The Top 3 Reasons We Waste Time

I’ll be honest. This past week, I was in my office for 40 hours, but I don’t feel like I did 40 hours of valuable work. I wasted a lot of time. It was one of those weeks.

We intuitively know that our time is our most valuable resource—even more valuable than money. Money comes and it goes, but time just goes. No amount of money can buy another second of time. When our time is up, it’s up.

Therefore, it’s less about how long we live. It’s more important to consider how well we invest the time we actually have. An 18 year old can experience more happy hours than an 80 year old. More happy hours is what it’s all about, but we can’t experience them if we are wasting the time we have in our personal and professional lives.

The 40 hour work week is based on an average. It assumes that there will be at least 40 hours of work every week, but there isn’t always more work to do. The reality is that most businesses have busy seasons and off seasons. Given that, on some weeks, we don’t have enough tasks to fill a 40 hour work week.

So what do we do?

We create meaningless work. We do things to look busy and we expand the work that we do have because we are uncomfortable with the idea of doing nothing. Somehow being busy got positively correlated with level of importance. The busier you are the more important you must be. So the opposite would suggests that the less busy you are, the less important you are.

I know how I waste time, but until I sat down and wrote this, I wasn’t clear why.

I hope that some of my insights help you understand some of the counterintuitive psychology that effects your performance and productivity.

1. Second Best Doesn’t Count

Nobody wants to be the person who works the hardest and still gets cut. That was me on the high school basketball team. You can ask anyone who was the hardest worker and they would say me. I was like Rudy. But despite my efforts in the off season to try to make the varsity team, I still got cut. The reason it was so heart-breaking is because I gave my full heart. I gave it my best shot (no pun intended).

This also happens with dating. We don’t put our best foot forward to give ourselves an excuse or escape route if we get rejected. We say things like “I didn’t really try that hard,” or “If I really wanted her I could have got her.” The outcome from our second-best effort doesn’t count because it wasn’t our best effort.

In our professional lives, we waste time because we are afraid to give our best. If we fail at something, we want to believe that it wasn’t because of the quality of our work, but that it was something we could control if we got a second chance such as our effort. Many people allow what they do to define who they are, therefore rejection at work by a the company, a colleague, or a client can easily be taken personal. Instead of seeing it as a high performer doing one piece of low quality work it become a I’m a low performer. So by wasting time and giving our second best effort we create a sense of safety against feeling like a failure when something we do fails.

2. Parkinson’s Law

So how do we look busy when there isn’t that much to do?

This can be explained by Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law suggest that work expands to fill space and time. If I give you 60 minutes to do a tasks that really only takes 30 minutes, you’ll take 60 minutes to do it. Whereas if I give you the same task, but only 30 minutes, you’ll complete it in 30 minutes without compromising the quality.

Work does that when we don’t put boundaries on it and create a clear finish line. It spills into the next hour and then the next and then other domains of our life after 5pm and on weekends, negatively affecting our personal relationships and ability to live in alignment with our values.

Wasting time doesn’t just mean:

  • doing nothing
  • handling personal tasks during work hours
  • surfing the web and social media
  • sitting in pointless meetings
  • sending meaningless emails
  • zoning out

We are wasting time anytime we aren’t giving quality attention to the task we believe will create the most value for our team or company. In any given moment, we are either creating value or destroying value. With a few exceptions, nobody intentionally destroys value,

3. The King of the Jungle Syndrome

But we are all inflicted with The King of the Jungle Syndrome. Though lions sleep for 20 hours per day, they are still called “The King of the Jungle.” If we slept 20 hours per day, we would be called lazy.

Lions won the genetic lottery. They get the great reward of being deemed king for what seems to be very little effort. And we want that too. If I told you you could earn the same amount of money doing the exact same thing whether you worked 40 hours per week or 20, which would you choose? The answer is obvious.

As a recovering workaholic, I study and practice high performance and the question, “How do I create more value with less effort?” is at the forefront of all high performers’ minds. Workaholics, on the other hand, ask “How do I do more?” I personally learned this the hard way.

High performers are lazy, but not in the traditional sense. They work extremely hard on the mental game and strategy, so that they can exert less effort in the physical game. Look at the NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs. Their best players averaged less time on the court than the best players on the teams they beat. It’s counterintuitive. This strategy was in part created by the age of their team and in part by their great coach Greg Popavich. As crazy as it sounds, they won by working less.

I do not want to waste any time. And if you’re not working on important things, you’re wasting time. – Dean Kamen

I got a chance to hear Dean Kamen speak the day before I spoke at TEDx Midwest. He is an American inventor who has committed his life to solving huge problems int he world like water purification and love for science in American education. One of his inventions is the Segway.

In addition to being aware of the psychology behind why we waste time, I think the BIG solution is to find a problem so BIG and dear to you that know you can’t waste time if you want to solve.

Wishing you more happy hours,