Zach’s Blog

How to Stop Wasting Your Time (and Be Happier)

Our time is consumed by responding. And it’s killing creativity.

The e-mails, meetings, interruptions, and trivial tasks seem endless. The problem? Each moment we spend responding means that we’re not creating. And that means not creating new content or business. Not generating new ideas, new perspectives, and for most of us not doing the types of things that got us into the work we love in the first place. 

Ironically, what we create, as individuals and organizations is ultimately what sustains us. It may also be what keeps us happy.

I found this out through some hard reflection. A couple of weeks ago, I did an experiment. At the end of each day, I reflected back on the day and noted whether a task was a “responding” task (replying to e-mail, attending a meeting that was reactive, fixing a website issue, responding to a minor problem, cleaning off my desktop, etc.) or if it was a “creating” task (i.e. writing new content, reading the latest research, starting new projects, cultivating leads, brainstorming, developing business, etc.).

What I found disturbed me: I was spending nearly 60% of my days responding.

It turns out, I am not alone. In a recent survey, American workers said they spend just 45% of their time on the work they want to be doing. The other 55% is spent on responding tasks. For example, workers spend about 15% of their work week responding to e-mail and 40% of their time on meetings, interruptions, or low-priority administrative tasks.

Not only does this wasted time threaten your productivity, it could also be making you unhappy. Research suggests that regularly spending your time creating is linked to improved physical health, less anxiety, more resilience, and better problem solving.

It makes sense, then, to create more in whatever job you’re in. Here’s some advice on how to do it.

1. Unplug

Try to spend at least an hour a day (and more if you can) completely unplugged. That means no browser tab open, shut your smartphone off, send your office line straight to voicemail, and shut your door. Use this time to work on or brainstorm something new. Whether that is generating new business, developing a new training program, or writing new content – reserve this time only for creative tasks that deliver your purpose.

Over the course of a work week, you’ll have spent roughly five hours creating. This adds up, not only in offsetting your responding tasks and doing more things that deliver your mission, but also in increasing your overall happiness.

If you’re feeling really extreme, try what bestselling author Chris Guillebeau calls “radical exclusion” and ask yourself before you do anything, “Is this necessary?” And if it’s not, stop doing it.  In radically excluding the unnecessary, you say “no” to busywork, and “yes” to legacy work – the type of work that delivers your purpose to the world.

A radical and extreme example of this is Bill Gates’ infamous “think weeks” where he would shut out all external distractions, sit in a room, and think about the future of the company for days at a time. His only contact? People bringing him food and water.

2. Schedule your e-mail time and sort by necessity

If you’re like me you get hundreds of e-mails per week. Your inbox is just a field of rabbit holes and before you know it, your ambitious day gets lost in responding to hundreds of e-mails spanning 10, 15, or 20 different projects. Eating away at precious and legacy-building creating time.

The key is not to stop responding to e-mail, but to take control over it.

First, schedule one half-hour per day for e-mail, that’s it. Preferably in the morning so you can stop thinking about e-mail and get to the good stuff with a clear head. Set a timer for 25 minutes. I use the Pomodoro technique, a productivity timer that alerts you when it’s time to end a task.

During your first e-mail session, try creating two folders: a necessary-to-respond folder and an unnecessary-to-respond folder. As e-mails come in, automatically sort them into the appropriate folder. Spend your half-hour of e-mail time knocking out the necessary e-mails. And only when they’re gone, check the unnecessary folder.

Then, spend the time you save creating something new.

3. Reward creative time

Often, we get excited when we finish a to-do list or empty our inbox and we allow ourselves to go out for lunch or silently celebrate in our minds. The problem? We’re inadvertently reinforcing a bad habit. We reward ourselves for not creating.

Research has found that bad habits live on precisely because we link their behaviors to some kind of positive reward. The key then, is to start rewarding ourselves differently.

When you’ve spent an hour creating, take time to breath, and give yourself a little reward that is meaningful for you.

Repeat this every day, and you’ll develop a creating habit – which ultimately may lead to increased productivity and more importantly, happiness.

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