Where did the time go? If you ask yourself this question at the end of your workday and don’t know the answer, odds are you’ve wasted some time on unnecessary tasks.
As web workers, our unproductive time doesn’t go to water cooler gossip or hanging out at the employee lounge. Usually, we’ll lose hours each day on social networks, email, instant messaging, and random internet surfing. Of course, these are important aspects of our web working lives, but they often take more time than they should.
So how do we prevent from indulging ourselves in our favorite time-wasters?
Social networks. If you’re a web worker it’s highly likely that you have a social networking account. In fact, you might have more than one. The average person probably spends less than an hour on Facebook daily, while others are more extreme. If you’re more like the latter, then you need to trim down your social networking time.
If personal or business networking is valuable to you, then make time for it. Schedule it like you would an important work task. A maximum of 30 minutes each workday should suffice, unless you use social networks as your main communication tool for most of your contacts.
Random net surfing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mindlessly surfing the net, however, it becomes a big distraction if you do it alongside your work tasks. It’s much harder to get your work done if you’re constantly clicking that Stumble button or jumping from one Wikipedia entry to another.
To trim your surfing hours, you need to know exactly how much time is spent on it, as well as the sites you visit. That’s where automatic time tracking apps come in. You might be surprised at the results. The first time I used one, I was surprised to find that although my main activity was work related, it only beat my random web surfing by 5%.
The best thing to do to limit random surfing is to find your peak working hours and do nothing but your work (and deserved breaks) during this time. You can also minimize visual distractions by hiding the Windows taskbar or by working in fullscreen mode. Doing this makes it harder to access random websites.
Email. Email is efficient, since you can send it whenever you’re free and your recipient can read it at their convenience. However, I’m guessing that the average web worker receives roughly a hundred emails a day, including subscriptions and spam. To mentally filter, read, and reply to those messages can take hours – which are better spent working or resting.
To lessen excessive email time, find a system that works for you. Personally, I’ve used Inbox Zero with great success, while other people made progress with fancier email styles. There’s also the newly coined Inbox Infinity. Pre-existing email productivity systems might not work for you perfectly, but they’re a great starting point if you want to change your habits and make email time more productive.
Like my advice on social network usage, it also helps to schedule email. You can check and respond to your email twice a day, which should be enough for web workers who have at most 5 regular clients at any given time. If you can, remove any audio or visual cues that let you know as soon as new email arrives. This includes the Gmail icon in the Google Toolbar, the sound that MS Outlook plays for new incoming mail, and other similar notifications. By removing these cues, you won’t be a slave to your incoming mail.
Instant messaging. It’s always a surprise to me how many people (web worker or not) are constantly messaging me during office hours, often for mere idle chitchat. Being constantly available via IM proved to be such a distraction, so I took some steps to change my IM habits. This included taking advantage of stealth or invisible modes, and being selective about who can see me online.
If you’re an IM power user, it’s best to use an all-in-one application, rather than opening Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, and AIM all at the same time. This reduces the visual clutter on your desktop. Examples of such applications are Pidgin and Miranda.
Which of these activities waste your time the most? What have you done to lessen your wasted time?