By SANDY CLARKE
Do you work hard? On a scale of 1-10, how productive are you? Would you say that you’re mostly efficient in how you use your time?
Even the more modest among us (and who among us isn’t?) would answer these questions in a way that paints a positive picture of who we are.
Understandably, it’s difficult to think of ourselves as underperforming time-wasters when we’re conditioned to be productive contributors to society. Our self-image is tied up in what we do and how well we do it, putting the needs of others first in the process.
And yet, research by RescueTime – an online time-management service – showed that 98 per cent of its users get interrupted or distracted a few times throughout the day, while more than half say they’re interrupted frequently on a daily basis.
On the flipside, just over a quarter of those surveyed said that they manage to get through their daily to-do lists, which means around 75 per cent constantly find themselves carrying work over from the previous day.
Inefficient use of time at work might not seem like such a big deal; after all, what harm does a quick five-minute chat here and there really do? Is it really such an issue that we don’t commit every minute to the tasks we have to get through? We’re humans, not machines.
Actually, all of those five-minute chats and email checks add up over the course of the year per employee. In the U.S., time lost through interruptions (which include common practices such as unnecessary or overlong meetings) costs the economy a staggering USD$1 trillion.
Needless to say, the argument isn’t that we should transform ourselves into automatons who squeeze every ounce of productivity from each passing minute. However, research findings do suggest we would feel a lot better as employees if we were more mindful of how much time we used up on doing nothing much. For one thing, it might mean less work that needs to be done after hours or at home.
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Research by Salary.com found that most of us waste some time during our workday, which is to be expected. What’s alarming is that the top 10 per cent of time-wasters can waste three hours or more on a daily basis, which equates to roughly two working days lost per week.
The nature of the beast that is the working day ensures that there’s much more going on besides what we need to get done, and so becoming more aware of how to protect our time can help to increase our productivity during times of uninterrupted focus.
Let’s take a look at three common misconceptions that reduce our productivity, and what we can do to restore order to our chaotic workday:
1. We think we have an 8-hour workday when we don’t
If someone were to ask, “How many hours do you work each day?” a typical answer might be “Eight.” However, it’s estimated that the time we have each day for focused work (i.e. excluding the ‘quick question’ chats, emails, phone calls and meetings) is just one or two hours. The rest of the time used up puts a huge dent in our productivity, which is often a point used in arguments against open-plan offices.
To reduce wasting time, we can create boundaries that lessen the opportunity for distractions to arise. For example, is it really necessary to attend the 2-hour meeting? If so, are you able to excuse yourself early? When checking emails, is it possible to have set times such as checking once in the morning and again in the afternoon? As for those ‘quick chats’, while some might be important, others are less so, and so it’s perfectly fine to say, “Can I get back to you on that? I’m in the middle of an important task right now, but I’m happy to discuss this with you later.”
2. We have a to-do list but don’t plan on how to ‘do’ it
Let’s say you have five main tasks on your to-do list. They might not be in order of importance, but rather scribbled down as you recall them. Even if your list is prioritised, there’s a good chance that the plan for each task is simply to ‘get it done’. However, many tasks require preparation and planning, which we tend to deal with whenever we get around to it.
This just leads to more time being eaten up. Instead, putting a plan of action in place for each task (where necessary) means that we’ll have more time to focus when we deal with any setting up and preparation beforehand. For example, if you have to shoot a video for YouTube, making sure the equipment is set up and test runs are done ahead of schedule means that you can spend more time on filming during the allotted time.
3. We don’t have a go-to procedure for important but infrequent tasks
Maybe you need to send out emails to particular contacts or connections once a month, or you maintain a piece of equipment on a bi-monthly basis. These aren’t frequent tasks, but they are important. The trouble is, because these tasks are irregular, we tend to neglect them until we really have to take action.
When the time comes, we once again look up information on how to maintain or fix the equipment, and we search for the monthly information and updates that need to go out to our contacts. By writing out and storing useful information or details for future use, we can save a lot of time in having easy-to-access materials to hand that allow us to get the job done quickly.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.