13 shocking facts about how we waste time

Updated to Productivity on February 11, 2023.

“When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.” A.W. Tozer

My bookshelf is full of books with the words “Time” or “Productivity” in their titles. One even has my name on the cover. At the time of writing, there are no fewer than 60,000 books listed on Amazon with “Time” in the title.

Most of us don’t need more books about time management, we just need to know where to start.

I suggest you start with the time you waste.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with idle moments or occasionally getting lost between tasks—sometimes that’s where Eureka! moments are found.

The problem is when wasting time becomes normal.

It’s the start of the day, you’re sipping your coffee as you scroll through your Inbox. You see client emails that require a bit of thought to respond to and a request from a new prospect that came in. You are intent on getting to Inbox zero, so mark those for later, and keep scrolling. Unwanted promotional emails are mixed with back-and-forth chatter with family and welcome messages from new subscriptions. It’s a mess of distractions that are burning up your hours and giving you little in return.

Meanwhile, the client’s email and request from the prospect are waiting.

“Tell me how you use your spare time, and how you spend your money, and I will tell you where
and what you will be in ten years from now.”
Napoleon Hill

Oh! Not me, you think. After all, I’m a productive person: I use a calendar, day timer, project planner, phone reminders, and egg timer. Heck, I even have a gratitude journal.

All the productivity tools in the world can’t compensate for screwy priorities. When you spend time on low-value work, knowing you have much more important work waiting, that’s screwy priorities. It’s also called procrastination.

Enter Deep Work

I just finished reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work and I’m ashamed.

I thought I was pretty skilled at time management. I’ve taught the skills to thousands of students, writing dozens of blogs about it – even published a book about it. Newport’s writings about Deep Work and his approach to getting the most important work done bring productivity to a whole new level.

“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.” Cal Newport

Newport is a Georgetown tenured professor who’s written five books, is actively involved in research (he’s a computer scientist), and does it all without working past 5:30. He’s also managed to become a best-selling author without any social media accounts.

Now I’m ashamed and envious.

Deep Work, according to Newport is the kind of productivity that demands all of your attention. Historically, poets, craftspersons, and authors would while away for hours on their craft. They created free of distractions and totally committed to their work—no smartphones, Facebook, appointment alerts, or email Inboxes. They were doing deep work.

Good luck with that today.

What matters

The premise of Deep Work can be summed up in this quote “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” Getting clear about what matters is a job in itself. In this post I explain how my Plan Like A Pilot system has helped thousands of my students plan their week, and keep a daily focus on what is most important.

Once you have identified and scheduled what matters in your day, you need to remove distractions from your field of vision and time spent on low-value tasks.

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.” Cal Newport

In the spirit of better is possible, I did some digging into recent research on how we all waste time (even a little bit).

Have a look.

1 – 2.34 hours checking email (30% are neither urgent nor important.) (Carleton University)

2 – 35 minutes deciding what to eat (New York Post)

3 – 16 minutes deciding what to wear (women) (The Telegraph) 14 minutes for men (Marks and Spencer)

4 – 7 minutes thinking about exercise (but doing nothing) (Kettler)

5 – 37 minutes on Facebook (Verto Analytics)

6 – 27 minutes on other social media accounts (eMarketer)

7 – 40 minutes on YouTube (really!?) (Mediakix)

8 – 1 hour in meetings (Inc) and 50% of that time is wasted (Atlassian)

9 – 4 hours watching TV (Statista)

10 – 96 minutes surfing non-work related websites (CNBC)

11 – 171 minutes checking your smartphone (comScore)

12 – 90 mins in daily interruptions (such as colleagues asking questions) (WashingtonPost)

13 – 2 minutes – spent reading this list (Hey! I wanted 13 in my list)

If that isn’t enough to make you want to unplug everything that beeps, here’s a short list of other distractions and missed opportunities:

  • time spent not learning from books, ebooks, audiobooks, or podcasts during commutes.
  • time spent worrying about outcomes you can’t do anything about.
  • time spent complaining about someone else’s actions.
  • time spent thinking about working on something, but doing nothing.
  • time spent learning how to do something (like graphic design, or fixing your lawnmower) that someone can do for half the price in half the time.
  • time spent making lists over and over, but never moving forward on important work.

Here’s the deal

Whether I’m speaking with HR Managers, entrepreneurs, or C-suite executives, I often hear the same complaint: I don’t have enough time.

I get it. Stuff comes up. We get distracted and “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” (Robert Burns)

But, one thing I know about time is that low-value distractions often show up as entertaining distractions with an immediate payoff.  Reply to a friend’s email and you feel good. Check your Facebook feed and you get a smile from a funny meme. Make yet-one-more list and you feel a bit more organized.

Meanwhile, you haven’t moved closer to your targets.

Newport argues that “time in the shallows” – doing low-value, but engaging work – robs you of the time you need for the heavy lifting we call “work.” As our world becomes increasingly digital (just wait until AI becomes a daily ingredient of life), deep work becomes a “key currency.”

If you want more deep work in your life, start with how you waste time.

Want to build your productivity muscles?

Here are some of my most popular articles on planning, time, productivity, and procrastination:

The greatest time management lesson nobody ever teaches
How I overcame procrastination by blocking time
Hey drama queen, maybe it’s time to embrace routine.
How a Dose of Urgency can Save You Time and Make You Money

Typing Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash