Three Ways to Conquer Your Business Time Wasters

This post by Dorie Clark first appeared at Owner Magazine.

In our society, we’re all desperate for more time. How can we possibly answer the stream of emails or complete our to-do lists?

Instinctively, we know systems are the answer: that’s how McDonald’s can get you a burger almost instantaneously or race car pit crews can perform split-second maintenance.

But is there a way to systematize our own professional lives?

As knowledge workers who need to think creatively and solve new problems, there are plenty of things we’d never want to put into a system – that’s the fun of the job. But personally, I’ve learned that I can leave more room for creativity if I plan in advance to foil the biggest business time wasters. Here are my strategies.

Digitize Everything

I spent about 15 minutes the other day fruitlessly searching for my assistant’s W-9 form, which I had her fill out six months ago. I knew I had it, but it wasn’t in any folder in my filing cabinet, and I’d searched through them all. Finally, it hit me: she’d scanned it, and it was in a folder on my desktop.

If there are multiple places to search for information, you’ll double the time you need to find it. My new policy? Unless something would be truly onerous to scan (your 60 page insurance policy), digitize it and get rid of the paper. Having only one place to look means you’ll save time and brain space.

Build in Redundancies

Here’s the essential corollary to having only one place to look for things: always arrange for backups. If my home broadband goes down, I can still access the Internet off my phone and iPad. If my cellphone goes down, I have a home telephone line (which I literally keep unplugged – I only use it for radio interviews and for backup). Just in case my laptop breaks, I have all my files backed up – on two different online storage systems.

It’s a little extra expense, but it means there is zero downtime. I remember the days of dial-up, when after a bad storm, my phone (and therefore my Internet) were out for three days. There was literally no way to reach me, which is only acceptable in contemporary society if you’re trekking in the mountains of South America. Make sure you’re never out of touch unless you want to be.

Systematize Your Breaks

We all need to take breaks; we’re not robots. But it’s easy to let them spin out of control, with an innocent decision to check Facebook leading to half-hour black hole of “liking” friends’ photos. Instead, set limits on your breaks upfront, when your resolve is strong.

Consultant Tony Schwartz has emphasized the importance of taking breaks every 90 minutes to maintain optimal productivity. So make your break a scheduled one, and plan in advance how you’ll spend it recharging. A quick walk around the block is one of the best ways to wake up your brain; even reading a few newspaper articles or checking in on social media can be fine, as long as you set a limit in advance (I’ll read three articles, or check Facebook for only five minutes) and stick to it.

Some of these strategies require an investment of time (and forethought) upfront. It can be a hassle to set up an online backup program or to digitize your files. But it’s also a chance to avoid unexpected problems later, and an opportunity to ask yourself what really matters. If a given file isn’t critical, maybe you shouldn’t bother to digitize it; maybe you should throw it away.

What are your systems to avoid wasting time at work?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.