Long tail time management: How the “little things” take up big portions of your day

“Workers are wasting so much time on social media and distracting websites that it’s costing employers billions!”

You’ve probably seen that headline pop up numerous times over the past few years. As workplace expectations rise, productivity has become a hot topic. But are workers really that lazy and distracted?

Do we really spend 1.5 hours or more a day on Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram as the reports like to say?

I don’t know about you, but that’s not how my day looks.

Like most people, I pride myself on doing a good job. And the last thing I would want is to spend hours scrolling mindlessly through feeds. But it is fair to say I don’t feel like I get enough done each day. So where does the time go?

One answer is the long tail—all the small things that end up taking away big portions of your working hours.

What do we mean by the “long tail”?

The easiest way to explain the “long tail” is to think about a site like Amazon. You might have thousands of products in any given category, but the majority of sales go to a small number of “best sellers”.

In statistical terms, those best sellers are called the “head”. While the rest of the thousands of books that only sell one or two copies a month, are called the “long tail”.

In other words, the long tail are all the items or statistical points that, while on an individual level don’t amount to much, represent a decent chunk when lumped together.

It’s a bit of a tricky concept to describe in words alone. So let’s see what it looks like visually.

In the below graph, we’ve plotted how long knowledge workers go, on average, between checking their email and IM accounts:

Longtail time management example

The “head” of this chart is dominated by people who didn’t go more than a few minutes. However, there’s a significant “long tail” of users who went anywhere from 12-120 minutes in between checks.

There’s a “head” and a “long tail” to how you spend your day, too

Now, let’s take the idea of a “head” and a “long tail” and apply it to time management.

All of us have tasks that we spend the majority of our day on, whether that’s coding, designing, writing, or managing. If we use a tool like RescueTime to look at the distribution of how we spend our time, these would be the “head” activities.

In my case, that looks something like this:

RescueTime Monthly Activity Report

(If you’re a RescueTime user, you can see your current Monthly Activity Report by clicking here).

During the working hours of June, 2018, I spent the majority of my time writing in Google Docs or IA Writer, editing and posting articles on the RescueTime blog, and using communication and collaboration tools like Gmail, Slack, Zoom, and Trello.

In fact, those activities alone took up 76% of my working time in June 2018 (or 102 hours total).

I also spent around 9% of my time on social media. But that only adds up to 85%. What about the other 15%?

That’s my long tail—all the apps and websites I used during the workday that didn’t take up much time on their own, but that ate up a significant chunk of overall working hours.

In my case, my long tail in June accounted for just over 20 hours spent on 500+ websites and apps.

That’s half a week of productive working time chipped away by activities I only spent a minute of two on!

What should you do with your long tail activities?

long tail time management body

The point of recognizing your long tail time management issues isn’t to shame you into feeling like you’re wasting time.

I’d wager that the majority of peoples’ long tails are filled with small things you needed to do your job. But some of them aren’t. And worse, the more tools and sites we use every day, the less productive we become.

Context switching can have a serious impact on your productivity.

In fact, when we studied 225 million hours of digital time in 2017, we discovered that, on average, people use 56 apps and websites each day, and switch between them more than 300 times!

Research has consistently found that to do good work, we need long stretches of uninterrupted time. But how can we have that when we’re bouncing from site to site all day long?

Understanding and analyzing your long tail activities can help you lower the amount of switches each day, feel better about how you’re spending your time, and be more focused and efficient. It’s just another tool in your toolbox for workplace productivity.

Here’s a few suggestions of what to do with this information:

Filter out activities by working hours

We all have a long, long tail when it comes to how we use the Internet. But where this is especially important is during the workday. We all have specific roles and tasks we’re supposed to do, and it’s important to know what’s getting in the way.

Before you start diving into your long tail, make sure you’re only looking at working hours by selecting the time filter on your RescueTime report.

Set working hours in RescueTime

Look for patterns in how you’re spending your time

Once you’re looking at your workday, the next thing to understand is: Are your long tail activities helping or hurting you?

Are all those sites research for articles, design tutorials, or resources for development issues? Or are they Reddit rabbit holes, Buzzfeed mini-binges, and other random, non-work related sites?

A quick scan is all it should take to understand where your long tail activities fit on the spectrum. As an added bonus, you’ll probably have at least one ridiculous “why did I spend 4 minutes on The Royal Horticultural Society website?” moments.

Make adjustments to your daily schedule

Time management, productivity, efficiency, focus—all these cornerstones of doing good work come down to understanding exactly where your time goes. And while meetings, communication, and multitasking eat into the day, there’s also plenty of smaller, long tail items we need to be aware of when making a schedule or planning our days.

It’s not just about accepting that you spend a good chunk of your day bouncing between things for just a few minutes at a time. Understanding the long tail of your daily activities can help you make an effective (and realistic) daily schedule.

As we’ve written many times, just because you’re at work for 8+ hours, doesn’t mean you have 8+ hours to work. When scoping out how long a project should take or deciding whether you can fit more on your plate, look at the time you’ve spent on the long tail as well as your other tasks.

Stop feeling so stressed about where the day goes!

Few of us reach the end of the day and feel fully satisfied. In fact, when we interviewed hundreds of RescueTime users, we discovered that nearly 75% of people end the day and wonder “Did I accomplish anything?”

The obvious mental leap at that point is to blame big distractions (like social media). But understanding that your time is just as likely to be eaten up by long tail, mostly productive activities helps ward off the feeling that you’ve wasted your day.

Take back control over more of your time by investing in the long tail

If you want to get serious about time management and efficiency, you can’t just stay at the surface level.

Our workdays are more complex than we treat them. And assuming that because you didn’t get everything done you must have been “wasting” hours on end on social media is a simplistic view.

Knowledge is power. And the more you know about where your time is going, the more control you have over it. So use RescueTime to check out your own long tail. Find the little things that are taking a big chunk out of your day. And then slowly work them out. Those small changes can bring you big returns.

Where is your time going? Check your RescueTime report and tell us the weirdest thing you found in your long tail in the comments or on Twitter. 

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.