Where Does the Time Go? How to Deal with Work-Related Time Wasters

Time flies when you’re…doing work? Ok, maybe that’s not how the saying goes, but doesn’t it sometimes feel like 8 hours is just not enough time for you and your employees to get everything done? It definitely sounds like a lot of time, so what’s going on? Sure, you could blame all of the personal distractions that tempt everyone throughout the day, like social media and online shopping; after all, research shows that employees spend around an hour and a half everyday scrolling through social media, and 57% of employees confess to shopping online during work. Overall, only 60% or less of work time is actually spent productively, but personal time wasters aren’t the only culprits. There are plenty of work-related distractions that are stealing time and affecting your employees’ (and your) productivity levels.

Email Overload

Has there ever been a bigger revolution in workplace communication than email? There’s no doubt that being able to fire off instantaneous messages to colleagues and customers is extremely beneficial, but there can definitely be a dark side to those digital inboxes. Just consider the following stats:

hand with many drawn envelopes over it

  • The average worker sends and receives around 120 emails per day and spends 28% of their workday reading and responding to emails
  • That 28% is the equivalent to losing around 2.6 hours out of the day
  • The constant interruptions that come from fielding emails all day can cause us to lose 10 IQ points, which is the same as missing an entire night’s sleep
  • One study found that, out of 95,000 emails sent, 75,000 emails were internal

So what’s the answer? Well, this can be a tough one, because you can’t simply ban emailing, and many messages are necessary. What you can do, and encourage your employees to do, is to take the following steps to keep things under control:

  • Consider whether email is really the best choice – Yes, email is easy, but, in all honesty, it isn’t always the easiest option. Could your conversation be had more quickly over the phone? If it’s something that can be resolved with a conversation, you could save days of emailing back and forth.
  • Don’t make checking your email the first task of the day – We know, it’s tempting, but instead of starting your day by sifting through emails, try setting aside at least 30 minutes at the beginning of your day to work, uninterrupted, on something important. Don’t waste the time when your brain is freshest and most focused!
  • Set a time limit – If you can, set a time limit for dealing with emails during the day, so you know you’ll have the time to focus on other important things.
  • Make sure messages are important – Scan subject lines so you can prioritize messages, and unsubscribe to any email lists that aren’t immediately valuable so you can cut down on the clutter. 

Interruptions, Unnecessary Procedures, and Menial Tasks

There are so many things that can interrupt the flow of work throughout the day. Take instant messaging, for example. While emails can be contained in an inbox that you can choose to check, those little chats are constantly popping up; in fact, 34% of employees say they’d get more work done if they uninstalled their chat platform.

hands on a keyboard of laptop with a spreadsheet on the screen
Filling out timesheets and daily reports are repetitive tasks that take up a lot of time.


But interactions with colleagues aren’t the only types of interruptions that can take employees’ minds off the game. Formal procedures, like tracking down approvals for moving forward on projects, can eat up more time than you think, as can mundane and repetitive tasks like:

  • Filling out manual timesheets
  • Giving daily reports
  • Formatting spreadsheets
  • Creating slides, etc for meetings and team updates

For the average worker, these tedious tasks are more than an annoyance: they can add up to a full workday each week!

All of these interruptions and low-value tasks can mean a big hit to productivity. Not only does it take the average person 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction, but, according to the American Psychological Association, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.” 

The solution? For repetitive tasks, the answer is fairly simple: try to automate wherever you can. These days, you have multiple options for software suites that will help free up your employees’ time, and even something as simple as creating templates for common documents can really make a difference. And the added bonus? Allowing your employees to use their time and talent for what you hired them for will mean a big boost in employee satisfaction, which will in turn boost productivity.

And how to deal with all of those daily interruptions? Consider establishing “interruption-free” blocks of time during which your employees can get into some focused, deep work. Allow employees the freedom to:

  • Not answer IMs immediately every time
  • Find a way to signal to other employees that they are trying to get in the “zone,” such as putting on headphones
  • Utilize the “do-not-disturb” mode if they are working remotely

Carving out uninterrupted work time also means that whole parts of the day, or even a whole day of the week, should be meeting-free, which brings us to the next big potential time killer.

Unproductive Meetings

There’s a reason that everyone always seems to be complaining about meetings. They pull people away from important work, and they’re just not always necessary. In fact:

  • 42% of employees say that meetings take away from their productivity
  • In another survey, 67% of employees said that excessive meetings kept them from doing their best work
  • Every week, the average worker spends around 5 hours in meetings
  • One survey found that 31 hours per month were spent on unnecessary meetings

    man in a gray suit holding up a red alarm clock

Meetings take up the time of every attendee, and it also takes time to schedule and plan them, as well to invite and remind attendees. Once employees are there, they lose focus on their own tasks, and might walk away from the meeting demoralized and uninterested, which can also affect productivity.

But there are ways to tame the beast of unnecessary or unproductive meetings:

  • Take advantage of technology! – If the problem in your workplace is constant status update meetings, consider using a project management tool. Employees will simply have to check the software to know what page everyone is on.
  • Question everything – Before scheduling any meeting, ask yourself (or encourage employees to ask themselves): “Can I get this message across with a phone call or email?” If the answer is yes, there’s no need for a meeting.
  • Make meeting agendas mandatory – Require meetings to have a clear agenda, so that everyone needs to think ahead of time about what they want to actually cover. This will also help to eliminate meetings that could have been a simple email, allow for more productive conversations once you get into the meeting, and weed out unnecessary attendees. 
  • Set a time limit – If every meeting has a clear agenda and everyone has the relevant info ahead of time, there’s no reason not to set a time limit for meetings.

Every workplace has its share of distractions and time wasters, and there’s no way that you can eliminate them all! In fact, many of the things that can stop the flow of work are actually necessary parts of work life, like email, meetings, and admin. But being armed with the knowledge above can help you recognize and identify the problem. By using the tips we’ve provided, you can make some small changes that will add up to big boosts to your productivity.