Time-wasting and time management are usually examined as cause and solution of problems with productivity.
In self-help books and coaching manuals a common exercise is:
Begin by asking yourself the question: ‘Why do I waste time?’
Now list all the reasons why you do.
It’s about finding the cause, but it’s the wrong question – at least to start with.
It’s also an extraordinarily difficult question to answer. Try it, if you like.
The ultimate object of such an exercise is to change time-wasting behaviours – that is, find a solution. The trouble is, we can only change what we acknowledge and understand. The first step we have to take, therefore, is to identify and understand our time-wasting behaviour.s
In search of lost time
We want to know what time-wasting behaviour looks like. The most useful first question is ‘How do I waste time?’
Other questions, including ‘Why’, can be tasks for later.
How do I waste time? Let me count the ways
Before reading on, think about this question for a moment or two.
How did you go? How many ways did you identify?
See what you think of these:
1. Procrastination is time-wasting
This is the big one. I’m confident you had it on your list.
‘Procrastination is the thief of time’. English poet Edward Young wrote this, in 1742, in an extremely long poem, ‘Night Thoughts’ .
Procrastination is the thief of time;
Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves
The vast concerns of an eternal scene.
If not so frequent, would not this be strange?
That ’tis so frequent, this is stranger still.
He might or might not have been the first to come up with the idea. I suspect the concept has been around for a long time.
It’s the most common and ‘frequent’ way people identify. Worse still, procrastination is the type of thieving where you know you’ll never get back what has been taken: your precious time.
The word ‘procrastinate’ comes from two Latin words (pro and crastinus) that mean ‘to push forward into tomorrow’s business’. It’s a familiar definition. It’s generally agreed that procrastination is about putting off until tomorrow (or later) what probably should be done today.
Most of us procrastinate, at least some of the time. You are probably guilty of it, but that doesn’t mean you are a procrastinator. The biggest trap is to shrug and say, ‘I’m a procrastinator’ (or any other descriptor) and then assume nothing can be done about it. That’s just an excuse.
You are not defined or labelled by what you do. Procrastination is a behaviour. A behaviour can be changed.
2. Inefficiency is the thief of time
The second most common way to waste time is inefficiency at the planning and/or execution stages. It has several components.
A lack of clear purpose and specific goals is the first. Obviously if you don’t have a definite outcome in mind, your process or methods will be neither smooth nor efficient (and almost certainly not effective).
Vagueness of purpose results in attempts to multitask. It isn’t even clear what multitasking is: some think it means doing several things at once. It’s more like having several things on the go at the same time and then switching (sometimes rapidly) between them. The switching of focus and the need to ‘reboot’ your thinking with each switch lead to a loss of time. You are probably ‘busy’ but not productive; this is a way to waste time.
Inefficient ordering of priorities and tasks means poor sequencing; you waste time in revisiting a task at various stages and ‘double handling’ information.
Linked with poor planning is inadequate preparation. Perhaps you lack the necessary knowledge to complete the task; perhaps you are employing the wrong tools.
Holding a meeting, for example, without relevant aims, information, strategies and personnel on hand is simply a waste of time.
For more information, see Smart Meetings For Smart Managers.
3. Displacement activity is time-wasting
Even if you don’t recognise the term, you will almost certainly relate to this.
Displacement activities are things human beings do when they face unpleasant, difficult, overwhelming or even mundane tasks. These activities can be associated with confusion or conflicting demands, anxiety or stress, unwillingness or resistance. The reasons for these activities vary but, in the work situation, and at their simplest level, they are timewasters.
- Rather than make a start on preparing documents and figures for your tax return, you decide to reorganise your filing cabinets and relabel all your paper files, even though you already have all the records you need, possibly in digital form
- Instead of writing a report or paper that’s due in five days, you tell yourself you work better under pressure. On three evenings you spend the hours you planned to work scrolling through social media or watching videos
- Before beginning a task, you over-think and over-plan. You make a checklist of everything you might conceivably need; you list every minute stage of the process; you note everything that could possibly go wrong in the process, and what you might do if it happens; and you list all the reasons the result might be less than perfect and what you might do to ‘make it so’. In other words, you waste time floundering in the hypothetical.
The key thing is that these activities in no way help you do the necessary task faster or better (or at all); they are ways you waste time – consciously or not.
Displacement activity is often linked with procrastination.
Why do I waste time?
When you have identified ‘how’ you waste time, your next task is to work out ‘why’.
- There are various reasons for procrastination – practical, psychological and social. What are yours? How can you overcome them?
- Why are your planning and organisational skills letting you down? Would you like to learn practical ways to deal with the problem?
- Explore the reasons behind any displacement activity you become aware of. How can you reshape these behaviours?
In some cases, the ‘why’ is closely tied to ‘who’ (certain people), ‘when’ (particular times) or ‘where’ (specific places or situations).
This is another set of questions for another day.
I have fact sheets and learning materials on the reasons for (and the solutions to) time-wasting, procrastination and poor organisation.
Contact me to find out more.