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Have You Been Wasting Your Time Wrongly?

Have You Been Wasting Your Time Wrongly?

Do you find yourself being busy all day with endless to-do’s? Are you constantly stretched for time?

If yes, it’s possible that you’re not making the best use of your time. It’s likely that you have too many distractions that have been masked as ‘tasks’. And it’s these tasks that are eating away your time and energy.

For example, do you believe you are being super-productive when you’re checking your emails or sitting in meetings? You might think so, but at the end of the day – how much have you really accomplished?

Fortunately, as you’ll see shortly, it’s possible to eliminate (or at the very least shrink) the unimportant stuff so that you can make space for the tasks that have real impact and bring about tremendous results. However, before we get to that, let’s take a brief look at what happens when we allocate too much time to low-impact tasks.

Procrastination, Parkinson’s Law and More

Procrastination

The Oxford Dictionary describes procrastination as: “The action of delaying or postponing something.” Clearly, it’s not a trait that successful people are associated with.

Now, to be fair, from time-to-time we’re all guilty of procrastination. It really only becomes an issue when procrastination starts to be our default way of working. I’m sure you’ve had colleagues like that. Whatever the task or project that they’re supposed to be working on – they constantly find reasons and excuses for failing to get started.

You may not be one of those people, but…

I bet you don’t feel that you’re procrastinating when you’re working on low-impact or low-return tasks like checking emails. I know this, because I used to be like that too! I distinctively remember feeling productive when I was working on these type of tasks – even though they never led me to accomplish anything worthwhile.

It took me years to realize this, but focusing time and energy on low-impact, unimportant tasks is a form of procrastination. This is because – if we’re honest with ourselves – it’s easier to work on the maintenance stuff rather than tackling the bigger more important tasks and assignments.

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Parkinson’s law

Parkinson’s law states that your work expands to fit the amount of time you have available for it. In my previous working life, I found this law to be especially true with tasks that were low-impact.

Why so?

Well, your limbic system (nerves and networks within the brain that control drives and emotions) puts up such a fight against working on your more challenging, highest-return tasks, that the low-impact tasks that support your work almost serve as work ‘crack’ or work candy. In other words, you feel productive when you work on them. This is understandable, as you’re most likely super-busy. But, as I stated earlier – being constantly busy on low-impact tasks means you’ll fail to accomplish anything of note.

    There is no order

    It’s Monday morning, you’re feeling tired, and you’ve just arrived at your office. You grab a strong coffee, go to your desk, log in to your computer and start working. However, you immediately fall into the common productivity trap that stops people from achieving their goals – namely, you fail to allocate any time for prioritizing or planning. Because of this, you’ll probably end up working on a whole list of unimportant tasks before reaching any genuinely important tasks.

    For instance, how many times first thing in a morning do you find yourself just catching up with emails (and gossip from your colleagues)? The answer is probably – a lot! It may seem like a way to warm up before the real work, but in most cases, you’ll simply find that you lose an hour or more without really achieving anything. You may even find that by the time you’ve caught up with emails and gossip, that you’ve been called off to a meeting. And by the time the meeting finishes – you’ve probably already missed the deadline for completing a project.

    Company culture and the dreaded meetings 

    I don’t know about you, but previous places I’ve worked have led me to realize that: People love setting up meetings to discuss, to present, to find solutions, etc.

    But in many cases, these meetings may not be the best use of yours or other people’s time.

    Although some meetings are important, the average employee wastes an incredible amount of time in them: 37 percent of the average office worker’s time is spent in meetings. (A shocking statistic!)

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    Furthermore, a survey of 150 senior executives found that they think 28 percent of meetings are an unnecessary waste of time. (I’d argue that number is north of 50 percent for the majority of employees, because senior executives aren’t invited to the most pointless meetings!)

    Unproductive meetings are the opposite of high-return tasks like working on projects. These meetings use up a ton of your time, but have virtually no positive effects on your work output.

    Consequences

    Everything in life has consequences. And this includes how you approach your work.

    If you spend a lot of time working on unnecessary tasks – then you won’t see great results. In fact, your productivity is likely to be stagnant at best. Of course, the reason for this is obvious: you’re not producing your finest work because your time has been eaten up trying to finish those endless low-return tasks. Here’s the sad part about this. You may find yourself falling behind the rest of the pack (e.g., your peers, your colleagues) because your performance is increasingly below par.

    So, what can you do to address this issue?

    My Take on This

    Having previously been a low-impact tasks addict, I now feel confident in being able to help you out of this hole.

    Firstly, whatever your job, there will be low-impact tasks that you can eliminate.

    That’s right. Every single support or maintenance task in your work can be either shrunk, delegated, or even – in a few cases – eliminated entirely. After you have gotten a better grip on how much time and attention you spend on these tasks, you’ll open up opportunities to work on what I like to call… the real stuff!

    From my experience, here are some of the low-impact tasks that you’ll be able to shrink or eliminate:

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    1. Recurring, low-return meetings.
    2. Low-return phone calls, and the productivity porn of social media and news websites and other time wasters.
    3. Tasks and projects that make little use of your time, unique talents or skills.
    4. Tasks and projects in which you contribute negligible value – but which suck up an abundance of your time.

    Take email, for example.

    In Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project, he conducted an informal survey, where he asked several friends, to keep a tally of how often they checked for new email messages at work every day for a week. The average between them? An astonishing 41 times!

    Another (and this time, more scientific) study found that most people check their email about every 15 minutes – which adds up to 32 times over an 8-hour day.

    When you check for new email 32 times a day, that’s 32 times your attention is derailed from what you’re supposed to be working on. It’s pretty hard to maintain any mental clarity in those conditions. Email may be a vital support task, but you also shouldn’t be checking it 32 times a day.

    Here’s How to Get Your Productivity Back on Track

    Keep note

    The simple act of keeping a time log makes you more aware of what you’re working on daily. But time is only one part of the story. Low-return tasks also take up a boatload of your attention.

    After you identify these low-return tasks, think about how frequently you focus on them throughout the day, by keeping a formal tally for a day or two.

    List them in order of how much time and attention they consume. For example: replying to emails, attending meetings, paperwork, managing your calendar, etc.

    Chances are that you have maintenance-type tasks like these that support your real work – pretty much every office worker on the planet is inundated with email and gets invited to too many meetings and events. But, as I highlighted earlier, it’s possible to shrink, delegate or even eliminate those support tasks. You can do it – and you definitely should!

    Set limits

    I find the most effective answer to shrinking low-return support tasks is to become aware of how much time and attention you spend on these tasks – and then literally shrink them by setting limits.

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    Some support tasks in your work take up a disproportionate amount of your attention rather than your time. For instance, most emails only take a minute or two to respond to, but when you check your email dozens of times a day, those are countless times you’ve had to transition from focusing on something important to focusing on email.

    The switching costs associated with multitasking can be enormous. (And not in a good way!)

    Of course, there’s also the uncertainty that comes with not knowing whether you have new messages – which impacts your attention. And then there are the frequent email alerts that interrupt you when you’re actually trying to work on something more productive.

    For tasks like email, the best way I’ve found to shrink their impact on time and productivity is to limit how often I focus on them throughout the day. I turn off my email alerts, and only check emails at a few specific times: in the morning, before lunch, and at the end of the day.

    The same goes for meetings.

    Don’t just accept every meeting invite you receive. Instead, limit the number of meetings you attend a week. Not only will you free up time to get on with your real work – but going forward, you’ll also discourage colleagues from inviting you to unnecessary meetings.

      Over to You

      So, please don’t let low-return tasks drag your productivity levels to hell. Start each working day, week and month with a plan. Know the things you want to achieve – and by shrinking and eliminating time wasting activities – go ahead and achieve them!

      I promise you, you’ll be amazed at the uptick in your productivity when you put your focus on the big stuff. Your boss and colleagues will look at you with new eyes. They’ll wonder how you now manage to accomplish so much – with seemingly, so little time. One thing’s for sure. Your new super-productive work life will in time pay you handsome dividends. These could come in the form of increased job satisfaction, pay rises and even promotions.

      As the saying goes… the world is your oyster!

      Featured photo credit: janeb13 via pixabay.com

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      Leon Ho

      Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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      Last Updated on March 31, 2020

      Procrastination Is a Matter of Emotion, Here’s How to Stop It

      Procrastination Is a Matter of Emotion, Here’s How to Stop It

      Procrastination is in a human’s biological makeup. Thanks to our limbic system, the neurological powerhouse that controls our emotions and memory, we are inclined to feel before we think. To avoid experiencing negative feelings, we keep away from tasks that may overwhelm or inconvenience us.

      Because we are inclined to seek and enjoy pleasure first, we tend to give in to things that make us happy instantly. It is so instant that we don’t see a point in neglecting ourselves. But it blinds us from viewing the consequences due to procrastination — more than 3 hours go missing every single day, and about 55 days — almost 2 months are lost every year.

      It All Comes down to Our Emotions

      The essential way to overcome procrastination is by regulating these emotions. When obligations are dreadful, they drag our feet to complete them. Most people tend to confuse work with emotional suffering because the task at hand may appear to be complicated or difficult; which can cause anxiety or despair.

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      The more complicated or challenging the work may be, the more challenge-averse we become. All of these negative feelings and reservations add up, making people avoid the tasks altogether to keep from experiencing suffering or negativity.

      Adjust the Task and Your Mood Will Change

      Difficult or complicated tasks tend to easily overwhelm people, causing them to lose interest in the project and faith in themselves. The key is to make these tasks more manageable.

      How do you do this? By breaking them up into smaller, digestible elements that will eventually add up to complete the big picture. This way, a lot of the strain is lifted, and you can find a little more enjoyment in your work.

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      Before breaking down the tasks, as a whole they appear to be time consuming and challenging.  Small, manageable parts you can take action on immediately.  The smaller the tasks, the easier you will find them to manage.  So it’s good to break down your tasks into elements that will only take you 45 minutes or less to complete.

      Keep the big picture in mind, but keep your workload light and only focus on one small task at a time. When you commit your attention to one element at a time, you are gradually making your way towards the larger goal.

      Since we are inclined to seek out things that bring us pleasure, small rewards can go a long way to help to satisfy our need for pleasure and positivity.  Rewards give you small goals to work towards, which will help to keep you motivated. Even if you aren’t able to physically reward yourself, still celebrate the progress you’ve made along the way.

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      Celebrate the completion of each small step to encourage morale. Keep up momentum throughout the entire project, and tiny celebrations will help you to do just that. Expecting to see results of the task at hand immediately is unrealistic. Accomplishments are measured by the differences you have made along the way, not the end result.

      Imagine holding an event at work.  You must find a venue, caterer, and entertainment.  You also need to come up with a theme, and decorate the venue and table settings.  This is a huge project.  Break it down into smaller parts.  For example, maybe focus on deciding on a theme first.  When you’ve completed that, give yourself a small break as a reward before moving on to the next part.  One thing at a time and reward yourself to stay motivated.  Then the big project will not overwhelm you.

      What if no matter how small the task is, it’s still dreadful?  No job is perfect. You will always at some point find yourself faced with tedious and uninteresting tasks that you must complete. Sometimes you just need to suck it up and push through.  To stay motivated, plan to complete positive tasks along with the negative ones.  This will regulate your emotions, and ensure that you don’t only do the things that you “feel like” doing.  Always remember to keep your eye on the big picture, which will give meaning to all of your tasks (even the tedious ones).

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      When you alter your attitude towards your obligations, it will make the tasks seem less tedious.  It takes a lot of practice and reinforcement, but eventually it will change your work ethic.  Refer to these tips to help you beat procrastination every time!

      Learn more tips about how to stop procrastinating: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

      Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com

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