How to Stop Wasting Time – External Factors

There are many behaviours and practices that get in the way of our productivity. These time-wasters fall into two types: internal, those things we generate and external, those things that come at us from outside. Both types can be controlled.

There are four external factors that can waste our time:

  • Unwanted Visitors – Controlling drop-in visitors who interrupt your workflow requires both tact and judgement. The office culture where you work can have considerable influence on this practice. If yours is an organization that encourages less-formal communication, you may find people dropping by to discuss anything from last night’s big game to next week’s big presentation.
  • Incoming communication – You should work to manage of your incoming data with the fewest possible moves; including e-mail, voice mail, real-time phone calls and regular mail. It’s doesn’t take long for incoming data to constantly demand your attention and drain your day. Good workplace habits come from working smart and with control.
  • Unproductive meetings – Peter Drucker said, “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.” Many would think the concept of a useful or productive meeting to be something of an oxymoron. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for an organization to function without having meetings.
  • Waiting – As much as you would like to avoid it, there’s no getting away from having to wait. You wait on hold on the telephone, wait for meetings and appointments, wait for hockey practice to end, a spouse to finish work, and wait and wait and wait. Waiting can eat up a fair portion of your time.

So, how do we control factors that seem out of our control?

Unwanted Visitors

  • Be the visitor. If you have to speak with someone, go to their office. That way, you can control the length of the visit. When your done, excuse yourself and leave.
  • Turn away from the door. If your work space is arranged so that you sit with your back to the door, visitors can see that you are working and they might be less likely to disturb you.
  • Close the door. If you have a door. This isn’t workable in a cube farm. In that case, you might have to resort to the Les Nessman solution.
  • Stand up for visitors. If a visitor comes into your office, stand up to greet them and don’t invite them to sit down. This will often shorten the length of their visit.
  • Tell them politely. If you’re busy at the moment, ask them to come back. Set a specific appointment time if necessary.

Incoming Communication

  • E-mail
    • Use the two-minute rule to process your e-mail. If it takes less than two minutes to answer a message, do it then file or delete the message.
    • Use folders to organize messages.
    • IMMEDIATELY delete any messages you do not need to keep.
    • Use follow-up flags or dated calendar alarms to bring forward e-mail when it needs attention.
  • Voice Mail
    • Review your voice messages, take notes and delete them.
    • Respond to those that fit the two-minute rule.
    • Schedule the others for follow-up, as appropriate.
  • Postal mail
    • Open your post once a day.
    • Toss the junk or the unneeded paper into the bin.
    • Use the two-minute rule.
    • File those that are just for information. Delegate what you can. Place in rest in a follow-up system so that it comes to your attention when you need it and not before.

Unproductive Meetings

Five ways to optimize meetings:

  1. Make sure the meeting is necessary.
  2. Make sure you need to attend.
  3. Work from an agenda.
  4. Stick to the start time.
  5. Have measurable outcomes.


Good time management puts waiting time to use. Whether at the office, out and about, or at home, here are seven ways to make use of waiting time:

  1. Work your lists: Check your to-do lists, your shopping lists or other reminders; add, subtract or rearrange, as necessary.
  2. Work your calendar: If you’re not on the phone, set-up, confirm or reschedule items on your calendar.
  3. Sort mail: E-mail, paper mail —whether at work or at home— can be organized while on the phone or watching T.V.
  4. Personal/professional development: Read an industry journal or a school assignment. Carry a media player and listen to speakers, trainers or podcasts.
  5. Use the phone: If you’re not waiting on the phone, use the time to make or return calls.
  6. Work on hobbies: Carry needlework with you. If you draw, carry a sketch book. Carry a digital camera and snap off a few pictures.
  7. Structured relaxing: It doesn’t have to be all about efficiency; read a book, solve a crossword puzzle, or play a game on your PDA.

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How to Stop Wasting Time – Internal Factors

There are many behaviours and practices that get in the way of our productivity. These time-wasters fall into two types: internal, those things we generate and external, those things that come at us from outside. Both types can be controlled.

There are four behaviours/practices leading to wasted time:

  • Disorganization – How much stuff do you have sitting on your desk or in your work area? A few years ago, Coopers & Lybrand (now Price Waterhouse Coopers) released data from a poll on personal organization. One statistic found, “The average desk worker has 36 hours worth of work on their desk and wastes up to 3 hours a week just “looking” for STUFF!” Finding stuff on my messy desk bears out that statistic. Being disorganized is responsible for a lot of wasted time.
  • Procrastination – We all put things off. We hope to avoid tasks that are boring, difficult, unpleasant, etc. When faced with something we don’t want to do, we can find a dozen tasks of no consequence to fill our time. We secretly hope that, by procrastinating, the unpleasant task will shrink and go away. Unfortunately, the reverse is often true; the deferred job just gets bigger and more difficult
  • Inability to say no – There are periods when the demands on our time exceed our ability to handle them. Learning to say “No” is a critical –yet difficult– skill needing to be mastered. Taking on more than you can manage only leads to frustration as nothing gets done very well.
  • A poor attitude – Your attitude represents how you feel about something. Many features of working in an organization can cause you to have a poor attitude about your job and employer. Perhaps you have a poor attitude as your way of life.  If you feel poorly about yourself, it will affect your attitude about work.

How can we overcome these behaviours?

Get Organized

Evaluate your work area. Is it organized efficiently to minimize effort? Can material and movement flow freely? Have you optimized the placement of your tools and supplies?

Focus on your desk. Is your workspace cluttered? How much time do you waste looking for things you know are there but can’t find? When was the last time you used items on your desk? Perhaps it is time for some housecleaning.

“A place for everything and everything in its place.” Make sure you filing system reflects this axiom.

Organize your work style. Complete your tasks. Don’t jump from one thing to another. Don’t multi-task. Assess the priority of interruptions before pursuing. If you can’t avoid the interruption, return the the task you were working on as soon as possible.

Stop Procrastinating

Overcoming procrastination requires strategy. The next time you’re tempted to put off something you don’t want to do, try some of these tips:

  • Set a deadline – a task without a deadline can be put off indefinitely. Set a date and stick to it.
  • Set up a reward system – make it commensurate with the task. An afternoon cleaning out the garage is worth dinner out, while a 14 month software roll-out might warrant a tropical vacation.
  • Arrange for a follow-up – assign someone to be a “nag-buddy”. Give them permission to check in periodically to make sure you’re staying on track.
  • Do it first – tackle difficult jobs early in the day, when you have the most energy.
  • Break the task into small pieces – if the whole seems too big to tackle, break it into manageable sub-tasks.
  • Do it now – don’t put if off any longer. Sometimes you just have to jump in and get it done.

Just Say No!

Ken Blanchard offers three steps to saying no:

  1. Know what your goals and priorities are.
  2. Be realistic about the consequences of doing one more thing.
  3. Offer alternatives and solutions

Improve Your Attitude

If your care-less attitude is in the way of accomplishing what you need to do:

  • Look for creative ways to make your current tasks more interesting.
  • See if it is possible to trade or share tasks with a coworker.
  • Ask for more challenging responsibilities.
  • Schedule your work to best manage routine or tedious tasks.
  • Worse case: look for a new job.

RecommendedThe Zen Habits Handbook for Life!

5 Tips to Help Manage Increased Workloads

Lucille Ball said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” One of the side benefits” to getting organized and developing skills to get things done, people begin to see you as a go-to to get even more accomplished.

This extra work or activity can quickly take over your systems and threaten to overwhelm you. There are five things you can do that can keep you on top of the action.

  1. Have a plan. You have to know where you are going to be able to get there. Always make time to plan your day, your week or whatever interval you need to organize.
  2. Break it down. David Allen talks about next actions. Don’t look at the entire project, you may never get started. Break it down into component pieces and focus on the next step.
  3. Set priorities. When managing multiple projects or actions, you need to know which are the most important (not necessarily urgent) and work on them first.
  4. Set timelines. If you decide a project can be finished “whenever” that’s exactly when it will be done. Whether you plan by the calendar or work by context, you need to know when things need to be completed. Alway buffer your timelines to allow for the unexpected. It’s best to under-promise and over-deliver.
  5. Maintain your systems. The reason you created your systems was to help you gain control. Keep using them to maintain control.

When things begin to pile up, it’s easy to react to the urgent and let everything go somewhere in a hand cart. An investment of time in planning and using your systems will keep you from being overwhelmed.

5 steps for getting back on track after an unplanned absence

I spent the better part of last week on my death sick bed. Flying back from a extended-weekend visit to Vancouver, I felt the onset of a sore throat. We arrived home and I began to mega-dose on vitamin C, hoping that would contain the situation. It didn’t. I ended up with some flu/cold combination that affected my temperature, my stomach, my head, my chest and most other parts of my body.

So, now I’m back in the office after a long unplanned break: the message light on the phone is blinking; both my virtual and real in-boxes are overflowing; last week’s next actions are now overdue; my staff and my manager all want a piece of me; and I just want to go home a crawl back into bed. How do I get things back on track?

It’s time to get back to basics:

  1. Collect: Grab everything that needs your attention. Whether you use David Allen’s mind sweep or you prefer a list format, go through your messages, e-mail, missed actions, etc. and capture all the items that require some action.
  2. Meet: Sit down with co-workers. This is the people version of collecting. Find out what was managed was you were away, what new issues have arisen and add these to your mind-sweep list. This is also a good time to thank them for covering your unexpected absence.
  3. Process: Once you’ve collected all the open loops, figure out what you need to do to close them. Whether it’s as simple as throwing a brochure in the garbage or as complex as planning a management retreat, you need to identify the steps needed to move the item forward.
  4. Prioritize: Next, you can organize the action steps into lists of what you’re going to do.
  5. Get it done: Now that you know what you need to do, get started. It may take time and effort to get things reorganized to move forward, but don’t stop at the end of step four. Here’s where you can pull things back on track. (Ten tips for giving effective instructions)

One other observation: the better you’re maintaining your system day-to-day, the smaller the impact of unexpected absences. If you are already behind when an illness strikes, it will be that much harder to bring things into line.

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