Time Waster: Barriers To Productivity


Like thieves in real life, there are thieves that steal our time also known as “time waster”. The only difference is that these thieves are within us. If we want, we can arrest them and lock them up.

The choice is ours. What do you want to do with these little thieves inside you?

People often tell me that no matter how hard they try, they cannot catch these stealers; and even if they manage to catch them, they cannot throw them in the prison; and even if they throw them in prison, these robbers come out on probation to trouble them again!

So what do we do about them?

One of my esteemed colleague, a time management expert and a top-notch leadership trainer in Mumbai says that – “Every individual has a different time stealer and every time stealer has to be dealt with differently.”

Let us start by understanding who these stealers are and how we can get rid of them in order to have better control of our time.

Bu let us first read about Amrita, a recently promoted Assistant Manager and her lack of time. Then I will ask you to reflect on Amrita’s case and together we will see how we can create more time from what we have already, without spending extra hours at home or staying back late at office.

Five months ago, Amrita was looking forward to becoming an Assistant Manager. After three years in the department, she was brimming with confidence and had complete faith in her staff’s competencies.

Now, the pressure of work is catching up and she isn’t confident anymore. Her work does not seem to end! She assigns tasks, reviews the outcome; visitors keep flocking in to see her and her phone does not stop ringing. In the midst of all this, she wastes her time looking for a lost pen, a missing paper, the binder because her desk is cluttered all the time. She does all her administrative work like responding to mails, performance appraisals and preparing budget in the evenings. She wants to steal a few moments in the evenings to unwind but then she is drawn by social media.

She is frustrated and is about to put in her papers. In sheer desperation, she calls her friend Sumita for lunch and shares her helplessness. Sumita realises that the problem is lack of time management. She suggests that Amrita take a step back and review her use of time. To nudge her on, Sumita, like a professional leadership training expert, asks the following questions:

  • If you have full faith in your staff, why would you spend so much time in assigning tasks and reviewing the outcome?
  • Are all visitors that come to meet you important? If not, then can some of them be screened out?
  • Can you avoid taking personal calls in office as much as possible and ask your secretary to answer calls and transfer only the important ones to you?
  • Could you delegate some of your urgent but not-so-important work to someone else?

Amrita begins thinking on a whole new level after reflecting on these questions. She returns to her office with a commitment to herself to break these barriers in her path to success.

Learning activity 1: Think and write

  • Is Amrita making effective use of the opportunity to delegate? If not, how can she delegate effectively?
  • How can she save time by screening visitors?
  • How can she avoid wasting her ‘free’ time?
  • How can de-cluttering her work space help her save time?

Time stealers

I fully agree with the top corporate trainers who opine that – “We do everything for a reason. Then what are the things we call time stealers?” I mean, what is the difference between a web designer using a social networking site to promote his business and a college student surfing the same site on his mobile while sitting in an important lecture?

The former is not wasting time because it is part of his job, but the latter is, because the action is taking him away from his goal, which is education.

Any activity that takes your focus away from any of your important goals is a time waster/time stealer/time robber.

Look at your activity log for a particular weekday and write down your time wasters.

I have identified certain time wasters that affect people all over the world. They sometimes throw in temptation that cannot be resisted and sometimes we see them as necessary evils. While we often feel that they cannot be avoided, the good news is that they can be avoided to a great extent. Every time waster comes with a partner, the time saver.

Many times we feel that they cannot be avoided. But let me share the good news with you– they can be avoided to a great extent! Every time waster comes with a partner called the time

Time Wasters Time Savers
Disorganisation and clutter Organisation and clutter-free environment
Unnecessary phone calls Screening and receiving only important calls
Saying “Yes” even when we want to say “No” Learning how to say “No” when we  do not want to say “Yes” (much loved and adopted by corporate sales trainer in India)
Procrastination Proactive behaviour
Work overload Proper delegation
Dropin visitors Screening visitors
Internet Limiting the use of internet
Multitasking Focusing on one thing at a time
Unnecessary meetings Holding virtual meetings
Mobile phone overuse Restricted use of mobile phones

It all boils down to the choices that you make and the actions you take to avoid wasting time.

Let us see what we can do about some of the significant activities that literally lead to a lot of time wasting.

Time waster # Disorganisation or clutter

Kavita’s workstation is completely cluttered with papers, pens, coffee mug, and her cell phone. She  cannot find her phone that is ringing non-stop. She is flustered and wants to literally bang her head against a wall.

Let us see some of the ways to de-clutter and organize our lives:

  • De-clutter your mind first. Meditate or exercise so that you gain clarity of thought. When thoughts are clear, it will be easier to clear the environment. (Most motivational speakers take this route and more often!)
  • Organize your desk at the end of each day. Doing this will ensure that you see a clean and sorted desk every morning when you come for work.
  • Make place for everything important. If a place is fixed for a certain thing, it takes only a few seconds to keep it there. It saves a lot of time searching for that thing later.
  • If something needs to be filed or put away, do it right now, otherwise it will sit at your desk, creating clutter.
  • Give away things that you do not need. The best way to check that is to sort out things according to when you used them last. Give away things that you have not used for the past two
  • De-cluttering your inbox is as important as de-cluttering your space. If you have not deleted all the spam in your inbox and the unnecessary forwards, you might take ages to find that important mail that you are looking for right now!

Time Waster # Unnecessary phone calls

Sukanya recently got married. She gets calls from her husband, mother-in-law and other relatives the entire day. Apart from these, she gets official calls also, but people drift to her, asking her about the wedding.

What should Sukanya do to save time in this situation?

Phone calls can be very distracting and can keep you from working towards your goals.  Let us see what we can do to save time by avoiding unnecessary phone calls.

  • Screen calls for their importance. If a call is important, take it but if it can wait then it should
  • Cut your conversations short by politely informing the caller of the Most people work these days and will understand that you are busy.
  • Keep some time aside to make personal calls and some time to make professional calls. This way you will ensure that you are not wasting your important time juggling between phone calls.
  • Be in control of the conversation. If you are controlling the conversation, you can politely cut it short as well.


Time Waster # Inability to say “No”

Nakul is a very polite person and cannot say no. Everyone, including his subordinates, dumps work on him and he cannot refuse them. Some order him and some say please, some weep and some manipulate but he does everyone’s work — except his own!

What can Nakul do to get out of this situation?

One will find even the high profile ‘Train the Trainer’ coaches agreeing with me that being assertive is important for everyone. Putting your point across, being able to defend your ideas, creating win-win opportunities – everything becomes easy by learning just this behavioural skill.  Here are four ways that will help you to say “no” when you  should not say “yes”.

  • Always back your negative response with a reason. It is easier for the other person to accept your “no” if they know the valid reason behind it.
  • There is a difference between being direct and being rude. You do not want to create bad blood just because you are saying “no”. So say it politely and diplomatically.
  • Always suggest an alternative to the “no”. This is also known as the service no, where you are giving an option to the other person of what can be done.
  • Do not delay in responding to the request. Silence is mostly perceived as a yes!

Time Waster # Procrastination

Rahul is a new recruit, who has joined an IT company at a team leader level. He is fresh out of college and the responsibilities that he felt he was ready for seem daunting now. As a result, he has started shirking work and feels that all of this is too much for him.

What can Rahul do to sort this issue?

Procrastination is putting things off for tomorrow thatwere supposed to be done yesterday.

People who procrastinate often get the following thoughts:

  • It is not my job, why should I do it?
  • People will only criticise me again, so what’s the point?
  • How can I complete this task without any resources?
  • I feel very tired, I will complete it tomorrow.
  • I cannotfinish it immediately because I am a perfectionist.

Thoughts like these encourage procrastination and lead to a lot of time wasting. These thoughts do not appear overnight. There are causes behind such thoughts.  Let us see what these causes are:

  • The goals are not clear. When you do not know what to do and why to do, then how to do will automatically get delayed.
  • The task seems so difficult that you develop a fear of failure. That fear prevents you from completing the task.
  • Inappropriate deadlines also lead to procrastination. If the deadline is too close and the task is difficult, you might freeze with fear… and if the deadline is too far away, you might get a bit too relaxed.
  • Lack of expectation management leads to unclear benchmarks for the expected outcomes.
  • Disorganisation also leads to procrastination. If you cannot find an important paper, you will start looking for it. By the time you find it, you will be so exhausted that you will not feel like completing the original task at hand.

Dealing with procrastination is easy. It simply requires motivation from your end. You need to take a step back to gain control of the situation. Following actions can help you deal with procrastination and avoid wasting any more time:

  • Break a large daunting task into smaller doable tasks so that the original task in its entirety stops bothering you.
  • Motivate yourself by thinking and writing about the benefits of completing the task.
  • The fear of negative consequences sometimes acts as a huge motivation to complete the task.
  • Like I said previously, celebrate achievement and reward yourself for seeing the task through.
  • Remind yourself again and again that the task needs to be completed. Set alarms and reminders; ask your loved ones to help you. Do whatever you can to keep your focus on the task at hand.

Time Waster # Work overload

Sumit was a hard and SMART worker. He used to complete all his work in time and even managed to create an extra hour or two just by being efficient. His boss appreciated this and constantly challenged his limits by giving him extra work. He used to like doing the extra work earlier but now feels burdened by it.

How can Sumit reduce his work overload and take back his life?

You know you are overloaded with work when:

  • There is always a rush to finish a task so that you can start another.
  • You want to say no to something but cannot say it, things start piling up on your desk.

The good news is that this workload can be reduced to a great extent by following these simple guidelines:

  • Being assertive reduces a lot of work load that comes with the inability to say “No”.
  • Decide what work can be done by others and is not at all important or urgent for you. Delegate that task to someone who can do it well and with responsibility.
  • It is better to approach a senior and share your problem than to sulk about it and struggle to keep up.
  • Someone or the other is always ready to help a person who seeks assistance. So, ask for help and you will get it.

 Time Waster # Drop-in visitors

Kiran prefers working in solitude. If disturbed, she finds it difficult to concentrate on the task again. Her workstation is right next to the cafeteria and she often gets drop-in visitors who come to say a friendly ‘hi’ but end up wasting her precious time.

What would you do if you were in Kiran’s place?

Not all drop-in visitors are important. Some of them can be avoided and the others can be dealt with quickly. But some of them just cannot take the hint and you have to let them know that you are in the middle of something important.

Here are certain tips that will help you save time by screening the drop-in visitors.

  • If you have a front-desk officer who can screen and send only important people to your desk, it is fantastic news. That way, you will meet only important people.
  • It is important to let the visitor know that you are busy and will definitely reach out to them when free.
  • Post a “Do not disturb” sign on the door or on the workstation where it is visible.
  • Request someone who is free or someone whose job description includes taking messages, to take the message from your visitors.
  • Fix up an appointment for a later time, when you actually have the time.

Time Waster # Internet

New York Times in 2007 stated that a group of employees at Microsoft took about 15 minutes on an average to get back to the important work that they were doing, the distraction being an incoming email. After reading an email, they would either start browsing the internet or wander off to other messages.

It is very easy to become a victim of internet addiction. The sheer ocean of knowledge can be overwhelming. Besides, thanks to the internet, the world has become a much smaller place. People want to stay connected with family, friends, lost-and-found friends through social networks and messengers.

If you are addicted to the internet, you are losing out on valuable time because of this distraction. Here are some ways that will help you get rid of this addiction.

  • It is important to schedule a time for the internet in your plan. This time would include space for social networking, surfing the web, chatting on messengers,
  • Do not attempt to respond to every mail in your inbox. Not all mails are important, especially, the forwards from friends or trail mails. The first thing I do when checking mail is to mark a star beside the important ones and delete spam mail from the inbox.
  • My laptop used to “ping” every time there was a mail on gmail or yahoo, or when there was a message on social media. This would amount to hundreds of “pings” each hour! I got frustrated with the sound and decided that I want to hear the pings only on my official mails. Now I do not feel compelled to look at my laptop every other second.
  • Breathe fresh air or take a walk everyday, as it helps to take the mind off the internet. If at work you feel compelled to browse the internet, get up and move around a little bit. This will bring your mind back to the task.
  • Take a day off occasionally from the internet. If your work does not permit you to leave the machine, try working on a computer without the internet. If even that is not possible, make a promise to yourself not to use the internet over the weekend.

Time Waster # Multi-tasking

Contrary to public belief, only 2 per cent of the population can multi-task efficiently. The rest whopping 98 per cent waste time while trying to save time.

  • Focus on a single task: Focus is the key word. We cannot sail in two boats at a time. We can eliminate errors to a great extent by focusing on a single task.
  • Stop your mind from wandering: Sometimes our mind wanders and our thoughts drift to our day-dreams. In order to turn our dreams into reality, we must stop our thoughts from drifting.
  • Finish onething before you start another: Ensure that you finish the activity at hand and then begin the next one. By doing this, you will also develop the habit of completing tasks. I have a friend who leaves everything mid-way. He starts with great enthusiasm and then the enthusiasm dies down and so does the task!
  • Do not let small pebbles hit the big rocks: As humans, we feel ‘let me finish this small thing quickly and then I will get back to the big ’ This mentality takes us away from our bigger responsibilities. This throws us into the spiral of the smaller but too many activities, which do not end. Beware of this.
  • Do not let technology rule you: We are meant to use technology to increase productivity, but technology is pulling us down. That ping from a social network compels us to leave the most important work we are doing to check that insignificant message from our network “friend” who went on a holiday.
  • Keep it clean: Think about it. If there is clutter on your desk, you will invariably indulge in multi-tasking. You want to write something important. But instead of writing, you will waste your time looking for the pen to write it. : Clean your desk to clear your mind.
  • Schedule: Make an appointment with the biggest tasks at hand. Use the planning template effectively in order to schedule a set time for the “big rocks”. This way you can ensure that you are not disturbed by anything and you can concentrate on your work.
  • Handle disturbances even before they come: Interruptions lead to multi-tasking. Your phone ringing, the door-bell buzzing, emails, etc are an interruption to important work.

Multi-tasking can be easily eliminated from our lives. We simply have to understand that time “spent” is time “wasted” and time “invested” is time “earned”.

Time Waster # Unnecessary Meetings

Did you know?

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, unnecessary meetings cost US businesses approximately $37 billion each year.

Before attending or calling a meeting, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What is my reason for attending this meeting?
  • Can I achieve this purpose without actually going for the meeting?
  • Is the objective worth the time, money and resources that will be used for this meeting?
  • Can the meeting be eliminated if only information needs to be shared? This can be done by sending a mass mailer or a memo.
  • If the meetings are so frequent that they are making it impossible to gauge any positive results in between, can we consider decreasing the frequency?
  • Can we make analyses and reports before we call a meeting? This will eliminate at least one meeting from the agenda.
  • Are there documented summaries for previous meetings to reduce time wastage in the next meeting? Always make sure that there is a minute taker who circulates the minutes after every meeting.

There are various alternatives to face-to-face meetings like virtual meetings, teleconferences, video conferencing, emails, intranet chats, etc. Figure out which option works best in your case and try to eliminate unnecessary time wastage on unnecessary meetings.

Time Waster # Overuse of mobile phones

The smartphone is not so ‘smart’ as far as time management is concerned.

So here are a few tips that can help us get rid of our smartphone addiction and help us save valuable time:

  • Smart phones are not only used for calling, they are used for texting, chatting, surfing the net, using MS Office, checking mails, clicking photos, making videos My advice – restrict your use of mobile phone only to make calls.
  • Once a week, try having a no-phone day. I know of a friend who switches his cell phone off at 6.30 pm. I know many of us cannot afford to do that. But we can try switching it off on a Sunday. Trust me, it brings tremendous relief not to hear that ringtone for an entire day. You can use that time to bond with your kids or take a walkyour partner.
  • Cannot find it, search. I personally know of many enthusiasts who love to go on a search engine and look for information. It is a good habit but leads to a lot of wasted time. Once you begin searching, there is no end to it!
  • Out of sight, out of mind. The best way to get de-addicted is to keep your cell phoneout of your sight. I keep mine behind my laptop. This way I can avoid getting distracted by it. I keep it off or on silent most of the time when I am doing something important and check it during breaks.
  • Do not capture everything. There is no point in clicking photos of everything on the smartphone. The lesser number of pictures you have on your phone, the better. Pictures and videos cause so much distraction, that a popular band asked its fans not to take pictures during their performance.
  • , Do not keep it under your pillow or right next to you when sleeping. A cellphone emits rays that decrease your capacity to think. So unless you want to decrease productivity, it is not a good idea to sleep with your cellphone by your side.

Do you remember the Activity Diary? Review it to find your personal time wasters. Once you do that, you can immediately begin eliminating them. So do not waste any more time and get going!

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