The 3 Ways That Co-Workers Waste Everyone Else’s Time

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Aug 12, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Much talking is the cause of danger. Silence is the means of avoiding misfortune. The talkative parrot is shut up in a cage. Other birds, without speech, fly freely about.“ — Sakya Pandita, 13th century Tibetan spiritual leader

The gift of language is something like being your own boss, in that the good news and bad news are basically the same.

In this case, the good news is that we humans have the capacity to communicate more effectively than any other species on Earth, and we can use it for great good.

The bad news? We have the capacity to communicate more effectively than any other species on Earth — and we waste it on stupid things.

During a recent survey, I asked my readers about the things their co-workers do to waste their time. My goal was to raise awareness about unproductive behavior — to provide cautionary tales, thereby helping you realize the need to nip these tendencies in the bud when they occur.

Minor time wasters can build up into a major time-loss surprisingly quickly. For instance, it’s all too easy for your co-workers to waste 30 plus minutes a day of your time; this adds up to over 2.5 hours per week. It may not seem like much, but it’s enough for me to produce two articles the length of this one.

How much can you get done if you shut down your co-workers’ time wasting behavior?

The human inclination to waste our gift of gab contributes to more than 95 percent of the timewasters the respondents complained about:

1. Interruptions

A beleaguered 38.5 percent of my respondents cite unscheduled interruptions as their co-workers’ worst time wasting tendency.

At least you can plan for appointments, but drop-ins invariably throw off your schedule. Most drop-ins involve conversation about things other than work — i.e., things best left for coffee breaks or the lunchroom. Who cares who won last night’s game when you have a report due in an hour?

Tell a drop-in exactly how much time you can spare when they arrive. If they can’t get the point (or get to the point), politely tell the person you need to get back to work now.

2. Poor communication

If you can’t communicate clearly or in a worthwhile fashion, why bother trying? As Abraham Lincoln once noted, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Another 38.5 percent of my respondents complained about poor communication practices, with a minority of that percentage irritated by garbled communications — verbal and written — they had to waste their time deciphering. The rest, about 60 percent, reported on mismanaged meetings where their co-workers played with smartphones or tablets instead of paying attention, or used the forum to complain rather than address problems. Other time wasting co-workers discussed irrelevant matters, including personal issues.

It isn’t hard to write a simple, straightforward email and then invite the recipient to ask questions as necessary. Nor is it difficult to set a meeting’s agenda and stick to it like glue. All it takes is people getting up and leaving the room at the meeting’s scheduled ending time to get the point across.

Lack of preparation and inflexibility

The last two categories each comprise 11.5 percent of the total responses.

Lack of preparation includes issues like arriving late at meetings and providing incomplete information, resources, or instructions to those who need them. Inflexibility may consist of using and defending outdated processes that slow the workflow process, or, as one person put it, “not taking ownership of a problem or defaulting to ‘not my job.’”

The upshot of it all

Three words and their combinations account for all of these time wasters: laziness, thoughtlessness, and rudeness (click to tweet). While I understand the reality of disengagement and why it occurs, in the end, only results matter. Sometimes I think we should all have that tattooed on our foreheads so we don’t forget it.

You and your teammates can take these problems in hand and cure them with a little motivational reinforcement. Until you do, they’ll jam up productivity and cause your team — and company — to bleed red ink.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.