9 Ways Your Employees Waste Time at Work

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Employees waste a lot of time at work. 

A 2014 Salary.com survey discovered that 57 percent of employees admitted to wasting at least one hour per day. These employees spend paid work time goofing off online, using social media, or shooting the breeze with colleagues. 

There's another hidden time waster. Many employees waste time through inefficiency. The result is we spend the day frantically working without accomplishing very much to show for it.

Here are nine common ways employees waste time without knowing it.


Common Productivity Killers

This is by no means a complete list, so please share other time wasters you've seen. You can leave a comment on this post or drop me a line.


Meeting Invites

You exchange emails with a colleague and agree to set a meeting for a specific date and time. "Ok," comes the reply. "I'll send you a meeting invite."

This approach doubles the amount of communication required to organize the meeting. There's the email exchange to schedule the meeting and then the meeting invite that comes after it.

A meeting invite is great if you are coordinating multiple schedules or are actually using it to invite someone to a meeting. Skip it if you already agreed to meet with just one person.



We get a lot of meeting invites because we get asked to a lot of meetings.

A 2015 report from Workfront revealed that meetings are a huge time waster reported by employees in large companies, with 57 percent saying unproductive meetings were the biggest drain on their time.

Meetings should have a clear purpose, a set agenda, and a carefully curated invite list. Otherwise, skip it.


Formal Training

A lot of formal training classes are wasted.

Participants arrive without a clear idea of what the training is about, how it will impact their job performance, or what they need to do to implement what they learn.

Even worse, existing work procedures, old habits, and even the boss can counter what was learned in training, making it difficult to develop new habits.

You can dramatically improve training by using the 70-20-10 rule to create more consistent learning experiences. This works by aligning what's taught in training with feedback from the manager and the employee's actual work.


Useless Email

I once cobbled together a few email studies, ran the numbers, and discovered that the average U.S. worker wasted 24 percent of their day on useless email.

The problem comes from misuse. 

Many emails are incomplete and poorly written. People are in a hurry so they skim and scan messages, missing important information. That generates a ton of back and forth.

The email provider Front analyzed email boxes and learned the average email conversation takes 4.5 messages.

The counterintuitive solution is to slow down and give email more attention. It may take slightly longer to read and respond to each message, but you'll receive far fewer emails overall.


Checking Email Constantly

People tend to check their email constantly throughout the day.

This feels productive because you are really, really busy. It isn't. What's really happening is you are constantly starting and stopping tasks and not giving email your full attention. That leads to the useless email problem discussed above.

Timothy Ferriss has some pretty extreme takes on email management in his bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I've adapted some of them to check email just a few times a day and it's made an amazing impact on my productivity.



Constantly checking email is just one way we try to multitask throughout the day.

Customer service professionals in particular are guilty of running multiple software programs simultaneously for both personal and business. Many of us keep our cell phone perched on our desk, which constantly invites personal distractions.

Multitasking inevitably leads to more errors and less productivity even though it makes us feel busy. You can experience this yourself by taking a Stroop Test.

You can reduce multitasking by reducing distractions, such as pop-up messaging notifications. You will also make some progress through a conscious effort to focus on one task at a time, though many people find this initially difficult as multitasking can be addictive.



There's a software solution for just about everything.

The problem is many of these software programs don't talk to each other. It's not uncommon for a contact center employee to have to use five to seven different programs just to do their jobs. 

All that switching back and forth between software programs creates a lot of multitasking. It also causes a lot of repetitive work, where employees have to enter the same information in multiple places to keep all the records up to date.

The best fix here has nothing to do with the employee. Smart companies are making their employees' jobs simpler by providing a unified desktop that puts multiple software programs in one interface.



Email isn't the only form of communication that sucks up a lot of time.

Many workplaces have an instant messaging or internal chat app that allows employees to interrupt each other from across the room or even across the country. If we're honest, most of the times we "ping" a coworker we're really asking for something that's not urgent.

My controversial suggestion is to shut it down. Most workplaces don't have a real business case for instant messaging that overrides the negative impact of constant distractions. And if you really need someone's attention, there's other ways to do it.



I can still remember reading David Allen's time management book, Getting Things Done, way back in 2001. It truly was a game-changer for me.

One piece of advice that really stuck was limiting the number of inboxes we have. An inbox is any place you have to look for new information, messages, or assignments.

Examples include our email inbox, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, text, voicemail, physical mailbox, and a physical inbox. Most of us have more than ten. (Try doing your own count, it may be scary!)

You can automatically save time by eliminating or combining your inboxes. For instance, you can use the same software program to manage multiple email addresses so all of your emails go to one place.


Take Action

We're addicted to these time wasters for a variety of reasons. 

Take meetings for example. Have you ever tried to pushback on an unnecessary meeting that had no clear purpose and no agenda? People act like you are being some kind of jerk.

I suggest two things.

First, if you're the boss, you need to set an example. It's pretty hard to take your employees to task for wasting time if you are constantly sending half-baked emails and scheduling useless meetings.

Second, focus on incremental progress if you want to make a change or help your employees become more productive. Pick just one small thing to try and work on it for a few weeks. Make it a habit and then reflect on how it has helped you before taking on something new.

Over time, you'll be amazed at how much more productive your team can become.

How to quickly find lost time and increase productivity

My wife, Sally, is an efficiency expert. From my perspective, this gives us plenty of exciting things to talk about at the dinner table. One recent conversation focused on why it takes me five times longer than she to pack for a business trip. You might be able to relate if you consistently find yourself running short of time at work or at home.

Explanation #1: We have different natural abilities
Sally has the ability to visualize what she wants to pack before she starts packing. When it comes time to pack her suitcase she simply goes to her closet, grabs the clothes she visualized, and puts them in.

I can't do that. I process information in a highly kinesthetic manner. When packing for a trip, this means I have to pull all sorts of clothes out of my closet and then imagine how and when I might wear them on my trip. I also have to write down the days I'll be gone and what I'll be doing each day so I can pair an outfit with each activity. (Not doing this almost always results in me over packing but still not having enough clothes to wear.)

Sally's ability to visualize gives her a natural ability to pack faster than I can. Natural ability definitely plays a role in our packing productivity.

Explanation #2: Self-imposed distractions
I usually put the TV on in our bedroom to watch while I pack. This seems like a good way to kill the monotony, but Sally correctly points out that it also slows me down. Each time I pause to pay attention to the television I slow down the process just a bit. This can really add up if something interesting like a Laker game is on.

Sally does all her packing without any distractions. Consequently, she focuses all of her attention on the task at hand and finishes much faster.

If you want to do something more efficiently, you should understand which obstacles are natural and which are self-imposed. The self-imposed obstacles are a lot easier to reduce or eliminate. If I want to pack faster the easiest solution is to simply turn off the TV. I still won't be as fast as Sally, but I'll be a lot faster than I am now.

Where did all the time go?
Sometimes these inefficiencies aren't obvious. A good way to spot pockets of inefficiency is to track your time for a week and then look at the results.

I've created a simple time tracking worksheet that you can use. You can download it here or watch the nifty how-to video.


Our weird relationship with time

I did a little experiment this morning in my kitchen. I guessed how long it would take me to make a delicious breakfast of coffee and English muffins with melted cheese. My estimate was three minutes. The actual time was nine. Was this how my day was going to go?

This little tale may come as a suprise to people who know me well. Over the years, I've crafted the illusion that I am very organized and punctual. A friend of mine once said, "If you are ever five minutes late to a meeting I'm going to call the police because I know something happened." Ah, but there's one big secret to my apparent organization. I keep it real with time.

Use the Rule of 3 to Avoid Disappointment
The next time you give someone a time estimate multiply your gut instinct by three. For example, if your gut says "1 hour" then propose you get back to the person in 3 hours. If your gut says 5 minutes, propose 15. I call this the rule of three.

Why do this? Our desire to please coupled with a lack of time-awareness leads us to make unrealistic promises and sets us up for failure. If I promise I'll get back to you in an hour because I want to appear responsive, I'll look like a slacker when it actually takes me three.  On the other hand, it's likely you'll be OK with a promised response time of three hours.  And, you'll be please if I actually do respond in an hour.

Avoid the Procrastination Chain Reaction
We often find ourselves in a time crunch when we procrastinate. A time crunch increases our stress levels and may impact the quality and thoroughness of our work. High stress and low quality is a perfect recipe for poor productivity. It's a mean chain reaction.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely details an experiment where he compared the grades of three classes that had different types of deadlines to submit their papers. Here are the results:

  1. Pre-set deadlines. The class that was told when each paper was due got the best grades.
  2. Set your own deadlines. The class that was allowed to set their own deadlines at the start of the semester got the second best grades.
  3. No deadlines. The class with no deadlines at all received the worst grades.

The experiment highlights our problems not only with procrastination, but our inability to fully understand it. It also suggests that the way to avoid the pracrastination chain reaction is to set deadlines for yourself that represent incremental progress toward a goal.

Arrive Early not Late
I don't often worry about trying to get to a meeting on time because I plan to arrive early. The result of being early is I'm more focused and ultimately more productive. For example, I'm going to a meeting this evening that's about 45 minutes away from my office. Here are two ways I can approach it.

Just in Time
I could plan to leave my office 45 minutes before the meeting to arrive just in time. The problem with this plan is I might get caught up in a project, caught on a phone call, or caught in traffic on the way there. All of those situations would cause me to arrive late (annoying others) and a little stressed out.

Plenty of time
What I'll do instead is leave two hours early and drive to a Starbucks down the street from my meeting. I'll bring work with me and get caught up on a few things. Changing my environment to Starbucks will positively impact my productivity because it will refresh my mental state. I'll also be able to arrive a few minutes early to the meeting which means I'll get to do a little networking and will be in a positive frame of mind once the meeting begins.

Needs some help?

Check out our Time Management workshop. Better yet, contribute to the discussion and let me know what you do to keep it real!