Many of us lament that we don’t have time for the things we’d like to do—catch a movie on a weeknight, take a fun dance class on a Saturday, start a creative project, go for a run, read, take a weekend getaway.
But the reality is that many of us are doing things we don’t actually need to be doing. When we eliminate those things, space suddenly opens up, and we naturally create more time.
According to time management expert and bestselling author Laura Vanderkam, knowing what to eliminate can be tricky because “a lot of things that waste time don’t necessarily look like wasting time.”
“Most of us understand that spending three hours reading snarky comments on Twitter is not advancing us toward our larger goals,” said Vanderkam, author of the new book Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities.
But what about email?
“I’d argue that responding to everything quickly wastes tons of time….Being ‘on top’ of email, rather than checking it a handful of times per day, cuts out space for all kinds of other more important things.”
Technology also can steal our time in other ways.
Social media is a tired—but true!—example. As professional speaker and time management coach Jones Loflin noted, “‘Who hasn’t thought, ‘I’ll just check my ______ (insert any social media feed) for a minute,’ and then spent at least 15-20 minutes getting lost in the lives of others?”
Similarly, trying to have complex or difficult conversations over text can be incredibly inefficient—and “exacerbate the situation, increasing the frustration of everyone involved,” said Loflin, author of the book Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done–Now!
“More time is taken trying to explain the misunderstanding you created earlier when a simple phone call or face-to-face interaction could have handled the situation much more quickly… and effectively.”
Housework is another example of a potential time waster.
As Vanderkam said, the problem is that housework expands to fill in whatever available space we have. In other words, we can easily clean the whole day, because there’s always something to wash, wipe, organize, and tidy.
This doesn’t mean living in filth, Vanderkam said. “Rather than constantly picking up, designate a short amount of time to get the most obvious things done. If it doesn’t happen then, it wasn’t that important.”
Overthinking and over-researching also waste time, said Tonya Dalton, a productivity expert and founder of inkWELL Press. We can over-do big decisions—like starting a business—or small decisions—such as what pants to buy, she said.
Relationships can make or shrink time. That is, “strong, healthy relationships with friends and family give us the much needed mental and emotional energy we need to tackle the difficult things in our life,” Loflin said. However, when we spend too much time with toxic people—who drain us—the opposite happens: We don’t have any energy for ourselves.
Ultimately, because everyone is different, what constitutes as a time-waster will vary according to each person. Which is why we asked experts to share how each of us can identify whether we’re focusing on tasks we don’t even need to be doing.
Revise your stories. One of the reasons we spend a lot of our time doing things we don’t necessarily need to be doing is because we construct our identities around these activities, according to Vanderkam, host of the time management-focused podcast Before Breakfast. We create and cling to stories that keep us shackled to certain tasks.
That is, you think to yourself, I’m the kind of person who has a tidy, sparkling clean home. I’m the kind of person who gets back to someone right away. I’m the kind of person who’s always available to others.
If you find yourself doing something that takes a lot of time, or is causing resentment and frustration, Vanderkam suggested exploring why you’re doing it. “If your answer takes the form of ‘well, everyone knows you have to…’ or ‘you can’t just…,’ then push a little harder. Do you know this is true? Can you find a counter-example?”
You also can consider the worst thing that could happen if you spend less time on that activity. Is that worst-case scenario even likely to happen? “Maybe, but often not,” Vanderkam said.
Ellen Faye, COC®, CPO ®, a productivity leadership coach, suggested exploring these additional questions: “Would anyone notice if I didn’t do [this task]? Is there an easier way to do it? Can someone else do it?”
When we challenge our stories, Vanderkam noted that we can free up a whole lot of time. As she said, no one is coming to your house at 11 p.m. to make sure you picked up all the toys before going to bed. “So go ahead and read a novel and then go to sleep.”
Focus on your feelings. Dalton stressed the importance of paying attention to your emotions and reactions after you complete certain activities.
She suggested asking yourself: “How do I feel when I’m finished with this activity? Do I feel happier and content, or do I feel frustrated and even irritable?”
Use tools to limit time. Use technology to your advantage. For instance, you can try the apps Moment and QualityTime “to monitor how long you are spending on different apps and even limit how many browser windows are open,” Dalton said.
As author Chris Bailey noted, we shouldn’t rely on self-control; rather, we should be strategic and intentional in creating a tangible plan that specifically targets common distractions that steal time—time that can be spent on meaningful activities.
Try the 80/20 rule. According to Faye, this rule entails getting 80 percent of the work done with 20 percent of the effort, and using 80 percent of your effort for the remaining 20 percent of work. She said it’s the same for time, because some tasks truly deserve excellence, while others are good with good enough.
“If my email responses were 100 percent excellent, I would do nothing else in my life but email. I make the 80 percent good and save a ton of time.”
Assess your day as a whole. In the evenings, Dalton spends several minutes examining how she worked toward her goals and how she felt about the activities she did throughout the day (along with a focus on gratitude). (You can do the same with this 5-minute exercise.)
Similarly, Loflin suggested coming up with your own list of simple questions to guide your choices throughout the day, an idea inspired by Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers. (An example is: “Did I do my best to read 20 minutes today?” he said.)
“At the end of day, you rate yourself on how well you did, and reflect on the choices you made that helped or hindered your ability to do it.” This gives you the opportunity to make adjustments the next day to make that activity happen.
Re-evaluate routines regularly. “So much changes in life and we don’t stop to consider how this impacts our routines,” said Faye, past president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals.
For instance, for years, Faye did her meal planning and grocery shopping on Sundays. “If I didn’t plan what I was going to cook, and have those ingredients in the house, dinner time would be a total time suck.” After Faye’s now adult sons moved out, it took her several years to change this habit, even though it was no longer helpful. “I kept buying for four when there was only two of us, and I was wasting a lot of food. Now it’s a much less formal process, and it’s just fine.”
Using your time well doesn’t mean hustling and grinding and accounting for every single minute. Rather, it means filling your days with the activities that you want to do, with the activities that are meaningful and fun and inspiring and enjoyable to you. As Dalton said, “productivity isn’t about doing more; it’s doing what’s most important.”
We’re able to do that when we stop doing the things we don’t really need to do.