Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Work Smart

5 Fake-Productive Things You're Doing That Are A Waste Of Time

You're not as busy as you think you are. Chances are you're wasting your time with these behaviors. Here's how to reclaim your day.

5 Fake-Productive Things You're Doing That Are A Waste Of Time
[Photo: Don Pablo]

Most of us want to squeeze more time out of each day. But once you’ve organized, listed, time-blocked and eliminated distractions, what else is there to do?

Plenty, says productivity coach Hillary Rettig, author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block. Often, the biggest time-wasters aren’t specific tasks, but behaviors that we get drawn into, she says. Once you learn to recognize them, you can stop them from eating minutes or hours that could better be used elsewhere. Here are five of the most common.

Putting Out Fires

If you’re moving from one crisis to another, you’re not making the best use of your time, Rettig says. Too often, people get swept up in drama, and situations that aren’t urgent or don't need your immediate attention begin to feel like they do. That’s a time-suck that is based in illusion, she says.

Instead, look at the root causes of these "emergencies." Are they caused by procrastination, poor management, miscommunication or something else? Once you understand why situations are escalating to the point where they’re in need of all-hands-on-deck attention, you can stem the tide—and begin to draw boundaries if you find you’re spending too much time rescuing someone else on the team.


News flash: You’re not perfect. No one is. So stop trying to pretend otherwise in your day-to-day tasks, says organizational expert Alison Kero, founder of ACK! Organizing in Brooklyn. When you get caught up in perfectionism, you typically waste time procrastinating, "because you’re afraid you’re never going to get it done right, so why even bother," she says.

Then, it can be tough to complete or hand off your project or task because you never feel it’s good enough. When you let go of trying to be perfect, you feel prepared to meet the challenge and know when the work is good enough to move on to the next phase. It makes you more efficient and productive, she says.

Feel Guilty About Procrastinating

Spending time on Facebook isn’t a bad thing. Playing Trivia Crack on your phone isn’t, either. They only become problematic when you’re using them as a procrastination tool or they make you feel bad. If you feel guilty about the amount of time you spend on social media, or using apps or looking at friends’ photos online makes you feel bad about yourself, then it’s time to look at cutting back or cutting them out altogether. If you’re a small-business owner who uses social media to connect with customers, or it provides you with the opportunity to interact with people in a positive way, then it’s not a time-waster. Kero says understanding how you feel about your daily activities is a clue to whether they’re helpful or time-sucks.

Forced Neatness

If having a lot of email in your inbox doesn’t bother you, then why spend hours each week trying to get to inbox zero? If you are fine with a messy desk, then don’t sweat having a few piles here and there. Kero says these things are only problems when they distract you or inhibit your productivity.

"If you are the kind of person where you look at your desk and somebody says, ‘Hey I need this paper’ and you can, within 30 seconds to a minute, find that paper very easily, then whatever system you’ve got going on is working for you. If you lose things all the time, your desk makes you feel like you’re in chaos and overwhelmed, and you’re spending more time hunting for things than actually being productive, that’s when it’s not working for you," she says. But don’t spend time on tasks just because you think you should.

Trying To Figure Everything Out Alone

When you encounter a roadblock, setback or unfamiliar territory, you’re much more likely to waste time trying to figure it all out yourself than if you reach out for help, Rettig says. Sometimes, we think we can manage everything ourselves, but getting advice or a helping hand can save time and provide valuable insight and lessons. Seek out a colleague, mentor or other trusted source of knowledge or solutions instead of trying to do everything on your own.

The Fast Company Innovation Festival