I spend waaaaaay too much time on...

Laura Stack — №3 with Michael Bungay Stanier

I recently asked my readers to fill in the blank to “I spend waaaaaay too much time on…” There were tons of interesting answers, but it didn’t take long to start seeing some patterns. Here are seven most common responses (and what you can do about them).

1. E-mail.

Let’s face it. E-mail can be a phenomenal productivity tool, but it will eat your day alive if you let it. Lots of people complain that their overflowing inbox is beyond their control, but here are three steps you CAN take to start getting a handle on it right away:

Do you keep one eye on your inbox all day long? What does that do to your productivity? If you drop everything and attend to every e-mail that comes in throughout the day, you are derailing your productivity, over and over again. Not only do you waste whatever time it takes for you to read, ignore, or act on a given e-mail message, but it also takes time to refocus your attention on whatever you were doing prior to the interruption.

Try to close Outlook completely while you work on other tasks, if you simply can’t resist looking. Also turn off your alerts, so the envelope in the system tray doesn’t constantly remind you there’s email waiting.

2. Watching television.

Why is it that we can spend all day scrounging for extra minutes and then head home only to flush countless hours down the drain watching television? Television (even bad television) can be extremely habit forming and one show can very easily lead to another, turning your half-hour escape into an entire evening wasted.

Take a quick inventory of the last few TV shows you watched. Think about how many you thought about in advance and then sat down to enjoy. Now think about how many you ended up watching just because they were on. Pick a few shows that you really enjoy and watch them each week.

If you have TiVo or a DVR, that’s even better. Watch on your own time and skip the commercials. Then shut the TV off and go about your business!

3. Searching the Internet.

The Internet is a bottomless pit of information… some useful and some not-so-useful. It’s much too easy to sit down to do one thing (pay a bill, look up an address) and end up wasting time on something else entirely (reading news stories, checking your social networking profiles).

If meandering around the web is relaxing for you — that’s fine — just make sure you do it at an appropriate time and place that doesn’t interfere with work or family time.

Otherwise, treat the Internet like any other tool: use it when you need it and put it away when you’re done. Once you’ve got what you came for, close the window and move on.

4. Procrastinating on starting a difficult task or project.

Occasionally, things don’t get done because we just can’t seem to get the ball rolling. Sometimes the task or project giving us a hard time is completely within our control, but we just don’t make it happen. Whether the task is intimidating, time-consuming, or simply unpleasant, the solution is often the same: break it down into manageable chunks.

Forget waiting for a “block of time.” That no longer exists. Instead of viewing the task as one huge project, break it down into manageable chunks you can schedule over a period of a week or two. A twenty-hour project can be seen as ten two-hour tasks. Getting it down on paper can help you see how to best approach the project. The key is to do something to move toward completion. If you need to focus without interruption, it’s best to not work in your office.

If you can take one large task and break it into many smaller ones, it’ll be much easier to get things going. Rather than feeling like you have to tackle some monumental project all at once, you can just look at your bite-sized first step and get started right away.

5. Handling family concerns during my work day.

Life happens. And it isn’t always convenient. Some things can only be arranged during the week from 9:00 to 5:00. Fortunately, companies are starting to realize that it’s in their best interest to assist employees attempting to manage their lives during the day rather than standing in the way. That can mean anything from allowing workers to access the Internet for incidental personal use to offering flexible schedules to accommodate personal appointments.

Talk to your boss, your peers, and your staff about finding opportunities for flexibility within the workday. If employees don’t feel like they have to accomplish a million things during five lunch hours a week, they’ll be more productive during the rest of the day. Do whatever you can to promote a strong, reasonable work-life balance at your organization.

6. Scheduling meetings.

Do you find that it’s close to impossible to get five or more attendees that are available at the same time and the same date? When key players are overbooked, it can take hours just to schedule a single a meeting. Here are three questions you should ask yourself whenever you schedule a meeting:

Do we really need all these people? Make sure you aren’t inviting anyone that doesn’t need to have a seat at the table.

Can we keep people in the loop without inviting them to every meeting? Some meetings are full of wallflowers that need to know what’s going on but don’t necessarily need to contribute. Publishing meeting minutes or distributing essential information electronically can save time and shorten the attendee list. By choosing a single designee from each work area, you can make sure everyone is represented without having everyone in the room.

Do we need to meet at all?

Any meeting that doesn’t have a clear objective (if not a formal agenda) should be on the chopping block.

7. Working on fun things instead of boring tasks.

I love that this one made the list because it shows how honest my readers are! The best thing you can do is realize that you’ll focus much better on the work that is important to you if you don’t have a bunch of small, less interesting tasks hanging over your head. One thing to keep in mind? About 99 percent of the time, those nit-picky tasks are DRAMATICALLY easier and less painful than you think they’re going to be.

Getting started is the hardest part. If you’re really having trouble, schedule a five-minute appointment with yourself to begin the chore. When the designated time arrives, start working on the task. If you feel like stopping at the end of five minutes, you can stop. The only rule is you must schedule an additional five minutes for tomorrow. When you begin to see some progress, five minutes soon becomes 10, 15, 20…

Photo: © Silkstock / Fotolia.com

Laura stack

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in personal productivity. Since 1992, she has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of five books, including “What to Do When There’s Too Much To Do.”

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