Think about an average day at work. How many times do you check your e-mail? Facebook? Voicemail?

office work

Now think about how often you review the latest news, information and sports headlines? What about YouTube videos?

Fantasy Football?

Okay, now think about conversations with co-workers, not the ones you have over lunch or at a planning meeting, but the chit-chat kind of conversations you might have during office hours about what’s happening on Walking Dead or what you’re doing this weekend.

Wasting your time at work

What did you come up with in terms of time? According to time management experts, you are probably grossly underestimating how much time you are wasting.

Most of us think we are good multitaskers, but the reality is that our brains are not designed to do more than one cognitive task at the same time. In fact, one seemingly quick intrusion – checking that one-email, answering that one text, or having that one brief conversation – occurs every seven minutes in the workplace. And as if that isn’t bad enough, here’s the kicker, a study by Energized Solutions, a Dearborn, Michigan consulting firm, estimates that these interruptions last an average of five minutes each, including the time it takes to focus back on what we were doing before the interruption.

Another study by Basex, a research firm in New York, found that the workers were only able to devote an average of 11 minutes to a project before becoming distracted, and then it took them an average of 25 minutes to return to the task. A similar study found that office workers routinely wasted up 2.1 hours a day on distractions.

Do the math and you can see that we are in an information overload, and it is killing our productivity. Whether it’s your own time you are wasting or your boss’s, there are some steps you can take to get more out of your day. And, no, they don’t involve going off the grid or anything drastic. Here are five ways to avoid wasting time at work:

1. Stop over-checking your messages

Open internet windows such as your e-mail account are tempting to ignore, but over-checking your e-mail can take a huge chunk out of your day. Here are some ideas to curb that wasted time:

  • Set three times to check your e-mail per workday and stick to them. Depending on you job, a suggested schedule could be: first thing in the morning, before lunch and before you knock off for the day.
  • Tighten your spam filter so your inbox isn’t flooded with unwanted messages to wade through.
  • Delete yourself from unwanted lists and ads.
  • Have a separate work and personal account and don’t mix the two if you can help it.

2. Limit your distractions

You should know your triggers by now. Here are a few tips:

  • If you know that you will get into a huge conversation in the lounge when you get that cup of coffee, purchase a coffeemaker for your office and head down there for a refill only when you are done with a project.
  • Some of us can’t concentrate with music on; some can’t concentrate without it. Know who you are and plan accordingly. If you are one of the former and there is music constantly playing where you work, invest in a white noise machine or wear noise-blocking headphones.
  • A 2012 study by salary.com found that 47 percent of respondents thought meetings at the office were their biggest time wasters. If you are in the position to do so, avoid attending meetings that do not have a pre-set agenda. If you are a meeting leader, set an agenda and keep to it. Try to keep every meeting – no matter what level of staff is involved — at an hour or less.
  • Silence your cell phone and have an assistant take office messages for you when you are working on an important project. You can always return calls when you are done. One phone call can throw you completely off track if you let it.

3. Make a plan for each day

We waste time not only with what we do (i.e. distractions) but with what we don’t do (projects that we put off). We waste way too much time each day on things that aren’t that important in a back-handed effort to “save time” for what’s really important, but it often backfires. Small, unimportant projects eat away our valuable time, leaving us too tired to tackle the meaty stuff.

Some of us are more into lists than others, but even if you eschew calendars that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish each day. Successful people always have short-term and long-term goals. Think about what is your most productive time of day. First thing in the morning? After most of the staff have left and it is quiet? Plan to use that time to get the most done.

4. Use the 80/20 Rule

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto created a mathematical formula in 1906 to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country. He observed that 20 percent of the people owned 80 percent of the wealth. Time management experts also use the Pareto Principle.

Of all the things you do during your day, experts say, only 20 percent really matter. Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results, so you need to identify and focus on those things.  If you work eight hours a day, that means 20 percent of your work day is about 96 minutes.

Ninety-six minutes. No distractions. No wasted time. Try it. Just think, you’ll have 80 percent of your day to tackle all that other stuff.

Sources: Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity. (2009). Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio. Found online at npr.org