SURVEY SAYS: How Much of Your Day Is Non-Productive?

August 24, 2006 ( - By most accounts we are putting in longer, not shorter, hours - so this week I asked readers how much of their average day was spent on "nonproductive" pursuits - and what was the most prolific productivity "thief."

After reviewing the responses, I was inclined to think that I should perhaps have made a distinction between things that aren’t productive versus things that are true slack time.   Consider that the median response was one hour, while two hours/day was a close second.   However, this wasn’t generally the choice of the respondent – and frequently the nonproductive time was a direct result of an activity mandated by someone else in the organization – most frequently, as one reader so eloquently put it, in “useless, mind-numbing meetings.”  

Indeed, the most commonly cited work-related but productivity-challenged activity was meetings of any ilk (regular staff meetings held a special place of honor).   One reader sought clarification on this point, asking, “Non productive to whom?   Me or my boss?”   Yet another offered, “Guess that depends on what you consider nonproductive work.   But since my boss might read this, other than this e-mail, I never waste time at work!”  Another said, “The most nonproductive time spent is waiting for meetings to start.”

Not only were those “in charge” of meetings remiss in calling things to order, they also contributed to the issue by failing to deal with what several readers termed “office drama.”   One reader said, “I could easily spend 2-3 hours daily managing up and down due to office drama.   It constantly amazes me how bad behavior is tolerated when those in charge lack the skills to confront, require changes, and follow through with consequences.” 

Social Studies

A close second was those little social interactions that occur throughout the day.  “Well, I wasn’t going to respond to today’s survey, but after sitting here for the last half hour listening to a dissertation on my co-worker’s day yesterday, I would have to say the least productive thing that I do all day is listen to non-work-related conversations,” noted one, who went on to say, “I say listen, because they are usually pretty one-sided. I am trying to put in 10- to 11-hourdays because we are short-staffed and find getting here early doesn’t help if certain people get here early as well. Even sitting toward the computer with my hands on the keys doesn’t deter them. Perhaps I should growl more!”

“The worst ‘thief’ is frequently a co-worker who begins telling a personal story from which there is no ‘out,'” exclaimed another.  “No way to politely exit the scene, without offending the individual.” 

“Food steals the show in our office,” noted another.  “There are a number of folks in our office with a ‘goodie’ bowl of some kind outside their desk.   You can waste a half-hour a day visiting each bowl.   Then there are the endless birthday cakes, anniversary bagels, and ‘just because’ banana breads.   Even those folks trying to cut back on the food consumption spend a lot of time discussing their diets and what foods they can’t eat.” 

The fault didn’t always lie with external parties, however.   One of this week’s respondents acknowledged that their nonproductive period “includes time I spend walking around, talking to employees, and getting into conversations about a variety of topics. It also includes time I spend on different HR bulletin boards, that I tell myself is work since the majority of Q&A are about HR, but it can easily drift into becoming an obsession so that I have a difficult time getting refocused on my work.”

Of course, some of it may be definitional.   One reader noted that “productivity equals the amount of output per unit of input.   Outputs must have value or they are useless to a business organization.   ‘Nonproductive’ would therefore mean – inputs that don’t produce value.   I would say that about 50% of my workday is ‘inputting’ things that produce nothing of value to the organization.”  If that seems extreme, he went on to note that, “Since my time at work is usually 11 to 12 hours, then I am right in line with the Australian study.” 

E-mail was a frequent citation as well.   One noted, “The worst offender is cleaning out unnecessary e-mails from my inbox.”  And then went on to say that “responding to e-mail surveys is a close second : )”

Another said, “Since it’s not Super Bowl time or March Madness on the Road to the Final Four, I’d say the biggest thief is e-mail.”  And then went on to note, “Case in point is THIS e-mail.”

Another led off with, “While I’m responding to your very profound survey, I’m not moving forward to complete the items on my ‘to do’ list.”

Another noted, “I’ll never tell….but truthfully, not much.”

But this week’s Editor’s Choice goes to the reader who admitted, ” I would be forced to list NewsDash as an occasional productivity thief, especially on Friday, when I have to read every Friday File account of criminal stupidity, and watch the videos that are attached, and forward the good ones to friends and colleagues.”

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!