Stop Wasting Time at Work

There’s a very specific Wall Street Journal article that keeps reappearing in my social media feed. It’s titled, “So Busy at Work, No Time to Do the Job.” I chuckle every time it scrolls by because it’s right on point with what I’ve been saying.

A few months ago, I wrote about how collaboration is becoming a dirty word because too much of it can lead to stagnation, burnout and employee turnover. Seems like everyone’s jumping on this train to nowhere, including the WSJ, which wrote about research that shows managers and knowledge workers spend “90% to 95% of their working hours in meetings, on the phone, and responding to email.”

The corporate time-suck is such a trending topic right now that plenty of other business publications are posting similar stories complete with advice akin to what I dispensed in my previous post. With all the attention given, perhaps it’s time for me to revisit the issue. So hit the share button or grab your highlighter pens because chances are someone in your office needs to read this. Maybe that someone is you.

First, let’s identify what the biggest office time-wasters are. It’s not employees looking at cat videos or taking too many smoke breaks. If anything, most workers are spending too much time at work (When was the last time you took a real lunch break instead of desktop dining?). Let’s face it, a lot of those long hours are unproductive because it’s about the quantity, not the quality. There is plenty of survey-based research out there that ferrets out the real culprits: Too much useless email, too many pointless meetings, too much needless collaboration and too much paperwork. Here’s how to put a stop to it.

  1. Eliminate Busy Work. A professional friend of mine called a few days ago to vent about a coworker who, under the direction and approval of the manager, spent several weeks compiling a spreadsheet of everyone in the organization, their job titles and contact information. It was nothing that wasn’t already available on the company’s intranet or searchable by Google. Why did she waste time doing this when the task could have been assigned to an intern, administrative assistant or, better yet, not done at all? The answer is procrastination. Crushing workloads filled with big projects and impossible deadlines often prompt employees and managers to go after the little fish first to gain a sense of accomplishment. And if there aren’t any little fish to fry, we make something up. It makes us feel better. But what would really make us feel better is actually tackling that big, ugly project. You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I say, “Ditch the small stuff.” It’s a waste of time and energy, and it contributes nothing to the end result.
  2. Just stop with the emails already. We all know the cluster of getting several hundred emails a day, so I’m not going to restate the obvious about clogging up inboxes. This one is specifically for the managers. I know you have all these great ideas, and sometimes they come to you at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon while you’re at your son’s soccer game. Or they pop into your head while you’re drifting off to sleep at 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday. But for the love of all that is sacred, stop sending emails about every little thought in your pretty little head. Because here’s what happens when you do: That go-to employee you rely on so much is out walking her dog after dinner when she checks her phone, sees your email and suddenly snaps into work mode, trying to figure out how she can execute/implement/act on your directive immediately. This robs her of her personal time, saps her energy and leaves her questioning whether she wants to keep doing what she’s doing. It’s even worse if you send the email to a group because then nobody takes ownership of it. It becomes a big game of hot potato. If it’s not an emergency, wait until business hours to send the email. If it’s a random thought and not a request for a specific action or need, don’t send it at all.Keep a journal or an idea list on Evernote or Asana and then if the urge and need increases, share with a specific action. If it’s something that can be misunderstood, see No. 3.
  3. Pick up the phone. I love email. You love email. We all love email. There’s absolutely no question that it has made it easier to facilitate business in this 24-7 world. But email is devoid of tone and intent. And if it’s written by someone who isn’t a clear communicator, it can also cause confusion. If an email is tossed back and forth more than two or three times, pick up the phone and clarify. My rule is if an email gets volleyed 2 times, it’s time to go old school and pick up the phone.
  4. Meetings must have an outcome-focused agenda. When you read this, I want you to picture me yelling it through a megaphone. I cannot say this emphatically enough. STOP WITH THE ENDLESS, POINTLESS MEETINGS. I promise you, this is easier than you think. Set an agenda, set a time limit, define your outcome, make assignments and set a deadline for execution or follow-up. Before you leave the conference room, make sure everyone has a clear directive. Follow up with a brief email if needed, then move on with your day. Another tip for not wasting valuable time is to make sure everyone does their homework. For example, if you need to brainstorm about a specific project, have employees submit their ideas before the meeting so you can disseminate them in a short email. That way, meeting time isn’t spent explaining the ideas but rather discussing their merits or implementation.
  5. Set a Standard. I served as a consultant to one manager who had a recurring monthly task that involved some tools and procedures outside her knowledge base and comfort zone. She was so busy and over-scheduled that she didn’t have the bandwidth to commit to memory the procedures for this task. She also didn’t write it down, so every month was like the first time. No one else was responsible for this task, so if she happened to be on vacation that week and had to delegate it, the employee was left scrambling. This is a problem with an easy solution. WRITE IT DOWN. I like to use an application called Asana, where I create a step by step process so I can pass it off or just remember how to do it each time. Creating a standard set of procedures or a protocol helps with workflow, whether it’s a recurring task like this manager had or interpreting data or filling out order forms. With a standard in place, everyone knows what to do and what is needed to get results.
  6. Save Yourself. Really. Seriously. Save yourself. Whether you are an over-scheduled, over-committed manager or an overworked, overtaxed employee, you will burn out quickly if you do not take care of yourself first. This means taking care of your health and your family. No one, but you can do this for you. You must set boundaries and hold to them. If you need to take a real lunch break or go to the doctor or schedule a meeting outside where everyone can take a walk while they talk, do it. Before you say yes to something, ask if it is essential and worthwhile to the company or your career. If not, learn to say no politely but firmly. Always remember, when you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. There are always tradeoffs.

I know a lot of you are shaking your heads right now, thinking I’m so out of touch with the reality of office culture. I can promise you that I am hyper-aware of it. That’s one of the reasons why I quit my corporate job to become an independent entrepreneur. That’s one of the reasons why I preach about innovation and intrapreneurship. We must change corporate culture for the good of business and ourselves. These steps are a start in the right direction.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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