Blog Post

Top Time-wasters for Web Workers (And How to Cure Them)

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?

20 Responses to “Top Time-wasters for Web Workers (And How to Cure Them)”

  1. Rediculous. Web workers waste time at work because we’re stuck under a glass ceiling — there aren’t credible career paths for us to advance in conventional jobs… We just don’t have the equation that working harder leads to a promotion or more money. There’s no reason to work hard, unless we’re working for ourselves.

    — “Great Power Of Hope, Cure Dream”

  2. My brilliant and hard-working wife has been reading about the various time-tracking applications that’ve been mentioned here and in the article linked here, and she’s not finding what she needs.

    Her primary work application is Adobe InDesign and she’d like to be able to timestamp and track the time as each window becomes active. My thought is some application in an Adobe language (such as Flex) might leverage Adobe’s APIs to do this.

    I realize this is a rather specific question and a hair off the main thread–and a little goofy even on its own terms, because she also does a lot of work in MS Word–but if anyone has equally specific advice is urged to share it.

    (It can even be a little goofy. After all, she tolerates it in me.)

  3. For IM, I used Trillian for the longest time and am now on Digsby.

    Got two more things to add to the mix, Reading RSS subscriptions and feeling the need to participate NOW.

    Similar to email, your unread feeds are waiting for you when you open it. It’s no rush. You need to:

    a) timebox your feed reading habits much like you do email

    b) organize your feeds so that you only read the important stuff during work. For example, have a “Read Now” folder with the most important feeds. Or have a start page with just those feeds.

    Feed reading has consumer too much of my time in the past and present (right now, for example).

    Also, I often feel the need to participate and I have to try real hard to pick my spots and not get carried away. For example, I am both adhering & violating my own rule right now by responding to this post.

    Ugh, this is hard.

  4. Great post, Celine!

    We did a bit of aggregate data mining at RescueTime (which measures how web workers spend their time) and found that 40+% of time goes to communication/social apps and sites (from email to social networks).

    We also found that the average RescueTime user alt-tabs to an IM window 77 times PER DAY. So I think you’re right on about changing IM habits.