With all the potential distractions out there, it can feel impossible to stop wasting time. From unimportant emails to social media to chatting with coworkers or friends, daily life seems determined to stop us from getting things done. And sometimes we use these distractions as an excuse to procrastinate our work. Sound familiar? Well, at least we’re not alone. A study of British workers, for example, found that the average employee spends around an hour of their workday on personal tasks.
But we’re here to tell you that it is possible to stop wasting time and start getting things done. All you have to do is follow these six research-backed strategies.
How to Stop Wasting Time, According to Science
If you’ve ever asked yourself (or, let’s be real, the internet), how do I stop wasting so much time? then you need to try our six-step plan to get on track. Permanently.
Step 1: Track your time
The first step to stop wasting time is to figure out exactly how much time you’re wasting and what you’re wasting it on. Darius Foroux, an entrepreneur and writer about productivity, recommends keeping track for at least two weeks to see how you spend your time, part of a strategy originally introduced in Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done.
You can use an old-fashioned pen and paper or time-management software like Clockify.me, which makes this way easier. Whatever you feel comfortable with is fine, as long as you commit to accurately accounting for your time.
Then, once you know what and where your time-wasters are, you can make the effort to cut them out.
Step 2: Make a plan
Once you’ve figured out how much time you waste and how long your tasks actually take, you can make a schedule of what needs to get done. Sounds basic, right? Well, not really.
A schedule is not the same as a to-do list. While those can help get you organized, they don’t necessarily help you complete tasks, because they don’t take into account how long tasks take. Scheduling your tasks, on the other hand, gives you a set time to get things done. The best schedules will also take task priorities into account.
Think of your scheduled task blocks as appointments with yourself. If you wouldn’t skip a meeting with a colleague, you shouldn’t skip the time you set for yourself to complete a task.
Of course, this is assuming that everything goes according to plan, which we know doesn’t happen all the time. Real life gets in the way, so don’t beat yourself up if you have to change course. But try your hardest to stick to it as much as you can.
Easier said than done? One way to help keep yourself on track is to set deadlines for yourself. While self-imposed deadlines may not be quite as successful at keeping people on task as external deadlines, there’s still evidence that they can help you stop wasting time.
Step 3: Do the hard things first
There are lots of reasons to get your toughest tasks out of the way when you first start working. The first is that this is many people’s most productive time. Specifically, according to Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, we’re our most productive starting about two hours after we wake. Tackling your hardest tasks during those productive hours can give you the push you need to stop wasting time when you hit a roadblock.
Second, doing your hard tasks first keeps them from hanging over your head for the rest of the day. Getting the hard task out of the way can boost your satisfaction with your performance—and things can only go up from there.
Of course, some things are easy to just get done. Many productivity writers and researchers suggest the “two-minute rule” to help you get the little things done and keep them from wasting your time later.
The rule is (relatively) simple. If a task shows up and will take two minutes or less to do, just do it now. Don’t say you’ll write the email later; write the email now. This way, potential time-wasting tasks don’t build up over the course of the day.
Step 4: Batch your tasks
Do you switch between email, actual work, convos with colleagues, and a bunch of other tasks faster than you can spell productivity? You’re not alone. And constantly switching between tasks isn’t good for any of us. In fact, research suggests that switching between tasks can cost up to 40 percent of people’s productive time.
Here’s one way to stop wasting time by switching tasks: Batch your to-dos. To batch tasks, group similar items and get them done within the same time period. For example, try to schedule all your meetings a few afternoons a week, and block out an hour each morning to answer emails. You can batch any work or any types of distractions, such as checking social media. This helps you keep your mind focused and helps you be more productive.
Step 5: Take breaks
We’re big on breaks around here. And you should be too. And while we know that taking breaks probably doesn’t seem like the best way to stop wasting time, it’s actually effective.
Research suggests that breaks help improve energy, motivation, and mood. There’s also evidence that short breaks can help you feel focused on the task at hand. Think of short breaks as a reset for your brain after it spends time focusing on one task.
You can take breaks in whatever ways work best for you, though you’ll need to figure out what that is. Some people might realize they need a break when they’ve been staring at the same sentence for five minutes. For other people, structured breaks might work better.
One popular way to structure your breaks is the Pomodoro method. To try this method, set a timer for 25 minutes and spend that time focusing on one task. When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break. Then repeat. You can try different lengths of work time to see what makes you most productive.
Step 6: Use tech to block your distractions
How do you stop wasting time on the internet? Easy—you use the internet.
In all seriousness, your tech, like apps and browser extensions, can work for you if you know what to use. There are a ton of apps out there that do everything from completely shut down your access to the internet for a set time period to block certain sites to let you know when you reach your daily limits.
These apps may not get rid of the urge to go on Facebook, but they will stop you from actually getting there.
Here are a few to try:
To sum it all up…
Now that you’re done with this article, it’s time to stop wasting time and get back to work. Whether procrastination or distraction is your main problem, figuring out what your time-wasters are and making a plan to get rid of them can help keep you on track.
Here’s a quick rundown if you need a refresher:
- Track your tasks and how much time they take you for at least two weeks to set a baseline.
- Set a schedule for yourself, which includes your required tasks and the time it takes to complete them.
- Start your day with your most difficult tasks. It’ll all get easier from there.
- Batch your tasks to reduce the amount of time you lose between switching tasks.
- Take regular breaks to keep your focus up all day long. Bonus points for breaks that include exercise or nature.
- Use your tech for good, not evil. Use helpful browser extensions and apps to block sites and programs that distract you.
So stop wasting time and start your life as your most productive self. All that’s left to do now is enjoy the extra time you just made.
Your turn: What’s your top tip to stop wasting time? We’re dying to know—tell us in the comments.
For more ways to turn up your performance, check out our tricks for being successful on the job.
Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.