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8 ways we waste time at work – when we think we’re working

Last updated on
September 24, 2021

Productivity apps are all very well, but one of the best ways to work smarter is by correcting unconscious unproductive behaviors. Our workflows are built on a set of habits and processes which we rarely ever question. While on the surface they may seem to be productive – we actually believe we’re working hard – these repeated behaviors can seriously limit our ability to produce value each day. If you’re looking for more efficient and effective ways of working, first tackle the main ways you may be unintentionally wasting time at work.

1.   Letting email structure our day

It’s a classic work story – you’re working hard on an important project, a new email notification flashes up flash up and you drop everything you’re doing to reply. Most of us are guilty of this – but we should remember that email is just a form of communicating – it shouldn’t completely rewrite our day. By being a slave to our inbox we prioritize new, trivial tasks ahead of the crucial ones that actually drive us forward. We continually add more tasks to our to-do list, and when we interrupt a task to check our email, our concentration is broken too. Set specific times to check your inbox and reply to emails – and stick to them.

How can we make email more productive?

2.   Using asynchronous communication synchronously

Email, Slack, WhatsApp – these tools were designed to let us communicate on our own terms, at a time that works with our calendar. But increasingly, we’re turning them into tools for immediate, synchronous communication (as in a real-time conversation). Checking our inboxes periodically throughout the day, feeling we need to be immediately available on Slack, being pulled into a collaboration tool whenever a colleague makes an edit – this is not how we should be using these tools! Use them how they should be used – at your own convenience.

3.   Frontloading small tasks

When you have a to-do list as long as your arm, it’s natural to want to tick things off as quickly as possible – that’s why many of us start with the small, unimportant tasks. But the desire to progress through a to-do list can come at the expensive of working on what’s actually important. The quantity of tasks you get through can give you a sense of progress, but unless those tasks confer actual value to your wider work, they’re probably not that useful. Prioritize what’s most important, then get that done first. Eat that frog, as they say.

Do you have small task addiction?

4.   Being passive meeting participants

Many meetings are, for the most part, pretty unproductive. Research suggests that executives spend on average 23 hours a week in meetings – and eight of these hours are unproductive. Around 90% of people daydream in meetings, and 73% use that time to do other work. No wonder meetings waste $37 billion each year… in the U.S. alone! Think how many meetings you’ve sat in silently, not adding anything to the conversation, not contributing to the debate. If you don’t add anything, should you be there at all? Consider which meetings are actually vital for you to attend, and push for an opt-in approach. Remember, meetings are expensive – always ask whether there is a more effective channel available before scheudling them.

5.   Trapping blocks of time in between meetings

Another way that meetings waste time is by reducing the amount of time you have to do real, productive work outside of them. A morning filled with badly space meetings is a productivity nightmare. No quality deep work gets done in the 30-minute intervals between meetings – by the time you’ve found your flow and got stuck in, it’s time to head to the next. Always try to schedule meetings back-to-back for a more focused working week – or get a smart tool like Dewo to do it for you!

Get Dewo to optimize your calendar for a more productive week

6.   Duplicating effort

For most of us, even when we begin a brand new task we duplicate certain procedures or methods. Whether it’s writing out the same sentences in email, designing a new infographic from scratch, or hunting down a specific web tool page instead of just bookmarking it – creating a structure afresh for similar types of tasks or actions is a major waste of time. Whenever you can, save time and effort and use templates and shortcuts.

7.   Choosing manual slog over automation

We live in a world where automation is a reality – so why are so many of us still wasting time manually fiddling with small tasks? Automation can relieve you of all the low-value, boring work you hate, whether that’s filling in expenses, tracking your time, taking meeting notes, organizing your inbox or manually moving data between different work tools or spreadsheets. The number of things that can be automated is only growing, so it’s worth a little research to learn what unproductive tasks you can outsource. It’s one of the easiest ways to free up more of your time and mental energy for the work that requires the skills you were hired for.

Automate your company’s time tracking with Timely

8.   Believing in busyness

Many people equate busyness with productivity, of rushing around and getting things done – but in actual fact, being busy can be a major waste of time. When we’re too busy our focus is fraught; we jump around from task to task, we refuse to take breaks. We’re trying to reassure ourselves we’re doing a good job when the opposite is often true. It isn’t our faults exactly – many workplace cultures create an environment where immediately availability is a sign of engagement, and meeting attendance marks a signal of status. But to be truly productive, we need time to let our minds wander, to take breaks and rest, and to say “no” to the shallow work that keeps us visibly busy without creating any substantial value.

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