Weekly Reads: 10 Common workplace time wasters (and how to avoid them)

The office is a minefield of distraction. Between email, Slack, text messages, social notifications, mobile alerts, and loud colleagues, we’re constantly bombarded with potential time wasters.

A UC Irvine study revealed that, on average, office workers are interrupted every 11 minutes. And yet it takes around 25 minutes to get back on track.

Eliminating distractions—as many as possible—can have a profound impact on your productivity, output, and mental wellbeing.

So rather than only focus on what you should be doing more efficiently, consider the detractors you can eliminate. Here are 10 of the biggest workplace time wasters you should watch out for:

1. Smartphones and other digital devices

time waster - smartphone

Smartphones are a bit of a conundrum for most workers.

On one hand, they enable us to be more connected and tuned in than ever. However, as well all know, this connectivity comes with a cost in productivity. While the average person spends about three hours a day on their phone (according to our research), the top 25% of users spend 4.5 hours or more.

This level of use can mostly be attributed to our natural brain chemistry. We’re hardwired to receive a hit of the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine whenever we get a notification. Yet because that pleasure is fleeting, we continually seek it out. (It’s no wonder most people can’t go 15 minutes without picking up their phone!)

How to avoid getting sucked into your smartphone during the workday

The fix, of course, isn’t just to throw your phone out. But rather to make it less of a time waster. At one extreme, you can delete all distracting apps. But at the minimum turn off all notifications and try to have a few sessions where you go into do-not-disturb mode during working hours. Your notifications will still be waiting for you once the day is done.

Want to know how much time you actually spend on your phone each day? Find out how RescueTime for iOS and Android can help

2. Multitasking and trying to do too much at once

You might think multitasking makes you extra productive. Who wouldn’t want to do more than one task at a time? But the reality is exactly the opposite.

Studies have consistently found that the majority of people have lower performance when trying to do multiple tasks at once (unless you’re part of the 2.5 percent of people who can multitask effectively.)

How to avoid multitasking and stay focused on your most important work

You don’t necessarily need scientific evidence to see that multitasking becomes a massive time waster. Your workplace task juggling has the same effect as texting while driving (just slightly less dangerous).

Instead of trying to do multiple things at once, spend a bit of time creating a  focused daily schedule that promotes single-tasking. Better yet, build your calendar around “Maker Time”—long stretches of time dedicated to specific tasks.

3. Noisy offices and chatty coworkers

time waster - noise

Ambient noise and unnecessarily loud coworkers can have a massive impact on your productivity. And modern, open-office floorplans often exacerbate this issue.

Researchers have found that to concentrate on cognitively demanding work, we should be in an environment no louder than 50 decibels. However, most open offices are closer to the 60-65 decibel range. It might not seem like much, but the sounds of conversation, laughter, clinking coffee cups or even mobile ringtones can quickly wrench you out of a focused state.

How to protect yourself from your office neighbor’s noisy habits

Cubicles and sectioned off spaces are certainly not homely and can be downright bleak, but they do help eliminate noise that would otherwise carry across the office. If you can’t physically separate yourself from noisy coworkers, you’re better off to drown them out by wearing headphones and listening to soothing, inspirational music.

4. Workplace clutter and disarray

Einstein may be famous for asking “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” yet messy, unorganized workspaces have been found to be a productivity killer. Neuroscientists at Princeton University discovered that physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention, adding to stress and decreasing your performance.

How to clean up your clutter (both physical and digital):

Making a habit of getting rid of your distracting clutter is a great way to protect your productivity. Set a reminder, either daily, weekly, or bi-monthly to clean, sort, and discard your physical and digital clutter (like all those browser tabs you have open). Or, follow the advice of Deep Work author Cal Newport and become a “digital minimalist” by clearing out and deleting any tool you aren’t using or doesn’t bring you value.

This doesn’t mean you should work in a barren, stark workspace. In fact, making your space your own with family photos, plants, and other personal items makes sure you feel at ease and enjoy coming into the workspace each day.

5. Unhealthy nutrition and hydration habits

time waster- food

You probably don’t think of food as a time waster, but a drop of energy during the day can make it difficult to get things done. Our bodies go through natural ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day, and what you eat and drink will determine whether you spend the day on a high, or barely make it through.

How to keep your body (and mind) properly fueled:

While there is lots of advice out there on nutrition (and most of it will depend on what works for you), remember to keep yourself properly fueled throughout the day. Keep a water bottle or glass at your desk and fill it every few hours (or more) and try to avoid foods and drinks with high concentrations of sugar, which give you an initial boost of energy followed by a full-on crash.

6. Procrastination and a lack of motivation

Sometimes, when you find it hard to focus or simply aren’t that interested you might procrastinate starting a project. Yet procrastination only leads to more stress. Instead, it’s often better to simply force yourself to start (as creativity and focus often come after the fact).

Writing is a perfect example. Rather than stress over the blank page, most writers force themselves through a first draft and worry about editing later.

How to quickly overcome procrastination in the workplace:

If you’re having a hard time getting started, a simple trick is to follow Instagram founder Kevin Systrom’s ‘hack’ and tell yourself you’ll only work on a task for 5 minutes. Often, that’s enough to kickstart your motivation.

Once you’ve started, however, evaluating progress can be particularly troublesome (and can quickly sap your motivation). Small wins can be just as motivational as big ones, which is why it can be a powerful motivator to use a productivity tracking tool like RescueTime to see how much you’ve chipped away at each day.

7. Social networks and online distractions

time waster - social media

Just as smartphones and similar devices can be major time wasters, so can websites, news, and, of course, social media networks. The problem with these distractions are that they’re what Make Time author John Zeratsky calls “Infinity Pools”—a source of never-ending content that you can scroll through and refresh endlessly. In fact, most workers spend an average of 7% of their working hours on social media.

How to protect yourself from drowning in social media and online distractions:

Willpower alone isn’t enough to solve the issue of online time wasters. If you find yourself pursuing distracting sites at work, a better bet is to install or use a distraction blocker. RescueTime’s FocusTime feature, for instance, will block distracting websites entirely such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube when you need to focus the most.

8. Excessive meetings and “quick catchups”

Meetings tend to be huge time sinks. (It’s probably safe to say you’ve been to at least one this week you didn’t need to be in.) However, it’s often hard to get out of them unless you’re a member of management or senior staff.

How to cut down the meetings you go to:

If you feel that a majority of your day is wasted on unimportant or unnecessary meetings it may be time to seriously bring it up. Ask to do a calendar audit and see which meetings need to be attended and which are just legacy bookings that can be killed. In the best case scenario, you’ll help everyone spend less time in meetings or condense frequent meetings into a single event that is better organized and more focused.

9. Decision fatigue from too many small decisions

Time waster - decision fatigue

Decision fatigue refers to the natural deterioration of our decision-making abilities throughout the day. It’s why you’ll choose takeout over cooking at the end of a long day. Or why the average worker switches between tasks more than 300 times per day. Once our decision-making stores are spent, it’s hard to properly gauge what work is most important and we end up thrashing and wasting time.

How to reduce your daily decisions:

Start by trying to eliminate the amount of decisions you make each day. Especially less impactful ones. This could mean developing a set morning routine, mapping out your most important work the night before, or even eating the same thing for lunch every day. The fewer small decisions you need to make, the more energy you’ll have to prioritize your time the right way.

10. Email overload and never-ending communication

Collaboration and communication are great for productivity. Except when they’re not. Chat tools such as Slack, Google Hangouts, and Skype easily go from “tool that helps me stay informed” to “place where everyone’s yelling at once and nothing gets done.”

How to cut back the time communication eats out of your day:

It’s impossible for most of us to cut these tools out of our workday. But it can be beneficial to limit their use. Consider working in short bursts or establishing scheduled times to check in and respond when you’re not focused on something else.

Managers and senior-level staff can help with this by setting better expectations for response times, such as not requiring employees to communicate or respond immediately.

Distractions happen, but we can take action to reduce them

As humans, it’s only natural to get distracted. But it’s when we recognize those distractions and continue to let them take over our lives that we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

Use this list to help identify your personal time wasters, and then squash them. The less time these time wasters take, the more time you’ll have for meaningful work.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a productivity and tech writer published on Lifewire, MakeUseOf, Inc.com and others. To see more of her work, visit her blog or follow her on Twitter @KaylaEMatthews

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