Those who use time the best get the most from it, pure and simple. Yet nearly all of us waste time each day. Aside from the obvious culprits—social media, procrastination, commuting and interruptions—there are tons of other unintentional ways we waste time that are harder to spot. So how can we become more aware of how we use our time and make sure we don’t lose it to unconscious behaviours?
We don’t deliberately set out to waste time. In fact, many of the ways we waste time actually masquerade as work itself. So in order to become more productive and put our time to best use, we need to be able to recognize the ways we unconsciously misuse it. The most common include:
A lot of us suffer from completion bias. It feels good to finish a task, so we prioritize work we can easily write off to get our dopamine fix. But privileging small tasks can mean putting off more “meaningful” complex tasks that give us a sense of achievement and purpose.
⏱ Using the time management matrix can help
Dividing your attention between too many tasks at once can also kill your net productivity. Context switching comes with a cognitive cost—you need time to re-focus each time you switch to a different task, and research suggests it reduces the quality of your thinking.
If you attend a meeting without contributing or learning anything new, you probably don’t need to be there. While meetings serve an important function, too many work cultures over-use them. It’s one of the most intensive forms of work communication going—especially when you add together the preparation, potential delays and overrunning time, and post-meeting emails often involved.
While delegation and support are central to effective team collaboration, you shouldn’t be routinely doing somebody else’s work or solving problems within their power to solve. If a task doesn’t serve your own goals and isn’t your responsibility, it’s wasting your time.
How to say "no" at work
No one sets out to procrastinate; it just happens—like brief relief from a difficult task or a break between tasks. But so many minutes are lost to empty, directionless web browsing and passive social scrolling which we package as a “reward”. Then there's the flip side of the spectrum—rushing into tasks too quickly, often spending needless effort that could have been avoided in a phenomenon dubbed "precrastination".
Time spent reactively answering emails, slack messages and phone calls makes us feel busy, but we’re not necessarily actually moving important work forward, and these passive, often unforeseen tasks don’t easily lend themselves to a measurement of “progress”.
These hardwired cognitive shortcuts help us settle into our work day, but a lot of them are pretty unproductive. And by removing the need for thought, these automatic responses stop us from being completely conscious of the ways we spend our time. The inverse is also true: in the absence of a considered routine, our days can lose structure, presence and accountability.
Unless you’re working on your most important task, you’re not making the best use of your time. Tons of us waste time as a result of poor prioritization, working on tasks that make us feel busy without actually helping us progress.
While some colleague interruption is inevitable, you may unconsciously be encouraging it as a form of procrastination. The way you respond to distractions and present your availability give other people an idea of whether they can approach you at any given time. Boundaries like headphones, working in a side room, or setting “availability hours” help establish when you can and can’t be interrupted.
Once you’ve recognized the behaviours that hold you back, you can effectively tackle them. Some of the best methods which help you stop wasting time include:
Have a focused plan for what you want to achieve each day, remembering to prioritize your most important work. Every day should start with set, manageable expectations of what you want to get from your time. Without the accountability of a plan, time is easily lost. Time blocking your day into set, finite units is a great way to go about this.
Completion bias can be hacked to benefit your most important big tasks simply by breaking them into more achievable ones. It creates an achievable route towards unwieldy but high-impact projects, letting you cross of tasks each day as you make progress towards the bigger end goal.
To feel like you’re actually using time productively, you have to be able to measure it and see how your efforts pan out. Use automatic time tracking tools to do the muscle work – tracking what you work on, when and for how long, as well as showing all the different work apps and websites you spent time in.
Admin may be essential, but it’s not likely to change your life. Wherever possible, use tools to automate repetitive, low-value tasks that get in the way of your productivity. There are intelligent apps for almost all of these – from taking meeting notes and creating timesheets to prioritizing your inbox.
Identify incidences of “trapped time” in your daily schedule, like commuting, waiting for a morning stand-up or your post-lunch food coma, and use it to get through useful small tasks.
Wherever possible, protect your right to your own time. Introduce an opt-in policy to meetings, set daily email and Slack availability hours and schedule time for uninterrupted deep work in your public calendar. Instead of treating your calendar as a free-for-all, ring fence time for complex problem solving and consider having a "meeting day" to minimize the disruption caused by meetings.
When you need to take a break, make sure it isn't frittered away on passive social media scrolling and doesn't introduce new stresses. Productive deep breaks have a time limit and let you take a cognitive breather without distracting you with new problems.
Ultimately, to stop wasting your time you need to be completely aware of how you use it and be intentional about how you want to use it. Neither require huge additional resources or effort—just a bit of direction and staying power.