m working on important tasks.  They are highly visible, cut out the noise of distractions and give a clear sign to my colleagues that I’m focusing on important work.  Other people use “do not disturb” signs.   Talk to your colleagues about “do not disturb” protocols.  

Batch low value tasks and encourage your staff and colleagues to save their questions to ask all at once, rather than interrupting yourself and others every time a question comes to mind.  

Let team members know when you’re about to go into “do not disturb” time.  Ask them if they have questions or any needs before doing so.  

Triage interruptions.  

When a colleague interrupts you, develop the habit of asking them what they need.  Unless the issue needs an immediate response, when you’re in “do not disturb” time ask them if you can speak at a more appropriate time, or direct them to the right person to help.

This takes practice for a lot of people who feel rude at first however they find that it’s all about framing.

You can say simply, “I’m working on something important right now, is it okay if we talk at 3 pm when I’m next free?  Send me an invitation for a 10 minute catch up” or “<Insert name> is the best person to help you with that.” 

90per cent of the people I coach confess to doing work which should better sit with other people. Answering questions others are responsible for is a massive time waster. It encourages the interrupter to keep asking you similar questions over and over again. Your colleague may also start referring other people your way.  

“Cholena has been here so long she knows where everything is”, they may say.  While that may be true such referrals encourage others to waste your time and should be discouraged.  

Bruce learns to manage his interruptions and reduces his workload by 20 hours each week

Bruce was working 60 hours per week and felt he was constantly jumping from one deadline to another.  He managed a small team and found he was often interrupted by people who saw him for advice on things, he didn’t feel were within his remit.

He started referring stakeholders to the right person when asked questions that didn’t relate to his role.  Even when he knew the answer.  He asked his direct reporters to start saving up their questions for their one on ones.  He reminded his staff they should feel empowered to make decisions on the things they were referring to him as he trusted them.

Bruce also started providing regular updates to his stakeholders and manager on a regular basis so he received less questions for status updates.  He checked in with his team every afternoon to ask how they were doing.

Bruce soon found he was able to start working regular hours.  His managers and stakeholders started commenting on how much more organised he was within the space of a few weeks.  

Clear away clutter

Everything on your desk is a distraction.  Every email left in your inbox is a distraction. Develop a clean desk policy and a zero inbox habit by email batching.  

Procrastination

It’s estimated 80per cent of the world procrastinate and 20per cent of the population could be considered chronic procrastinators.  

There are quite a few triggers for this habit which include but are not limited to fear, boredom, being overwhelmed, resentful and simply not knowing where to start.  Our habit is to put off action until an undetermined point in the future.  The way we are rewarded is that we can do something fun, or less painful, however the impact is we feel anxious about the task, we put ourselves in crisis and we multi-handle work.  

We’ll devote a whole chapter to this time waster.  It’s a big one.

Multitasking

When we multitask, we split our focus.  We don’t do two things at once.   Blood flow switches from one part of the brain to another. You can lose up to 12 IQ points when you split your focus.

We are triggered by the pressure of having multiple demands on our time.  Our habit is to try to do multiple things at once.  Our reward is that we tell ourselves we are being productive; however, the impact is we make three times as many errors and take two to three times as long to complete each task.  

Your new habit is to complete tasks one at a time.   Turn off your email notifications and minimise disruptions when working on important tasks. Develop the habit of single tasking.  Complete tasks one at a time.  

Clutter and hoarding information

Clutter wastes your time and energy.  Most of the paperwork and things you own, you’ll never use again.  Wading through all this clutter can waste two months of your productive time each year. 

Our current habit is to rush through our tasks at such a fast pace we let our things pile up.  Our habit is accumulating clutter and throw nothing out either because we don’t have time, or “just in case we will need them at some point in the future.”  Paperwork, email, rubbish, you name it.  The reward is that we get to keep everything and the impact is that our lives both at work and home have become cluttered.  

Your new habit is to be brutal about what you do or don’t keep.  File or delete your email after reading them and schedule things to do into your calendar or task list.  File paperwork immediately or throw it in the recycling bin once you’re finished with it.  Make a point once per week of clearing your desk ready for a new week.

There should be a place for everything, and everything should be in its place. You’ll stop distractions, procrastination and multihandling.

Social media 

If your email isn’t calling you, social media probably is.  Let’s face it though, very little has happened in the ten minutes since you last checked it.

Your trigger occurs after either receiving a notification from various social media platforms, or simply a pause in activity.  Your habit is to reach for the phone and check how many likes you’ve received for the last photo you posted on social media, or to see what your friends are up to.  The reward is you constantly feel connected.  

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has led to an addiction to checking out what the rest of the world is doing so often it impacts on our ability to actually achieve anything significant.  

Your new habit is to develop what I call a positive social media strategy.  Social media has its place. It’s a great way to restore your energy between periods of high productivity.  Turn off your notifications and only check it mindfully at specific times of the day.   Also, steer away from the negativity on social media.  Only follow positive people, make productive comments and never get involved in social media trolling or arguments.  They simply waste your time and energy.  

Stop focusing on things you can’t control 

Every day we encounter things that annoy us.  These issues fall into two categories, things you can’t control and things you can influence.  The trick is knowing the difference.  We waste a tremendous amount of time and energy worrying and talking about things we have no control over.  

We are triggered by many annoyances around us from the rudeness of the barista serving us coffee, the way our colleagues approach their work, and the weather.  Our habit is to react negatively and complain.  The reward for this is we get to air our grievances however the impact is we make ourselves and everyone around us miserable.  

Your new habit is to be a problem solver.  When you come across something that isn’t working, ask yourself whether you can influence change. If you can’t, consider it a distraction and, like white noise, something you need to ignore.  If you can influence change, and it falls within your priorities, do something about it.  

The reward is you’ll feel happier.  You’ll waste less time and be more productive.  

Stop working too many hours 

I’ve found that people who work over 50 hours per week tend to be less happy, and less productive.   They often don’t take good care of themselves which impacts on their focus, and creativity.   Because they are often fatigued they are more susceptible to making mistakes, and it can impact on their relationships.  

The trigger is we feel overwhelmed with work, and are often inefficient.  Our habit is to throw ourselves at the work by simply working more hours.  The reward is we may get the work done, however the impact is we exhaust ourselves.  Our work is often riddled with errors and lacks creativity.  

Calls to action:

Journal:

  • How do you waste time?  

Habits to work on:

  • In the next chapter we discuss universal strategies to help overcome your time wasters

Let me know how you go.

Keep moving forward,

Cholena

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