Is there anything worse than sitting at your office trying to hammer away at a deadline when people around you are wasting your time? The answer is pretty much no. People wasting your time is the worst.

The problem of other people eating up your precious second, minutes, and hours is especially painful because it has two parts. First, there are a million different ways people can waste your time. And secondly, pushing back seems rude and is sure to have long-term effects on your relationships at work.

Let’s tackle the first problem: the myriad techniques that other people unwittingly employ that are downright maddening. You know many of these already: being called into meetings where you have nothing to contribute. Being sucked into personal conversations about non-work topics such as the game, the weekend, the hobbies, the kids, the television show, or that weird dream that person had last night. The never-ending reply-all thread which is all jokes and no comments. These are all not relevant to your primary objective of getting things done, and if you’re not in the mood to a break they will drive you crazy.

Worse still is work that ends up being wasted. It’s the report your boss requested and then never read; it’s the scenario that someone thought the customer needed but turned out to be a miscommunication. It’s driving across town for a meeting that no one told you was canceled.  When we’ve done something we thought was valuable—but later find out that it wasn’t—we may be facing rage or despair. Wasted time is bad, but wasted effort and  time is worse.

Finally, doing something poorly is often more painful than not doing it at all. If traffic has actually reached a standstill, you can get out of the car or read a book. But when it’s inching along at a few miles an hour up I-69, we can actually feel our bodies aging. Inefficiencies are exasperating because we know there’s a better way. When someone emails you and asks you to make a tiny change in a document instead of changing it themselves, when the expert at solving one type of problem is skipped over in favor of the novice, or when someone calls you on the phone to ask you a question they could have looked up themselves, that’s not efficient. Your time matters, but it’s not being respected.

How do we get co-workers to stop wasting the precious few moments we have to get work done? The key revelation is to engage them in the world in which you live.

For example, instead of saying “I’m too busy to attend that meeting” (or just going even though you don’t see any value) explain what’s on your plate. Ask them if they believe the work they want you to accomplish is more urgent and more important than what you’re currently tackling. If a colleague is empowered to help you decide where to focus, you are not an untapped resource of free effort.

What about when people want to engage you in non-work conversation? Before kicking them out of your cubicle, remember that this isn’t meaningless fluff.  We need to have a personal connection with people to work together with them effectively. But there is a time and a place for casual conversation, so often the best thing to do is to get people to that spot. Bring them to the break room, walk back to their office, or ask them to schedule a lunch.

And before you take on any task—whether it’s in your wheelhouse or something you never do—get buy-in for the level of effort required. Put in writing in an email how much time it’s going to take and when you’re going to finish it, and provide regular updates whether you’re on schedule or not. That way, people who need you to devote your time are accountability for how you spent it. The effort is measured and understood, and can be better allocated next time.

Great organizations are made up of teams of people who are working hard to produce the best results. Don’t let other people waste your time. Bring the conversation back to getting things done. After all, that’s why we all have jobs in the first place.

 Robby Slaughter is a speaker and consultant focused on employee productivity, employee engagement, and process improvement. Visit his firm online at

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