Do you find yourself constantly distracted, procrastinating, or falling into unproductive habits?
If so, you’re not alone—American adults waste an average of 2.9 hours at work each day. It’s clear that in today’s fast-paced world, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of wasting precious time. Whether mindlessly scrolling through social media, getting lost in an endless cycle of distractions, or simply lacking direction, time slips away before we realize it.
The consequences of engaging in time wasters are plentiful, with increased stress, opportunities lost, reduced productivity, and lack of personal fulfillment. There are financial implications, too. Distractions and time-wasting activities at work cost U.S. companies an average of $1.7 million yearly for every 100 employees due to reduced productivity.
When it comes to wasting time, there are even more alarming statistics:
- Only 38% of remote employees report doing some or all of their work during work days.
- 68% of on-site employees report doing some or all of their work during work days.
- Remote employees report working 5.6 hours of their 8-hour work days.
- Checking email causes about 96 interruptions in a typical 8-hour work day.
- It takes 30 minutes to refocus your attention every time you’re distracted.
- Employees believe that 71% of their work meetings are unproductive time wasters.
If you feel like you struggle with any of the points listed above, learn how to stop wasting time by exploring alternative actions that lead to increased productivity, happiness, and a deeper sense of fulfillment.
Top 6 Biggest Time Wasters
The top time wasters for adults can vary depending on individual habits and preferences. However, here are some common time wasters that many adults may encounter:
1. Social Media
“The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter.”Cal Newport, The New York Times
Endlessly scrolling through feeds, checking notifications, and engaging in online discussions can be a major time drain. Plus, two-thirds of Americans say that social media has a “mostly negative effect” on how things are going in the U.S., according to a survey from Pew Research Center, yet they spend several hours daily on these platforms.
To stop wasting time on social media:
- Align your social media usage with your goals: Define your purpose for using social media to determine whether it’s for staying informed, networking, professional development, or promoting your work. When you’ve steered away from that purpose, it’s time to take a break.
- Limit your time: Set specific time limits for social media usage and stick to them. Use productivity tools or smartphone apps that track and restrict your time spent on social platforms, which will help you avoid mindless scrolling.
- Focus on meaningful interactions and content: Engage in discussions, share thoughtful comments, and contribute to conversations that align with your interests or professional goals.
- Schedule posts and use automation tools: When using social media for work, use management tools that allow you to schedule posts in advance. By allocating specific times to create and schedule content, you can avoid constant interruptions throughout the day.
- Use social media as a learning tool: Follow accounts that provide informative content, webinars, or online courses relevant to your interests. These accounts might include those of thought leaders, industry experts, and educational platforms.
Author and computer science professor Cal Newport advocates for a minimalist (or non-existent) approach to social media, emphasizing the importance of intentional and purposeful use (if you choose to use it). He suggests focusing on high-value activities and cultivating meaningful offline interactions instead of mindless scrolling.
That being said, there are people who use social media for work, to promote a brand or organization, and to learn. In these cases, it’s important to use these platforms with clear objectives.
2. Poorly Managed Meetings
“The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.”Thomas Sowell, Economist and Author
While organized and well-managed meetings can be useful in the workplace, meetings that lack structure, focus, or purpose can be a significant time waster.
The average worker spends at least three hours per week in meetings, according to a report by Zippia, and survey results show that 71% of those meetings are considered unproductive. When meetings lack an agenda, run longer than necessary, or involve irrelevant discussions, valuable time that could be used for productive work is wasted. Plus, reports indicate that an estimated $37 billion is lost yearly to unproductive workplace meetings.
To stop wasting time at meetings, follow these guidelines:
- Have a clear objective: The purpose of the meeting should be defined for all attendees, and desired outcomes should be indicated on the agenda. Everyone present should understand the goals and what needs to be accomplished within the designated meeting time.
- Start and end on time: Display good time management by allocating specific time slots for each agenda item and stick to them. All items unfulfilled should be pinned to the top of the next meeting agenda.
- Keep meetings short: Donna McGeorge, author of The 25 Minute Meeting, has found in her research that meetings should not last any longer than 25 minutes or include more than seven people.
- Designate a facilitator: A skilled meeting facilitator must keep the discussion on track, encourage participation from all attendees, manage any conflicts or disruptions that arise, and stick to the time allotment.
- End with a plan: At the end of each meeting, assign action items and responsibilities and note who will be accountable for each task.
Elon Musk offered several productivity recommendations in a 2018 email to all Tesla employees. He wrote, “Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get rid of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.”
To Musk, any meeting that won’t directly generate revenue or cost savings is a waste of money and time.
3. Email Overload
“Turn off your email; turn off your phone; disconnect from the internet; figure out a way to set limits so you can concentrate when you need to, and disengage when you need to.”Gretchen Rubin
The average person spends 172 minutes daily checking work emails and 149 minutes checking personal emails.
Excessive time spent on managing emails, including reading, responding, and organizing, can be a major time sink during and after work hours. Constantly checking emails or spending too much time crafting perfect replies can impede productivity.
Here are some strategies for handling emails without wasting time:
- Set specific email-checking times: Rather than constantly checking emails throughout the day, designate specific times to focus on email. For example, handle email reading and writing from 9–9:30 a.m. on weekdays, and again from 3–3:30 p.m. This helps minimize interruptions and allows for better concentration on other tasks.
- Use email filters and folders: Organize your inbox using filters and folders to sort incoming emails automatically. Categorize messages based on priority, sender, or topic, making it easier to locate and address important emails quickly. This approach reduces time spent searching through a cluttered inbox.
- Limit unnecessary email subscriptions: Review your email subscriptions and newsletters regularly. Unsubscribe from those that no longer provide value or contribute to your professional growth.
- Use concise and clear communication: When composing emails, strive for brevity and clarity. Clearly state the purpose of your message, be direct in your requests, and use bullet points or numbered lists for easy reading. This approach facilitates efficient reading and reduces back-and-forth email exchanges.
- Delegate and collaborate effectively: Rather than attempting to handle every email individually, delegate appropriate emails to team members when possible. Foster a culture of effective collaboration, encouraging team members to handle their areas of expertise and involve you only when necessary.
CEO of Intuit, Brad Smith, says that his approach to email is “read, act, file, or delete.” By performing one of these tasks for every email, Smith manages to clear his inbox daily without the help of an assistant. But he does say this requires commitment and designating specific times to deal with emails.
4. Phone Use
“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful.”Steven Spielberg
The average American spends 5–6 hours daily on their phones outside of work requirements, according to a report by Statista. And a survey done by Screen Education found that employees waste more than two hours per workday using their phones. That’s a jarring amount of time spent scrolling, texting, checking emails, and chatting during work and leisure hours.
Here are some suggestions to help you reduce phone usage:
- Set clear boundaries: Establish specific time periods or situations where phone use is not allowed or restricted. For example, designate phone-free times at work and home, such as during important meetings, moments of deep work, time with family, and meals.
- Disable non-essential notifications: Review and disable unnecessary or non-essential notifications on your phone. Limiting notifications helps minimize distractions and interruptions throughout the day, allowing you to stay more focused on important tasks.
- Use airplane mode or do not disturb mode: When you need to concentrate or engage in specific activities, consider using airplane mode or enabling the do not disturb mode on your phone. This prevents incoming calls, messages, and notifications from interrupting your workflow.
- Designate specific phone-checking times: Rather than constantly checking your phone throughout the day, allocate specific times to check and respond to messages, emails, and other notifications.
In a book by Naz Beheshti, the former executive assistant to Steve Jobs, she reveals that Jobs almost never turned off his phone, but when he did, it was when he spent time with Apple’s former Chief of Design Officer, Jony Ive. It was during this disconnected time that the pair dreamed up some of the most impactful and iconic tech gadgets. When Jobs went into Ive’s office to view prototypes and mockups, he turned off his cell phone to allow for greater focus and interaction.
The goal is not to completely eliminate phone use, but it’s important to find a healthy balance that allows you to prioritize important tasks and activities.
5. Excessive TV, Games, and Other Distractions
“If you are not working on important things, you are wasting time.”Dean Kamen
The average adult spends 2.9 hours per day watching TV, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And more than one in 10 millennials who work remotely admit to being distracted by video games during the workday.
Watching television, streaming shows, playing video games, or engaging in excessive entertainment activities can easily lead to time being wasted if not managed properly.
While engaging in these activities seems like an unusual way to spend time during the workday, with a major increase in remote working since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it has become a problem that hinders productivity for some.
Here are some strategies to help you steer clear of common at-home distractions:
- Create a dedicated workspace: Designate a specific area for work that is separate from your entertainment areas. Having a dedicated workspace helps you mentally associate that area with productivity and reduces the temptation to engage in leisure activities.
- Set clear boundaries and rules: Establish guidelines for yourself regarding TV and game playing during working hours. Communicate these rules to household members or roommates to ensure everyone respects your boundaries.
- Eliminate access and remove triggers: Minimize the presence of TVs or gaming consoles in your workspace to eliminate easy access and visual distractions.
- Establish a schedule and routine: Set a clear work schedule and stick to it. Having a structured routine helps create a sense of discipline and trains your mind to associate specific times with work. Include designated breaks in your schedule for relaxation and leisure activities to satisfy the need for downtime.
Executives like Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, believe that the biggest challenge with remote working is maintaining a company culture that keeps employees involved and interactive throughout the workday. Nadella says that employee interactions must be available virtually, which could be done with designated social hours, workout challenges, and other online activities.
Still, employees working from home can access many distractions and may spend time watching TV or playing games instead. In these cases, eliminating unnecessary distractions and setting clear boundaries is important.
“To do two things at once is to do neither.”Publilius Syrus
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking often reduces productivity and efficiency. Studies indicate that only 2.5% of people multitask effectively. The truth is that task switching costs time because it breaks focus and leads to distractions, which can eat up two hours of time per day.
Research also shows that multitasking takes a toll on your mental health because your brain isn’t designed to be able to do two or more things at once. Given that human attention spans are only just a few minutes, depending on the work being done, it’s best to focus on one task at a time before moving on to the next one.
Do this to help you steer clear of multitasking and increase productivity:
- Prioritize tasks: Start by identifying the most important tasks that require your attention. Create a to-do list or use task management tools to prioritize tasks based on their urgency and significance.
- Practice single-tasking and time-blocking: Instead of trying to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, commit to single-tasking. Dedicate your full attention to one task until it’s completed or reaches a logical pause point. This could be done with time-blocking your schedule so that each task receives a designated time period for completion.
- Practice deep work: Embrace the time management concept of deep work, which involves dedicating uninterrupted periods to intense, focused work. During deep work sessions, eliminate distractions, create a conducive environment, and work without interruptions.
- Delegate and collaborate: When appropriate, delegate tasks or collaborate with others to share the workload. By involving others, you can avoid taking on too many responsibilities and reduce the need for multitasking.
Culture and technology author Nicholas Carr believes that attempting to do more than one task at a time results in cognitive overload. “When that happens, you’re never paying close attention to anything. You’re never focusing on one thing for an extended period of time,” he said at a forum hosted by The Economist.
Your brain needs time to take in information and begin getting into a task before it’s truly productive. For this reason, it can’t jump from one thing to another without eating up time to readjust.
Why We Waste Time
People waste time for various reasons throughout the day. Sometimes, it’s to escape the stress caused by difficult assignments. Other times, it’s because humans are easily distracted.
Here are some possible explanations:
- Procrastination: Author, speaker, and entrepreneur Tony Robbins says, “Do it now. Sometimes ‘later’ becomes ‘never.’” Procrastination, a common behavior where people delay or avoid important tasks in favor of less productive or enjoyable activities, is a major obstacle to goal achievement. One report found that 20% of adults identify themselves as chronic procrastinators, citing distraction and feeling overwhelmed as major reasons. It can be caused by fear of failure, lack of motivation, or difficulty in managing time effectively.
- Lack of clear goals or direction: About 80% of adults never set goals for themselves, but when individuals don’t have a clear sense of purpose, they typically struggle to prioritize their time effectively. Without a clear destination, it becomes easier to engage in activities that don’t contribute to personal growth or fulfillment.
- Escapism and entertainment: Adults rack up about 13 hours of escapism every week. Activities such as watching TV shows, playing video games, or browsing social media, can provide temporary relief from stress or boredom, offering a sense of escape and relaxation.
- Lack of self-discipline or self-control: Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found in his research that the average person spends 3–4 hours a day resisting desires using self-control, helping them to complete tasks and make beneficial decisions. Some individuals, however, struggle with self-discipline or self-control, making it difficult for them to resist immediate gratification. They may prioritize short-term pleasures over long-term goals or responsibilities.
- Burnout and exhaustion: When people experience high levels of stress, exhaustion, or burnout, they may engage in unproductive activities as a form of self-care or to recharge. 89% of workers report experiencing burnout symptoms within the past year, making it clear why so many people have trouble staying on task. While taking breaks and resting is important to avoid burnout, excessive time spent on unproductive activities can lead to a cycle of wasting time.
- Lack of awareness or mindfulness: Only 14% of adults report practicing mindfulness, despite its benefits for focus and productivity. This means that sometimes people waste time unintentionally due to a lack of awareness or mindfulness. They may not realize how their choices and behaviors impact their productivity or overall well-being.
Ways to Spend More Time (And Not Waste It)
“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”Michael Altshuler
Spending time reading expands knowledge, fosters critical thinking, fuels creativity, reduces stress, and promotes emotional intelligence. A study published in Social Science and Medicine found that book readers experienced a 20% reduction in risk of mortality, compared to non-book readers. Researchers concluded that any level of reading gave adults a significantly stronger survival advantage.
Adults today, however, are putting little time into reading. Individuals age 15–44 years old read on average ten minutes or less per day, compared to those over 75 years old who spend 41 minutes a day reading.
Instead of wasting time on distractions, aim to read for at least 20 minutes daily. This can be done in the morning to set the tone for your day, during a work break to ease stress, or before bedtime to promote relaxation.
A National Health Interview Survey found that only about 23% of American adults ages 18 to 64 are meeting the national physical activity guidelines, which recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.
There is overwhelming evidence that lifelong exercise is associated with a longer health span, and doing enough of it weekly will delay the onset of 40 different chronic conditions or diseases.
Aim for 25 minutes of moderate exercise daily, combined with two days of muscle-strengthening activities, such as weightlifting, using resistance bands, climbing stairs, cycling, or walking hills.
American adults spend only 26 minutes socializing on weekdays and 53 minutes on weekends, which is not enough time to really reap the benefits of interacting with others. Dr. Craig Sawchuk, a Mayo Clinic psychologist, believes that socializing is key to good health. “We are social animals by nature, so we tend to function better when we’re in a community and around others,” he said.
A Gallup-Healthways poll including more than 140,000 Americans found that the people who report being alone all day are less happy and more stressed, and the reverse is true of people who devote a large part of their days to social time. The survey concluded that those who spend 6–7 hours of social time with family and friends on any given day experience the most happiness and least amount of stress than those in other categories.
Prioritize spending more time on face-to-face social interactions with family, friends, and coworkers over socializing through a screen. Aim to spend 3–6 hours daily interacting with other people, including your family members.
4. Volunteering and Service
Volunteering fosters social connections and reduces the risk of depression and loneliness by promoting social engagement and a sense of purpose. Studies suggest a link between volunteering and increased longevity, showcasing its positive impact on overall health outcomes. One report published in BMC Public Health states, “Volunteering should be promoted by public health, education and policy practitioners as a kind of healthy lifestyle.” The study found that it promoted physical health, improved life satisfaction, and reduced depression.
Only an estimated 23% of Americans volunteer, with adults spending an average of 18 minutes a day volunteering or engaging in religious activities. These adults are getting it right—spending about 100 hours a year can confer significant benefits to their own mental and physical health and to their chosen cause.
Aim to volunteer your time for 2–3 hours per week, or about 100 hours a year, to a cause of your choice.
Prioritize Time Management
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”Mother Teresa
To avoid wasting time, you really need to prioritize time management, which starts with defining your larger purpose and goals. Pay attention to what motivates you and makes you excited during the day, and lean into that feeling to develop your professional and personal goals. All activities that don’t contribute to those goals can be considered a waste of time, and should be minimized or avoided.
Here are some takeaways about time management to consider:
- There are only 168 hours in every week; prioritize your schedule by focusing on what will contribute to your overall purpose.
- Try time-blocking, or dividing up your day, so that you are able to tackle major tasks during a designated time period.
- Minimize interruptions, including your phone, email notifications, and TV. Remember that it takes nearly 30 minutes to recover from a single interruption, which can add up to a lot of time wasted.
- Schedule time to refuel and rest.
To learn more about how to prioritize and manage your time, read this article next:
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