It pains me to admit that I often sort my days into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on how much I accomplish.
Binge-watched Mozart In The Jungle while eating plate after plate of nachos? Bad.
Wrote three content upgrades, emailed five True Story interviewees, and scheduled a newsletter? Good.
While I knooooow that my intrinsic worth is not measured by my professional output, it sure feels good to get shit done. With that in mind, here are six ways I’ve wasted time and what you can do instead (so you can learn from my mistakes and be even more productive. If that’s what you want.)
How to waste time: multi-task
“Coolcoolcool. I’ll just check my Facebook page and then write two paragraphs for this blog post but also dont’t I need to check my email? Yes, I definitely need to check my email ALSO MORE COFFEE.”
Does that sound familiar? If I’m not careful and extremely intentional, that’s how my workdays look. A never-ending flurry of half-finished tasks, completed with half my attention. It feels good to be ‘busy’! I feel so productive when I have 17 tabs open! But guess what? Multi-tasking is a myth. It literally reduces our productivity by 40%!
What to do instead: just work on one, glorious thing
Have you tried The Pomodoro Technique? I tell everyone, ever about it - I’m sure I’ve mentioned it here a million times. In a nutshell, you commit 25 extremely focused minutes to a given task. Then you take a five-minute break and do something completely different (no, not checking your email). Then you do another 25-minute work session, then another five-minute break. It’s so much easier to mono-task when you’re doing it in short bursts and you know you have a break coming!
Also: I imagine most of us would find it a lot easier to focus if we gave up the caffeine. Just sayin. 😉
How to waste time: get interrupted constantly
Your phone beeps, the dog is whining to go outside, and your partner just wandered into your office asking if you know where the remote control is. You’ve got a call at 2:30 and since it’s 2:15 you might as well faff around on social media for those 15 minutes because you’re not going to get anything done. Did you know it can take up to 25 minutes to get back in ‘the zone’ after a distraction?
What to do instead: turn off notifications + create boundaries + batch meetings
Turn off all the notifications on your phone and remove as many as you can from your computer. No, Gmail I don’t need to know every time I get a new email.
If you live with other people (or even pets!) create a quiet, separate space where you can do you work. In a perfect world, that space has a door but maybe it’s just a baby gate to keep the dog out. You can put on big headphones to shut out the noise or just signal to your roommates that you’re officially ‘on the clock.’ You should also create metaphorical boundaries with your clients. Sweetly, firmly tell them how often they can email you, whether they’re allowed to text you, and if you feel comfortable with them calling you out of the blue.
Constant meetings and calls interrupt your day and distract you from your real work. Schedule all your calls and meetings for one or two days each week - I try to schedule all my calls for Mondays. Then you can get them out of the way and get down to work, uninterrupted, the other days.
How to waste time: Blindly + half-assedly follow every professional whim
Hear that Periscope is A Thing. Open an account and make a video. Feel weird about it. Stop.
Turn off comments because you’re going to interact with readers on Facebook instead. Forget to post on Facebook.
Start a podcast. Hate it. Quit said podcast.
There is nothing wrong with trying new things! You should totally, totally walk away from things that aren’t working - no matter how long you’ve been doing them or how well they used to work. But I think a lot of us (re: me) get Shiny Object Syndrome when it comes to online life. We see someone doing someone with huge success - webinars! Instagram! sponsored posts! - and we decide that we should do it too. We don’t always take the time to really consider if it’s right for us, our readers, and our business.
What to do instead: really, actually consider if something’s a good fit before we start
“Sarah! You’re blowing my mind with your novel concepts!” I know, dude. I know. If 95.45% of my traffic comes from Facebook, should I learn Facebook ads or pay to promote my Tweets? If my professional strengths are writing and ideas, should I be spending my time learning SEO? If most of my readers are eco-conscious, should I do a sponsored post with Proctor & Gamble products? The answers are pretty obvious, right?
Before we take on a new business model or social media platform, I think it’s really smart to consider
- our natural strengths and weaknesses
- how much time we can commit to mastering this new thing
- where most of our traffic and business is coming from + how this new thing compliments that
How to waste time: fail to monitor consumption
Doesn’t it feel goooood to read all those blog posts about blogging? To piously move them into a properly labeled folder? To sign up for a million newsletters and attend a million webinars and take a million ecourses? Yes! It feels good and ‘productive’! But it’s not.
A lot of us hide behind ‘preparation’ and ‘research,’ waiting for everything to align before we start our big thing. But there are a limited number of hours in the day and if we spend all of them consuming other people’s stuff, we won’t have any left to make our own. If you think you don’t spend that much time reading blogs and scrolling through social media, I encourage you to use the timeStats plugin and track your use for a week. When I did this I was floored/ashamed.
What to do instead: literally set a timer
I can’t be trusted to read the internet in a sensible manner, so I only allow myself 30 minutes of surfing each day. I set a timer, start scrolling through my Feedly and when the timer dings I’m done. Sound crazy? It totally works! You can also use a plugin like Stay Focusd to block you from sites you’re visiting too often.
How to waste time: write unrealistic to-do lists
I love writing 17-point to-do lists, scribbling down every single task I could possibly cram into a day. Two things happen when I do this:
1. I never complete the list and then I feel bad about myself
2. Instead of doing the few big things I know I need to do, I’ll do the silly, not-that-important things that I’ve added to my list
Why, yes! Now is definitely the time to mend that sweater and write a letter to my grandma! Yes, now. Not after I finish that client project, but this very moment!
What to do instead: write better, shorter to-do lists
If we’re being honest, most of us can only accomplish one or two big things in a given day. I can write blog posts OR go to a photoshoot, but I’m probably not doing both. I can take client calls OR schedule a month’s worth of newsletters but if I do both I’ll probably hate my life/screw everything up.
Instead of writing a long, crazy to-do list, choose two big things and one fun thing and then do those things with devoted focus. You’ll get more done and you’ll enjoy your work day a lot more!
How to waste time: be sleep deprived, eat crap, dehydrate yourself
I don’t know about you, but I do my best work on four hours of sleep, a pot of stale coffee, and pizza rolls. JUST KIDDING THAT’S A LIE. When I write in that state, I usually end up deleting 80% of it because it’s just Mindy Project quotes and Lion King lyrics.
I know I sound like your mom, but you can’t do your best work when you’re running on empty. You will write/code/design better when you’re well-rested, hydrated, and nourished with food that’s a color found in nature.
What to do instead: treat yourself the way you’d treat a small child
You’ve seen this pin, right? If you can’t be bothered to click through, allow me:
Treat yourself the way you’d treat a small child. Feed yourself healthy food and make sure you spend time outside. Put yourself to bed early. Let yourself take a nap. Don’t say mean things to yourself. Don’t put yourself in danger.
Smart, right? Know that you’re in capable hands and that you can trust yourself to make smart, kind decisions.
How do you waste time? And how do you stop wasting it?
P.S. How to enjoy work (even when you’re busy and kind of overwhelmed)
Thanks so much for this! I can (unfortunately) relate…time to make some changes! I actually do have Pomodoro set up on my laptop-just don’t use it like I should…ooops!
Oh I wish it were possible to keep my dogs out of my office area, ha! But they are persistent buggers and need to be close by all.the.time!
I’ve heard tons of things about Stay Focusd, so I finally installed it - I have a horrible habit of checking Facebook when I just want to have a few minutes to zone out, when I ought to be actually getting up from my desk for that small break, or not taking one at all (because Facebook breaks normally come after smaller tasks, like checking email or responding to comments - not after large tasks like actually writing posts!). So, now I’ve “nuked” Facebook for an hour, just to see how it’s going to work out, and I can see myself setting that to run from morning till dinner time! Woo!
I am a master of wasting time. I’ll just watch this show and read this article and go outside with the dog and find out where I know that guy on the movie from and watch this cat video… The going outside is good. Luckily, I like to make lists and cross things off, so I have learned that having a list of must-do things next to me is the way to go. It helps me stay on track and actually accomplish things I need to do for my blog and for clients. It works for me better than having stuff written down on my computer that I may or may not ever look at. I should try a timer app though!
OMG that opening TOTALLY speaks to me. Taking a break for otherwise necessary stuff like exercise is okay. But taking a break for frivolous stuff (playing mah jongg solitaire online, doing crossword puzzles, TV) is BAD. Checking off thing after thing from to do list is GOOD. This is great advice for dealing with it. I try to only have about three things on my to do list each day; then if I get them all and more done, I feel good. Thanks, Sarah.
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I’ve heard others recommend the Pomodoro technique, have you started to use it yet? I’m now extra curious about using it when you also state that it can take 25 mins to get back in the zone after a distraction. I guess that if the distraction is a 5 min Tai Chi break or a quick walk around the garden then perhaps it’s not so difficult to re-focus as opposed to a quick visit to facebook.
I do find that my bullet journal works quite well for keeping me on focus - when I use it… Of course, not being a highly disciplined person in the first place i often forget to use the journal and then wonder why the project is not developing.
Oh well, have another pot of coffee and try again…
OMG I lived and breathed Pomodoro during my Masters degree last year and literally would not have finished it had I not (ever tried an MA in 12 months, including field work and writing a dissertation? Oh, and while adjusting to life on a new continent. Not for the faint of heart!!). Then, of course, as soon as I finished my dissertation, I promptly deleted my Pomodoro timer app and went back to wasting time on feedly and pinterest like it was my job. I’ve been working on getting back on the staying focused wagon this year and it’s not easy without a deadline looming like it was in grad school, but the days when I stay on task end up being so much better, more enjoyable, satisfying, etc. etc. etc. than the days that I don’t. These are all such great suggestions. Thank you for sharing!