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Dealing with Time Wasters

Dealing with Time Wasters

Although most of us are full of good intentions, which wither quickly as the days of the New Year pass, making better use of our time is a common objective for many of us, and this usually means cutting out the worst of the time-wasting activities in which we have become engaged. Many things compete to waste our time. The more we can focus on what is really important, the better time-managers we will become. Tools such as prioritization and better overall Time Management approaches can be useful but eliminating time-wasters is often the single biggest step we can make in becoming effective.

As a quick list of what we might do to reduce some of our time-wasting activities, a good place to start is as follows:

  1. Write down a list of how you think you are spending your time in an average week.
  2. Buy a diary with at least one page per day broken down into 15 or 30 minute time slots.
  3. Now keep a diary note for at least a week (and maybe 2) of how you actually spend your time in each 15 or 30 minute slot. Do not change your normal habits during this time.
  4. At the end of each week, analyze how much time you have actual spent on each type of activity.
  5. Record your work time, leisure time or any other time you want to spend more efficiently.
  6. Identify the key time-wasting activities.
  7. Reduce the time spent in the most wasteful activities.
  8. Set SMART written goals for yourself to keep you on-track with what is most important.
  9. When you find yourself indulging in a time-wasting activity as identified stop immediately!
  10. Actively plan to spend the majority of your time on healthy and productive activities.

Although this is a useful start, we should also be aware of the major time-wasters that seem to have the most impact on many people – lets therefore look at a few of these:

Item 1: Beware of Email

E-mail can be a useful tool, avoiding the need for face-to-face meetings. It can also be our biggest time waster, with many people spending hours a day checking email on computers and mobile phones. Here are some quick tips for using the email effectively:

  • Before you send an email to anyone, always be clear on why you are writing an email or copying more than one person. Ask what outcome do you want? If you don’t know, don’t send the e-mail (or call the person or speak to them face-to-face perhaps instead).
  • Practice being brief and to the point – a short email with a clear subject will often suffice.
  • There is often a sense that when an email arrives it must be answered there and then. It is more efficient to respond 2, 3 or 4 times a day in short batches of time to suit your schedule.
  • Let colleagues (and friends and family) know whether or not you want them to email you. If you are getting copied on emails you don’t need to see tell the sender for next time.

Item 2: Beware of TV and the Internet

TV, and now increasingly the Internet is one of the biggest time-wasters. Used sparingly both can offer excellent relaxation or highly informative. However, most of us are guilty of getting caught up in endless “surfing” on the web, becoming immersed in yet another program or episode or watching something that is meeting none of our real needs so at the very least:

  • Set yourself a strict TV watching and Internet surfing time allocation.
  • Limit your time to specific blocks each day.
  • Always ask if there is some better way for you to use the time you are spending here.

Item 3: Beware of Visitors

Minimize “drop in” visitors. You may also consider only allowing visitors at a fixed time of day. To discourage visitors from lingering you can keep them standing – either you stand when they enter and do not sit down, or do not provide furniture for guests in your office. When casual visitors arrive, ensure they are aware of the time available to them. If you are visiting someone else, take something productive with you (like a small notepad and pen for ideas) in case they keep you waiting.

Item 4: Beware of Paper

Handling paper can be a real time waster – so make a habit of handling paper just once!

  • Avoid a clutter of paper which distracts you from the task at hand.
  • Remember the 4 D’s of paper handling – Dump it; Delegate; Do it now, Delay it (reschedule).
  • The biggest challenge with paper is being able to find what you want or need. Invest time in developing a filing system (manual or electronic). Once you are finished – file it immediately, and don’t forget this so-called “filing” may also be in the trash can.

Item 5: Beware of Lack of Planning

If you do not plan, you do not know where or how to spend your time, so you tend to waste it. Remember all the P’s “Proper prior planning/preparation prevents poor performance.” Also, don’t forget the old adage, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!

Item 6: Beware of Too Much Socializing

Work tends to be more enjoyable when you have good rapport with colleagues but a big time-waster can occur when you get along too well with colleagues and lose too much time by socializing. Keep visits and phone calls to business topics only during business hours. Socialize at lunch time or after work, or at least minimize socializing to 5–10 minute breaks.

Item 7: Beware of “Fire-fighting”

By being proactive you can work on solutions to underlying problems instead of reacting to events or “fire-fighting”. So often we play the role of being very active but not very effective. While you may still have to fight fires on occasions, try to work out the systems behind the fires – what is creating the problem and what is the best way to deal with the cause, rather than the problem itself.

Item 8: Beware of Indecision

It has been estimated that some 70% of first answers are correct. If that is true you have a pretty good chance of getting things right. Frequently the harm in “wrong” decisions was caused by the delay in making any decision, rather than the decision itself. If you are having difficulty making a decision due to a lack of information you can seek information or resources. If you are fearful of the consequences of the decision, consider the consequences of making no decision or a slow decision – when it’s important place a time limit on yourself in which to make the decision.

Item 9: Beware of Perfectionism

The “80/20 rule” (or Pareto Principle) says that 20% of what we do accounts for 80% of the results. If you strive to have something “perfect” you may well be spending 80% of your time to get just 20% of the results. On the other hand, we should be equally wary of the “near enough is good enough” attitude – you will still want to keep standards high. The biggest time-waster of all is to do perfectly that which needn’t be done at all.

Item 10: Information Overload

In the “Information Age” we are bombarded by incoming information – fax, radio, TV, Internet, newspapers, magazines, memos, emails… Be selective. Read only the information you really need. Cancel publications or e-mail subscriptions you don’t need. Always ask – do I need to know this?

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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