should I try to change my work habits and waste less time during the day?

A reader writes:

By all accounts, I’m reasonably successful. At 29, I’m on the director level at a small nonprofit and have been in nonprofit leadership roles for several years now. I get great reviews, exceeded my performance measures for this year, and got a promotion and a title change within my first year at this job. My question, though, is that some of my work habits are generally considered to be bad ones, and I’m not sure whether it’s a problem or not.

From reading your blog, I know that you disapprove of distractions like Facebook or gchat at work. For as long as I can remember, including in school, I’ve worked with multiple tabs open, gchatting with friends, checking my feedly, Facebook, etc. while working. Sometimes I do waste a fair amount of time, and on occasional bad days I don’t get much done at all. I’ve never missed a deadline and am fully capable of focusing on one thing when I need to, but it’s not my default working style.

I guess my overall question is, am I normal? I read so much about productivity, etc., but I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of what other people’s productivity actually looks like, and so I spend a fair amount of time feeling guilty about my work habits despite my overall success. Part of me thinks that if I were to start being laser-focused on work, then my success would be off the charts … but the thought of doing that is really depressing. I love my work but a lot of it is grants and spreadsheets, and looking only at those all day feels like it would leave me bored and under stimulated — interspersing it with other things keeps it from getting dreary. Should I try to change, or try to relax and feel confident in my work?

Are you normal? Probably.

Are your work habits aligned with what you want professionally? Maybe, maybe not.

It depends on what you want professionally.

Do you want to be a high performer? Is your organization a high performing one? Your habits might be fine for this organization, but they might not serve as you as well at a more demanding one.

But you might not want to go to a more demanding organization. You might be totally happy with this type of culture.

Or maybe you’re at a demanding organization right now, who knows. Maybe you’re able to perform at a high level in a demanding culture and still use gchat and Facebook while you work, and still have days where you waste a lot of time. I’m pretty skeptical of that though — it’s a pretty rare person who can do that in a truly rigorous environment. (One or two lazy days, sure. Many of them in a year, less likely.)

To be clear, I think nearly all of us waste some time at work. But I think the strongest performers in rigorous environments do it with a lot more moderation than what you’re describing, for the reasons I describe here.

So some of this is about knowing your environment, and what the bar is for “acceptable” versus “pretty good” versus “great” in your particular culture, and what work habits you’d need to reach each of them. And some of it is about knowing your own goals within that environment, and more broadly too.

It’s also worth noting that it frequently gets harder and harder to waste significant amounts of time the higher up you go. Or rather, it gets easier to get away with it in the short-term because you have more control over your own time and you’re not being watched in the same way — but it’s much harder to get away with it in the long-term because the number of things you’re involved in tends to be higher and the stakes much bigger. So one thing to factor in is whether you want to set up work habits that will serve you well a decade from now, which might be a different thing than the ones you’ve made room for currently.

But really, your work habits might be just fine for your particular goals in your particular organization. The trick, I think, is to assess that with a high degree of accuracy — and given that people’s self-assessments are traditionally often fairly off, I’d rather see people err on the side of fewer distractions rather than more.

Ultimately, though, it all comes down to what you want, where you want to do it, and what it will take to achieve that. You can answer that however you want; it’s just smart to make the choice deliberately.

{ 323 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Sibley

    OP, I’m at work right now. Clearly, not distraction free! For me, I’ve been in different environments, and I find that how much I’m goofing off does adjust for the culture and workload. If I’m goofing off more, it’s because I don’t have as much to get done.

    Reply
  2. Nonprofit Nancy

    Oh jeez, did I write this in my sleep? This sounds like me. Particularly the thought that if I didn’t have some distractions, work would be incredibly boring and I’d hate my life. I’m not sure I even want to be a “drone” who just completes assigned tasks all day. It’s something I’ve always struggled with and it doesn’t seem to be getting better, so I will be reading the comments with interest!

    Reply
    1. Hilorious

      Sounds like me too! I currently work at a not-very-productive workplace and have been told I’m “too efficient”. But I’m also aware that once I move to a new role or job, this could change, and I’m fine with it!

      Reply
    2. Grayson

      I had that exact same thought! My job is such that I really don’t have to do much work until about a week about from a deadline. (I teach courses for the government, and my material is pretty fixed.) Therefore a lot of my time is spent piddling about on the internet (mostly on Ask A Manager, Reddit and a few other time waster websites). When we’re slated to teach though, I’m reviewing my slides and ensuring my material is up to date. I also look at my other coworkers who are constantly engaged, and feel bad. Then I sit down for my reviews, and I hear a lot of the same things other commenters do “You’re an asset. You’re doing great. Keep at it.”

      Very frustrating.

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    3. Feathers McGraw

      I don’t buy the drone argument. If you feel that way what about relevant learning and development or self initiated projects?

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      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        Well, to me it’s the standard that we should all sit quietly working hard on my spreadsheets for 40 hours a week. I’m pretty sure that’s unrealistic, but I’m not sure I’d even *want* to do that. I’d be more productive for the company, sure, but what do I really owe those guys other than reasonable work for my wage? If they’re happy enough, why torture myself to give them more? I don’t feel that way about reading books or petting my cat, but nobody is going to pay me for that. I don’t do that much self initiated projects that don’t come back to spreadsheeting sooner or later, so maybe it’s different in different fields.

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        1. Formica Dinette

          It is different in different fields. Variety is the name of the game in my job: research, many different kinds of writing, creating strategies and policies, scheduling, occasionally staring at spreadsheets, and lots more. I spend approximately 25% of my time figuring out how to do things I’ve never done before or learning about topics that are new to me. But even when I don’t have that much variety in my work, I genuinely enjoy the kind of work I do. It’s not quite as enjoyable as reading books or petting my cats, but it’s up there.

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            1. Formica Dinette

              Me too. I work for a nonprofit, so my salary is low for the area I live in, and since I’m exempt, I don’t receive overtime pay when I work more than 40 hours a week (which is every week).

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          1. stivee

            That’s not really the norm–you’re actually quite privileged if you enjoy what you do and have autonomy and variety. I think it’s great that you love what you do, but I wouldn’t be so quick to judge others who aren’t as lucky, or who have different priorities.

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          2. LC

            I think the variety is key here. For those with more repetitive tasks, goofing off may be the only way they have to get out of their own head. For jobs with natural variety, that same mental relief might come in the form of switching tasks rather than taking a break from work entirely.

            That said, even in jobs with consistent responsibilities, there’s likely to be SOME form of variety available, whether that’s blasting through languishing emails, updating your Google cal or whatever.

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          3. Anonymoose

            I’m lucky enough to be just like you. Once my to do list starts getting low, I have the freedom to pursue just about anything related to personal or professional development, and often have Coursera or textbooks open for fun. It’s what I love most about working in higher ed! :)

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        2. Freya UK

          “I’d be more productive for the company, sure, but what do I really owe those guys other than reasonable work for my wage? If they’re happy enough, why torture myself to give them more? I don’t feel that way about reading books or petting my cat, but nobody is going to pay me for that.”

          Preach it!

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    4. MWKate

      This is what I thought too, someone ghost wrote this for me.

      I’m considered a high performer in my area, was promoted very soon after I was hired and have received only positive feedback since I’ve been in this position. However, I spend a lot of time on distractions during the work day. I get everything done and my boss is always impressed and complimentary of how quickly I get things back to her – but I also think about how much more I could achieve if I concentrated more on my work.

      It’s hard to be motivated to do that though when really there is no one outside of yourself at work saying you need to. If you can get stellar reviews and get promoted up without putting in all of your effort – it’s hard to convince yourself you’re doing it wrong.

      So no advice, but you are definitely not the only one that is in this situation.

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      1. DG

        Same here. I often feel like I can give 75-80% and get praised and recognized for it. How much would I be able to achieve if I gave 100%?

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        1. 80

          I might be able to achieve more if I concentrated 100%, but then I’m setting up the expectation that I’m going to always operate at 100% and there are times when that’s just not going to be the case. I may have family issues to deal with, or I’m sick, or I want to take a vacation. I find that if I operate at 80% and make it look like that’s my 100%, I have a lot more leeway when I need it. Is this a recipe for advancement? Maybe not, but then again, I have no desire to ever be the highest-ranking person in an organization.

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          1. D.A.R.N.

            This is my perspective on this. Save the 100% days for when they’re needed so you don’t burn out.

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            1. Uzumaki Naruto

              Yeah, it’s really hard to run at 100% every day for 8 hours a day (or 9 or 10 or more, depending on your employer and field). I stop and check Gmail and Facebook and AAM sometimes during the day unless I’m really so busy that I don’t have time. I just don’t see how I could perform like that all the time, every day, without burning out — and yet I’m still high achieving/successful in my field (law).

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              1. Anonymoose

                I did 100% (leadership role in financial retail industry = high stakes) for 5 years and ruined my health permanently. Do not do this.

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                1. Fortitude Jones

                  I did it for only two and almost worked myself to death – seriously, I ended up in the hospital. I’ll never do that again. A job will only ever get 80% out of me, 85 if I’m being generous.

              2. PlainJane

                Same here. I love the times when I have to work 100% and feel challenged, but I couldn’t sustain it constantly. As it is, my productivity varies with the demands, I enjoy what I do, I’m reasonably healthy with lots of interests outside of work, and I’m considered a high performer. That works for me.

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              3. (Another) B

                Agreed. I feel that everyone needs breaks throughout the day. I check a few forums and chat with my husband or friends on occasion – but on days when I’m really busy I don’t at all. And I’m a high performer. Then again though, the way my brain works requires me to toggle tasks all day long. I’m a multitasker to the 10th power. So just do what works for you.

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          2. C Average

            I think this is an interesting aspect of the question to ponder. Do you set your standard at what you can consistently deliver, or do you set your standard at what you can deliver today? For me that is a crucial question. My best is widely variable, despite my best efforts at consistency. I wish this weren’t true, but it is.

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          3. AnonAcademic

            Yes, this is a brilliant summary of the optimization strategy I use! If I show people my A+ game all the time, they will think it’s my A game and that becomes the new standard. If I let people think my B+ game is my A game, and save the A/A+ mode for when it’s really needed, I manage expectations realistically and get a lot more flexibility.

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            1. Red Reader

              Bingo. At B+, I turned in productivity numbers for 2015 ranging from 200% to 250% of goal for each month’s average. In December 2015, we were on 20 hours of overtime a week, and I turned up to A and dropped 475% of goal. But not only do I not want to do that every month, my boss doesn’t want me doing that every month. Not only because of burnout concerns, but also — the goal is reasonable for both management expectations and targets, and most of the rest of the team’s capabilities. I was legitimately an outlier (I was promoted off this team in January 2016) – the rest of the team is perfectly fine at what they do, I’m just better at it, and nobody wanted the powers that be to retool the productivity expectations based on the fact that when push comes to shove, I can push almost five times more work than my coworkers can.

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          4. LizB

            This is where I’m at too. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and if I try to perform at the highest possible standard all the time, I get stressed out whenever I can’t meet those standards even when there are outside factors. I’ve had to re-calibrate my standards so my goal is to do excellent work, not the best work ever in every possible way. Not that I let mistakes or low-quality products through, but not every Teapot Memo has to be The Best Teapot Memo Anyone Has Ever Written. I was just promoted based on the work I’m doing, so clearly it’s not terrible, and I also have no desire to be the highest-ranking person in an organization, so it works for me.

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            1. Liz2

              Hey you’re the first person other than myself I’ve seen use the term “recovering perfectionist!”

              I’ve just always been super mega efficient and downtime is just part of my cycle. If I wanted to work my way up, I might have to make adjustments. But I love what I do and am awesome at it.

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        2. Rebecca in Dallas

          This! I don’t think I’m a particularly smart person, but I just figure out how to do things efficiently. And if somebody thinks it took me 2 hours to do a project and it took half that time… oh, well. :)

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      2. AC6

        My stars. Are you all me? I’ve been needing this thread. I’m new to proper office work after graduate school and hoo boy, do I spend a lot of time during the day doing nothing at all but still getting great feedback from my training manager and other relevant higher-ups. I feel really guilty about my “work habits” and “productivity,” but… this is an entry-level job and there just isn’t that much there for me to care deeply about.

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      3. Me too

        This is so also me. The key things I think of are 1. is my boss pleased with both my quantity and quality of work, 2. do I seek feedback about that on the regular, and 3. am I open and actively taking on more tasks. If all of the above are true, then COOL, here I also am on Askamanager. It’s a great brain break.

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        1. Newbie

          I’m so glad to read this post/the comment section. OP, you are definitely not alone in how you are feeling.

          I am currently in my second office job after graduation and as you mentioned in your letter, I am by all accounts reasonably successful. I’m 25 and in a role of leadership and accountability. I enjoy my work and receive frequent and positive feedback, but oh my goodness, I am SHOCKED by how much downtime I have. If I didn’t take the time to goof off online then I would be staring at my inbox for hours at a time waiting for a new email to come in.

          I feel bad that I’m not giving my 100% every day, but I absolutely agree with the comment above me. As long as my supervisor is pleased with my work, I’m seeking regular feedback, and I’m making it clear that I’m open to new tasks then I figure that I’m doing all that I can do. I should also add that I always put my work tasks before goofing off. If something major is going on that day I’ll put all my effort in but those days are very few and far between.

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  3. Pup Seal

    If these habits are worrying you this much, maybe consider closing out Facebook, gchat, etc for a certain amount of time in your work day. Maybe just having those websites nowhere on your screen will help diminish some of your guilt.

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    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      That’s a good point, what about trying it for a month or something, to see how it feels. I sometimes set personal challenges for myself during lent, for example, even though I’m not religious. It might be worth a try, right?

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      1. Pup Seal

        Yesterday I was talking to a student worker who is studying sociology and psychology. She said if you keep doing a challenge, task, etc repeatedly and get it in your routine then it will become a habit in 3 weeks.

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        1. Temperance

          She’s technically incorrect – the time period is different for everyone. There are some people who can do something for a week and it’s a habit, and others who will take weeks or months even to develop a habit.

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        2. DataQueen

          Yeah, maybe the 3 weeks isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s so well known that I swear it works. I count down those 21 days and on day 22 whatever I’m doing is fixed. It’s all in your head, if you believe it!

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          1. Teclatrans

            Apparently the average time is a lot longer for folks with ADHD. But for the general population, they have demonstrated that 21 days is an oversimplification.

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            1. The Other Liz

              Yes, routines/habits are harder to establish when you have ADHD. Just missing a couple days of a new daily task can make it feel like starting from scratch. It’s also important not to add too many new habits at once. Get one new good thing established as routine, then when you dont’ have to think about it anymore – for me, this is whenever I realize I’m doing it, not dreading it, and not patting myself on the back for doing it – it is safe to consider adding something new. For me, this has turned out to be a month – making Lent absolutely perfect. I set the goal of keeping at it for 40 days, which saves me from giving up (or at least, I can pray for forgiveness when I mess up but still see the larger progress). One year I went vegetarian for Lent, and 7 years later I still am. It became natural and easy (except on trips to Europe).

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    2. Morning Glory

      Or adding in a plugin like Stayfocusd to let the OP use ‘distraction sites’ a set amount of minutes every day for micro-breaks or during lunch, but not let her waste too much time. I have a 15 minute limit for social media and personal email, with the option to block everything on busy days.

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      1. Kitkat

        I love Stayfocusd! It’s comforting to me that while I still waste a bit of time, it’s not more than 10 minutes, whereas before, even though I probably was only wasting 20-30 minutes, it felt like a lot because it was 10-15 2-minute breaks throughout the day that constantly broke my focus. It’s hard to break the habit, but seeing the angry red eye has been helpful in not mindlessly navigating to Facebook when I’m bored :)

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      2. irritable vowel

        I use one called Leech Blocker. I have it set to allow me 5 minutes of access to sites like FB and my RSS feed reader except at lunchtime. It definitely helps!

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      3. Gadafly

        Also a stayfocused user. I love the amount of control. Productivity Owl was cute, but served people who only get a short time anywhere

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        1. The Other Liz

          I love StayFocusd. I started out giving myself an hour a day on Facebook, Twitter, Mint, and some other time waster sites. I have found it doubly useful because I tweet for work, but sometimes it gets out of hand, so even for work tasks it keeps me from going too far down a rabbit hole that isn’t as important as, say, the policy memo I need to finish. I may slowly pare myself down from an hour, but it’s working well – it’s not off limits to go check Facebook, but I don’t disappear into it for hours because I know my time is limited. I also had to delete Facebook from my phone to avoid the loophole.

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    3. Some Sort of Management Consultant

      I wish I could do that on my work computer but we can’t download browser plugins without IT’s approval and I just… don’t wanna tell them or anyone really that I have such issues with focus.

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      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        Isn’t it funny that we have so many (presumably) successful people all writing in that this resonates with them, and that this is their big shameful secret? It’s like … the opposite of impostor syndrome, somehow. Everyone thinks we are hard workers, but we are actually slackers who waste time on the internet all day.

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        1. Some Sort of Management Consultant

          I guess there are some behaviors a lot of people have that aren’t acceptable (or at least workplaces don’t want to make them generally acceptable).

          Plus… I hear so much about phones and computers ruining our concentration that it’s very embarrassing to admit that yeah, I can’t focus.

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          1. Nonprofit Nancy

            I do worry I’ve been “indoctrinated” by school and work to believe that I owe them 100% of my energy and attention all the time or I’m a FAILURE. If we all admit that nobody but a machine can stay completely focused for 40+ hours a week, and the most successful people in our society still strive for better worklife balance – shorter workweeks/days! Less unnecessary busywork! No stigma about goofing off at work sometimes, if you’re meeting your goals! – would that really be worse than us all separately thinking we’re weak screwups who suck?

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            1. Mike C.

              That, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve solved a really difficult problem because I was goofing off at the time.

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            2. Venus Supreme

              Thank you for this. I have this paranoia that if I don’t give my 100% at work 100% of the time, I’m a failure. I goofed off a lot at school and was still able to graduate with As and Bs– and I’ve been beating myself up wondering how much more I could accomplish if I had actually applied myself.

              At ToxicJob, I did push myself to give 100% effort without ANY breaks and I burned out badly. Now I’m at a job with a healthier office culture & where I am also looking at grants and spreadsheets all day, like OP. I do keep Facebook and AAM open throughout the day and I have the paranoia described above.

              I’m struggling really hard to find a balance in all of this. It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling this.

              (Side note: did anyone see “Adam Ruins Everything”s episode on internships/jobs? He mentions how America came up with the 40hrs/week, 5 days/week work schedule. Fascinating!)

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        2. The Other Liz

          Yes. Once, I was speaking to a psychiatrist about how my ADHD affected me at work, and I confessed to wasting time at the office, even though I loved my job. The doctor said, oh honey, everyone does that. Maybe you need to rein it in, but you’re human. Your boss is probably doing it too. Cut yourself some slack. Now, is it true that these habits can hold us back? Maybe, yes. But I also think it’s healthy to cut ourselves a little slack, stop feeling ashamed, and move on.

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    4. Rex

      I was going to write “are you me?” to the OP, but then I read the comments and realized there are a lot of us out there.

      FWIW, I find setting myself short-term deadlines (edit this document in the next hour) and little rewards (a walk outside, a piece of chocolate) help keep me focused when I need to be.

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    5. DenverCoder42

      There are ad-ons like StayFocused for Chrome which will let you set a limited time you’re allowed to have certain websites open. I limit myself to an hour of reading blogs, news, etc. That tends to cover a reasonable period of “waiting for my code to compile” or waiting for tests to finish running throughout the day without eating into my productivity.

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    6. Marillenbaum

      One thing I find helpful is the 45/15–sort of a variation on the Pomodoro Technique. For 45 minutes, I set a timer and work on whatever my thing is. Once that goes off, I set another timer for 15 minutes, and that’s my guilt-free break: I get a coffee, stretch my legs, or read this website! Switch back and forth until I’ve finished the thing, or my shift is up, whatever.

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      1. BeezLouise

        I do this too — except I use Freedom to block me from things for half an hour twice a day or so so that I can do whatever I want the rest of the day.

        My goal is usually to get one big thing done in the morning and one in the afternoon. I do maybe 90 minutes of work a day most days. It’s not great. But I think I’m doing really well for what my job expects from me, so …

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      2. Franzia Spritzer

        +1 I do this too and I’ve added in an audio feature. I have an app on my phone that plays a magic binaural beats for concentration for set amounts of time, when the noise stops I can take a break. I have petty bad tinnitus, and I’m noise sensitive, the added layer of sound blocks out distracting noise which helps keep me focused.

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  4. Newby

    If you want to try being “laser focused”, you can schedule small breaks to check facebook, the news, other sites and set a timer to get back to work. See if that results in more getting done without getting bored or burned out. I find that having a five minute break after an hour of uninterrupted work can help me to focus.

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  5. anon for this

    I feel like I could have written this letter though I’m a little older and in a different industry.

    For me, a big part of the problem is that I don’t know what I want to do. I’ve enjoyed aspects of all of my previous jobs and I enjoy aspects of my current one, but I suffer from severe anxiety and need a lot of stimulus to keep my mind active.

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  6. Anon 2

    I find that I only waste time on AMM, Facebook, etc., when I’m not being stimulated enough by my regular job. So busy times and when I have interesting work, I’m working 99% of the time. When I’m procrastinating from doing a routine but highly boring task, then I’m goofing off.

    I would also be curious what a “demanding” workplace looks like? I’ve worked for multiple organizations and none of them seem to be very demanding. But, when I discuss my workload with colleagues from other organizations they are always shocked that my workload is so heavy. So perhaps it’s demanding and I don’t think it is? Or perhaps the industry that I am in just isn’t very demanding in general?

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    1. Horse Lover

      It’s pretty much the same with my job. When I don’t have enough to do–distractions galore! But during our busy times or if work shows up, then I’m focused and getting it done.

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    2. Nonprofit Nancy

      Yes, this is me exactly too. And like the OP, I’m not 100% sure this is a “problem” that I want to “fix.” Theoretically in my future career I would run into a job where I’m 100% stimulated 100% of the time, and it’s possible I’m not setting good enough time management habits for that job. But a) that sounds great, I’d like that job now please, and b) I’m not sure signing up for more busywork now and committing to buckling down on it during my off periods is going to make me happier in the short or long term.

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    3. NotASalesperson

      I’ve worked at two very demanding workplaces, and would actually really like to work in a more low key environment someday.

      Think of an environment that’s pretty much GO GO GO from the moment you sit down to the moment you walk out the door, and where you actively have to set boundaries with people in order to go home on time and not work from home. People outside my company are pretty shocked about my workload, too. I have weeks where I have to struggle to not be in the office for 12 hours a day, procrastination or not.

      I jump between focusing intensely and Facebook/AAM because sanity is a thing.

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      1. Anon 2

        I have times where I work anywhere from 12-16 hours, and it’s not uncommon for meetings to be scheduled in the evenings and for me to work outside of normal hours. But, I’ve never worked in any organization where it’s go go go all year round from the time you start work until you leave for the day.

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          1. mousie housie

            Events industry, non-profits, anything that involves being the only person responsible for email and social media customer service… the work never ends.

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              1. Jess

                My husband’s law firm is like this too. Good thing he loves the law, I guess. He does get burned out about twice a year and then we know it’s time to take a vacation. We’re going far away next time because the last time he took a week off the partners called him back in halfway through the week to handle a deposition.

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      2. designbot

        I think your last sentence is a key for a lot of us. In design we talk about healthy levels of distraction in school, but somehow that gets lost in the workplace. For many we find that our best ideas come during non-work times, when our mind is able to hold the problem loosely instead of gripping it with 100% focus. At home we’re able to do things like put movies on in the background, but that’s considered unacceptable in a work environment, especially with the tendency towards open offices. I wonder if many people use web browsing as an imperfect way to try and achieve that healthy distraction.

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      3. Formica Dinette

        Same here. Although I consider AAM only a partial break/time-waster because I regularly end up using what I learn here in the work world.

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        1. Queen of the File

          This was actually a deal I made with myself–I have to be able to at least tangentially relate my time-wasty stuff to work (so no more facebook at work for me). Learning about professionalism, workplace cultures, management, etc. here has had practical positive effects on my work self.

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    4. Taylor Swift

      Yeah, I keep waiting to get to one of those “demanding” work places. I’d really rather not be spending all day with AAM and other sites open! I’d like to have enough work (preferably interesting and engaging work) to do! And I’m a few years past entry-level.

      Reply
  7. Nonprofit Nancy

    I guess for me there’s an attitude problem at play. Alison says this in her linked article: “Being great at your job has massive long-term benefits, like getting you more money, better projects, better future jobs, and a better reputation, which all have a direct impact on your quality of life.” I think I just struggle to really FEEL that this is true. It’s a belief problem I have. I feel like being more efficient at work would get me more crap dropped in my lap, but probably not much more respect, and probably not assist with promotions or future jobs, etc. From what I see, the people at the top in my career don’t seem to work harder or better than anyone else, and often significantly less of both. They are schmoozy types who just keep getting promoted on charm (or something – I haven’t actually figured out what their trick is. I hate to say that it’s “being white men”). The diligent hard workers at my org don’t seem to get ahead. I’m working on changing my negativity on this issue though.

    Reply
    1. Temperance

      That was one of the things I hated the most about my last job. One of my colleagues worked in “sales”, but in a really general way. Managers had zones, and he didn’t, at first – his job was to basically schmooze with corporations to steer them into our shared office space. So basically, he golfed, had lunches, and did other fun things on the company dime, all while having very gross convos about younger women with the office bro.

      You would probably not be surprised to find out that once we had a restructuring, and he was recategorized and assigned a territory (and taken off of golf guy duty) that he did terribly. He had the lowest scores in our tri-state region, because, well, it was work and not golf and he now had measurable metrics.

      You would probably be even less surprised to find out that our Area Director liked him on a personal level, so he (AD) somehow managed to get Anthony back on golf duty. I think he was eventually let go once the AD left.

      Reply
    2. DoDah

      I work for a 250 employee-sized tech firm with no women or POC in management. The Brogrammers give each other a leg-up.

      Reply
      1. AnonAnalyst

        Huh, this sounds familiar. Except that my company is smaller, and most of our work is in finance. But there is a definite dude-bro vibe here, and my male counterpart, who is 10 years my junior and has been here half the time I have, has surpassed me in every way at this organization. Not because his work is better, but because the all-male management team likes to hang out with him outside of work to try to live vicariously through him through male-bonding type activities.

        Apparently, the quality that most primes you for success in this company isn’t hard work or superior performance. It’s “mid-twenties ex-frat boy.” We have another one coming up through the ranks now, so there will be more of them on the management team in the future to continue the cycle.

        (In fairness, I also worked really hard at my previous company and was promoted several times so there are some companies where just being great at your job will be recognized and rewarded. But I certainly have less faith in that now after working for my current company.)

        Reply
    3. Vin Packer

      I’m curious about Alison’s answer to this. It does seem like, psychologically, you have to buy into the idea that capitalism is truly a meritocracy for this to work.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        Oh, good job for putting my longwinded paragraph into something a hell of a lot more succinct! This, exactly this. On some level I feel like people who work diligently all day for “the man” might be suckers. I’m working on this though! In fact reading Alison’s blog helps me counter this internal narrative and that’s one of the reasons I do it.

        Reply
        1. Vin Packer

          Right there with you–both in having those feelings and working to counteract them (since, even if that’s true, thinking about it all the time isn’t currently doing me a tremendous number of favors)!

          Reply
        2. BeezLouise

          Have you all ever seen this thing called The Gervais Principle? https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/

          Basically, it says offices are made up of losers, the clueless, and sociopaths. A lot of people (I would include myself in this) are “losers” who become bare minimum performers (I’m in that group too) in exchange for the security of their job.

          I’m describing it really poorly, and I’m not sure how great it is as a paradigm generally, but I think it’s relevant to this conversation.

          Reply
        3. Freya UK

          To be honest, they often are ‘suckers’ – or to put it in kinder terms, they haven’t actually looked at society and the life/expectations that have been sold to them, nor how and why. It just doesn’t occur to some people, and capitalism is reliant on enough people being like that, in combination with keeping people too vulnerable and/or scared to consciously step out of it. Capitalism is designed to keep the rich, rich and free, and the poor, poor and enslaved. Like the quote – “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

          Sorry that this doesn’t help your trying to convince yourself out of it, but you’re awake and there is nothing wrong with that! As much as the awareness makes life difficult… I understand feeling it’s easier to just convince yourself otherwise, because it would be; “ignorance is bliss” after all :(

          Reply
    4. Natalie

      Yeah, I flat out don’t believe that being great at your job automatically leads to these kinds of benefits. I don’t mean this to be insulting to Alison or anyone else who’s had this experience, but it seems like a really privileged perspective that applies to certain knowledge-based industries but not jobs generally. I’ve known a ton of people that are great employees and go nowhere, often because there’s nowhere to go. For lots of people, being “good enough” will get them the same benefits as being a “rockstar”.

      Which isn’t to say there’s never any point to being a rockstar – in plenty of fields, it will serve you well, and it has intangible personal benefits.

      Reply
      1. Lily in NYC

        Yup. I just watched my coworker get his well-deserved promotion delayed because a woman who was hired 8 months after him and has been here only a year threatened to quit if she didn’t get promoted (and there was only one to give out). So now he has to wait until the summer even though he is a better employee in every way. His boss sucks so hard. She promotes/pays attention to the pain in the ass entitled types. And protects the incompetent bully who also works under her. And then wonders why none of the other senior staff likes or respects her.

        Reply
      2. Anxa

        I feel this really strongly.

        I have a friend who has very prestigious academic accomplishments (in academia, so thus career), and unless she is blocked from the federal hiring freeze has a pretty good job lined up. She is very smart, worked very hard, but confided in me one day that she had no idea how she got where she is. That a lot of it was dumb luck.

        Having a lot of friends in the life sciences, that’s a common sentiment. That a few lucky breaks are all the separate one extremely promising, hard working, competent professional research associate from one extremely promising, hard working, competent professional part-time grocer part-time technician.

        I know that I personally did not compete at the right times and struggled at the worse possible time to struggle, so I’m not saying that my own lack of success is due to luck, but I know a lot of people that felt they won the job lottery.

        From my own experience it DOES feel like there’s no room for growth where I am. I’ve had excellent references, a lot of encouragement, and a track record of solid performance improvement in the past 3 years and I wonder if I’m better off than if I had phoned things in. I know, I know, I need to give it more time, but I’m running out of time. It really seems like there’s a point of diminishing returns on effort. The obvious answer is to get an entry-level job that has a greater chance of turning into something full-time and with growing responsibilities, bt that’s just not the case.

        I’m trying to let it effect me, but I’m on year 9 of well-meaning people telling me I need to just get a foot in the door and wow them, but the only doors my feet are opening are to seemingly empty rooms.

        Reply
      3. Kore

        Yeah, I wonder about this too. I work in a position that doesn’t have much of a path for moving up. I’m working with people who have been in this same position for several years. Unless one of the managers decided to quit, there’s no real path to promotion. So at the end of the day while I try to work hard and take on projects, I know that there’s no real chance for promotion unless I make a decision to try to move laterally within the company.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I’m not talking promotions, necessarily. I’m talking about reputation building, which gives you more options outside of your current employer as well. But as I say below, I get that it doesn’t necessarily apply across the board.

          And that comes back to what I wrote in this post — that it’s about knowing your organization and your goals and that your work habits might be just fine for context.

          Reply
      4. Ask a Manager Post author

        It might indeed be a privileged perspective. It’s been true for me and for many people I’ve watched, but that doesn’t mean it’s true across the board.

        Reply
        1. Natalie

          And I totally get that – I’ve known people for whom it’s true as well. I think I’m just sensitive to the universality aspect because I’ve also seen how this myth hurts people when they’re not going to be rewarded for high performance because of reasons that have nothing to do with their value as a person or a worker (economy, industry structure, bad bosses).

          Reply
          1. LBK

            But I think if you’re putting in hard work, you have a better chance at bypassing or overcoming those boundaries that might otherwise make you plateau. If you realize 10 years into a career track that you’ve capped out your potential and you have to change industries if you want to continue to move up, isn’t it easier to do that if you’ve got an incredible track record of work behind you?

            Reply
            1. Natalie

              But again, “better chance” != “will be rewarded”. Maybe I’m being too nitpicky about language, but to me there is a huge difference between “if you’re a high performer you will get better money/projects/jobs/etc” and “if you’re a high performer you may be able to leverage that into better money/projects/jobs/etc”.

              And, for whatever it’s worth, there are lots of fields that have no “up” to move to, and no closely related fields with an up. I’m in a cross-class marriage where I’m the white collar, college educated knowledge worker so this is a topic close to my heart.

              Reply
              1. LBK

                Again, I’m not disagreeing that in some cases, there are no better opportunities. But when they exist (which I think is the case in the majority of industries and companies), if you want them, you give yourself the best chance of getting them by being a high performer. I think there’s a pervasive cultural perception that connections, smooth-talking and/or privilege make up at least 50% of your career success, if not more, and I fundamentally disagree.

                I suppose this also depends on what we mean by success. People making millions of dollars running companies? Sure, probably more true that connections, etc were big factors in their success. But I think getting paid a comfortable salary at a job you like is an achievable goal for many people without having to play games, engage in office politics, network your way up or any other Mad Men-esque tactics.

                Just personally, I also don’t like myself as much when I find myself slacking or consciously deciding to perform at less than my full capacity, so working hard has its own intrinsic merits for my happiness. But I know that’s far from universal.

                Reply
                1. Natalie

                  Sure, I don’t really disagree with any of that. I literally just mean what I said initially: it’s not true that working hard and being a top performer will automatically and always lead to the kind of benefits Alison is talking about, and believing that it will is a fairly privileged position.

                  I think we’re probably focusing on our own sensitivities. Acknowledging the reality that the world is not a pure meritocracy doesn’t diminish what you’ve accomplished, and it doesn’t mean you have to start slacking off when you don’t care to. I have experienced similar privilege as you have, but through my relationships I have had to face how uncommon that is for many people, and how much the cultural message of “Hard Work = Rewards” hurts them.

                  (I have to leave it there for the sake of my own productivity today, coincidentally enough.)

      5. LBK

        I don’t think it automatically leads to those benefits, but rather that if those benefits are available, you’re a lot less likely to get them if you aren’t doing your job in a way that’s driven by the intention to achieve them. For sure there’s cases where privilege and bias blinds management to someone’s flaws, but generally speaking, I think it’s uncommon for a true rockstar to get passed over for an underachieving white guy. Moreover, I think it’s rare enough that tempering the amount of energy and effort you put into your job because of assumed diminishing returns is a bad strategy – it seems more like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me.

        This is heavily industry-dependent, though – tech in particular seems rife with white guys who get treated like the sun shines out of their ass, when in reality that’s mostly where the things they say come from.

        Reply
        1. Nonprofit Nancy

          Removed. When you all knowingly violate the rules here (politics in this case), you’re just making additional work for me because I have to remove the comment. Please don’t.

          Reply
        2. Vin Packer

          Eh…I’m kinda with you, in that I don’t think it’s usually as direct as “underachieving white guy gets this specific promotion over this specific rockstar Other.” But, when women are 52% of the workforce and only 5% of CEOs, and black Americans are less than 1%, white men still somehow do much better than the rest of us, “generally speaking.” And while I hear you on tech, the “glass elevator” is real in pink-collar jobs, too (male nurses and librarians, for example, report getting fast-tracked for promotions and feel pressured to act like they want them, even when they don’t really).

          Your point that “if those benefits are available, you’re a lot less likely to get them if you aren’t doing your job in a way that’s driven by the intention to achieve them” is still totally valid and everything; no woman/black CEO that *does* exist became that way by deciding she DGAF. It’s just…..the truism “hard work always pays off” is so much less true for some of us than others, it can be hard to psych yourself up to go from “good to great” based on that belief alone.

          Reply
          1. LBK

            Totally agreed. To some extent, I think progress at the top of the house is going to be slow, because a lot of people who’re up there have been getting groomed for it for decades. Few people are truly so privileged that they’re jumping straight to a C-level without experience. We’ve got to start with more diverse hiring at entry level, and that in turn has to come from increasing access and availability of good education and internships.

            Those building blocks are starting to come together more and more, but that means it’ll be a while before you’ll see the effects higher up the chain. This is also not to say that there aren’t any women, POC, etc out there right now who would be equally or more qualified to take any of those C-level jobs as a bunch of old white guys are, but I think the more you increase the pool of qualified diverse candidates, the better the odds of those hires being made.

            I want to be clear that I don’t believe that hard work will 100% always pay off, because I know for some people it doesn’t work out that way, for a variety of reasons. I just believe that hard work has a better chance at paying off than not working hard, and while there’s probably diminishing returns at some point, this thread seems built on the sentiment that doing above-average work is pretty much always a waste of time, and I don’t think that’s justified by reality.

            Reply
    5. Jady

      Side rant time – I truly believe it’s quite false.

      I’ve seen this same thing my entire life. In my experience, who you know and how good you are at selling yourself are more important than any of the work you actually do. As long as you can produce passable results.

      Took me a long time to learn that, and when I started trying it out myself it was proven.

      Not intending to brag, just as some of my own personal evidence – using easy statistics my household (about %45 is my salary) income is nearly triple the national (usa) average. But my job description and responsibilities have never changed (yes, really), but you can bet my work ethic is poorer.

      I’ve observed this same pattern in a handful of friends too. We worked at our first company together.

      Maybe it’s my industry? Maybe it’s my “average” is massively better than typical average? Maybe I’m just bitter with grease colored glasses and ridiculous luck? I dunno.

      Working hard certainly doesn’t hurt anything. But the work itself is a small percentage.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        I wouldn’t argue that bad work can hold you back, it’s more a question if “good enough” work will pay off about as well as “totally amazing” work considering the other factors that go into who gets raises and promotions. To be fair I had similar problems in school, too – I could work at a low level and get an A, but if I really wanted that extra couple points to get 100% I had to do probably double the work. I guess I just wasn’t quite intrinsically motivated enough to skip other things I liked in order to get that payoff … and what would an A-plus average have gotten me that an A average didn’t? I got into the college I wanted with the grades I had. Now I sort of carryover that attitude into my career, but I really am working to buck it. My mother always says “hard work is its own reward” and maybe I need to repeat that to myself a couple thousand more times haha.

        Reply
        1. 80

          I was the kid who did double the work to get 100%, and it meant a lot of stress and anxiety and not enough downtime. As an adult in the workforce, I rarely give 100%. I get all my work done well and on time, but I don’t go looking for double work just to be at 100%. It means a lot less stress.

          Reply
      2. LBK

        I’m someone who’s terrible at selling myself and believes heavily in letting my work speak for itself, and so far that’s worked pretty well. I probably move slower than someone who was slicker and more charming, but I’m about to hit 5 years working at my current company and I’ve been promoted/gotten a new position every year. With my most recent raise I’m making double what I made when I started here. I don’t think that’s too shabby.

        Maybe I’ve lucked out and had good managers/worked for a good company, but the number of promotions and other forms of reward I’ve seen that were completely justified far outnumber the ones that were clearly awarded based on connections and smooth talking. Not saying that doesn’t happen but I don’t think it’s nearly often enough to say that the idea of hard work paying off is flat-out false.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yep. I’m terrible at selling myself, am pretty sure I’ve never pitched myself for anything, and I’ve been able to work myself into a place that gives me lots of options to do what I want without any flash and certainly without an unusual amount of charm. So I’m quite sure that that does influence my viewpoint in a likely skewed way, but it’s really just not true that it’s all about schmoozing and charm. What I’ve done is work really, really hard. I know it doesn’t pay off 100% of the time, but it pays off quite often.

          Reply
          1. Vin Packer

            I think it could also be that what “work really, really hard” looks like varies as privileges vary. For example, a person who throws themselves into their unpaid professional internship and does great work and is generally awesome works really, really hard and totally deserves whatever great things come their way because of it. But a person who could never afford to take an unpaid internship but works a full-time custodial job through community college to support themselves and their family….they work really, really hard too, but in a way that is less likely to earn them white-collar accolades.

            There just isn’t room for everybody in the middle class, by definition. It doesn’t change the advice at all; working hard is still the only strategy that makes sense. It’s just an unfortunate reality that it’s not going to pay off for everyone.

            Reply
            1. LBK

              I certainly had my share of privilege and parental financial stability that allowed me to take more risk than others, but FWIW I parleyed my way into a white collar job where I earn plenty of accolades by working really, really hard at a minimum wage retail cashier job. I spent about 2.5 years in retail working my ass off, getting promotions, gaining as much transferrable experience as I could and I eventually jumped industries to finance, where I had zero experience, education or connections.

              I don’t mean this to be a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, because those are barf-worthy, and I think it probably helped that I had a college degree (even though my degree wasn’t remotely related to the job I was applying for). My point is that as I said above, my whole career track so far has pretty much been the sole result of working hard, so I’m disheartened by all the comments here saying that’s a waste of time that doesn’t pay off. It has, empirically, paid off for me, and I don’t like how discouraging this thread is.

              Reply
            2. Anxa

              I think what happens a lot, too, is that you have people who fall somewhere in the middle, who have to pull back on their internships/volunteering in order to work a few extra hours in their other jobs. Or people who can’t afford to go to conferences or networking events or keep up their licenses.

              Sadly, the only places I have been able to work harder are at unpaid jobs, jobs where I can impress a few people but if they don’t have any job connections (openings), that’s a lot of effort that’s not going to pay off.

              My paid jobs usually are hourly where the only way to do better, after a certain point, is to work off the clock.

              Now, there WAS a time in my life where I felt like my reputation as a hard worker opened a lot of doors for me, but all of those pathways have been, so far, dead ends.

              Reply
          2. CC

            And I’m terrible at selling myself and work really hard, and while I get excellent performance reviews I also found myself in the position of being at the work year end party, after having spent months on site figuring out a big deal process for the company and getting two patent applications for them, listening to the CEO give effusive thanks to coworker Alice who also spent many weeks on site in the past year getting a different project completed, and effusive thanks to coworker Bob who was in the coming year taking over the project that I made possible, then sitting down without even looking in my direction.

            But I’m not bitter or anything. I just got laid off later.

            Reply
    6. Morning Glory

      Nonprofit Nancy I relate to this so, so much.

      I’ve experienced it as more of an introvert/extrovert divide in terms of who’s moving up, but it’s a similar premise.

      Reply
    7. peachie

      Ooh, this is a good point. I’ve been struggling lately because on the one hand, I do procrastinate–it’s rare that I’ll have a full workday where I don’t check fun sites/social media at all, and when I do, it’s often because there’s something incredibly pressing I need to get done.

      On the other hand, I know my workload is too heavy–like, ridiculously too heavy; I’ve done the math on a couple of items and it would take another staff member or two working full-time to just do my ongoing responsibilities, not even considering the many unscheduled responsibilities and projects that take up at least 1/2 of my workday. My department is also massively understaffed compared to every other part of the company, so it’s not a “workplace norms” thing.

      And I know if I could magically push myself to be laser-focused every hour of the day (I can’t, but I can pretend) I could get more of that excessive workload done–but all I think that would do is convince the powers that be that we definitely aren’t understaffed, and that just seems like a good way to burn out quick.

      Reply
  8. The Cosmic Avenger

    Yep, I struggle with this, too. I think I need to start by setting aside some distraction-free time every day, and work my way up to allowing limited social media breaks. But the problem is that I’m doing well professionally, so it’s hard to motivate myself to change. Plus I follow professional organizations on social media, so every so often I run across something useful by checking social media, which makes justification of my current habits so easy.

    Reply
    1. Government Worker

      The mix of professional and personal on social media really does make it hard. I learn things about my own agency from Twitter, and I get really useful information from following some think tanks and pundits in our industry. But it’s all mixed in with cat photos and national politics and friends and everything, and it’s hard to balance the time suck with the genuine usefulness in terms of checking in during the work day.

      Reply
  9. HM

    Oh, wow. I’m in high school, but I really understand and relate to this letter. I’m struggling, though, because I have so many things that I want to do but don’t have time for because of my unproductive habits, and I know that I detest being so distracted. I feel like I’m addicted. Do you have any advice for how to become more focused?

    Reply
    1. Temperance

      What worked for me wrt schoolwork, in college and law school, was to obsessively schedule my day in a paper day planner. Some people use Google Calendar, but I live and die by the book.

      Schedule 15 minute breaks while studying. Break up your subjects. Set goals for yourself. You can do this.

      Reply
      1. Koko

        You know, I’ve been considering trying to schedule my days like this recently. It feels like there are so many goals I want to pursue/habits I want to incorporate in my life, but they’re all so time-consuming that I juggle and can’t manage to ever fit them all in: keeping a clean house, doing advance meal prep, working out regularly, developing my freelance business and doing work for it, yard projects, home improvement projects….and so on. Lately I’ve been thinking maybe if I sat down with a day planner and actually mapped out when I could do each of these things, maybe I would find that I do have the time and I just waste too much of it on inefficiency like task-switching or too-short gaps between activities, or that I’m doing nothing more than I realize.

        Reply
        1. Grayson

          I hear you there! One of my banes is household chores. My partner and I both have busy lives, so I instituted a policy that Sunday is for house cleaning and household chores (laundry, trimming the cats nails). I’m also trying to do one load of laundry a night so that it doesn’t all pile up and swallow my valuable weekends.

          Trying to be a productive adult with a clean house, checked off to do list AND get in much needed free time for fun things is a bloody mess, I tell ya.

          Reply
          1. Marillenbaum

            I feel this! I live with a roommate, and maintaining the apartment can be a challenge. I typically schedule an hour on Saturday mornings for cleaning: I start by putting a load of laundry in the washer, and then blast Disney music while I spray everything that needs to be wiped down. Then, I sweep, wipe down all the surfaces I sprayed, and maybe mop if it needs it. I admittedly live in a small space, so it’s faster to clean, but it works for me so far.

            Reply
            1. Morning Glory

              Yes to Disney music while cleaning!

              I also have had to set up a series of recurring calendar alerts for things I don’t notice/remember need to be cleaned, like kitty litter, scrubbing the toilet etc.

              Reply
        2. Temperance

          Seriously, this is the ONLY way that I can do all the things you mention. I’m looking to get more involved in networking and exercise, and if I don’t schedule my life (including time wasting, like videogames and Sporcle!), I end up stressed and with nothing to show for it. I tend to spin my wheels a lot, and then freak out about not having enough time to get things done, and not enough time to enjoy myself.

          What also worked for me is outsourcing yardwork. We have a friend whose young cousin was starting his landscaping business, and for $25, someone will cut our grass. It’s been heavenly.

          Reply
          1. Jaykay

            I feel that this is just a problem with modern life in relatively-well-off America, tho. We all have tons of things we want to accomplish. We all procrastinate and waste time and feel bummed about our to do lists. The solution can’t just be to be better organized (against our natures) and do more, more, more. Maybe there is a solution iin doing and expecting less, and working to improve our mental states rather than our schedules.

            Reply
            1. Temperance

              I can see both sides of this. I’m fortunate that I can afford to outsource some of the more boring, time intensive chores, like yardwork, and that I have a dishwasher and washer/dryer, so I no longer spend hours at the laundromat or handwashing.

              I personally function at a higher level when I am on schedule, and I know my own limits/needs when it comes to rest, relaxation, etc. – I was stuck visiting an unpleasant relative last weekend, and the time away from home has sent this week into a hellspin, because my weekend chores didn’t get done and I didn’t get to nap and read, like I usually do. For me, my personal goals are such that I need to try harder and do more to meet them.

              Reply
        3. caryatis

          Koko, a time diary is a great way to find out where your time is actually going. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised by the amount of time you spend on unnecessary, low-value activities, like aimless internet surfing, commuting, or slow transitions between activities.

          Reply
      2. KG, Ph.D.

        YES, this! I’m in academia, and I’ve really struggled with the transition from graduate school, where it’s a long slog toward completing a single large project, and being a professor, where I’m constantly spinning a million plates spread among teaching, research, and service. I got really tired of constantly missing deadlines and starting all my emails with “sorry for the delay,” so I now do a productivity accountability group with two colleagues. Each week, we get together to discuss how our week went, how we’re doing on working toward our goals, and what we need to change. Then we sit together while we each schedule our *entire week* by filling out our calendars with tasks on our various projects and to-do lists. I break my long-term projects into 60-90 minute tasks and block them out in my calendar. (For example, I’m finishing up a paper right now, so my tasks look like “find and process this dataset,” “make Fig. 6 from the dataset,” “write 500 words about Fig. 6,” “edit the background section for flow,” etc.) I also make sure to include blocks for things like “lunch with friends,” “take a walk around campus,” “read a few fun websites.” In the evenings, I even block out “eat dinner with my husband” and “watch an hour of Netflix.” It has made a HUGE difference in my productivity, and I feel great at the end of most days.

        Reply
        1. Marillenbaum

          That’s really brilliant! I’m getting my MA right now, and it has saved my life to do weekly reviews: I go over the past week and migrate any assignments that haven’t been completed, and write my schedule for the next week. Then, I take time to look over the past week: I give myself a demerit for a thing I feel like I messed up (so I can be mindful of potential changes, especially if I find myself repeating demerits), and a gold star to a thing that has made my life better so I can include more of it–maybe it’s a really nice face mask, or a podcast I’m going to actually subscribe to. It helps a ton.

          Reply
      3. HM

        Thank you! I’m obsessive about to-do lists, but I don’t organize my day by time, so this is a good idea.

        Reply
    2. Agnodike

      Organize your life so that it’s easier to do the stuff you want than it is to get stuck in distractions. Set up a time each day when you want to be pursuing the stuff you want to do but don’t currently have time for. During that time, set up a site blocker that keeps you off your biggest time-sinks, turn off your phone and put it in another room, and organize your physical space to minimize other things that might distract you (so, don’t work in a room with a TV, for example). Then work on the stuff you want to work on in reasonable increments. Start by doing, say, 15 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break, then work up to 30 minutes, and so on. You’ll find the combination of active work time and break time that works for you. There are lots of approaches to structuring work/break time, like the Pomodoro Technique, with which you can experiment!

      It might take a couple of weeks for your brain to quiet down and get used to focusing on one task at a time, so don’t be discouraged if for the first little while you’re mostly bored and distracted. Brains are like any other part of our bodies: they adapt to what we expose them to. If you’re used to switching tasks often, that’s what your brain will expect. The more you do a single task for a prolonged period, the more your brain will adapt to that and the better you’ll be at it.

      If the ability to work on a single task for long periods of time is something that you want for yourself, you’re doing yourself a HUGE favour by starting relatively early in life. Good for you! And good luck!

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        “It might take a couple of weeks for your brain to quiet down and get used to focusing on one task at a time, so don’t be discouraged if for the first little while you’re mostly bored and distracted.” – maybe this is part of my problem. I try to focus but it feels BAD so I think, oh well, I guess I need to read more blogs! Haha. Dwell in the discomfort, Nancy. Push through the discomfort.

        Reply
        1. Agnodike

          It’s really hard!! My vacation every year is to go home to my tiny rural town for a couple of weeks. There’s no internet or TV at my parents’ place, and it takes me a good week to bring my brain down to the speed of in-person interaction from the speed of online interaction. The first couple of days, I’m always looking for a distraction ANYWHERE. And then, slowly, my brain gets used to the change of speed, and I start enjoying moving at a slow pace again. I always know I’m back to “family speed” when I can peel potatoes for an hour (without watching Netflix at the same time, which is what I do when I’m at home in the city) and it feels more relaxing than onerous. But it takes awhile to get there and it IS really uncomfortable while my brain adjusts. It’s the same as any change of pace; if you haven’t exercised in a long time, going for a run is painful! And if you’re used to running every morning but you sprain your ankle and have to take a break, you’re going to feel really antsy at your usual run time.

          The trick, I think, is not to valorize one approach over the other a priori. There’s nothing inherently valuable about enjoying peeling potatoes, and there’s nothing inherently bad or “wasteful” about switching between tabs once a minute. The question is what makes your life most pleasant and lets you accomplish what you want to accomplish.

          Reply
      2. HM

        This is unbelievably helpful. You’re getting at exactly what the problem is and I’m going to try it. Thank you!

        Reply
    3. NotASalesperson

      I was less structured than Temperance was, but I still set boundaries for myself. If I was doing research, no “fun” tabs were to be open in the browser I was working in. If I was just writing a paper, I turned off my wifi or went to a cafe where the wifi really sucked so I would be bored enough to work on my paper instead of browsing the internet. I would intentionally sit away from televisions and computer screens for things like math homework, and my graphing calculator had no games on it for that reason as well.

      It also really helped me to mix up the location I was in. If I get into distracting habits in one location, it’s harder to break them unless I move to the library or work in a different room of the house.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        +1, when I DO actually need to focus on generating long documents, I have a naturally peripatetic style. Walk to a coffeeshop, work intensely on goals … walk somewhere else, sit down with no distractions, work intensely … walk home, sit at counter with no wifi, work intensely. Unfortunately my 9-5 cube dwelling job is like, systematically designed to undercut this approach in every possible way hahaha. Sit still for eight hours on the internet while your coworkers try to chat with you, Nancy! Oh, are you having trouble concentrating? Weird!

        Reply
      2. SJ

        The “turn off Wifi” thing helped me when I was writing my MA thesis. It was hard going because I had recently gone through a bout of depression and was trying to get back into writing after taking a semester off (plus my advisor had completely disappeared and ultimately gave next to no feedback on my thesis, but that’s another story). When I was depressed, I basically lay in bed and mindlessly clicked around on the Internet all day, so trying to get into focused thesis writing mode was hard. I eventually spent the summer going to the library every day, at the same time every day, on a set writing schedule, with the Wifi off so I wasn’t tempted by the Internet (I had all my materials downloaded). It was tough at first, but knowing I was leaving the library at the end of the day with something accomplished and that I could enjoy my evening without any guilt helped me get through it.

        Reply
      3. A Person

        Daily word counts were/are my thing. At the start of the semester I’d work out how many words I’d have to write (based on max word limit) and divide it by the number of days between then and the week before the deadline(s), that would give me the number of words I had to write everyday. It also give me leeway for editing/re-drafting and made such a difference to my stress levels.

        I applied a similar rule when I started writing a book and now I can knock out 400 words a day.

        Reply
    4. Princess Carolyn

      I have ADHD but wasn’t diagnosed until high school, so I spent a lot of my teens and early 20s figuring out systems. Things that help(ed) me:

      1. Turn your phone on Do Not Disturb, and consider putting it away in a bag/drawer/the other room.
      2. The pomodoro technique, which is basically 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a 5-minute break, and then repeat
      3. Detailed to-do lists; in the margins, I like to put around what time I plan to do that task
      4. Use timers to limit how much time you spend browsing social media, watching Netflix, etc. during those times when you don’t absolutely have to be doing something productive but probably should start doing something soonish (In my case, that’s the time between when I get home and when I start dinner – my “break to decompress” will turn into two hours of Netflix if I let it)

      Reply
    5. Marillenbaum

      Bless you for working on this now. I’m a grad student, and honestly it took me a while to get there, because it was so easy to just skate by. Here are some things that help me: scheduling in time to rest, because if I expect myself to just go and go without replenishing, I just sort of grind to a halt productivity-wise. I also use a thing called a 45/15 (from a fabulous tumblr called Unf*** Your Habitat), and I try to get maximum clarity on what my assignments are. From a big-picture perspective, one thing I’ve found really helpful is figuring out what it is I want to achieve–is it getting really good grades? Increasing my understanding in a specific class? Avoiding burnout? Once I know what I most value, I can structure my schedule (ideally) to reflect that. This last one can be hardest when you’re still in high school, just because you have less control, but it’s been a help to me.

      Reply
      1. HM

        I like this a lot. I think it’ll help me with prioritizing so I end up spending more time with things I enjoy.

        Reply
    6. PatPat

      Hey, I’m just impressed that you’re reading Ask a Manager while you’re in high school! All I was concerned about when I was in high school was where the party was so I think you’re ahead of the game.

      Reply
    7. Sarah in Boston

      I’m about to start using Habitica with a friend. If you find gamification an effective way to motivate you, then it’s definitely worth checking out. I tried it before on my own without much luck but this time I’m teaming up with a friend to share quests and whatnot (so much like the accountability meeting mentioned below).

      Reply
    8. LBK

      I’m gonna be honest: I was like this in HS and there wasn’t anything that worked permanently other than graduating and going to college. Getting therapy for depression and medication for ADHD helped a little, but ultimately I just thought a lot of the stuff I had to do in high school was BS, and no amount of medical assistance changed that. I found that in college I was expected to do a lot less busywork, which I found much easier to be attentive to since I felt like more the work I was doing actually had a purpose and was really teaching me something.

      Weirdly, being out on my own and being forced to maintain my own schedule and workload also pushed me to be more responsible about it. In HS, I always had it in the back of my mind that my mom or my teachers would keep me on track when I slacked. In college, there’s no safety net. I mean, yeah, if you end up on academic probation then your parents will probably find out, but they aren’t getting progress reports or having parent-teacher conferences. You have to do it yourself, and I found that I rose to the occasion in a way I was never able to motivate myself to do in HS.

      So: hang in there, do what you can get done, and don’t beat yourself up too much about it. I graduated from high school a decade ago and looking back now, it’s still insane to me how much pressure I felt like I was under at that time. Even at its most stressful, I don’t think my job has ever stressed me out as much as high school did, and I wasn’t anywhere near as emotionally equipped to handle it 10 years ago as I am now.

      Reply
      1. HM

        Thank you for this; during summers I’m much more motivated, which is strange, and less prone to distractions. So I hear what you’re saying and I think this is great advice.

        Reply
    9. LizB

      One thing I’ve recently started trying, and like a lot, is called the 20 Minute Rule: when you get home from school (or work, in my case), set a timer and spend 20 minutes doing anything other than mindless internet/screen time. Read a book for fun, do yoga, color in a coloring book, eat a snack, talk with another human face to face, play with your pet, clean or organize something, anything except scrolling through social media or watching videos. The theory is that if you do mindless screen time as soon as you get home, it sucks you in and it’s hard to tear yourself away from it for the rest of the evening… but if you start with just 20 minutes something else, you’ll have more energy and motivation to keep doing productive, non-social-media things. I’ve only tried it for a week so far, but it seems to be working! I’m getting a ton more done on evenings I follow the 20 Minute Rule than on evenings I just plop myself in front of Facebook.

      Reply
      1. HM

        Oh, this is great! I definitely get sucked into the internet right when I get home, but I didn’t even notice this as part of the problem.

        Reply
  10. Cambridge Comma

    I went from an environment where IT was completely unregulated to one where it is very strictly controlled and tracked. I knew when I started that I had to avoid any website that wasn’t work related. In the first months I found myself, once an hour or so, staring at a blank white wall for a few minutes. I think your brain just needs to do something else every once in a while.
    Now, I use RSS feeds in outlook. It’s much easier to stick to reading one or two articles. They are all arguably work related, and it has the added image benefit that nobody can walk by and know that I’m resting my neurons for a moment.
    I stay off facebook because it is so instantly recognizable and has such negative associations, but it’s a shame because there is such a good community for my profession on there.

    Reply
  11. Here we go again

    I’m guilty of wasting time, but I’ve been at my job long enough that I can probably do it in half the time of anyone else. I do try to look for work-related projects outside of my day job to feel less guilty, but those opportunities don’t always exist.

    Reply
  12. Dee-Nice

    I’m an academic admin assistant, so some times of year I’m so swamped I work through lunch, and other times I’m struggling to find enough ways to kill time on the internet. But the nature of my work is that I have to be available: if one of my managers needs something, I need to be ready to take care of it, whatever else is going on. Part of guaranteeing my availability means I can’t be bogged down with too many non-negotiable everyday responsibilities. It’s generally understood in my office that if your principals are happy and you’re getting everything done, then sometimes you just won’t have any work to do and you need to quietly fill that time in between tasks. I guess I would say: if you can shift gears and eliminate FB, etc., when you really need to buckle down, then you’re fine. It’s when those things detract from your projects that it becomes problematic.

    Reply
    1. Circles

      I’m an admin assistant/office manager and this is exactly my situation. I work for an educational nonprofit/tourist attraction, so sometimes we are so busy I feel like it’s never going to end. Other days, especially late summer, there is nothing for me to work on- we are well-supplied, all my lists are updated, calendar updated, reports are done, etc.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        Isn’t it a shame that work schedules apparently can’t adjust to accommodate? Why COULDN’T you literally work more at one time of year, and less at others? Sadly, at my office, you can work more than 40 hours during busy periods, but never less no matter what. Don’t have anything to do? Sit at your desk in case someone calls or sends an email. It certainly led to my developing some bad, time waste-y habits.

        Reply
        1. Circles

          Yes, that would be so helpful. Some of our exempt salaried managers do this, but I am nonexempt so unfortunately, it’s not an option for me. In August, I could literally do cartwheels and back flips down the aisles and it would not bother anyone because no one is here. August is my most time waste-y month.

          Reply
    2. HR Bee

      For me as a one-person HR department, I also have to have the flexibility to be able to drop everything at a second’s notice and put out a fire – an exec needs a payroll report right now, or an employee got injured and the case needs to be input to Worker’s Comp ASAP so they can get their prescription filled, or I’ll get an employee relations issue on me out of nowhere. It means my day can’t be too full. Gotta have wiggle room just in case something pops up.

      Of course, that means that some days I finish my to-do list around 1PM and spend the rest of the afternoon messing around on my phone. But as long as I am able to drop everything and fix someone’s problem the second they call, email, or stop into my office, then the perception is that I’m a super-responsive miracle worker. Which is fine by me.

      I’m not looking to move up, though. This level of responsibility is satisfying enough for me. So YMMV.

      Reply
      1. Michelle

        Much like you, I am satisfied with my level of responsibility and I’m not really looking to move up. Someone once asked me if I had no “higher ambitions” and the truth is, not really.

        Reply
  13. Eric

    This is applies to me, also. Thanks for asking this question.

    I feel like such a slacker, but everybody tells me I’m a asset to the organization. They seem very genuine. I can also point out several significant accomplishments over my 5 years.

    But some days I spend after lunch to 4pm on Reddit.

    Reply
      1. Lionheart26

        Me three!
        I feel so guilty and unproductive some days. But everyone always tells me what a great job I do and how hard I work. If anything that just makes me feel worse.

        Reply
    1. Elizabeth H.

      I am in the same position. I feel like the worst person in the world, and spend about 95% of my waking hours hating myself bc of it. I find it is better vs worse depending on how the other stuff in my life is going. Right now I have a LOT going on that is really, really bad so this is too.

      Reply
      1. Agnodike

        I hope you’re talking to somebody about this issue. Hating yourself and feeling like the worst person in the world is an awful way to live, and it’s a pretty extreme response to feeling like you could be more productive at work. I’m just an internet stranger, but I hope you find a way to live that recognizes that you’re a valuable human being whose presence in the world matters, even if your work productivity never increases.

        Reply
      2. The Other Liz

        I resonate with this so much. The shame is REAL. Here’s what has helped me: finding a way to get something done on my to do list, and focusing on how GOOD that feels. Not just any task will do. Two categories fit the bill: 1, some major thing that allows me to move the ball forward on a high priority, done when I promised to have it done (either to a teammate, my boss or myself); 2, some little nagging thing that I’ve been avoiding for WEEKS or months. If I can just do something that has been lurking on my list, makign me ashamed – big or small – then I feel really, really GOOD about myself. And the more I can compile these feelings, the easier it is to do the carrot and stick thing: to remind myself that if I just push through, I”ll feel AWESOME. I like going home feeling accomplished, like I deserve to be here, rather than ashamed of how much time I wasted. If I can feel that way a couple of days out of the week, it starts to reshape my identity. There’s an ebb and flow to how often I hit the sweet spot, but until a few months ago I didn’t remember that it EXISTED and had no way to motivate myself to do better.

        Reply
    2. Lionheart26

      You know, I have been thinking a LOT about this since this thread was first posted. I have a theory I am working on (while I should be working!!):
      Could it not just (at least partially) be that as we get more familiar and efficient with our roles, the time and energy we need to do them goes down? I am comparing myself unfavourably to the level I was working at 3 years ago when I first started in this role. Back in those days, I worked my butt off trying to make a good impression.
      3 years ago, I took over coordinating an annual event, and completely turned it around. My boss told me that it had grown under my management from being one of the worst events of the year, to one of the best. It took me weeks of work getting everything set up.
      I am planning for that event now, for the third time. It’s still one of the best, but having done all the ground work 3 years ago, I can set this up with my eyes closed now. But my boss is still impressed. Maybe the longer you stay in one role, the more efficient you become??

      Reply
      1. A Person

        It can be efficiency sure, it can also be simply having stuff on hand. I started a new job last April and I spent a lot of time working against the clock because I was developing supplemental materials for what seemed at the time a million different things. Now, I’m well ahead of the game and spending quite a bit of time noodling because I have so much already on hand and am developing stuff for about two separate things.

        Reply
  14. NPO Queen

    OP, are you me? Because I’m reading AAM and have a work chat open as I take a break from working on grant spreadsheets. It’s eerie how similar this is to my actual life. I agree with AAM though; it’s pretty easy to slack off when people trust your work, but you’ll never really stop feeling guilty about it. You can get away with more slack when you don’t have people to manage, but if you’re working with grants, think about how many more you could apply for, or which ones you could discover if you spent a bit more time on it rather than gchat.

    My problem now is that I don’t have enough work to keep me off of chat. Facebook is blocked, but they brought AAM back, and for that I’m grateful. I’d choose more work over AAM if I could though. See if you can structure your day to have times when you’ll be “slacking off.” Doing it for 15 minutes every two hours is one hour a day, whereas you’re probably doing something close to 2-3 hours if it’s always up.

    Reply
  15. jebly

    I have nothing to do at my job, so all I do is distractions. I have a hard time motivating myself to seek out more to do, since that hasn’t produced anything more in the past. I have no desire to work my way up in this company or industry anyway. It’s horribly depressing. Do not recommend.

    Reply
    1. Here we go again

      Aww… I hope you are job searching. Having a terrible job can impact the rest of your life. It really is scary how much something as simple as work can have such a big impact on everything else.

      Reply
    2. Natalie

      It’s kind of a self-reinforcing cycle, isn’t it? My job is sliding into “nothing to do” (I’m looking, but it might take a bit) and it’s almost like a disease that infects other parts of my life and ruins my ability to concentrate in non-work situations.

      Reply
      1. jebly

        It’s rough! I’m also searching, but I know I’ll be stuck here for awhile. I’ve unfortunately transitioned from “Ugh I don’t want to be her” to “How do I convince myself to get out of bed?”

        Good luck to you, Natalie!

        Reply
        1. Natalie

          Oof, that sounds rough. Unsolicited advice, but the last time I was in this situation, having other stuff going on outside of work was very helpful. Hope you find something soon!

          Reply
  16. ThatGirl

    I relate to this too.

    The thing is, I am fully capable of buckling down and focusing when there’s a high-intensity project or a deadline. And I am still pretty productive. Nobody has ever complained about my productivity and my reviews have all been excellent. I think because I’m a faster worker than some people I can get as much or more done in the same amount of time, but I do have to be careful not to get distracted when something requires a high level of attention.

    Ultimately I think I adapt to the workplace and the pace and waste time or don’t accordingly.

    Reply
    1. EddieSherbert

      I feel like this is me too! I’m great at managing my time for deadlines and set projects -regularly beating deadlines and expectations. But the second I’m “let loose” to work on “whatever” (I call them filler projects) until I’m actually needed again… all the distractions!

      Reply
    2. Nonprofit Nancy

      I wonder about myself though – could I have done that project *better* if I’d been more diligent? I think some people do work more quickly than others and when I need to, I can really get it out. My bosses seem satisfied with my output. But if I hadn’t spent half the day refreshing AAM, would I have been able to produce something better? Would it have actually mattered, or is “good enough” really truly good enough in lots of contexts?

      Reply
      1. ThatGirl

        I think that depends on the work you do, too; a lot of what I do there is no benefit in working to a higher standard, and in fact that may waste time itself – and sometimes I find myself going down wormholes investigating things for work that nobody cares that much about.

        But there are some kinds of work where better matters, for sure.

        Reply
    3. Sunshine on a cloudy day

      I think I’m very similar ThatGirl. I know that I “slack off” more than most people, but I also think that I have much higher level of conventration and can work much more efficiently and quickly than most people, at least in shortish bursts (I call it going into laser mode). It seems to average out to be on par with high performers in similar roles in terms of productivity.

      For a little while I was having a lot of existential angst over whether I was slacking too much or thinking about how much of a rock star could be if I were in laser mode all the time (or even 95% of the time). I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, I can work much more quickly and with a higher level of concentration than other people, but that my brain also needs more “rest” (slack off time) than other people to recharge.

      So what I’m doing right now is trying not to beat myself up over how much slacking off I’m doing (unless I were to start receiving any sort of negative/mediocre feedback regarding my performance). However, I am trying to slowly decrease my slacking off/increase my laser mode bursts. I think if I just tried go cold turkey I would burn myself out. Whenever I feel myself drifting toward any of my typical slack offs, I try to refocus and say to myself “10 more minutes” or finish x first.

      Reply
    4. Dang

      I have the same experience.
      And I share an office with someone who is constantly working late and always busy. At first I thought our workloads were just really different, then I realized that our work styles are just a lot different. I’m sure to her it looks like every time she walks by my desk I’m goofing off. But when I’m focused, I’m FOCUSED and I’m going to finish that task as efficiently and accurately as possible.

      Reply
      1. Sunshine on a cloudy day

        I had a really similar experience! I took over a role from a girl who needed to work 10-11 hour days to get everything done and she rarely slacked off. She was a smart person, but she was just extremely slow at the types of tasks this role performed.

        She became my manager (though I was never made aware that she became my manager, but that is an issue for a completely differnt topic) and she could not comprehend that I could complete the same amount of work as she did previously, at the same level of accuracy, within our 9 hour workday with plenty of time for “slacking off”. She also had a whole host of other issues – it was unfathomable to her that people might have different preferences/work styles than her own and she was too immature on an interpersonal skills level to be managing anyone. It was really interesting, though, seeing how each of us handled the exact same workload nearly side by side, well one right after the other, I guess.

        Reply
        1. Dang

          I’d imagine it would be hard to be on the other end of it and that probably made her pretty defensive, but it’s the pits to have to deal with people when something like that happens (especially as a manager! EEEK).

          I know that for awhile I couldn’t figure out why my officemate was so busy all of the time, and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough and why weren’t they giving me more work and did they all think I just putzed around on the internet all day as it felt like I did?!

          Efficiency is such an interesting thing! (Hope she’s not still your manager)

          Reply
  17. DataQueen

    I think the difference is – are you working 9-5 and g-chatting for 3 hours of that? And wondering if you’re getting the same amount of work done in those 5 hours as everyone else is in 8? Cause the answer could be yes, you’re a superstar, but you might need more challenging work, or the answer might be no, but no one’s really noticing because that’s you’re output status quo. Or I might be reading it wrong, and you’re like me…. I take a lot of breaks – running out for coffee, doing a little online shopping, checking AAM, hanging in someone else’s cube chatting about the weekend – but I also work 10-12 hour days. Because that’s the style I prefer. If I have something to do right after work, I power through and don’t succumb to distractions so I can bang my work out and leave at 5, but on a normal day, I’m at work 9-8 and doing about 9 solid hours of work. And a bunch of my colleagues are like that too. Part of it is a little “living the mission” and part of it is loving my coworkers and wanting to spend lots of time with them, and part of it is my personal preference (I also used to work remotely full time for bi-coastal clients, so spreading hours of work over the whole day with laundry and errand and even TV breaks was pretty typical). So I’d say that I’m just as productive if not more than everyone else, just with a different work style. Maybe you’re the same.

    Reply
    1. Vin Packer

      Yes; also, it depends on vacation time too, I think. I used to have more wasted days than 2 a year, but I also didn’t get vacation time. So, a person who took 15 days’ vacation + a couple of wasted days was probably about on par with me.

      Reply
    1. The Other Liz

      It seems like we all did. We finally achieved AAM mind meld, and one of us – or all of us – sleepwalked to the nearest computer and we all spoke with once voice.

      Reply
  18. Murphy

    These comments are making me feel better.

    My work, like a lot of people’s, ebbs and flows. So when I have something pressing/important to do, I am on it and I always get things done well and on time. But when I don’t really have anything to work on, there’s only so much busy work I can do, so I definitely goof off online, or do some personal stuff. I feel bad sometimes, but when there’s nothing to do…

    Reply
    1. AvonLady Barksdale

      It is so nice to know I’m not alone here. I had a great job a few years ago where some days were just… nothing. Other days were insane. Then I moved to a job where the nothing significantly outweighed the insane, and it made me depressed and apathetic. Then I got a job where it was the exact opposite, and I totally burned out. Now I’m at a place where I’m still learning my role and often I feel completely useless some days, but I’m getting great feedback and my boss acknowledges that I would prefer to be busy. Gotta just trust the ebbs and flows, I think. Today I went out at lunch and got my nails done. Next week it will be all day strategy sessions and meetings.

      Reply
  19. Koko

    I can relate to this somewhat. The thing is, though, that my success is only loosely correlated with my productivity. I’m in a creative field where I can grind day in and day out every day, but if my talent isn’t up to snuff I’ll get mediocre results. The grinding would probably keep my successful enough to stay employed but wouldn’t ever make me a high performer.

    Conversely, I can take frequent breaks and real lunches and work the bare minimum amount of hours, but if in that limited time I produce an exceptional product, I will get exceptional results even though my productivity (if you define productivity as deliverable work output or hours spent directly on deliverable work output) is quite low. Why kill myself running 10 mediocre campaigns when I can leisurely do 2 campaigns that knock it out of the park and bring in twice the revenue of 10 mediocre campaigns?

    You might say, why not 10 stellar campaigns instead, why does it have to be 10 mediocre or 2 stellar? The truth is I firmly believe that I need the downtime and distraction to achieve stellar results. Like any other muscle, creativity fatigues. At the gym, I can do more pull-ups the first set of the day than I can on the second and third sets. At work, I can launch rapid-response campaigns when I need to in part because I’m not run ragged from grinding constantly, and because my stellar campaigns give me breathing room to recharge, take more in, and let my thoughts wander in more interesting directions.

    Reply
    1. Jesmlet

      Your last paragraph is so on point for me. If I worked 8 straight hours every single day, I’d be miserable. Miserable people don’t produce well. You just need to find the balance between optimizing mood and optimizing productivity.

      Reply
    2. Rowan

      That last paragraph is exactly what I was going to say. I have come to accept about myself that I can only run my brain at full capacity for so long. The breaks I take to read AAM or the news (not so restful anymore…) or look at Emergency Kittens or whatever are necessary so I can get back to work with full productivity. Cutting out those breaks wouldn’t mean being more productive overall.

      Reply
    3. IowaGirl

      I’m not in a creative field, but it’s the same for me. I’m more productive when I’m not trying to do too much. Also, I know that when I’m apparently slacking, my brain is sometimes working in the background on solving a problem.

      Reply
      1. Queen of the File

        Absolutely. I’m not in a creative field but creativity is a skill that is certainly useful in my work.
        I believe I read something quite awhile ago about a writer discussing how their seemingly idle time was actually essential to being able to produce in the couple of hours a day they were physically writing. I think this is very true for me and many people. Obviously there are limits and balance is required, but I know I have occasionally been able to churn out a report in an insanely short amount of time because I had been semi-consciously turning the issue over in my mind for months during my staring-out-the-window time.

        Reply
  20. Jesmlet

    If you’re satisfied with the results you’re getting, I don’t see why you’d need to change your habits. But if you want to be even more productive, some time away from the distractions would probably help. I’m a good multitasker so I don’t need to be dialed into my work 100% at all times. I’m happy with my level of productivity and the way my coworkers regard me so I’m not going to change my habits. I do things more efficiently than most of my peers so why not take that time I save from being good at my job and partially spend it on things not work-related?

    Reply
    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      “Why not take that time I save from being good at my job and partially spend it on things not work-related?” – this sounds like me talking, although I’m not proud of it. I don’t actually owe my job every once of energy I can possible produce … right? They pay me a certain wage for a certain amount of production / time, and I deliver that. They’re happy, so what’s the problem. Well, the problem besides my crushing sense of guilt hahaha.

      I think Alison is right that the problem is more about where you want to go in the future than your status right now. We’re not going to get ahead thinking about work this way (although it’s no guarantee that we’ll get ahead if we become uber!employees either, something I really struggle with: they may totally just take advantage of my enthusiasm and energy and never pay me better / promote me / I may not find a better job either).

      Reply
  21. AMG

    You know, I read a book called “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast’ that really helped me think about what I am spending time on in my day. The basic premise is to be mindful of your time and focus on the things that are the most important to you. I would consider staying connected with friends pretty important for work-life balance, but I suppose, to Alison’s point, it would depend on how much you do it during the day versus what you need to accomplish professionally (short and long term). Just be mindful of your time in a way that doesn’t make you feel guilty about your commitments to the job.

    Reply
  22. Sabine the Very Mean

    I recommend the Pomodoro Technique and Chrome even has extensions and plug ins for it. It is a timer system that has you working uninterrupted for 25 minutes and then gives a five minute break. Then again and again 4 times and you get a 15 minute break. Time it so a lunch break is 30 minutes. I love it because I use the 5 minutes to read this blog or check personal email, look at Amazon, etc. I also use the Stay Focused plug in as mentioned above to help block bad sites during my ‘working’ time.

    Also, I’m one who always has a movie playing in my ear even if I never look down at my iPhone screen to watch it. I find I’m much more productive if I have a small distraction. Otherwise, I feel like I’m looking for a distraction instead of working.

    Reply
    1. Ann O'Nemity

      Yes, I had to do “tomatoes” when I was writing my dissertation. I wouldn’t even check email or answer the phone during the 25 minutes of concentrated work. I don’t use this technique as much at work these days unless I’m under a really tight deadline.

      Reply
    2. Princess Carolyn

      I’m the kind of person who likes to have the TV on in the background at home, but I never considered listening to a movie/show in the background at work. Gonna try that using Netflix’s new download feature!

      Reply
    3. Aurion

      I feel like a lot of us can related to the OP! I just downloaded a Pomodoro extension in Chrome based on your rec, haha.

      For me a lot of it comes down to discipline vs my laziness and unmotivation, but mustering up discipline isn’t easy. But this week I noticed I’ve made more mistakes at work in the last few weeks than is usual/acceptable, so Pomodoro it is (and getting more sleep).

      Reply
    4. Queen of the File

      Heck yes to the last paragraph. If I’m trying to concentrate on something in total silence my mind leaves the building. Music, for whatever reason, is too distracting for me, but listening to TV or a movie without watching the screen is just right.

      Reply
    5. DataQueen

      Yup to the small distraction! I’m a super weirdo with this – if I have one thing I need to work , I’ll listen to a song ON REPEAT. For hours. People think I’m crazy. But it somehow works… like drowns out the office but I don’t have to focus on the changing songs or skipping tracks that I don’t like. Doesn’t matter if it’s a sappy country ballad or some blasting punk rock, as long as it’s the same song.

      Reply
  23. eplawyer

    I have facebook open to chat with one friend who only uses that, I have gmail open because my business email sends to that, so my ghat is up (I could mark myself busy I guess) and chat with lawyer friends throughout the day.

    I need the mental break. I just finished drafting trial questions. Before I move on to the next thing I am taking a break to refresh my brain for the next big task.

    So, is it wasting time or is it refreshing yourself to be more productive? Only you know which it really is.

    P.S. I am self-employed and work from home. The chatting with people during the day keeps me connected to the outside world. If I worked in an office I might not need this so much.

    Reply
  24. Annie B

    I think we live in a culture where the 40 hour work week is just the norm, and there’s a lot of resistance to changing it. In some organizations, there just isn’t 40 hours of meaningful, productive work to do! I see this lots in non-profits, where work volume seems to ebbs and flows depending on the people you serve and programs you provide. So make-work projects are created during slower times, sometimes to create an artificial sense of business and accomplishment. My experience in non-profits so far has been a tension between not having enough to do and an unspoken expectation that you martyr yourself. I’ve seen colleagues stay late, not take vacation or lieu time, for no real reason other than wanting to appear/feel busy. I know that’s a lot of assumption to make, but has been the pervasive culture of the non-profits I have worked in during the last 10 years or so.

    OP, maybe this can be an opportunity to adjust your working hours? Maybe you’re able to do 4 days a week instead of 5, and still meet deadlines without the guilt of feeling like you’re wasting time? I know the feeling of watching the clock tick by, knowing you’ve accomplished everything for that day. It just feels so arbitrary! We’re not robots who can be 100% productive 100% of the time. I’ve been interested in the rise of shorter work weeks in some Scandinavian countries, where they have seen the same productivity despite cutting their hours back significantly. Maybe it’s some recent life changes that have changed my attitude on this, but it seems that life is too short to just “put in your time” at work just to be able to say that you did.

    Reply
    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

      This is one thing my employer is great about. I’m expected to be in the office and available during certain core hours, but as long as the work gets done and the client is happy….if you need to peace out at 3 to do an errand, or got delayed dropping the kid off at daycare, they’re fine with it. The flipside is, if it’s hammer time, you hammer down.

      Reply
    2. Manders

      This is something I’m struggling with too. I consistently get praised for my work ethic and the number of big projects I can get done, and I often find myself asking for more tasks to do–but I’m pretty sure if you broke it down by the minute, I’m not spending anything close to 40 hours per week completely focused on work. But I wouldn’t accept a part-time job, even if the hours I worked at that job were all 100% productive, because I would lose my health insurance and I’d be paid less.

      It’s weird, because I feel like I’m lazy and unproductive while other people tell me I’m very productive.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        I’m not sure ANYBODY spends 40 hours per week completely focused on work, actually. Or if they do, it’s because they spend 60 hours “working.” It’s like this deep secret nobody wants to admit.

        Reply
  25. Anna

    I could have written this myself. In my case, I really just don’t care much about my job and I don’t find it challenging. I could do it without using my brain at all, for the most part.

    OP, do you enjoy going to work? Maybe 8 hours of grueling spreadsheets just isn’t possible for you. The good news about this is that it seems that you can accomplish your expected workload in a smaller amount of time and still knock off when you’ve hit your limit. (Same is true for me at my job, with similar, tedious work tasks.)

    But if you feel guilty, maybe it is worth thinking about what kind of job you feel you COULD focus on for 8 hours per day. This is kind of how I feel about my own work–it is neither interesting nor important to me, so it can’t really hold my focus. I’m trying to figure out what kind of work I can do in this world where I can have 8 productive hours without feeling like I need to jump out of the window or my eyeballs will fall out.

    Obviously, I don’t have any answers, as I am still trying to figure this out for myeslf, but maybe thinking of it less like “I would be a better employee if I never looked at Facebook,” and more like, “What kind of work would feel more important/worthy than Facebook, and how to I get to do that kind of work?”

    Reply
    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      Yes! And remember that, especially in the beginning of your career, you *won’t get that job* if you don’t surpass expectations in the beginning. Eight hours straight of spreadsheeting is agony, but if you are “sloppy spreadsheet doesn’t care” person, you’re not going to get the chance for that meaningful job you dream of, because you have no references and no demonstration of your value.

      Reply
      1. Anna

        True–although it doesn’t seem that anyone thinks that of the OP, who is no longer entry-level, and is already a high performer (also true of myself).

        Reply
        1. Nonprofit Nancy

          Yep I think it’s a different problem once you’ve already proven yourself successful and moved into a more senior level role (and that’s my situation too) … but I do get a little nervous thinking of students or first time employees reading our comments and thinking this is fine!

          Reply
          1. AC6

            I commented to this effect above but… you’re referring to me. I got my doctorate and left academia, and so just on the eve of 30, I’m in my first entry-level office job. Yay.

            I’ve only gotten glowing feedback so far.. “You’re picking this up so much more quickly than people usually do,” “We usually don’t have anyone taking this on so early in this position,” etc. My training manager is going out on maternity leave unexpectedly early, and when I expressed a bit of nervousness, she said “I have complete confidence in your work.”

            Cut to me doing, literally, non-work related tasks for at least half of the day. The fact of my job being entry-level, and having not that many responsibilities, means that there is just not much else to do once I’ve done them. Asking for more tasks occasionally yields more projects, but more often results in nothing that doesn’t simply take me to the end of the day but not beyond that.

            I cringe to think of the work habits I may be developing, and am keeping the faith that as I move into more advanced roles with greater responsibility I’ll adjust my pace accordingly, but for now it seems like the expectations for this position are set so low that I can’t help but exceed them.

            Reply
  26. Cat

    I think it depends on the task too. When I’m writing something long and involved, I tend to toggle to something else periodically–often food blogs I’ve read before. It somehow helps me stay in the groove. If I’m writing emails and taking calls, I might flip to something in between tasks to reset. If I’m reading something involved, it’s better for me not to have distractions. So I would guess that’s part of what’s going on with successful people who are involved in other things at work.

    Reply
  27. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

    One thing that’s a challenge for me, as far as productivity goes, is the glacial pace of my workplace. I’ve been contractor working onsite in client offices for over seven years now, and….man, it’s hard sometimes. There was the coffee klatch of 65-year-old guys counting down to retirement who’d camp out in the break room and shoot the breeze, loudly, from 11am until 1pm daily – after arriving at 9, and shuffling out no later than 4pm every day. Send out an urgent email, maybe get a response the next work day. Send out a 5-page document for review and approval, I’m not going to see it for 10 business days, and only then if I spam them with reminders. Need a signature on a form? It has to get routed through 4 offices, and each of them take their sweet-ass time. One guy actively searched out every teleconference he could plausibly attend and sat there, headphones on, playing Clash of Clans on his phone for several hours a day.

    So there I am, and I love to be busy and borderline slammed, and I’ve got a to-do list and project milestones several pages long…..and I literally have nothing to do, no way forward, nothing I can productively work on because I’m waiting for disinterested lifers to bestir themselves to take the 5-minute action that would let me get the next two weeks of work done.

    Reply
    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      I agree, but I think it’s best not to get stuck in such workplaces if you still have future career goals … you learn very bad habits, and if you try to work somewhere faster paced you may find yourself surprised! At least that’s what I found myself. I resolved after that, that if I found myself in a similar work culture I’d try to leave quickly, just as I would from any toxic culture (like where people yell or where there’s a lot of ridiculous drama).

      Reply
      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

        The interesting thing is, it’s not my workplace and I’m not actually stuck in it – my actual employer is super busy and fast-paced. When my current project is stuck on the tracks, I’m on my corporate computer jamming out proposals or document reviews or doing maps for someone else’s task order or whatever. So I’m usually busy (except when I post here….) and am getting more done than probably anybody else in the building, because I have the flexibility to do work for four task orders and as many different clients.

        Reply
  28. Susie Cruisie

    I think we’re missing a point here. OP is in a leadership role, and that means setting the example for all employees. Perhaps OP is able to be productive while “wasting” time at work, but what’s the likelihood an entry level admin could say the same? And how would OP react if one of their direct reports missed a deadline or failed at a project because a significant amount of time was spent on Facebook or whatnot? I work in HR and it’s difficult to counsel people about wasting company time and resources only to hear “but my boss does it so I thought it was okay.” As a manager or director it’s your job to promote the company mission. I’m quite certain your company’s mission is not “to do just enough work to get by and then spend time on social media.” I understand most exempt employees work far more than 8 hours per day so it’s convenient to take a little time to take care of personal errands like online shopping, but you must consider the visibility of these activities and the message you are sending both up and down the chain of command. There’s always more work, or projects, or initiatives and part of your responsibility the further up the line you move is to be trusted to work with minimal supervision. By wasting a lot of time on social media you’re demonstrating that you can’t.

    Reply
    1. Mary Dempster

      Two thoughts:

      1. I think it’s an important lesson to learn that just because your boss does it, does not mean it’s OK for you (as a junior employee).

      2. I think it’s very likely an entry-level admin could do their entire job and browse the web. I know when I worked for a very large investment firm and supported 20 people, I never had enough work. I would ask for more, but there just wasn’t more. I think it needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

      I also worked at a healthcare firm as a temp doing document formatting, and got literally 4x the amount of work done as my coworkers. We were given say, 100 documents, and were told that we had a week. I’d get 75 done in a day, while my other two coworkers did the other 25. And then we’d sit there all week, begging for more work.

      Depending on your position, there isn’t always more work, and the most productive thing a person who’s efficient when it’s not being utilized it to look for a new job!

      I personally feel miles better when I’m productive, but I’ve never had a job (am only 30) that required me to focus 100% of the time to get work done. Even yesterday I was told by another manager that they like me because “they can pass off tasks to me and know they will get done.” That’s enough for me, even if it means I did spend 10 minutes typing up this comment!

      Reply
      1. Grayson

        I was actually laid off from a job because I did more work in a day than they had in a week. My then supervisor told me to slow down on tasks, and take my time. I can’t really *do* that because its not in me to draw out a task. Do a task, move on to the next- rinse, lather, repeat. When my boss let me go, he said “I have a solution for your lack of work here. We’re going to let you go, and I think that’ll be better for you.”

        This was also a position where I did whatever tasks assigned to me. In one instance that included ironing his shirts. No big deal, I was right out of college, whatever. While ironing, then iron fell off the ironing board and made a noise. He later pulled me into his office to ask if the iron had actually fallen, as I told him- or if I threw it down because I didn’t want to do the task assigned to me. I told him in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t want to do a task that I would tell him directly.

        That was my moment when I knew the gig wouldn’t be a good fit, and when I was let go well… That was probably a blessing in disguise.

        Reply
        1. Mary Dempster

          Did… did you throw your iron down? I probably would have burst out laughing thinking that was a joke. Yeah, I didn’t want to do what I said OK to, so I threw the object in question.

          I usually temper myself because I realize I do work very fast, and I make very few mistakes. I’ve just never understood how it could take someone weeks to do something I can do in an afternoon (actual example: uploading a dozen generic photos to every one of our units on our website, ie. a picture of the restaurant and front desk, after the actual unit photos). I did it all myself in one afternoon last time. It’s tedious, but easy.

          I had to do it again, and gave the task to THREE other people, who haven’t completed the work in 3 weeks.

          Reply
          1. Grayson

            I had much the same reaction you would have. Incredulity, and confusion. His demeanor was absolutely serious. Especially when he insisted that I had thrown the iron down.

            Some people accomplish different tasks at different paces. Oh no, 3 weeks and still not done?!

            Reply
    2. Amber Rose

      You say ‘just enough work to get by’ like it’s a bad thing. The people with the most stress and health problems tend to be those who try to maintain 110% focus all day and get twice as much done as they need to. If you’re meeting targets, and feel happy with your work, why is that so bad?

      I don’t think working yourself to death is a good example for anyone to set. I don’t think the reward for hard work should be more hard work.

      Reply
    3. OP

      This is a fair point. But, I actually don’t care if my admin person spends time on social media as long as she meets the high expectations I’ve set for her. Missing a deadline is unacceptable, and I’ve given her a fair amount of coaching on how to organize and manage her tasks when things get overwhelming, but I’ve been able to do that without micro managing her time on an hourly basis.

      Reply
  29. Some Sort of Management Consultant

    I’m also wondering if I wrote this in my sleep?

    (I did recently get an ADD-diagnosis so I’ve felt slightly better about this lately. I’m not just lazy – there’s actually something else. It also gets me the proper help. )

    I’ve managed to compensate so far because I’m very fast when I actually work. It’s like I’m cyclically productive?

    Reply
    1. Some Sort of Management Consultant

      As in my productivity is like most other employees’ when one averages it out.

      Reply
    2. HR Bee

      “I’ve managed to compensate so far because I’m very fast when I actually work. It’s like I’m cyclically productive?”

      This is me. IMO, especially in a professional, salaried job, as long as you get the required volume of work done at the required level of accuracy, who cares if you are doing it in short, quick sprints or in a single long jog?

      Reply
    3. Jaydee

      I am much the same way and also recently diagnosed (about 2 years ago) with ADHD. I am also cyclically productive. Thankfully, with treatment, the productive parts of the cycle have increased in length and frequency and the unproductive parts have decreased in length and frequency.

      One of the other comments above also resonated with me. I find myself checking AAM or other distracting sites when what I’m working on isn’t stimulating enough. If I have meetings or a deadline or even just something I’m really into, I might not go on any distracting sites all day. But if my computer is updating or I’m on a boring conference call or I am doing a bunch of little tasks that aren’t very challenging or interesting I’m much more likely to want the little dopamine hit I get from something more fun and interesting.

      Reply
      1. Koko

        As a fellow ADD sufferer, I’ve also identified that my default reaction to being overwhelmed or unsure how to proceed is to avoid work. Like I know I have Project A and Project B to do but I’m not sure where to start and maybe there are other things I should be doing first but who knows because my inbox is out of control!

        Conversely, I can have a list of a dozen rote data tasks that are all high priority and never get overwhelmed. It’s so much easier to open up a reporting module, adjust some filters, download a report, manipulate the data in Excel, and send the file to someone else than it is to do a big ambiguous task like “plan Teapot launch event.”

        I find that taking time to zero my inbox, write down every single thing I need to do, and then picking the most urgent project and breaking it down into its constituent smaller steps, helps get rid of that overwhelmed-avoidant feeling. I’m confident I’m not forgetting anything, and now instead of “plan Teapot Launch event” I would have, “Select catering vendor,” “Draft invitation,” “Email Fergus to coordinate with printer,” “Create slides for awards portion,” etc. Each one of them is a clear, direct task that doesn’t scare me off and I can jump right into doing it.

        Reply
  30. Violet

    This sounds like me too. My work load is dramatically different depending on the time of year (I work in politics, sort of – or at least my workload is determined by what’s happening in the government), and there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. I don’t feel too bad about killing time on news sites or AAM when I have to wait for something before I can do the next part of a task. In the summer, it’s our slow season, and I set specific goals and divide them into tasks and block out chunks of time to do the tasks or else it takes me twice as long as it could because there’s no real pressing deadline.

    And I agree that it’s important to get a read on the office culture for this kind of thing. In my office, it’s pretty normal for people to do a few non-work tasks during the day, so if my boss came into my office when I was online shopping or something, that would be just fine. He knows I get a lot of work done to a very high standard, so I get a considerable amount of freedom (and so do most of my coworkers).

    Reply
  31. Distracted

    I’m the same as OP, but the question I have is… How do you fix it? I leave most distractions off my computer, but I use my phone for music (an absolute must for me to be productive) and it’s like a little devil on my shoulder. Read me! Check Facebook! It’s probably related to me having fairly severe anxiety and potentially undiagnosed ADD. I see a therapist, and her suggestions – power hours, scheduling distractions / pomodoro, phone productivity apps – have all helped, but even blocking everything out doesn’t really allow me to focus. Am I just bad in an office environment? I should also add, I was always very successful in school because it kind of came naturally, so I never really developed the strong work ethic most of my peers have and I think that’s a huge setback.

    Reply
    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

      I actually ended up dusting off my old iPod for this very reason. Can’t get distracted by a single-purpose device.

      And seconded on the coming naturally thing, as someone who tests well, writes well, and has an excellent memory. I didn’t put much effort into school and ended up getting fine grades all the way through. In some ways, I parlayed that into my current job, which involves a lot of technical writing.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        Alison has written before about the “stick to it” muscles that some people don’t develop in school, of pressing through things when they are hard. If things mostly come pretty easy to you, you might not have built up practice at this skill and it can be a surprise when suddenly you have to do something difficult!

        Reply
        1. Queen of the File

          I’m not who you were responding to, but thanks for the “aha moment” of my day. Off to search!

          Reply
    2. Temperance

      I gave an answer upthread of what works for me wrt scheduling. I have similar issues to you. School was so easy that I never had to try, so I never learned how to work hard/study because I just didn’t have to.

      When it comes to work, I write everything in a steno book. Each task, no matter how silly. Checking things off is weirdly satisfying. I also give myself permission to do an occasional sporcle quiz or read AAM in the morning. I pretty much also come to work early because I know I’m going to be the most productive when no one else is here to ask me questions.

      Reply
    3. Greens of June

      I have ADHD and the thing that helped me most when I was struggling with staying at focused at work was medication. I knew all the focusing and time management strategies, but to be able to put them into practice consistently, I needed the extra boost that medication gives.

      Reply
      1. Queen of the File

        Me too. I was reluctant for years (YEARS) after my adult diagnosis, and I wish I hadn’t been.

        Reply
    4. Koko

      Observe yourself for a week or so, and make note of what you’re doing the moment you tab away from work and start doing something else instead without exactly meaning to. Figure out what your triggers are, and then work to mitigate them.

      I did this and found my two main triggers were:

      – My to-do list consisting entirely of ambiguous/vague objectives without any concrete/straightforward tasks. I feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, so my brain immediately looks for a low-pressure distraction to relieve that anxiety. I solved this one by learning to pick one objective and break it down into a list of concrete/straightforward tasks when I feel this way, which calms the anxiety without diverting my attention away from the work.

      – Waiting for a report to run or other waiting tasks. I get impatient, so I open a new tab and quickly forget I was running a report and waste a bunch of time. I solved this one by using waiting time to take a lap around the floor to stretch my legs, stop by the water cooler, go to the bathroom, start my lunch, or drop by a coworker’s office to chat for a minute. When I get back to my desk, the report is done running and I can proceed with my work, and by physically getting up I prevented myself from getting lost on the internet.

      Reply
  32. Lillian Styx

    Like many other commenters I, too, could have written this same letter. In a different role in my org, I was busy 9-5 and lucky if I could answer a text outside my lunch break. In my current role I frequently “do the rounds” on my social media and blog sites and come and go as I please. There are simply fewer demands to have the thing done NOW. There are longer projects with longer deadlines and more input from other people required and I work quickly so there’s a lot of down time between waiting for other people to get back to me. It also helps me to be more flexible to pitch in when emergencies come up or help is needed in other departments. Part of my job is simply being here is how I’d put it. I don’t feel guilty!

    Reply
  33. Blue-Green

    My productivity went up about 8000% when I gave myself distractions like watching videos or listening to comedy routines or having gchat conversations. Otherwise my mind would wander and I’d “wake up” from a daze realizing I hadn’t been doing anything for the last 20 minutes. Doing those things keeps me stimulated so when I switch tasks, there’s not a lull.

    Reply
    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      This is a problem I have. Especially when working on a boring task, I’ll say “I won’t let myself get distracted from this boring task … I’m going to focus and get it done. Focus. Focus. Focus.” Then I’ll realize I’ve been sitting there for 20 minutes staring blankly at the screen reminding myself to focus. Hahah. I should have just looked at a blog for ten minutes, I wouldn’t have been any worse off.

      Reply
  34. Sfigato

    I have a tendency to get distracted, especially if I don’t have any pressing deadlines.

    one of the things I’ve done that has been somewhat successful is to use a browser add on like leechblock or freedom to block timewasting sites. Especially after the election i found myself wasting sooooo much time on political blogs, it was not healthy or good for my work. i set it so that i can spend two minutes twice a day on facebook and other blogs where i was wasting a lot of time. I make myself invisible on gmail so I won’t waste time chatting with friends (invisible is better to me than the red do not disturb). When I have downtime when I am not being stimulated, I try to do distractions that are work related – reading industry blogs, etc. I have also set up long-term projects that I can work on during downtime, and broken down some of my nebulous long-term projects into shorter term achievable goals so that I don’t get lost in them.

    I think wasting time is something you can get away with, and is common, but isn’t necessarily good. It’s a little bit like any behavior that is harmful in excess – you can get away with it, but it can still be hurting you. Also, at least in my case, i find it is driven by other things – when I am unhappy or bored professionally or personally, i tend to waste more time. Addressing the cause can help reduce the timewasting.

    Reply
  35. Ashley

    This is one of the existential questions. So, if you stopped your distractions and were an a super star – what would that mean? More responsibility? A higher positons? More praise? More money? More of a sense of accomplishment? More self confidence? Is that where you want to go?

    Do you want to move up in your company? Do you want resposibility or a higher position.

    What if you instead worked on a passion project during those times when you were ‘taking a break’ from work? Worked on a blog or something similar and closer to what you want to do. To me – that seems more deceptive because people are not paying you for that but it is more beneficial to you in the long run that g-chatting.

    I see why you (and me) struggle. We were raised in a time where productivity and performance was rewarded rather than being asked what would make us happy or what you want your schedule to look like. That constant judgment of yourself and questioning if we shoud be doing more is EXAUSTING. I think I would be happier if I just wasted time and stopped analyzing it. Such is the life of a over-thinker.

    Reply
  36. Fiennes

    I could’ve written this. But–this is important–only in adulthood was I diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. For decades I beat myself up about being lazy/too easily distracted/etc, when in fact that’s just how some people’s brains operate, including mine.

    My doctor was willing to give me medication, but he said that if I felt I performed well most of the time, I might do better to understand my own coping mechanisms and work with those. Most people who get to adulthood pre-diagnosis have come up with ways to cope–and the kind of multitasking you describe is one of the most common. When I do this, I frequently get more done than I would if I sat in front of one task and my brain kept wandering in random directions instead of to small, controllable asides.

    I don’t want to play internet doctor; your situation may be very different than mine. But it sounded so familiar that I wanted to raise the possibility. If you’re very successful doing what you do–and it sounds like you are–don’t assume you’re doing it wrong because it looks different. This may be what’s right for you.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I think that’s where I am on the coping mechanism thing. We’ve noted I have some symptoms, but I already have enough to manage medically and I seem to be doing pretty well with my strategies.

      Reply
  37. Ditto

    Wow I needed to see this. I know I come off as very responsible and “on top of things”, but part of me feels like I can often dupe people with my demeanor while in reality I’m wasting too much time. I think it’s partly due to being a mix of a procrastinator, having imposter’s syndrome, and the fact that my company changes gears so often it’s been easy to push off projects that you know won’t be priority in a few weeks. Leaves me feeling horribly guilty all the time though, and that actually takes up more mind space than just buckling down and being superstar efficient. I’ve been jam packed and very high preforming in the past and I still can be when I need to, but it’s very easy to get stuck in this cycle when you’re in an environment that fosters it.

    Reply
  38. Feathers McGraw

    Nobody can be productive all the time. Your brain needs downtime! I’m remembering the bit in Mad Men where Don Draper says: “my staff need to be unproductive until they’re productive.”

    The question for me is whether this is just how you roll or if you’re actively avoiding work. And if your downtime activities are appropriate to do at work. For example in my role and workplace it’s fine to need downtime but not fine to constantly have social media sites open on your workstation.

    I suggest you look into two things – the resting state network and the addictiveness of variable responses – and work out which one you’re feeding.

    Reply
  39. Can also relate

    Man, add me to the list of people who could have written this in their sleep.
    When I first started at my current job, I replaced someone who was awful. This set a VERY low bar for me, and I received so much feedback of, “Whoa! You did that soooo fast!” that it made me less inclined to move quickly, especially since I saw myself running out of work. I’d ask for more, but my supervisor was so convinced that I was overloaded for some reason that she would almost never give me more work, even when I’d say “I have plenty of time right now.” I don’t know if she thought I was being a martyr or what.

    What’s even crazier is she kept asking me if I wanted an intern, assistance, etc. I kept saying “no, I don’t need help.” I meet every deadline, I never work overtime, and when I was out for a week on vacation, she’d maybe have to do a single hour of work as my sole backup. She’d say “But you have X project coming up” and I’d say “But I’ll be done with Y so it won’t be a problem.” And yet, she made me manager without asking (I would have said no), and hired someone to work under me. And now I try to split up not-enough-work-for-one-person amongst two people! It’s hard because I want to set a good example for my employee, but I just don’t have enough work for both of us. She reminds me a lot of myself and I am sure she’s bored, but I just don’t have a lot for her to do. And meanwhile, even though she knows I have extra help, my boss will ask me to do a writeup on something and say “I know you’re busy, so get this to me in a week.”

    But, I can tell the OP where this finally might bite you in the butt: as you can imagine, I’m incredibly bored, so I’ve been looking for something else. I realized that one of the things that was hurting me in interviews was implying that my current job was boring, or that I didn’t often have things to do. I think even just once saying “I never work overtime” was enough to make it look like I wouldn’t be able to hack it in a different environment.. when the truth is, I’d really thrive much better in a fast-paced job. I worry about my bad habits transferring elsewhere, but like others here, I’m also great and laser-focused when I have a deadline.

    The other downside is that I can tell that, in addition to some guilt (even though like the OP I have stellar reviews and meet all my deadlines), the downtime affects my mood. Not having a focused project makes my mind wander, and I have a tendency to overthink, which makes me bummed. I have realized I’d be happier in a faster-paced environment, which is what I’ve been aiming for.

    Reply
    1. AngtheSA

      My last job was exactly like this. The person before me set such a low bar. Previous Person has a multiple procedures in place that were every helpful when everything was done by hand, but since everything was done by computer there was no need to do them that way. She still did and it would take her all day to do her job. Once I was finished training and felt comfortable (about 6 months), I could do her job in about 3 hours everyday.

      So I asked for more stuff to do since my manager was constantly putting out fires. I got nothing, not because there wasn’t more to do but because everyone else would not give up anything or take the time to train me to do it. It was so frustrating to hear how busy they where when I had just spend 3 hours reading AAM archives. I felt so unproductive. My reviews were steller though and my work was alway complete and accurate. I probably could have stayed at that job for 25 years and would have been gold due to previous person being so hard to deal with.

      I eventually left and am now at a new job. While the problem persist it is because as a whole no one is really that busy (except my boss). People ready blogs, take classes online in excel etc.

      Reply
  40. Marcy

    I think a lot of people are feeling guilt over Facebooking or gchatting or browsing the internet who would probably not feel that sense of guilt over just chatting with their coworkers. It’s not entirely the same because I guess you could saying you are bonding with your coworkers, which is work-related, but a lot of those conversations are driven by boredom or a need for distraction. And of course there’s that coworker who needs to complain about how crazy busy they are for hours on end…

    Reply
  41. Dr. Doll

    I haven’t read all the comments yet, but hoping to hear from fposte because she seems to be so present on AAM and yet be a quite senior person in her university!

    OP, I have felt exactly the same way as you for much of my career. “I could have been so much more if I’d just focused.” …And yet I am successful, respected, and productive in my field.

    As much as I value and appreciate Allison’s perspective, you’re ultimately going to have to make your own choices, and then learn to live with them. And those choices stack up five minutes at a time, just as much as they present themselves as major forks in the road.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I’m not that senior, just high-mileage :-). And yes, like most of us here, I am a procrastinator with focus difficulties. Fortunately, that’s hardly a standout in academics, and in fact academics can make exoneration easier because the digressions are intellectually stimulating and may count toward your research in some undefinable way (but probably won’t).

      I like Agnodike’s framing below of time in economic terms. Maybe you’re a Mr. Money Mustache type who can wring the last penny out of everything to prioritize retirement; most of us, though, spend more than that as we go and are okay with retiring later. For me that means being okay with spreading my work out longer through the week including the weekend rather than working full-out for x hours and then being off. I know that’s the opposite of what’s culturally prioritized right now, but I’m better off with ill-defined boundaries and the ability to bounce back and forth between distraction and project. When I do a time audit, I’m solidly productive. Could I be more productive? Should I be more productive? Undoubtedly yes to the first–the second is less clear.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Continued, because it’s not letting me post one long comment:

        Focus tactics tend to be learned through experience. Over the years I’ve increasingly learned about the nuances of my own focus, about what I can do at what time of day, what I can’t do with music on and what it will help, and what I should do when I’m spinning my wheels, and how challenging I’ll find physical impairment on a given day. Maybe if I’d known all that decades ago I’d have done more, but I don’t know how else I’d have learned it.

        Reply
  42. Michelle

    I feel very similar to the OP and many of the posters here. I do it when it needs to be done and when I have work, I get it done quickly & accurately. Then I have X more hours to fill. I do ask and help out coworkers as much as I can and volunteer to take on some tasks that others abhor- counting/inventory, making name tags for events, etc.- but some days it’s a struggle to find enough to do to appear busy. However, boss is thrilled with my work , I always get great reviews , my coworkers appreciate me and now that I know this is more common, I feel so much better.

    Reply
  43. Amber Rose

    I kill off significant chunks of time at work (I’m at work right now). That’s because my job is burst tasks. When I have work to do, I focus 100% on that work and get it done. When I’m slow, I take the time to relax.

    I feel no guilt. When I’m needed, I’m on the ball. That’s why I’m here, to put out fires. When there’s no fires, and if I just can’t spend one more second reading up on fire fighting techniques (not literally) then I take it easy. My coworkers also spend down time reading the news or watching YouTube so it’s a culture thing too for sure.

    The real question is, are you happy with that? I sometimes wish I had a job with a full 8 hours worth of work to do every day.

    Reply
  44. C Average

    I have a theory that most people are motivated by either sloth or productivity, and it’s just a matter of figuring out which type you are and leveraging that knowledge.

    Here’s an illustration. If you give my husband and me a to-do list, we’ll both do it fast and we’ll both do it well. But when we finish, he will say, “I’m done! What do you have for me to do now?” And I’ll say, “I’m done! Now I get to goof off guilt-free.”

    In a workplace where “done” is a recognized concept, either type works great. But in a workplace where “done” is amorphous–there’s always something more you COULD be doing, if you just thought about it or hustled a little harder–it’s way too easy for the motivated-by-sloth types like me to wind up clicking from tab to tab, making excuses to myself about why I can’t yet engage with this or that project (“I need more information from the vanilla teapots team,” “I just don’t have the inspiration for this today,” “I need input from the leadership team on this,” “I need clarity,” etc.) and then deciding to go on a Facebook decompression break for a few minutes instead, and then a few minutes turns into an hour.

    So how do you handle this in real life?

    –Adjust your definition of “done.”
    –Seek out jobs where “done” is a pretty clear-cut concept.
    –Define a set of diversions that are job-related. (At one old job of mine, when I had down time, I’d look at our competitors’ sites or surf our bug database. I often found highly relevant stuff, and it was a nice mental break from my normal tasks but also 100% work-related, and it unquestionably made me better at my job.)
    –Come up with a ritual for getting unstuck and re-engaged when the temptation to spend whole days goofing around is high. When I was in a high-pressure job a few years back, I used to schedule what I called an offsite with myself. I’d take my computer to a different part of campus and work there. I’d give myself permission to daydream and people-watch a little bit, but I’d also try to re-engage with my work. Why do I work at this place? What does its mission mean to me? Why was I so excited to work here initially, and how do I get that energy back?

    I dunno. Just a few thoughts.

    Reply
    1. Kate in Scotland

      This is a brilliant concept. I am 100% a sloth person. I really like the idea of a re-engaging ritual – something to work on.

      In a more general sense, I’ve addressed my distraction by getting a job that is entirely made of shortish focused tasks (between, say, 10 mins and 20 hours – if they’re on the longer end I’ll alternate them with short ones). Every single person who works here is a natural procrastinator who is only made productive by the constant flow of external hard deadlines.

      I also had a lightbulb moment when I read about pseudo-ADD, I am so much more distractable if I’ve had too little sleep or exercise and/or too much screen time.

      Reply
  45. Procrasti-nation

    This post also really resonated with me. Does anyone else have trouble with procrastination?

    My partner will make fun of me for leaving everything til the last minute, but the problem is that it’s always worked for me. I would leave undergrad projects until the last minute, yet graduated with honors. I literally hit “submit” on my grad school application (for the top public university in the country) minutes before the midnight deadline, and still got in. Now that I’m working again, I know that I shouldn’t procrastinate because other people’s work depends on my ability to be productive, but since I’m good at meeting deadlines, I just haven’t had the kick-in-the-pants I think I need to shake me out of this habit.

    Halp!

    Reply
    1. Nonprofit Nancy

      If you’re good at meeting deadlines, you’re probably fine. If you set internal deadlines for your team and meet those, it might not matter when you actually get the work done (all at once versus spaced out over time – who cares?). But you’ll get that kick in the pants if you let the people around you down by missing internal deadlines – because you’d be making their lives / workloads harder. I only had to do this one time before an internal deadline became as real to me as a any other, and it’s been fine ever since although I do procrastinate somewhat.

      Reply
    2. Feathers McGraw

      I used to think I worked best right up against a deadline. It was because I hadn’t tried anything else.

      I started planning ahead and wow is that less stressful. I honestly think this can be an unhelpful story you tell yourself – it’s true for some people but not everyone who says it.

      Reply
      1. Nonprofit Nancy

        I am somewhat haunted sometimes by the idea: could this product have been “better” if I’d spaced out the workflow more? But sometimes, surprisingly often, “good enough” is fine – for example, a grad school application – if you got in, it was “good enough,” and what does it matter if it could have been EVEN BETTER if you’d spent another 12 hours on it? If you’re stressed out by the urgency of the deadlines you’ve created and that bothers you, then by all means experiment with that – but the stress doesn’t bother me, just the question of when it could have been meaningfully “better” if I’d allowed myself time for a third revision instead of two, or more time to confer with X other employee, etc.

        Reply
    3. Cher Horowitz

      I am paranoid that something will come up at the last minute that will stop me from being able to make my deadline. So in your grad school submission example, I would have been paranoid that the internet connectivity would have cut out on me that night or if I leave a project undone, I will mysteriously lose access to resources needed to complete it in time. Now that I type this out, I am almost sure this is subconscious brain making sure that I do not procrastinate because it does not make any sense otherwise!

      Reply
  46. Sandy

    So I used to worry about this in my personal life (I had one of those crazy GOGOGO jobs mentioned above) and I found a simple solution for it:

    I made a personal rule that I had to *create* something every day.

    It could be knitting, or photography, or a piece of writing. After doing that each day, I gave myself permission to stop feeling guilty about online time.

    It worked like a charm, because the guilt stopped- I had tangible progress on cool things!

    I suspect it could work at work as well- what substantive thing have you worked on that day? And govern yourself accordingly.

    Reply
  47. Agnodike

    I really resist the idea of “wasting time,” because, for me, that approach just made me feel guilty for being human without adding anything to my productivity. So I started using idea of a “time budget.” Time is finite, and so is energy; I only get so much per day, and I get to decide what the best use of both would be for me. Then I manage it just like I manage my money: I make lists of what I NEED to spend time and energy on (work commitments, family commitments, self-care tasks, etc.), and allocate the time and energy needed to get those things done. Then with my “leftover” time I make lists of what I WANT to spend time and energy on, and I do that. If I want to be on twitter for three hours, and it’s affordable in my budget, I do it, just like if I want to order takeout every night for a week, and it’s affordable in my budget, I do it. No guilt, no judgment, just me spending my resources in a way that makes me happy once my obligations are met.

    I’m a big goal-setter, and it’s helpful to me to track my time and see if it aligns with my goals. So, if one of my goals is “Read one book a week,” but all my leisure time is being allocated to watching Netflix, there’s a disconnect there. I either need to reexamine the goal or reallocate my time.

    So, if you can meet your obligations to others while checking Facebook every three minutes, AND checking Facebook is how you want to spend that leisure time, then do it and don’t feel guilty. But if you’re checking Facebook out of habit and your Facebook time is cutting into other uses of leisure time that you’d really prefer, or if it’s impeding your ability to meet your obligations, it’s time to put some structures in place to reduce your Facebook time.

    Reply
    1. Princess Carolyn

      I think I sort of already subscribed to this theory, but your explanation is so excellent that now I feel like a total convert to the time budget point of view.

      Reply
    2. HM

      This is beautiful. It really reframes the entire concept, so you actually are spending time with things you want to be doing, not just distractions that are easy and mindless.

      Reply
  48. Epsilon Delta

    Hmm, I’m in a similar situation as the OP. With rare exceptions (like Big Major-Project-That’s-Due-Tomorrow or Emergency-Everything-Is-On-Fire), I rarely have a day where I don’t check AAM, personal email, take a walk, chat with a coworker in the break room, etc. multiple times in a day. I only have a certain number of productive hours in me, and when you want me to try to squeeze them all in to a consecutive 8-hour period, you’re going to get about 6 hours of actual work, on average. I just cannot focus for 8 hours straight on the same thing (or essentially the same things), especially if I’m sitting at a desk, and I think that’s a common human experience. Doubly true when I’ve worked 45-50 hours the previous week for a code release or other Big Important Thing.

    If OP and her manager are both happy with her work quantity and quality (and OP isn’t getting a reputation for “always on Facebook when I come to her desk”), I don’t see a problem here.

    Reply
    1. Colorado

      This is me too. I consider myself very productive but do take a few breaks during the day to check personal email, bank account, an advice column here or there, some crappy news. I thinks it’s totally okay. There are days when I am so busy I can’t and that’s okay too. I do consider AAM professional development since I learn so much, so I exclude it from my “wasted” time of the above activities ;-)

      Reply
      1. Colorado

        One more thing to add is I do check work email on my phone in the morning and evening, sometimes weekends and always make myself available for my colleagues in the evening and on the weekend if necessary (within reason of course). To me, it all equals out in the end.

        Reply
  49. Managercanuck

    Yeah…this could also be me. I’m working to limit FB time at work, as I’m on far too much. It’s partly a Lent thing, but also, we’re moving to a new office space, and the configuration of my office will be different, and I don’t want anyone reading over my shoulder. So, I’ve installed SelfControl on my work computer and block the addictive sites for several hours at a time. I’m on day 2 and so far so goo….

    Reply
  50. OP

    Hello everyone, I’m the OP! Thanks Allison for your thoughtful reply, and thanks to everyone coming out of the woodwork to say “me too”. It’s very comforting to know that I’m not the only one feeling this way.

    I think I’m going to spend some time thinking about what I really want to be accomplishing and what I want to move forward on quicker– there are definitely things. But at the same time I can take some comfort in know that this is pretty normal and while I can improve, I’m not secretly doing terribly at my job.

    I wrote this question a few months ago after a really stressful period at work where I planned our organization’s first major fundraising event ever while prepping for the organizational audit at the same time. I was exhausted and very emotionally anxious throughout this time, but still worked the way I normally do and didn’t even work that much overtime– I think that’s what got me thinking, ‘am I weird that I just planned a huge event all by myself and didn’t even work that many 12-hour days or not mess around on Facebook?’ It seems from these comments that no I’m not weird, it’s just that no one ever talks about this.

    The existential aspects of this, and the questions about capitalist expectations are fascinating too. I am definitely at a place where I’m starting to question what kind of ambition I really want in my life. I always assumed I wanted to be an Executive Director, but in my two years here I’ve been working really closely with my ED while he copes with being a new parent at the same time as his crazy job, and I’m actually not sure that’s what I want anymore as I think about becoming a parent myself. Since I wrote this letter, I have actually started giving myself more slack on my actual working hours, which I have flexibility to do. So, sometimes I’ll realize that it’s 4pm and my brain feels fried, and I know that I’m probably going to waste most of the next hour on half-doing a task that will take me 10 minutes the next morning, so I stop work early. That means I spend time taking walks, playing my guitar, taking meaningful rest breaks that make me more productive when I am working, and there are still days when I have to work long hours to meet a deadline or be at an event.

    Anyways, now I”m rambling. But thanks again, everyone!

    Reply
    1. Kelly Kapoor

      I think it was a great question – I definitely feel less alone now that I realized there are many of us out there!

      Reply
      1. OP

        Thanks! But just to be clear, I do think it’s unprofessional to spend so much time every day making out with Ryan. . .;)

        Reply
  51. Isben Takes Tea

    I want to add that I struggle with this as well, and found an interesting side effect: when I let myself get distracted throughout the day on the internet, I feel irresponsible taking a full lunch or leaving right at 5, since I still have to snap myself back to work in order to “get things done.” However, if I focus focus focus, I say, Okay, it’s time for a break! And I’ll go on a full hour lunch and relax, and that allows me to focus focus more in the afternoon.

    I also want to point out that people aren’t robots, and it’s unrealistic and unkind to yourself to hold yourself to a bar of “I should be operating at peak efficiency and focus 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year.” Because you’re not going to! You are a living human being that is running on a chemical-based operating system! So I’ve been trying to focus on being mindful of myself and my attention, and just doing the best I can in any given moment.

    I also just installed the StayFocused Chrome extension, which I’ve been meaning to do for months. :-)

    Reply
    1. Venus Supreme

      Yup, I feel irresponsible as well for the same reasons stated above.

      I also get panicked when I see some colleagues complain about a certain couple of employees (both past and present) who “do nothing all day except watch videos and go on Facebook.” It makes me feel like such a terrible person for doing anything outside my job description. Even though I don’t slack around on social media all day, I feel the need to hide when I check Facebook for 5 minutes or text back a friend so I don’t get categorized into the same group as these slackers.

      Reply
  52. Paloma Pigeon

    This is me too. Food for thought: I find I tend to jump to distractions when I have ambivalent feelings about something – I think someone said Procrastination is you avoiding the emotional consequences of your future. Also, I do find that with more management/direction roles – you are playing traffic cop and go go going with lots of people’s projects intersecting with your own. With more project-based work, the flow is more like studying/reading/writing a research paper, with breaks built in. Just my rationalization. Some days are like the former, some like the latter.

    Though I do feel that the current political climate is not helping things AT ALL. All the news is Defcon 5 right now and it’s contributing to the distractions.

    Reply
  53. E.R

    There is something about corporate, white-collar work that seems to have a lot to do with being present and optics vs. working on a specific task for a specific amount of time. I mean, once you have a skill set up to a certain level, maybe it doesn’t take that long, most weeks, to meet objectives? A man once confided in me that he earned 200k a year working for a major company, and mostly he sat around until someone needed his specialized skillset, and the job would take a couple hours and he’s back to sitting around. I know myself, earning a biiiiit less than 200k (haha), can get away with quite a bit more slacking than i could earlier in my career, and even achieve greater results. The marginal return for each hour spent hammering away at a project certainly declines, since my work isn’t well suited to long stretches, it’s emotionally exhausting. I worry less about whether I’m too much of a slacker (it is what it is, for now) and more about why we pay so many blue-collar jobs sooo much less when they seem to work sooo much harder for longer periods of time. I know there are a lot of angles to this and I’m not looking for an answer here, but that’s what I find myself thinking about.

    Reply
    1. Manders

      There’s a joke about someone in a highly paid field putting a single X on a blueprint, then charging thousands of dollars for knowing where to put the X. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately–sometimes my best moments at work are figuring out one thing that saves a week of work time, or figuring out how to avoid a problem before it even *is* a problem.

      Reply
    2. VintageLydia

      This is where my husband is. He doesn’t make $200K, but he definitely makes an absurd amount of money to mostly sitting around until someone needs his particular skill. He also works from home so he can queue up Star Trek and binge watch it all day and so long as he’s responsive to emails (so no long shopping trips or going hiking or something. He’s pretty much tied to his desk or in close proximity to his laptop with a strong internet connection.) Doesn’t help that he could be slightly more productive but he is working with a client and depends on them getting something done so he can do what he needs to do. There isn’t anything he can start on independently. Though when he does have work, like this week, he’s focused on that until it’s done, often working late.

      Reply
  54. Tammy

    This sounds somewhat like me, too. I’m a senior manager in a technology company, and I’ve even been pointed to by executives as an example “of what good leadership at [company name] looks like.” There are days when I’m super focused all day long, and there are days when I alternate stretches of really focused time with time spent on AAM, Evil HR Lady, Google News, and the various sites in my RSS feeds (some of which are work-related, and others of which pertain to my hobbies and such.) It really depends a lot on my workload.

    The other thing for me is that, as a person who struggles with ADD, there are days where I just can’t manage to stay laser focused all day long. In those instances, being able to do something like “focus on the Powerpoint deck for 60 minutes, then reward self with 15 minutes on AAM” is a helpful productivity hack for me. But I’m also honest with myself about how much time I can/do spend on those non-focused tasks, my corporate culture here is relaxed enough to support that kind of strategy, and my management knows I use that as a strategy for dealing with my ADD. (It hasn’t needed to rise to the level of ADA accommodation here, but I have a good relationship with my boss and grandboss, and they both know I have ADD.) And, crucially, I have delivered a track record of solid achievement sufficient to demonstrate that those hacks enhance rather than hinder my productivity.

    Reply
  55. Sarasaurus

    I’m totally “on” when I’m up against a deadline or have a full to-do list. However, I do have the occasional day – usually right after wrapping up a big project and I’m feeling mentally drained – where it’s all I can do to answer emails as they come in, do something fairly mindless like clean out my inbox, and piddle around on sites like AAM. And really, I feel like that’s okay. Having those “off” days every now and then helps keep me sane, and ensures that I’m more able to focus and put out high quality work during the crazy times.

    Reply
  56. Newbie Librarian

    LW, are you secretly me? I’m a little younger than you and do the same thing. You aren’t alone.
    I find my habit of having another tab open to be a double edged sword. On the one hand, I need it as a ‘mental’ break. A lot of my job involves writing, thinking creatively, making marketing materials, etc. and I need these breaks to take a step back from some projects. It also allows me to take a deep breath and helps me feel less overwhelmed.
    But I know it does effect my productivity, especially at certain times of the day. Do I still get everything done? Yes, but maybe it would have been done much sooner or much better.
    (And yes, I’m writing this at work right now).

    Reply
  57. Person of Interest

    Something else you may want to consider is how much your coworkers are going to notice this and make judgments about your work ethic. Of course we all procrastinate or take brain breaks at work (obviously AAM is one of my daily breaks!). But my next-door cube coworker is on Facebook or her personal business site 90% of the time I happen to get up and walk past her. While her production is probably acceptable (though I find her quality to be lower than average), it has given me an overall negative impression of her work ethic and commitment to our organization that would be hard to change, regardless of her work-related outcomes. Maybe its not entirely fair, but these impressions matter.

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  58. KWu

    I found this part of the letter very interesting: “I love my work but a lot of it is grants and spreadsheets, and looking only at those all day feels like it would leave me bored and under stimulated — interspersing it with other things keeps it from getting dreary.” I’m curious whether there are separate parts of the LW’s work that is the “I love doing it” part or if there’s something else they’re more motivated by. Being bored and understimulated is definitely not a state anyone aims for…but if you could get the distraction time back, is gchatting/FB what you’d choose to spend it on? And do you anticipate continuing to be able to make that choice?

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last few years trying to relish how much free time I have, including the luxury of wasting it if I feel like it, because I don’t think I’ll have that freedom forever. And now I’m trying to learn some better habits so that I can choose where my efforts go more intentionally and not feel like I spend a lot of time at work only to get less done than I would’ve liked.

    I’m pretty into Cal Newport’s writing and read his book “Deep Work” earlier this year. It might be worth looking into, though it very obviously falls on the side of “social media distractions are not good for us.” I promise it’s not too moralistic though, it isn’t like, Puritan shaming of not working as hard as you can all the time because working hard is righteous or something. Instead it makes the argument that actually being able to be distraction-free and focus deeply is actually really satisfying, even though it’s incredibly difficult to build those habits to start. Something to consider, perhaps.

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    1. KWu

      Oh and P.S. be careful of setting up a trap for yourself of feeling like you have to choose between being kind to yourself and letting yourself have breaks once in awhile and being social vs. just a total workaholic. You don’t have to go the extremes of quitting everything cold turkey or becoming a total hermit to reap some benefits from doing deeper and more satisfying work.

      Reply
    2. OP

      The funny this is, I actually enjoy my grantwriting and spreadsheet work– I just enjoy it in large part because I’m also doing other fun stuff while I do it. My distractions aren’t totally mindless– gchatting means keeping in touch with distant friends, reading my feedly and facebook means reading interesting articles (many of which are relevant to my field). It’s not that I don’t like the work and need a distraction from it, it’s just that I don’t think I would enjoy it nearly so much if I was JUST doing that.

      I have noticed, though, that I’m more satisfied with my work during periods when I’m having more meetings regularly, and probably less distracted when I get back to my desk. So that might be something to think about as I make choices about my career in the future.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      Reply
      1. KWu

        Oh interesting, thanks for sharing the additional context! I see what you mean. I guess your question can also be viewed as, is it necessarily better to do a series of tasks in consolidated chunks or is it all right to be multi-tasking if it doesn’t seem to be negatively affecting your results?

        For me, I fall down on the side of thinking that even if you spend the exact same absolute amounts of time on reading articles and keeping in touch with friends vs. writing and spreadsheets, you would get better results in the long-term by focusing on one, then another, then another, etc. But it’s hard to separate that bias from my own personal preferences for being more immersed in one thing at a time and feeling an energy drag from frequent context switching.

        That’s an insightful observation to consider the times when you’ve been busier with meetings and then more satisfied with your work. To me that reads as when the constraints are tighter and you’re more pressed for time, the work you have to do has then become more challenging and you enjoy that. But again this is my own bias of, if the work you’re doing isn’t bad but might lean towards being a bit too understimulating, then maybe you would be happier trying something harder.

        I promise it’s not about having to be ambitious, but that it’s fun to be good at and getting even better at things. I liked the idea I saw in another comment of doing some kind of activity that you’re improving your skills at, so that satisfaction doesn’t have to come from your day job, but day jobs are where we do spend a lot of time.

        Maybe it would be worth trying to run some experiments? You say “I don’t think I would enjoy it nearly so much if I was JUST doing that” but maybe you could put that to the test–something like the Pomodoro technique where you do only writing for 15 minutes, then a pure break for 5 minutes, then back, etc. Or set arbitrary goals for yourself like, “normally it would take 2 hours overall to get this grant written, but let me try getting it done in 30 minutes and then I can call my friend and catchup more immediately.”

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  59. Allison

    Yup.

    I probably poke my head in here more often than I should. I try to save my Reddit surfing and Corporette check for my lunch hour, especially when I’m in a new job. Generally speaking, I feel that as long as I’m getting my work done and doing a good job, no one should really care if I take a quick mental break here and there. I also try not to get caught, which means using the monitor that my manager doesn’t see head-on when he comes by to chat, avoiding super colorful websites, and never giving my manager reason to request an IT audit.

    That said, while I’ve never been directly confronted about goofing off at work, I do wonder if it was a contributing factor when my last employer opted not to renew my contract. They were super vague on the reason.

    Going off that: managers, if there’s a concern that one of your employees is spending too much time on “fun” sites, talk to them about it! They probably figure no one knows about it and/or no one has an issue, but they’d probably be willing to cut back if they knew it was getting them in trouble.

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  60. Van Wilder

    This is me. Or rather, this is my natural working style. I’ve been thinking about Alison’s advice to someone else where she says not to think of it as a moral failing but as a skill that you can work on, like any other. I’ve been working on it for years.

    I also bet you don’t realize that you end up working longer hours and catching up on things at the last minute. This was the case with me, until I recently came back to work after having a baby. Having to take time out of my day to pump and wanting to get home as soon as possible to see her has made me want to waste less time and just get my work done.

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  61. Abby

    My work waxes and wanes (this is one of those waning moments), so I find myself idling around without much data to analyze or housekeeping to do. I normally default to checking my news feeds, but lately have been trying to do things that would be professionally enriching: practicing coding, reading up on literature or news relevant to my work, etc.

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  62. Imaginary Number

    I’m relieved by how many people admit that “this is them”. Because this is totally me, too.

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  63. Scarlott

    Sometimes I get what I like to call “soft” downtime. I still have tasks that are pending, but they’re so far away that I’m taking a micro break. How “micro”? Well, I thought about a friend in the restaurant industry. They can really only have “smoke” breaks, so if they don’t smoke, they’re basically punished. Then I look at all the people at my work in an office who smoke. I don’t smoke. So they’re taking 4-5 breaks a day lasting 5-10 minutes. Is surfing for a few minutes really that bad? I don’t like the optics of Facebook at work, but that’s cultural I think.

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  64. Princess Carolyn

    My problem is being impatient when I’m waiting for things to load/turn on/process/etc. Instead of just staring at the screen for 8 seconds like a smart person, I get bored and check my phone or AAM or something and wind up losing several minutes. And occasionally forgetting what I was even doing before I got distracted.

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  65. Kate the Little Teapot

    At tech companies, where a lot of people work on something boring on their screen all day rather than going to meetings or working with other people, it’s common for people who need social input in order to stay stimulated and focused to text chat all day. Company chat rooms sometimes include water-cooler type rooms for this reason.

    It sounds like you might be someone who is in this situation in a company where not many people are in that situation, since you mention that your work is grants and spreadsheets – in which case it’s probably normal for you to interact with friends if your coworkers are not interactive that way. I have also been in nonprofits where this is part of my situation.

    I also find that communicating with people is emotionally regulating for me – if I’m alone too long it’s easy for me to go down a rabbit hole of feeling incompetent at the slightest mistake. When I worked in an environment similar to yours, my chat buddies were important to me. I found that it was important to pick them wisely – other professionals, people who understand “I gotta focus on something now” etc.

    Reply
    1. OP

      You’re spot on, and the fact that I’m one of the few in this situation makes me feel more anxious about my work style. Others on my team work more hours than me– but their jobs are really back-to-back meetings pretty much all day with very little desk time. There’s one other person in an admin-type position, who I manage, and she’s new enough to her role that she does seem to need more or less constant focus to meet expectations for her job. It’s often just me and her in the office, and often I work from home as well, so it does seem like outside interaction is probably good for my sanity from that perspective.

      Reply
  66. Macedon

    We seem to run into this issue pretty often — people who work at a constant (and only marginally declining over time, with fatigue) pace across the day versus people who work at an accelerated pace in bursts, then need time off. imo if you’re in the former category, the distractions take away from your overall productivity; if you’re in the latter slice, they are part of your normal cycle. Maybe experiment with reducing your off-time at work, but if this ends up actually reducing your productivity, it might be that you need those diversions.

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  67. Blossom

    I love this thread. And I am pretty convinced that the mind needs a rest just as the body does.

    Does anyone else have the challenge of dealing with this in an open-plan office? Open-plan is the norm where I live – no cubicles or private offices here (unless you’re very senior, perhaps) – and that does mean I don’t feel like I could have non-work websites visible on my screen, or be checking my phone too often. I’m not sure this makes me any more productive – I end up zoning out in front of my spreadsheet and losing the wood for the trees instead.

    Interestingly, I am quite capable of feeling rather judgey about other people’s distractions, but it totally depends who they are. There was one person I used to work with who I found rather clueless and unprofessional anyway, and that impression was really compounded by them always having a news/gossip site up whenever I came over. However, when it’s someone who I like and respect as a colleague, I’m actually relieved and pleased that “it’s OK” and someone really capable and well-respected also feels the need for a change of mental scenery from time to time. That said, those in the latter category don’t tend to have non-work stuff up as often, and it’s often semi-work-related anyway (whereas I feel irrationally shifty even about completely legit content that isn’t obviously work). In the former case, it seemed brazen. In the latter case, it seems like they have nothing to hide.

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    1. Jillociraptor

      On the second point, I totally relate. There’s a staff member who is ridiculously hard to get things from, and every time I walk past her desk, she’s watching makeup tutorial videos. I think in general it’s reasonable to treat people who are able to meet or exceed expectations with a little more leniency and generosity of spirit.

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  68. adminning

    I have this exact problem, and it looks like a lot of others do as well! What’s helped me the past couple months is making an excel “planner” where I have the day broken out into 30-minute increments, and have at least one task written in each block of time. I challenge myself go the whole day without a blank box. Sometimes it’s quick, easy things that I do every day or that I’ve been putting off doing. If so, I use up the rest of that block messing around on the internet. If I have something that’s going to take a few hours, I’ll usually knock out an hour and see how I feel productivity-wise. If it’ll help me move on to another task for a while, I’ll do that; if I don’t want to totally lose my momentum but need to look at something else for a bit, I’ll kill some time on feedly, etc., then get back to it within 15 minutes. I’m still not where I’d love to be, but I’ve been doing this since January and have only had a few days where I did zero work things in any 30-minute block!

    Reply
  69. Erin

    This is timely – I just commented on another post that I used to comment so much more frequently at my old job.

    My last job before my current one involved answering the phones and scanning stuff. That’s. It. Ask a Manager, Facebook, and GChat were basically my entire days.

    I’m still on Facebook a lot because I often have to be for work reasons, but I’m not as up to date on Ask a Manager, and definitely don’t comment as much as I used to. GChatting is quite minimal. I have a good friend who lives across the country from me and we used to talk for hours at work.

    Now I have to tell him, I’m too busy! We now talk significantly less which is a bummer, but necessary. (His work load recently picked up too, anyway.) As Alison alluded to, for me, I could probably get away with doing it more and not get “caught” but my work load is such that I just can’t afford to do that.

    I will say this was not a hard transition for me because I truly love my job. It sounds like for you, you’re happy enough with your job and you’re productive and all is good. If you were to switch jobs and/or take on a higher work load that would change how your day goes, I think if you love your job, you could do it no problem.

    For now I’d say, you’re fine, just be cautious and mindful that things could change with a job change or a promotion.

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  70. Know thyself and thy boss

    I have a coworker who was quite obviously on Facebook on her phone, during meetings, even with VPs present. Her previous manager (who is my current one) doesn’t seem to notice nor care. Then this coworker was transferred to a different manager, who is not as laid back. My coworker was fired a few weeks ago, for unknown reasons. She didn’t realize that the game had changed and paid the price. Definitely know what your manager wants from you, so if you are getting praise and promotions, it comes down to a personal choice and your values of how you spend your time at work.

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  71. peachie

    Anyone else have ADHD? I do, and this was so relatable. Even now, properly medicated and more focused than I’ve ever been in my life, I just cannot spend all day focused–I just don’t think my mind can do it. Luckily, I work pretty quickly when I’m at it.

    Reply
    1. Can also relate

      I noticed that multiple people mentioned ADHD in this thread.. and I really do wonder if this is a common issue for people who have it. When we have something that we need to do, that has a deadline, that is stimulating, etc.. then we are focused and get it done, sometimes faster than many other people. But when we have free time, or time that we need to figure out something to fill, then we end up dinking around online. But we are conscientious enough that we feel guilty about this. Even though, clearly, no one seems to notice, since we when something matters, we get it done.

      Reply
  72. Chaordic One

    I have never looked at AAM while at work. Back at Dysfunctional Teapots, Ltd. I was almost always so busy that I never had time to look at anything on the internet.

    When I did look at something, it was quickly looking at theweatherchannel.com, or maybe googling the name of a client to verify information about them, or less often taking a quick peak at a news site, or to read a story about Dysfunctional Teapots or check the latest DTL website update. I doubt that I ever spent more than half an hour total in a single week looking at the internet, and that was on a rare, comparatively unbusy week.

    I was really burnt out when I left that place.

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  73. LaurAxe

    I think it also really depends on your work style – this (or something similar) is something I’ve also thought a lot about with myself. I’m an extremely fast writer and worker generally once I start, but I’ve found that I “waste time” with distractions before and/or after finishing tasks. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that the time spent NOT writing is just as an important part of my process, because it allows me to organize my thoughts and be more eloquent in my writing. Even with general work I’m actually more productive if I allow myself short breaks (5-10 minutes) between tasks because it allows me to rest my brain and approach the next task with more mental resources.

    That doesn’t necessarily sound like what OP is doing if they have whole days were they’re so busy chatting they don’t get work done, but just one argument for the fact that maximum productivity doesn’t have to mean constantly working.

    Reply
  74. Mrs. Fenris

    I repair teapots. So a lot of the time I’m busy, and sometimes it’s OMG SO MANY TEAPOTS MAKE IT STOP, but occasionally there just aren’t any. I’m caught up, I’ve made all my phone calls, there’s no organizing to do, the end. I subscribe to a professional website, so I read stuff for further education, but it has some general discussion boards that are similar to AAM. And then yeah, I play on FB on my phone a little. Ironically, I’m in a couple of FB groups that are all colleagues, and they are my quickest resource for questions when I can’t figure out how to repair something. So a little of my FB stuff is high-level work research.

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  75. Jenn

    A belated thought that’s a bit tangential — you mentioned that a lot of your downtime is connecting to friends. If you took 20% of that time and used it to reach out to people in your professional area — could be potential donors, fellow non-profit workers, people with skills your organization could you — and to build your own network, it might turn into some great opportunities for you and your organization.

    I did this a couple of years ago when I was miserable in my current job and it has led to a really nice next phase for my career.

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  76. gwal

    would anyone who was a desk-type worker before the widespread use of the internet be able to chime in about how work habits and distractions worked in those days? a lot of water cooler chat? were people really more productive? or would all that time be used on tracking down things that are now available with a quick google?

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    1. Writelhd

      I wasn’t but I second that request. I feel this letters struggle too but for me I have noticed a degeneration of my focus over time. In school I worked hard, I grew up writing novels and stories for fun, and finished them. I studied physics in college and spent entire weekends working on one integral on a take home exam (and kind of liking it…). I started my first real job six years ago and didn’t surf the net at all unless job related cause I thought that was how it worked. Now…I have less focus both at work and in personal life. I can’t write anymore. I can’t sit down and do anything without ten minutes in getting distracted and wanting to go check news or read an article. I hate it because I don’t feel as satisfied with myself. And I miss writing. But I also see how technology/phones etc facilitated this slide and so did my one slipping habits over years. Some of it is stress and burn out, some of it is I think technology has changed many of us this way.

      Reply
  77. Julia

    I’m sorry I don’t have time to read all 317 comments to see if this has already been said.
    1. Using Facebook or slacking off during work time needs to be done carefully. In my experience, most employers use spyware and can check at any time what you’ve been doing on your computer. So if they’re looking for a reason to come down on you, this is one. Don’t give them that.
    2. A few years ago one of my neighbors at the time was fired from a job where he had been doing well for having Facebook open. Everyone there had Facebook open – it was part of the culture in a young-person industry. But in their official guidelines it said employees weren’t allowed to use Facebook during work hours, and they used it to fire him for political reasons. Again, don’t give them that.
    3. I’m doing very well in my sixth year at this job. My boss loves my work and is very supportive. But I work for a large organization that is owned by a corporation, and there are people above him. Twice hostile managers have tried to cause trouble for me. Again, don’t give them a reason. I use Facebook only during my lunch hour, and mostly do personal things only during lunch.
    4. There may be other things you can do to stimulate your mind during work, like reading work-related articles or blogs, playing music or (briefly) using FB or other programs on your phone. Just make sure you don’t give the impression of being always distracted by your phone!

    Reply

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