Time Bandits
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Time Bandits

How to identify the top time-sucks in your day -- and make more room for the things you love to do.

Never Finished?

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.

Top 5 Time Bandits

Ever wonder what's quietly siphoning your time? Here Stack offers the most common time-suckers.

  1. Gabby colleagues. The people who drop by your desk to chat may be good company, but they're one of the biggest time-wasters in the office, says Stack. She recommends giving a silent signal that lets others know you're working on a priority assignment and cannot be disturbed, like a sign in your doorway. She also suggests turning your chair so it faces away from the entrance to your office or cubicle. "When someone walks by, most people look up. For someone who's looking for someone to bother, that can be an invitation," says Stack.
  2. E-mail. "People have developed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with e-mail," says Stack. "They check each one as they come in. They hear the bing and they can't resist." Instead, turn off the sound and create set times to check e-mail -- Stack recommends three times a day.
  3. Television. Want an extra four hours in your day? Turn off the TV. That's how much time the average American spends in front of the tube. "That's the equivalent of an associate's degree," says Stack, who recommends going TV-free for a week. "See what you do with the time. I've had people say they picked up a hobby, started exercising, cleaned out the attic -- things that you've been meaning to do but put off," she says.
  4. To-do lists. Used properly, a to-do list can increase productivity. But Stack says that people get so infatuated with crossing things off their list that they avoid the bigger projects. So you buy the baby shower gift, pay the electric bill, but the 50-page report remains undone. "We get a sense of satisfaction when we can cross things off our list. But if you did nine things but the tenth thing was the most important, then that's not productive," she says.
  5. Doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. "We don't take advantage of the time when our energy is up," says Stack. "There is a certain period when we're in a peak productive zone. It's really important to focus on the things that are complex during those times -- like budgets, data analysis, writing." Unfortunately, this is exactly the time people are most likely to socialize, because they feel good. "We flit around and don't focus," says Stack. "If you're a morning person, don't waste time catching up with friends or reading the paper. Hit the ground running. It will take you so much longer to do it when you're brain dead."