Do you work hard all day, but never feel caught up? Do the hours disappear into a series of tasks and interruptions? Then you've probably fallen prey to the time bandits -- those habits, tasks, and people that leech precious minutes from our day.
From talkative friends to video games, most of us have some kind of time bandit in our life, says Laura Stack, a productivity expert and author of Leave the Office Earlier (Broadway, 2004). To smoke out yours, Stack suggests making a grid where you chart your day in half-hour increments. Track your time for three days a week for the next three weeks. How long were you surfing the Internet, buying groceries, sitting in meetings? "When you're done, do an analysis. Ask yourself, where are you more productive? What patterns of inefficiencies can you detect?" says Stack.
Once you know what's eating up your time, solutions are often quite obvious. Maria, 53, from Montpelier, Vermont, realized that she wasted a lot of time in driving to the supermarket, and then wandering the aisles, going back for items she forgot. So she made a list on her computer that was organized the same way the store is. "I just plug in what we need, then print it out. I used to stop by the grocery store almost every time I was in town. Now I go once a week," says Maria. Beth, 43, from Brooklyn, New York, realized that she lost a lot of her workday to friends who called to "catch up" during business hours. "I deal with this by screening the calls, then, on an evening when I'm relaxed, I open a bottle of wine and call them back," she says.
Creating a time log will also help you see where you're contributing to your time thievery. After all, you don't have to spend half an hour listening to your coworker detail the latest office scandal. "The responsibility lies within us. We have to learn how to nicely say no," says Deb Lund, a certified trainer for Franklin Covey, which teaches seminars based on Stephen R. Covey's best-selling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, 2003).
The key is to always do the most important things first. When asked, most people will say that their family and friends are their highest priority, but their actions don't always show that. "People mindlessly drift into things and then don't have time for family," says Lund, who says taking just 15 or 20 minutes with your loved ones when you first get home will ground you in that priority. Set aside specific fun times -- a date night with your husband, family day with the kids -- that are non-negotiable. "You can get so focused on getting stuff done that you miss the important stuff. Better to have the dishes go undone than to have your family feel pushed to the side," says Lund.