Resisting the Time Suck

I usually have an idea of what I want to accomplish once I get home from work. It goes something like this:

  • Practice yoga.
  • Get some writing done.
  • Make a fabulous, healthy dinner.
  • Work on my business.
  • Read something thought-provoking.

But I never seemed to accomplish all I set out to do. Sometimes I'd accomplish none of it. Other activities would get in the way, and my evening would go something like this:

  • Check e-mail (for the 40th time that day).
  • See some Facebook updates in my inbox.
  • Log on to Facebook to leave my oh-so-clever comment on my best friend's page. (“She is going to LOL when she reads this!”)
  • Check out some random person's page who is friends with my friend.
  • Check out random person's blog, which they haven't updated since last year.
  • Remember that I hadn't checked my blog feed since this morning.
  • And on and on.

An hour and a half would pass by, and I'd realize that I wasn't going to get as much done as I had planned. I'd start to practice yoga, but with my head full of e-mails, social media posts, and random bits of information, my practice wouldn't be as fruitful. Eastern traditions refer to this as the “monkey mind” that jumps from one thought to the next, and my monkey mind would be swinging in the trees. This led to a somewhat dissatisfying practice, which made me want to speed it up because I was unable to focus.

Then, instead of making dinner, I'd eat some yogurt and granola and flip on the TV (you know, only planning to watch while I ate dinner). Eventually I might make it back to the computer and read a couple of things pertinent to my freelance work, but then I'd be derailed by checking out that-site-about-that-thing. After awhile I'd realize it was late and decide to hit the hay.

No satisfaction
I wasn't satisfied with this routine. I wanted a good yoga practice. I wanted to get ahead on my writing work and to spend an hour or so cooking something wonderful. I wanted to feel like I was making headway on my freelance business and to sink my teeth into a good book every night. Out of five things I wanted to do, I'd actually do only one or so, and I wouldn't even do that one thing very well.

I figured that the problem was starting the evening with activities that were real time sucks, like e-mail, Facebook, and blog feeds. After that, it was even more likely that I'd watch a little TV or surf the net for “just a few more minutes.”

I decided to test my theory. The next day I came home and resisted the urge to “quickly check” anything online. Instead, I rolled out my yoga mat and had a satisfying practice. Afterward, all I wanted to do was to make a big salad, and that's exactly what I did, sans TV shows. Later I sketched out an outline for an article and brainstormed some new leads, and eventually made my way to bed. I only got through three pages of a book before falling asleep, but all in all, I had my perfect evening, accomplishing what I wanted. It felt good.

Identifying time sucks
I have a lot of irons in the fire right now, especially compared to just one year ago. Juggling these things isn't easy, and I'm sure most of you can relate. If you have kids, you're probably 20 times busier than me. We can wish for more hours in a day, but we're only going to get 24, so it's up to us to decide how we want to spend them.

Everyone has a different way of wasting away the hours, but I'll identify some common ones. In the online world, there are countless time-sucking activities, such as:

  • Checking e-mail excessively
  • Seeing what's new on Twitter
  • Reading Facebook updates
  • Reading blogs that don't deliver much value
  • Browsing retail sites
  • Playing games
  • Watching funny YouTube videos
  • Clicking on random articles on StumbleUpon
  • Tagging and grouping your Flickr photos
  • Googling your ex

Time sucks aren't only found on the internet, though. Offline, activities that can suck your time include:

  • Unimportant chores
  • Watching TV shows you don't even like that much
  • Reading junk mail
  • Video games
  • Opening the refrigerator door and staring at the contents
  • Thinking about unimportant things, replaying conversations in your head, stressing out about future possibilities that may or may not ever happen
  • Organizing your iTunes files
  • Unproductive or negative conversations

It's also worth mentioning that another time suck is struggling with disorganization. If I want to go for a run, but I have to spend 30 minutes looking for my other tennis shoe, that's a frustrating waste of time that might derail the run all together. Also, I want to point out that many activities on these lists are not inherently bad, unless you're doing them at the expense of something else that would be more satisfying to you.

Battling the time suck
If any of those time sucks sound familiar (and they do to me), there are ways to circumvent time suckage.

  1. First, try not to get sucked in the first place. If your tasks don't involve the internet, don't go online. If they don't involve the computer at all, don't open your laptop.
  2. If you do need to go online or use a computer, don't go to unnecessary sites. I am much more productive when working online if I close my Gmail tab.
  3. If there isn't a show on that you really like, turn off the TV.
  4. Commit to doing one thing on your list for just 10 minutes. You know how this works. After 10 minutes, you usually want to do more.
  5. When you feel yourself being sucked in by mindless activities, ask yourself if you spent the last hour as you intended. What did you want to do with your time, and if you didn't do it, what can you do now?

Number five is powerful because it focuses on the positive, letting enjoyment and good feelings affect your activities instead of making the evening one big to-do list. I know I'll feel better after my yoga practice, and that gets me on my mat. Afterward, I'm encouraged by that success to spend the rest of the evening mindfully.

Avoiding time sucks is not something you accomplish once and for all. There will be days when you come home and waste three hours watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-runs. (No? Just me?) It's a daily choice, but a worthy goal. When you are mindful with your time, you can accomplish more of what's important to you.

Readers, what time sucking activities have I left out? What do you do to avoid them?

J.D.'s note: This really reminds me of the book I'm reading right now (The Other 8 Hours by Robert Pagliarini). It's all about avoiding time sucks. Any interest in a review? It also reminds me of Trent's post yesterday about meeting goals.

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Graham
Graham
10 years ago

Keeping To-Do lists really helps me use my time more productively. It’s very satisfying – and motivating – to be able to strike off an item from your list once you’ve done it. I use Google tasks a lot. As I think of something I need to do, I add it to the list. I review the list each morning and prioritize the list, moving things I want to achieve that day to the top.

SD
SD
10 years ago

Good article.
One other time sucking activity is commenting on blog posts.
It is important to stop all those facebook notifications coming to your mailbox. The only notifications that I let enter in my mailbox are real messages. All those birthday reminders, friendship requests, comments etc. are total waste of time.

becky
becky
10 years ago

Ha! What great timing for this post! I literally just finished watching THREE episodes of America’s Next Top Model online. Of course I only planned on watching one (while eating dinner no less) and of course I planned on getting some writing done, but now my eyes are worn out and I’m kinda headachy. (That’s what i get for staring at the screen so long.) I will admit, as a teacher living in China my job is hard and tiring sometimes. Plus, being in a different culture sometimes all I want to do is relax with familiar things. (Ironically, I… Read more »

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
10 years ago

The image in your post says it all: TV is the biggest bad guy in this whole process. Once you start there always seems to be something on and you just don’t want to peel yourself off the couch.

Maybe instituting a “1 hour” rule of watching tv would help. With DVR you can probably squeeze an “hour long” show and a half hour show in one night.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

My mom has a great device for dealing with time sucks: a kitchen timer. For example, if she wants to play games on the computer for half an hour, she sets the timer and plays. When the bell goes off, it’s off to the next task.

Or she can choose to set it for another ten minutes 🙂 Either way, she can have fun but still be mindful of the time.

I’m going to buy a timer this weekend.

Deb
Deb
10 years ago

Good heavens, I think someone has been spying on me! Perfect timing on this, as I was just thinking last night of how much time I have lost to the internet and television lately – what an utter waste.

I agree, resist the urge to get trapped by all of the `electronic eyes’ and mindless entertainment. Change your routine and watch your productivity and accomplishments surge (and possibly your waistline shrink as you’ll be more active).

Spot on!

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

Great post! I have a TiVo and if I’m trying to be productive I vow to only watch shows ive taped. Its the live TV that sucks me in.

Kat
Kat
10 years ago

Great post! That is exactly what happens to me after work. Only instead of yogurt and granola, my quick dinner choice is decidedly much more unhealthy!!!

Just yesterday I was thinking (after another mostly wasted evening, right before I went to sleep) that I need to break this pattern. This article really hit the nail on the head for me!

Cara
Cara
10 years ago

I loved this post! Internet is the big time suck for me even though I don’t even participate in social media. I decided to remove the Safari icon from my dock, so now if I want to web surf I have to go through multiple steps to get to it. That is enough of a barrier for me not to bother getting online. I also use the kitchen timer method Beth mentioned at comment 4 and love it. I cut cable a long time ago, and now the only time I watch TV is when I’m at the health club… Read more »

Tiffany
Tiffany
10 years ago

We cut out cable. We have rabbit ears…that REALLY limits how much tv you watch in a day! Now I’ll put on the radio and do stuff around the house…sew, read a book, go for a run, play with my dogs…I don’t miss cable at all. My biggest time suck now is blogs…I’m going to start making a list of two people to call and catch up with each night…I should be talking to my friends and family…not reading about strangers…I really think this will limit my time and interest in other people’s lives….I’ll sit down for a “quick minute”… Read more »

Steve R
Steve R
10 years ago

It sounds like an addiction! First it’s the TV, then the cell phone, then the computer. Some people in today’s world have replaced their devices with social contact. Do you actually visit/call a friend every hour (or more)? Would you consciously ignore your own family just to see if someone, anyone has left you an email within the last 30 minutes? You can honestly turn off the TV, computer, cell phone, etc and the world won’t end, although, you may find it difficult to believe so. When you choose to turn off your family in favour of the instant stimulation… Read more »

trb
trb
10 years ago

We struggled with this, too, and realized we wanted more out of our evenings. So we chucked the TV, and then a few months ago cancelled our internet service at home and disabled our wireless capabilities. Work is to be done at work. We can do the banking and Zipcar essentials with blackberries. Non-critical things can wait til a lunch break at work, or just be forgotten.

Now the evenings are very different – cooking, reading, games, maybe music. But no mindless distractions are possible, because we got rid of the sources.

Bo Williams
Bo Williams
10 years ago

It’s also important to identify which “time sucks” you really enjoy, and make time for them! Don’t fall into the trap of guilt- if you like watching TV, by all means, watch TV. You might just need to re-arrange your day so that you do some things you need to do before you start watching.

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

I’ve been thinking a lot about this same topic lately (again), mainly after reading Linchpin by Seth Godin. In there he calls it the Lizard Brain – the part that tells us to fear things like wild animals, to eat, to sleep, breathe, etc. all those unconscious activities. I think this is also where habits are stored after you form them. I want to eat healthier but have a habit of visiting various coffee shops on my way in to work. The Lizard (or Monkey) brain tells me to get up in the morning, get ready for work and run… Read more »

zoranian
zoranian
10 years ago

It is definitely part addiction, part time waster. My biggest problem is that when I’m at work I have slow days and busy days. On my slow days I have nothing to do at all except check financial blogs and articles (which is at least marginally related to my job), check my e-mail and make a few follow up phone calls at work (maybe 1-2 hours a day). This makes it even easier to waste time at home, since I’ve been wasting it all day at work! I have found the timer works for some addictions (such as the Sims… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Yes I agree the TV is a time sucker. As a stay at home person I do not turn it on at all until 5PM news. Then, if you have the capabilities, I pause it. You can zip thru the irrelevant stuff and be updated in less time. I enjoy playing quality podcasts outloud while I do chores. You learn and accomplish at the same time. I believe the trick is to keep moving.

sheridan
sheridan
10 years ago

excellent post. this is something that i struggle w constantly – looking forward to trying some of these tips!

Anne
Anne
10 years ago

Excellent post. I related to it all!

Thanks,

RJ
RJ
10 years ago

I recently gave away my TV on Freecycle, with the intention of giving up TV for Lent and buying a new TV after Easter. Well, it’s going so well — I’m sleeping and reading more — that I think this is a permanent change. Having no TV is liberating, and frees my time for a variety of other things.

Steve C
Steve C
10 years ago

April,

You’ve touched on the recurring thoughts I have as I read posts on GRS: time is more valuable than money! If a trip across town to save $10 on a purchase takes you 30 additional minutes, is it really worth it?

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

GRS…

Tori
Tori
10 years ago

Wow, I thought I was reading about myself there for a second. This isn’t just a problem for me, it’s a chronic problem. I’m always wondering why I don’t have time for important things like writing, sewing, fitness, cooking…yet, somehow I manage to harvest my crops on FarmVille every day (Shakes head in shame), and I’m really guilty of the that-site-about-that-thing syndrome. These time-sucks prevent us from meeting our full potential and living our best lives. And you’re right, it all starts with those three little word “Just. Quickly. Check.”
Thanks for the tips 🙂

Raghu Bilhana
Raghu Bilhana
10 years ago

Leo from zenhabits has a very good advice on this same issue. He says that in a day, just have three important things to do, don’t start by having more since having more could leave you accomplishing nothing at all. Then he asks to “FOCUS”. Focus only on those three things. Focus on those three things by removing all the other distractions. I have followed his suggestions and am very glad and proud to say that I have reduced my distractions by a lot and accomplished the below things in my life. I am happy to say that I have… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

Yes! Hulu has the entire Season 2 of Buffy online! And that was on my to-do list last week, so I’m good. @ Raghu: Yes, but Leo is a crazy person (I mean that in a nice way) and I could never be as organized or focused as he is, nor would I want to be. Do I appreciate articles about how not to waste time? Hell yes. But I get more out of them when they are from the perspective of someone as weak and doughy in the willpower area as I am. 😀 @ Nicole: Not using your… Read more »

April
April
10 years ago

@Cara and Tiffany–We don’t have cable, either. I had it for two years while in college (came with the apartment) and one day I found myself watching an E! True Hollywood Story about the 90s TV series 90210. For me, that was hitting rock bottom! My dad refused to get cable when I was a kid, though I lobbied for it endlessly. He said to read a book or play outside. I thought he was really uncool, but looking back on it, I’m thankful he was cool with being uncool. 🙂 Unfortunately, TV isn’t the only time suck for me.… Read more »

Aase
Aase
10 years ago

Kitchen timers work great for me too. I first heard about them (usually for 15 minutes at a time, whether “productive” or “reward” time), from The FlyLady. Lately I’ve been trying out Bubbletimer.com (still on free 30 day trial period – super simple web interface, no download), which seems to work great with this method. For those of us not disciplined enough to “just say no” to the timesucks, and who respond well to extrinsic rewards (apparently not true for everyone!), you can get a lot of good stuff done by alternating timed productive and reward periods throughout the day… Read more »

Bryce
Bryce
10 years ago

NutshellMail is a great way to keep on top of your social networks without sucking every minute out of your day. You decide when you want to read the updates, and they are sent right to your email inbox. I love it.

http://nutshellmail.com/

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I have found time sucks are often part of avoidance of doing chores I don’t really want to do. Therefore I make a deal with myself. When I get XX accomplishment done I can do YY. Or if it’s a larger chore if I do XX for 10/20/30 minutes I can do YY. That really helps when its something like ‘clean the kitchen’ that looks like it will take me hours. And often by the time I’m in the middle of XX I keep going and forget about YY. I was a TV junky until college. Then I realized I… Read more »

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

Last year I got rid of my TV (I didn’t want to spend $ on a converter cable) and my iphone (switched to a service that was 70% cheaper) and my time sucks were reduced. BUT I found they crept back in as different things, like spending more time on the internet. Inertia is a difficult battle for me- if I sit down after coming home from work I typically stay down (along with my energy). If I work out after coming home from work my energy goes up for a few hours and than I have a restful nights… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

My time suck lately has been looking at my new blog site and rearranging things for no real reason. Nobody else would probably even notice the difference!

Luckily, that time black hole is just causing me to miss my normal tv time…so no real loss. 🙂

I’ve spent the last week making sure to do everything on my list before even going near my laptop or tv…my husband says it’s helping him stay on track too.

javier | growingrich.net
javier | growingrich.net
10 years ago

Hi April, Thanks for your helpful post. I have to admit I’m a bit trapped in time suckers (facebook, checking e-mails 1000 times a day,…) I think right now it’s one of the biggest challenges of our society. Nowadays everything is a couple clicks far away from us. To find information is not the problem, to filter the information is the key. And so with our free time, there are so many things we could do with our free time that sometimes we get lost in a big range of possibilities. Determining what you want to do and ignore the… Read more »

ctreit
ctreit
10 years ago

I think most of us could have written this post. Well done! It reminds me of Gary Vaynerchuk’s battle cry, “Stop watching Lost”, Seth Godin’s, “Ship it”, and Nike’s “Just do it.” It all sounds so easy, but the multitude of distractions we have to battle make it so much more difficult not to watch Lost, not to ship it, and not to just do it.

Btw, there are a bunch of websites out there that help you keep focused. I recently added the app “StayFocused” on Chrome. Let’s hope that this one will help me to really “stay focused”.

Bananen
Bananen
10 years ago

The question is, do you really want to be constructive all the time?
You lay out a long plan for your time off and feel bad about not doing it. Why not just do what you feel like? It’s your time and you clearly prefer to read e-mails and surf Facebook and there is nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps you could decide on only one or two of your most desired tasks and then drop the rest. That way you will be able to accomplish your goals without getting stressed from all the things you won’t do anyway.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

One trick I have found is to make specific, and simple, plans around lunchtime. At that point I still have energy so I can mentally plan my evening, eg. “Make spaghetti, clean up, pay bills, then whatever I feel like”. If I arrive home without knowing what the plan is I have a tendency to just sit down and space until it’s too late to start cooking, which gets me mad at myself as we eat takeout or grilled cheese. And I’m too tired to focus on what I could do that’s productive, so I just curl up with a… Read more »

Wayne K
Wayne K
10 years ago

Of course we all fall victim to time sucks. Its natural. However, a few suggestions: 1. Like April, I excercise in the evening after work. I make sure my cloting/gear is handy and I NEVER go near the PC or the day’s mail until afterwards. As she points out, I tend to eat a better meal after excercise than if I skip the jog for a time suck activity. 2. DVR. I see many have mentioned this cool device. I do not watch any live TV (other than the occassional sporting event). I tape what I want to watch. When… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

This article under-emphasizes TV’s role here hugely. This is how the list of time sucks should look for most people I know: 1) TV (in giant bold, 500pt type that fills the whole screen.) . . . 2) Internet. Way down here on purposes, because it’s that much lower than TV. 3) Anything else. Many people I know come home from work, turn on the TV, sit down in from of it with something from the fridge, and don’t move until bed. They literally do nothing after work at all but watch TV. If they do anything else, like talk… Read more »

Meredith Jones
Meredith Jones
10 years ago

I’d be interested in a review of “The Other 8 Hours.”

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Yes a struggle. Often times I don’t get home until 7ish and I’m normally in bed by 9 and I want to relax so I flop in front of the t.v. or internet and veg out. I have things to do when I get home, exercise, 30 minutes of house work, eat dinner, interact with my husband and dog and if I did all that I’d have no time to relax. After a 12 hour day at the office I do just want to veg out. I’m a fan of the 1 minute rule, if something takes less than 1… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I really held out and only joined FB recently to keep in touch with friends and family (I moved away after college). Key for me is I’m only friends with actualy real life friends and family (less than 30 people), didn’t join any groups and I’m not a fan of any thing or any body. I find FB a useful tool with these parameters and since I have so few people to keep up with, not a big time suck. I recognize if you are already FB friends with 500 people you probably can’t defriend 90% of them, but if… Read more »

Katya
Katya
10 years ago

I relate to this post a lot. Specifically for me, the internet is my biggest ‘time-suck’ and in particular, facebook, checking email and looking at various blogs and websites. It’s been affecting the time that I get out of the house in the morning (I run my own business so have my own schedule, not always a good thing!) and it keeps me up at night even when I’m really tired. Recently, my husband sat me down and gave me a talking to as he felt that I preferred to spend time with the computer rather than with him. I’m… Read more »

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

I find that if I really want to get something done after work (laundry comes to mind), it helps to do it as soon as I get home. Otherwise, I get way too comfortable and don’t want to do it. I work 9-5 and do freelance work, and also go to boxing class twice a week after work, so that eats up most of the evenings. So I really do value the evenings where I can simply relax. I don’t like to mindlessly watch TV, however, but if I pick what I want to watch (like a hockey game or… Read more »

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

Excellent post, April! I am working on an e-book right now that helps couples improve their marriage by committing only 15 minutes per day to some really practical exercises together. What is amazing is how difficult it can seem to find 15 MINUTES for our spouse (myself included)! My biggest time suck has to be online activities. Aside from the useful time spent writing posts and spreading the word about my blog, I spend A LOT of time doing meaningless busywork like reading unrelated blogs, Twitter, Facebook, design tweaks on my site, etc. But I’m working on it! I would… Read more »

Sonia
Sonia
10 years ago

I got 3 young kids (2 to 6) and work full time. When kids are (finally) in bed, I pass 2 hours completing the standard chores (dishes, lunch, 1-2 loads of laundry, shower, maybe some cooking for the next day) so I could keep up, have a good morning start the next day and enjoyables weekends with the family without 10 loads of laundry. My trick is that I do it all with music and I usually keep the laundry folding for the end of the evening so if I get trapped on news or a TV show, I still… Read more »

shann
shann
10 years ago

this is a great post! i actually just went through my google reader (RSS feed) last night and purged all of my major “time suck” blogs – blogs that i found myself reading less and less and those that i was allowing myself to get a substantial number of posts behind on. most of these blogs were celebrity gossip blogs – a guilty pleasure that had started to take up more and more of my internet viewing time. my reader is now a lot cleaner and full of blogs that are informative and that i enjoy reading (including GRS!).

Stefanie
Stefanie
10 years ago

3 hours of BTVS does not sound like a waste to me.

Justin
Justin
10 years ago

Unfortunately, reading blogs is a huge time suck for me. Blogs are relevant to things in my life such as money management and lifestyle, etc., but often unrelated to my “to-do” list for the day.

Abigail
Abigail
10 years ago

Day-dreaming can be a huge time suck!

Samantha
Samantha
10 years ago

I DVR all the shows I want to watch and watch TV from that list. Otherwise literally can spend all my time watch shows I didn’t really care for in the first place.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

I think there is a huge cultural narrative/meme that says “everybody is on twitter/facebook/using their iphone apps all the time.” Seriously, I got a twitter account because I was worried that I was becoming an old luddite. The whole idea that one has to be connected at all times (and if you watch any tv you’ve been exposed — every cell phone ad is based on this idea) really contributes to the time sucky-ness of the internet, and I’d argue that the internet is rapidly overtaking the television as the major time suck in most people’s lives, especially since it… Read more »

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

I agree. There are many time sucks in our lives. Staying focused involves constant reminders of what we are trying to accomplish. It’s all too easy to lose an hour or even a whole day on a bunch of distractions.

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