• Advice

How to eliminate time-wasters

I’m sure you’ve done it, too.

You sit down to work, steaming cup of coffee close at hand. You check one email, then two – then you decide to peruse a few news websites, just to see what’s going on in the world. Maybe you should just Google that random bit of trivia, while you’re at it? Oh, look, all of these Wikipedia links are so clickable!

Before you know it, you’re spitting out a sip of ice-cold coffee… because four hours have unwittingly slipped away.

When I fall into this kind of procrastination wormhole, I often can’t even remember what I did while the time drifted away. It’s maddening, all of those hours of little micro-activities adding up to a great big zero.

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The fact that it’s an accumulation of tiny distractions also makes it difficult to stop myself from doing it again; each time, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly tripped me up. Too much emailing? Too many pit stops on social media? A few too many casual click-throughs of cat videos?

On the advice of an-almost-scarily-efficient-friend, I decided to give myself some tough love… and actually figure out where my time was going. Below is what worked for me; it’s an unscientific, mildly irritating, but useful way to identify (and thus eliminate) your biggest time-sucks.

Ye Olde Vaguely Onerous but Highly Effective Time-Tracking Guide

1. Get three sheets of paper. You will come to hate these sheets of paper, but they are your friends. Say, “Hello, friends!” Call a doctor if the papers talk back.

2. On each piece of paper, break your “work day” down into half-hour chunks. If you’re looking to work from 9-5, write down a slot for 9:00 AM to 9:30 AM, 9:30 AM to 10 AM, etc. Map this out for three consecutive days.

3. You are now, each and every day for these three torturous days, going to write down every activity that occupies you during each half-hour slot. For example, mine from 2:00 to 2:30 today would read:

2:00 – picked up coffee

2:15 – finished coffee in cafe, checked emails

2:20 – poked around on Instagram

2:30 – started third project

Be as honest and exacting as possible; the point is to demarcate patterns. It’s ideal if you don’t alter your routine much – I know it’s a bit counter-intuitive, since most of us behave better under observation, but you’re trying to identify your biggest typical temptations.

4. After three days, look over your sheets. What was your biggest time-suck? Where are you getting bogged down, and at what time of day? Do certain people or situations push you down the procrastination hole?

I found this exercise to be HIGHLY annoying – but very, very efficient. First of all, it was so irritating to track my time, it became an effective deterrent. Now, whenever I start procrastinating, I think “ugh, if I keep doing this, I’ll have to do the timesheets again” and pure angst drives me to productivity.

Second – and most importantly – it really pinpointed my top timewasters. Spending 10-15 minutes a day on social media is no great flaw; doing it 5 times a day is problematic. Once I was able to put my finger on where all of that amnesiac wasted attention was going, I was able to curb my worst distractions – putting myself within reasonable time limits.

And now I get to drink my coffee when it’s downright lukewarm!

Kate Hamill is a freelance writer, playwright, and actor. She lives in New York City and consumes a truly frightening amount of Sriracha daily. Follow her on Twitter at @katerone.