“My favourite things in life don’t cost any money.
It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time.”
– Steve Jobs
Wasted time is those unconsciously spent minutes scrolling through Instagram or the never-ending stream of news. The time you spend with the friends you don’t really want to meet, but you still do it every week since your university days… Time spent in traffic on the way to and from work, when all you do is listen to music or news for an hour. It’s that half-hour in bed when instead of hopping on a yoga mat and doing exercise, all you exercise is your thumb running through the phone screen. It’s the fifth episode of the series that just launched when you’ve already forgotten why you turned on the first one and the third news broadcast in the last two hours. How many of these unconscious minutes could turn into reading pages of the book every day, trying new recipes, listening to podcasts, meeting with friends (having finished work earlier), or time with family? How many minutes and even hours in the day do you want to get back? Those that you realise have been wasted?
When it comes to wasted time, the keyword is “unconsciously”. Sometimes you really need to allow your thoughts to wander. It’s necessary and recommended. Still, the vast majority of our “wandering” is someone else cleverly planning our time for us. Do you want to read the news online? Plan a half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening for it– you’re not a news presenter, and you don’t need to know everything all the time. Do you want to scroll online? That’s great. Plan the time for this. Do you want to hang out in bed and chat on your phone in the mornings instead of exercising? If this is your consciously premeditated plan and not your surrender to technological weakness – that’s great too. It means you really need it. If you plan this time in advance and put it in separate time blocks in your schedule, you can save several hours a week. And be sure that news and social media will still be there after you take some time to focus on other areas of your life.
All the books on habits and changing your life included in the resources section deal with the topic of wasted time. In addition, we want to mention two cardinally different books: Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport and The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer. No matter how many good books you read about productivity, don’t forget that you are not a robot defined by its capacity for work. You are a human being whose life is defined by creating value in your professional and personal life.
How to find the time, and where do I start?
Don’t be surprised to find tips and hints relating to all the areas of life, because we waste our precious time everywhere – at work, with our families, or in other activities. We do many things out of inertia, habit, and automatism because other people do it, and only by stopping and auditing our daily schedules can we see how much time we are wasting and how much we could use better or differently. Some changes could help you become more productive or help you find more time for family or relationships in general, but others could turn things upside down so cardinally that you may want to change your job or even decide to break up with your significant other.
Get your life in order, get your priorities straight, and get your passion back (for work, having fun, etc.). Even if most of the time a modern man wastes could be attributed to technology and social networks, at the end of the day, these are just consequences of the fact that what we do does not bring us joy or that who we are is not enjoyable in and of itself. You must be able to recall a day in your life when you were doing something that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. It is a state of being so passionately immersed in an activity that the world around you seems to cease to exist. When you’re in the “flow” it doesn’t matter if you have unread messages, you don’t have to check the news every hour, and you certainly don’t want to watch Home Alone for the fifth time simply because it’s on.
Try to calculate how many of your working hours are truly productive and concentrate not on the work itself but on the result. Some studies show that those who work 60 hours get no more work done than those who work 30 hours. Exhausted workers work longer, are less creative, and have to correct the mistakes they leave behind more often.
Beat the email monster. You could write a whole book on how to do this, but Cal Newport has already done it, so if you’re curious, we recommend reading Digital Minimalism, A World Without Email, and Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. One of the most unexpected ideas on achieving this is that “the less you email, the less you receive” (and vice versa). Every “Yes”, “No”, “I remembered” or “I forgot to mention” is one extra email that requires a reply and your attention to that reply.
Audit your digital life and technologies. Web browsers, operating systems, and phones can all be equipped with apps that give you a clear and visual indication of how much time and what you spend your time on. One minute on Facebook in the morning, then a little while in the afternoon and a bit over the coffee break may not seem like much, but when you add it all up, you may find out that you’ve scrolled for an hour and a half.
Set boundaries. In the same way, as there are apps that tell you what you’re doing and how much time you’re spending on your phone or computer, there are apps that allow you to limit the availability of apps and web pages after a certain time. Or email… In some countries, sending work emails outside working hours is prohibited by the law. On Friday afternoon, it might feel nice to shake off the last tasks of the week, but it might stress out the recipient for the entire weekend. Don’t forget that email programmes allow you to schedule your emails to be sent out at a time of your choice.
Have a plan for the day, prioritise your work and allocate your energy appropriately. “There is a lot to do” is not a plan for the day. Write down the day’s tasks on paper. Start with the most important ones that must be done and the ones that must be finished before starting anything else. These are the “burning” tasks that require the most intellectual effort (which tends to run out towards the evening). “Yes” and “no” emails can be sent towards the end of the day when you have less energy.
Learn to say no. First to the things that are important to others but not to you, and later to those important to you. Yes, there is so much you want to do, so much you want to achieve, but… you can’t try everything, you can’t travel all over the world, you can’t watch all the films, and you can’t learn to play all the instruments. What is the joy of being in Spain if you are already planning the next trip to Italy (your body may be in Spain, but your mind is already in Italy) or thinking about a book in the middle of reading another book? Enjoy this moment 100%, scrap any extra plans that may come in the way of being present, and save some space for reflection, for savouring the moments. Come back from your trip a day before you go back to work – yes, you won’t get to see a fountain or two, but at least you’ll have time to enjoy and remember the ones you did see. You don’t have to be a productivity guru to know that you need to set priorities in your life (not only at work but also in your personal life). But keep in mind that “priority” was originally a singular noun; the plural form “priorities” only came about because of the inability to identify one priority and the attempt to have everything at once.
Disconnect. Turn off your phone and notifications. If that is not possible, let everyone know that for a certain period you will be immersed in tasks that require maximum concentration. Have an hour of “deep work” every day when all your co-workers and partners know you can’t be interrupted. Once a month, disconnect for the whole day. Try disconnecting during the weekend first when work wouldn’t be as affected. Cal Newport suggests trying month-long digital detoxification and slowly reintroducing the things you still need afterward. Finally, just leave your phone in another room when working or sleeping. Nothing terrible will happen. 99.99999% guarantee.
Create obstacles to wasting time. For example, every time you use social networks, sign out (and do not save the password), so you would have to enter your login name and password again to sign in next time. It won’t be a problem if you really need to use the network, but many times having to log in again will prevent you from logging in at all.
Set deadlines for work. Not having such boundaries is a great opportunity not to focus on your tasks because you still have time to complete them.
Read a book about changing habits and try to apply its advice to your life. You don’t need to read many books about changing habits as if reading them would automatically change those habits. If you’ve completed a book, it means you found it interesting and relevant enough, so just work on implementing those tips. At least for a month.
Do everything at the best time for you. We are each a unique individual, and we can each discover for ourselves if we work better (and faster) in the morning or evening, if we have more strength and desire to work out right after waking up or after a long working day, etc. For starting, read When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel H. Pink and The Power of When by Michael Breus, Ph.D.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Cal Newport, 2018). Most of us can’t get away from work emails or social media notifications. This has become our daily habit. Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, rethinks the very core of the contemporary world of constant connectedness. In this book, he shares his personal experience and stories of famous thinkers, academics, and leaders on setting goals, developing a habit of deep work, and learning rational time management for the best results in the shortest amount of time. Distraction-free work is the condition for meaningful results.
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (Pico Iyer, 2014). Pico Iyer paints a picture of why so many—from Marcel Proust to Mahatma Gandhi to Emily Dickinson—have found richness in stillness. Ultimately, Iyer shows that, in this age of constant movement and connectedness, perhaps staying in one place is a more exciting prospect, and a greater necessity than ever before.
Apart from this book, you can read “365 Tao: Daily Meditations” by Deng Ming-Dao or “365 Dalai Lama: Daily Advice from the Heart” by Dalai Lama, which give you a page of wisdom for each day of the year. Try to enjoy every page, even though you could go through the entire book in a couple of hours. Let each page occupy some time in your mind, and let the pencil in your hand fill out the empty space on the page with the thoughts that arise.