Time Bandits: Time-Wasting Habits that Decrease Productivity

by | Apr 14, 2016 | Productivity

There is a difference between being busy and being productive. “Busy” describes high energy flitting from one task to the next. There is a reason that the term “busy as a bee” is a sticky idiom: it provides a clear image of busy-ness. We can see the bee constantly moving, buzzing, hopping on one flower momentarily, only to move to the next one seconds later.

Productivity is different. It is outcome based. It refers to the output you produce in a given period of time.

We often conflate these two adjectives. We assume that a busy person is a productive person. It’s easy to believe that the high energy person, going from meeting to meeting, while intermittently scanning there phone is the productive one.

But that may not be the case at all. The worker that flits from project to project in unceasing motion may be far less productive than the quiet worker, sitting at her desk, phone muted and smartphone put away, working through a problem. People pay a price for multitasking, checking email, and taking on an enormous workload.

Here are five mistakes that people make when they confuse being busy with being productive.

  1. Constantly checking your email. A 2013 survey found that 32% of employees reply to emails within 15 minutes of receiving them, and 23% reply within 20 minutes, but is faster actually better? A more recent survey discovered that the average American worker spends 6.3 hours checking email everyday. Considering that our days are only 24 hours, with 8 of those spent at work, constantly checking your email consumes quite a bit of valuable time that could be better spent elsewhere. Instead of checkingyour inbox every time you get a message, try closing your email applications or turning off your notifications while you work on important projects. Alternately, you can select certain times of the day to check your email—after your morning meetings, during your lunch break, at 3:00pm, etc.—or put a cap on the amount of times you check your messages throughout the day.
  2. Being a perfectionist. Perfectionism can prevent you from completing tasks efficiently and instead cause you to waste a tremendous amount of time. While there are times that a high degree of accuracy is necessary, that’s not true of many projects. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of time triple-checking your work, focus on a single, thorough review before sending it along to your client, boss, or colleague. Don’t be afraid of somebody pointing out errors. Take the feedback constructively and learn from your mistakes so that you can improve your work product next time.
  3. Multitasking. Wearing many hats—especially as a small business owner or entrepreneur—is important, but its not necessarily a good idea to wear many hats at the same time. Multitasking—while beneficial and necessary at times—may seem like it helps you get more done, but it can actually be a bad habit. For most of us, our brains can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and constantly switching tasks causes our brains to lose the ability to focus over time. Diving your attention among multiple projects may prevent you from allocating the time and attention you need to do a good job on one particular project, and it can make you more susceptible to errors. Instead, practice unitasking, which can lead to greater productivity. Reduce outside distractions and interference. Turn off your music and notification, silence your cell phone, and close your office door if you have to. Select a specific time of day to unitask. Don’t try to do it during your busiest times of day (during your morning rush or as everyone is trying to head out the door at the end of the day), as these are the times where distraction is least avoidable. Instead, pick the quietest times of the day to work on your most important projects. You can also allocate a certain amount of time to unitask. It’s not always feasible to spend your entire day on one project, so putting aside 30 minutes or two hours to specifically work on one task will ensure your attention will be focused on it.
  4. You are failing to delegate. Insisting on doing everything yourself won’t necessarily guarantee that everything is done correctly or in a timely manner. Refusing to relinquish control can backfire and waste quite a bit of time during your workday. Learn to delegate tasks you aren’t great at, tasks that don’t require your specific expertise, repetitive duties, or projects you have been putting off. You can take quite a few projects off your plate and focus on the tasks that really need you if you delegate to employees, others on your team, office assistants, or virtual assistants.
  5. Say “no.” Learning to turn away time-wasting duties can help you focus on your core projects. Don’t just take on additional work because youfeel uncomfortable saying “no” to your boss. There are many good ways to communicate your unavailability without harming your career. When you are offered a new project, consider the ramifications on your schedule as a whole. What else are you working on and what is the relative importance of the new project? Are you the best person suited to complete the project or can it be just as easily handled by others in your organization? Even if you feel obliged to help with a project, there are ways to circumscribe your time commitment. Speak to the person assigning the project and budget the amount of time that you will contribute. Don’t blindly accept the deadlines given. A deadline may be softer than you think, but you’ll never know unless you ask.

Far from being selfish, declining to take on a project can have benefits for your organization. Often, you have the best perspective to assess where you’re needed most and reassigning the product may be the best use of the company’s resources. Further, delegating a project to more junior members of your organization may provide a training or growth opportunity that both increase their job satisfaction and deepens the experience within your organization.

Accepting every project and becoming overworked often leads to burnout, as more and more of your personal time is sacrificed to get extra projects done. Declining additional projects often means setting firm boundaries between work responsibilities and personal time. Make sure you have the time you need to reenergize for your upcoming workday and feel refreshed.

It often only takes making small adjustments to our daily habits to increase our productivity, focus, and brain function both inside and outside the office. While daily distractions will occasionally get the best of us, avoiding these five time-wasting tendencies can help ensure you stay on track.

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