Wasted Time At Work

“What a waste of time!”

Do you ever hear this at work? It’s an incriminating observation for what is often just a petty inconvenience. Time was wasted, and someone is to blame. Though it’s curious how no one ever dares to take ownership of the problem. In so many cases, it’s always someone else’s fault. “That guy in the other department wasted my time. Of course I would never waste someone else’s time, let alone my own. But jeez, look at all the waste all over the place.”

We accuse others, but we toil in perfection, never attributing wastefulness to our own actions.

So what exactly do we mean by wasted time?

To understand waste, we first need to understand how time should be spent. When people are spending their time well at work, they’re doing what their job descriptions say they should. They’re managing, or selling, or designing, or processing, or teaching.

That’s what they get paid for, what they excel at, and it’s how others see them. They spend their time on the important activities that create results. These are what we call “A” priorities.

Employees also spend time on activities that support their priorities. These are the “B” responsibilities that need to get done.

Employees occasionally do things that aren’t part of their main job, but are imposed by others. These are their “C” requirements. These activities can be substantial. For instance, administrative tasks add up to about 25% of a manager’s time.

Finally, there is necessary time. At work, employees have to take breaks, eat lunch, use the washroom, and travel to customers. Anything else is non-productive time.

There is plenty of non-productive time during working hours, but that doesn’t always mean it is wasted. For instance, if you get up to stretch your legs for a moment, or gaze out the window to reflect, it would be unfair to classify this as wasted time. There’s a necessity for this. You need to relax and recharge.

So companies should expect some amount of time expenditures that are not always productive. Reboot time is just one type of non-productive time. There are others.

Time not spent on the things that should get done fall into three major categories: personal issues, work habits and corporate impediments.

Personal Issues
On occasion, employees take time from their employers. This is what’s traditionally known as wasted time. It’s the goofing off, the theft of time. This includes some of the following activities:

  • Personal calls
  • Long lunches or breaks.
  • Water cooler chats.
  • Social media chats.
  • Entertaining oneself.
  • Entertaining others
  • Unnecessary research
  • Outside interests

Work Habits
The second type of non-productive time involves poor work habits by employees who would never admit to wasting time. In fact, they probably aren’t even aware that their pace is slow. Some of their practices include:

  • Slow moving activity
  • Distractions
  • Poor problem solving
  • Poor systems knowledge
  • E-mail cc and virus warnings
  • Clutter
  • Administrative tasks
  • Lack of training
  • Tardiness
  • Not following instructions

Corporate Impediments
Many employees are at the high end of efficiency. They are not wasting time personally. Their work habits are top notch. But as efficient as they might be, they can end up wasting time because of factors outside of their control.

  • Equipment issues
  • Changing directions
  • Unclear mandate or job description
  • Major changes
  • Legal battles

Others’ Waste
The waste that others cause is one of the biggest reasons why employees’ time is wasted. Some of these include:

  • Unnecessary emails
  • Late starting meetings
  • Meetings without focus
  • Petty requests
  • Unclear communication
  • Mistakes by others
  • Interruptions
  • Poorly run meetings


Some waste is inevitable. It’s an expected part of the corporate environment. People will chat with their friends. They’ll daydream now and then. Things will go wrong. The office will never be a perfect place. That’s what makes it interesting. Anyone who seeks perfection is chasing an illusion.


  • Accept that some portion of work time will be wasted. It will probably be minor. Writing policies about how long water cooler chats should is a waste itself.
  • Assign meaningful work so that employees keep busy and feel that their contributions are making a difference.
  • Establish protocols for internal communication, particularly for email.
  • Disconnect employees from anything they don’t need on the internet. Do employees really need access to YouTube, Facebook, or Pinterest at work?
  • Make employees accountable for their results in performance reviews and in periodic goal setting sessions.
  • Train employees on soft skills such as supervision, time management, communication, and problem solving.
  • Provide employee assistance programs for those occasions when pressures from outside work affect what goes on inside work.
  • Engage in process improvement projects to understand how time is being allocated and to create systemic improvements through automation, re-structuring, and centralization.


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Conduct A Time Study To Improve Productivity

Pick up just about any time management book and you’ll find a common piece of advice somewhere near the beginning. “Conduct a time study on all of your activities for a week”. This will be accompanied by a nifty table with snappy rows and impressive columns all nicely laid out for you to fill in. The text goes on to ask you to analyze the results of your time study, doesn’t give much more perspective than that.

Indeed understanding time use can be a useful diagnostic tool for understanding productivity. I’ve been running a time study consulting business since 1990, using the innovative TimeCorder device that I invented and launched in 1989. Whether you use a TimeCorder, or an app, or the back of an envelope, or a form from a time management book, understanding something about your time usage can be useful. Only when you measure your productivity can you improve it.

But once you discover that you spend ten hours per week on one of your major activities, what does that mean? Most statistics gleaned from research are only helpful when they are placed in context. How do those ten hours compare to other people who are like you? Perhaps they are similar, but do those people have the same job or family situation? Also, how has the data changed? Are those ten hours going up or down over time? Are there occasional peak periods? If so, what causes them? And how does your time use in one area affect all of the other areas? An illustration of this is when overtime hours are examined. If you work longer hours than usual during a particular week, that time has to come from somewhere else. Something has to give. More work might mean less family time, or less exercise.

When you spend more time on one thing, then some other thing will either disappear completely or become compressed. Time for meals is an example of this. With all those overtime hours, chances are you’re not eating massively lower amounts of food. You may simply be compressing your meal time. Rushed breakfasts, lunch on the go, and fast food for dinner take the place of long lingering meals over a glass of wine and good conversation. Another artifact of large amounts of time use in one area is overlapping activities. More and more you start doing two things at once. So those rushed meals are eaten at your desk or (heaven forbid) in the car while driving to work. Ask a busy mother what keeps her going, and she’ll tell you how she can feed children, speak on the phone and clean dishes, all at once.

Based on our time study research, the thing you are most likely to discover is that you spend fewer hours than you might like on your highest priority tasks while spending much more of your time than you would like on low priority tasks. In the work place, those low priority tasks are administrative activities; filing out reports, going to staff meetings, answering routine internal requests and other activities that aren’t part of the main thrust of your job. Outside of work, those lower priority tasks will be household chores, shopping for groceries, minor repairs, laundry, and cleaning up.

So track your time and put it into perspective. You are likely to be surprised about something. Then you have to figure out what to do next. Are you happy with the way things are or do you genuinely want to improve your productivity? A thorough time study analysis leads to insight. And that leads to results. Your time is worth it.

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Productivity and the Home Renovator

You can learn a lot about productivity from a home renovator. We had some work done in our basement recently. It’s the kind of work that anyone might do. We wanted to fix up an unfinished room, the size of a bedroom. We needed it because we rented out our house for the summer. We would be travelling to Europe, visiting museums, exploring cathedrals and remotely conducting our time and motion study projects. In the basement a small brick wall needed to be taken down – because of some previous renovations, it was redundant. And the ceiling needed new drywall to make it into a serviceable guest bedroom.

A while back, we met the contractors, agreed to a quote, and set a date for them to begin. It was a month out because they had another job to finish. That was fine with us. It seemed like good scheduling when they had a window to do our relatively small job. Maybe a week beginning to end.

But the job ended up stretching out over three weeks. On this basic productivity measurement, the contractor failed. His company had another job, and needed to give it priority. So someone showed up at our house for two or three hours to do some work, and then poof! They were gone.

The contractor thought he was being efficient by booking two jobs at once. Do a bit of work here, wait for something to be ready, then off to the other place to nail some studs, and then back to the first place again for the next bit. Two clients at once! Busy, busy.

Waste, waste is more like it. There is a huge productivity inefficiency to starting and stopping a project. First is travel time. If a job extends out for ten days instead of five, then that’s ten extra trips (there and back) for each extra day. Most trips are at least a half hour, so there’s an extra five hours of time right there. Also, most contractors clean up at the end of each day. So that means more clean up time. And more set-up time at the beginning of the next day. All those tools that were put away have to be brought out again.

And then there is reset time. All of us need time to get refocused after an interruption. Contractors are no different.

We know another contractor who is much more productive. He shows up early in the morning and works right through until the end of the day, rarely taking a break. If something has to wait – concrete drying for instance – he schedules that towards the end of the day. If it has to be in the middle of the day, he always finds something else to do. He plans out his work using basic project management techniques. As a result he finishes on time with little waste.

So the next time a contractor quotes you – ask how many other jobs he is doing, and what he does to minimize waste. Ideally, ask for a completion date, and build in a penalty clause for every day he goes over what didn’t result from a change you requested.

Your time is worth it.

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How Long Is A Typical Work Week?

We have been collectiong time study data since 1990, and have recently taken an interest in overtime hours. Subsequent posts will review some of the findings from our database. To start, we were interested in what constitutes a typical work week for knowledge workers. Read more »

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