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Last Updated on December 15, 2017

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

      More by this author

      Leon Ho

      Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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      Last Updated on July 19, 2018

      What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating)

      What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating)

      If you have so many things to do that you often find yourself struggling to finish projects and tasks and move on to other stuff, you’re certainly not alone. Studies show that over 20 percent of the adult population put off or avoid doing certain tasks by allowing themselves to be overtaken by distractions.[1]

      What about the rest of the population? What do they do to prevent procrastination?

      In this article, I am going to explain to you why procrastination is so difficult to beat and how you can stop procrastinating once and for all by following a step-by-step guide. But first, you need to understand how procrastination happens.

      What is procrastination

      Piers Steel, the author of the book The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, defines procrastination in this way:[2]

      “Procrastination is to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.”

      In other words, procrastination is doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones. The end result is that important tasks are put off to a later time.

      This comic is one of the typical examples of procrastination:

        Why stopping procrastination is difficult

        Human beings have limited self-control. Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University, has been studying self-control and he has found that just like any muscles, human’s self-control is a limited resource that can quickly become exhausted.[3] When self-control is close to being depleted, human tend to choose what’s more pleasurable– the immediate procrastinated tasks instead of the actual works.

        At its core, procrastination is an avoidance strategy. Procrastinators choose to do something else instead of doing what they need to do because it’s much easier to choose pleasure over pain.

        In short, procrastination is so difficult to beat because it is a battle against human’s natural enemy, a human weakness that is in-born.

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        A step-by-step guide to stop procrastinating

        Despite the fact that it’s human nature to seek for immediate rewards and procrastinate, here I have a step-by-step guide for you to follow so as to stop procrastinating.

        1. Identify your triggers: the 5 types of procrastinator

        Identifying the type of procrastination you personally experience is an essential step for you to fix the problem at its root.

        Take a look at this flowchart here to find out what type of procrastinator you are:

          Which type of procrastinator are you? Let’s take a look at the triggers for your procrastination type:

          Perfectionist

          Being perfect is the pleasure perfectionists want. But often this leads to them being too scared to show any imperfections. Because of this, they frequently fail to complete things, as they’re forever seeking the perfect timing or approach. Tasks end up never being completed, because in the eyes of the perfectionist, things are never perfect enough.

          Instead of finishing something, perfectionists get caught up in a never-ending cycle of additions, edits, and deletions.

          Ostrich

          An ostrich prefers to stay in the dreaming stage. That way, they don’t have to work for real, or deal with any negativity or stress.

          Dreaming gives this type of people a false sense of achievement, as in their minds, they envision big, ambitious plans. Unfortunately for them, these plans will most likely stay as dreams, and they’ll never accomplish anything truly worthwhile.

          Self-saboteur

          A self-saboteur has bought into the line that ‘by doing nothing, bad things won’t happen.’

          In reality, self-saboteurs have developed a fear of making mistakes or doing anything wrong. Their way to avoid these mishaps, is to do nothing at all. In the end, they may make few mistakes – but they also see few accomplishments.

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          Daredevil

          Daredevils are those who believe that deadlines can push them to do better. Instead of having a schedule to complete their work – they prefer to enjoy time doing their own thing before the deadline comes around.

          It’s most likely an unconscious thing, but daredevils evidently believe that starting early will sacrifice their time for pleasure. This is reinforced in their minds and feelings, by the many times they manage to get away with burning the midnight oil. Often they sacrifice the quality of their work because of rushing it.

          Chicken

          Chickens lack the ability to prioritize their work. They do what they feel like they should do, rather than thinking through what they really need to do.

          Prioritizing tasks is a step that takes extra time, so chicken will feel it’s not worth it. Because of this, they usually end up doing a lot of effortless tasks that don’t contribute much to a project. They’re incessantly busy on low-impact tasks, but seem oblivious to urgent, high-impact tasks.

          2. Face your triggers and get rid of them

          Whether it’s fear of failure, overwhelming feelings, avoidance or convincing yourself you’re just too busy to get something done, you can improve your ability to be productive by eliminating your procrastination triggers.

          For Perfectionists, re-clarify your goals.

          Much of the time procrastination tendencies form simply because we’ve outgrown our goals. We’re ever-changing and so are our wants in life. Try looking over your goals and ask yourself if they’re still what you want.

          Take time out to regroup and ask yourself what you really want to achieve:

          • What steps do you need to take?
          • Is what you’re currently doing reflecting what you want?
          • What do you need to change?

          Write things down, scribble them out and rewrite.

          For Ostriches, do the difficult tasks first.

          Even if you feel you’re not a morning person, the beginning of the day is when your brain is most productive. Use this window of time to get the more difficult stuff done.

          If you leave your difficult tasks to later, you’re much more likely to put it off because you’re tired and lack motivation.

          Finishing lots of simple tasks at the beginning of the day such as reading all the new emails only gives you a false sense of being productive.

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          For Self-saboteurs, write out a to-do (and a not–to-do) list each day.

          Writing things down is powerful and psychologically increases your need to get things done.

          Each day, make a habit of creating a list of the tasks you know you’ll try and avoid. By doing this, it brings these ‘difficult’ tasks to your mind’s attention instead of keeping them locked away somewhere in your avoidance mode.

          Remember, think how satisfying and productive it feels to cross of a completed task.

          For Daredevils, create a timeline with deadlines.

          It’s common to have a deadline for a goal which seems like a good idea. But this is basically an open invitation for procrastination.

          If it’s a self-created deadline with no pressure, we tend to justify pushing it back each time it comes into sight and feel we haven’t yet done ‘enough’ to get there.

          Create a bigger timeline then within that, establish deadlines along the way. The beauty of this comes when each deadline completion is dependent on the next. It keeps you on track and keeps you accountable for being in alignment with the overall timeline.

          For Chickens, break tasks into bite-sized pieces.

          A lot of the time procrastination comes from overwhelming thoughts.

          If something feels too big to tackle and we don’t know where to start, it feels like a struggle. This is also true if our goal is too vague and lacking direction.

          Break down larger tasks into smaller ones and turn them into daily or weekly goals. Smaller steps may seem like the slower approach to achieving a goal, but it often leads you much more quickly to where you want to be due to the powerful momentum you get going.

          3. Take planned breaks

          The human brain isn’t designed to work continuously on the same task and this could be a reason for procrastination.

          Make sure you take regular, structured breaks away from your task so that you can come back refreshed and ready to be more productive.

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          A break as short as 5 minutes is enough to keep your mind sharp and wards off fatigue. I recommend you to use the Pomodoro Time Tracker. It is a great tool to help you take breaks at set intervals. Simply start the 25-minute timer, and follow the prompts.

            4.  Reward yourself

            It’s important to acknowledge and reward yourself for achieving even the small tasks. It creates a sense of motivation and releases those feel-good, productive emotions that spur you on to achieve even more.

            Make your reward proportional to the task you completed so getting a bite-sized task done gets you a cup of your favourite coffee or snack. Then plan a weekend away or fun activity for the bigger stuff.

            Personally I try to make staying focus more fun by using the app Forest. It turns productivity into a game. In the game, you can plant a virtual tree at the beginning of your work time. If you maintain focus for the duration of the timer, you’ll grow a tree to add to your forest. It’s rewarding when you can eventually grow a forest.

              5. Keep track of your time in a smart way

              If you want to prevent the bad habit of procrastination from coming back, keep track of the time you spend every day.

              By having a clear idea of where you spend your time, you can always review your productivity and know which areas to improve.

              It’s not easy to keep track of every minute you spend throughout the day so I recommend you to use the app Rescue Time.

              It gets you a categorized breakdown of how you spend your time and helps you to find out how much time you’re really on-task. You can even label activities as productive and non-productive so as to block your biggest distractions.

                Make procrastination under your control

                Procrastination exists for many reasons and only you know for yourself what these triggers are.

                Understanding what procrastination really is and the source of your avoidance tendencies is important in moving them out of the way and help you start the productivity momentum.

                Reference

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