The 20 Biggest Online Time Wasters, and 6 Strategies for Beating Them

Like many people these days, I spend most of my working hours online. At least half of those hours, I’m doing actual work.

As millions have discovered, working at a computer with Internet access is a hazard to your productivity. There are so many cool sites, so many ways of connecting with others, so many things to do that are fun or intensely interesting, that it’s hard to actually get anything done.

The sites listed below are time drains, sucking up your precious hours by their amazingly cool attractions.

Should you never go on these sites? Are they completely useless? Of course not. The reason they’re listed here is because they are great sites or activities, but because they are so great, they can become addictive. And while it’s fine to use these sites for useful purposes, getting work done when you need to get work done and having fun when you can, it’s the addiction that you need to watch closely.

Before we get into the list of time-wasters, let’s take a look at 6 strategies to beat time-wasters and keep yourself on task.

  1. Track time. You might not know exactly how bad your addiction is, because the time you spend on some of these sites just flies by. Try tracking your time, at least for a little while, to see where your problem areas are. Page Addict is one of a number of good utilities for this, and once you see your worst time-wasters, you can also use it for the next strategy.
  2. Block them. Once you’ve identified your worst time wasters, it’s possible to block them with one of several utilities. Stealth Kiwi and Leech Block are two of my favorites.
  3. Unplug. Another strategy that actually works really well is to unplug from the Internet when you really need to get work done. When you finish you task, connect and have fun, then unplug again for some more serious work.
  4. Go on a diet. This is a more drastic strategy, but sometimes it’s necessary if your addiction has gotten really bad. Disconnect yourself from the Internet for at least a day, if not 2-3 days or even a week. The worse your addiction, the longer your diet should be. After the period of complete disconnection, follow Strategy 6 below by going on an extremely limited information diet.
  5. Just let go. This strategy is for those of us who feel that if we don’t answer all of our emails, or read all of our feeds, or check our blog stats, or see what’s happening on our favorite social sites, then somehow the world will fall apart. Of course, we never put it that way in our head, but the urge is still there. But what happens if you just let go, and allow your email to pile up for a day, or don’t check your stats or your favorite forum? The world will go on. This might seem obvious, but again, I think many of us have a subconscious idea that something bad will happen if we don’t stay up to date. Try letting go for a day, and see what happens.
  6. Limit time. This is actually the most sensible strategy, but of course it’s not easy if you have an addiction. Therefore, I recommend you use it in conjunction with one of the above strategies. For this strategy, you decide how many minutes and how many times you are going to allow yourself to go on your worst time-wasting sites. If email is your addiction, for example, you might decide to check email only twice a day for 30 minutes a session. Decide on what time limit would work best for you, put it on a schedule (10 a.m. and 4 p.m., for example), and stick to it. If you have trouble sticking to it, try one of the other strategies.

OK, we’ve identified some strategies for dealing with these time-wasters, so let’s take a look at them. Please note: if you haven’t already visited one of these time-wasters, I’d advise that you don’t do so now, especially if you have work to do.

  1. Email. Whether it’s Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, Outlook, or some other favorite email client, email is the king of time-wasters. It’s a very productive tool, of course, and a necessity for most of us these days. However, it is also an addiction, and we often put off our work by going to check our email. It’s important that you turn off email notifications if you have work to do (and you know you do!), and limit your time spent checking and processing and responding to email.
  2. Google Reader. Any RSS feed reader, including Bloglines or Thunderbird, is included in this item. If you have 100+ feeds to read every day, you’ll spend a lot of time with your feed reader. And any time you feel like procrastinating, you can open up the feed reader and see what new posts have been published. Limit your feed reading to once a day, and cut your feeds down to a minimum.
  3. AIM. Or any chat client (IRC, Googletalk, MSN Messenger, Yahoo, Skype, what have you). If you’ve always got your chat client open, even if you put your status as “away” or “busy” or something like that, you will be constantly interrupted by new messages, new people coming online, new people trying to get your attention. Make your time yours by closing your chat client, and only opening it when you really need to chat.
  4. Online solitaire. Or any similar online games, including chess, sudoku, Bejeweled, whatever. I know, it’s addicting. Block these games.
  5. World of Warcraft. Or any of the other popular MMORPGs. People can spend days, nights, weeks on these things, as they are amazingly addicting. In fact, they should be regulated like drugs.
  6. Blogs. Many people read blog posts through feed readers (see Item #2), but many bookmark their favorite blogs and read them directly on the site, and find new blogs through the blogrolls of their favorite blogs, and spend a lot of time reading through archives and comments and also commenting on all these blogs. It can take up your whole day. Read Dumb Little Man and Zen Habits and a few others, and be done!
  7. Forums. Or newsgroups. A favorite social hangout for many people, there are thousands of forums out there, and many of them are quite useful. It can be a great thing to discover others who are going through the same things you are (such as the quit smoking forum I joined a couple of years ago), or who are interested in the same things you are. So I’m not knocking forums at all. But you should still set a time limit on how long you spend on forums, and maybe only do it once or twice a day.
  8. News sites. News addicts out there, you know who you are. Some people are plugged into the news all day long. Personally, I’ve learned that the news doesn’t benefit me at all, and I’ve disconnected from watching the news, reading newspapers and reading news websites. I still hear about the important stuff, but really, disconnecting from news hasn’t hurt me a bit. I’m not saying you should go to this extreme, but you should still consider limiting your news consumption to a minimum.
  9. YouTube. You can spend hours upon hours watching cool stuff on YouTube, as every video has a dozen other related ones to get you to stay on the site. And that really works. I’ve spent days on YouTube, to be truthful, before deciding never to do it again. Now, I watch a video and then immediately close the tab.
  10. Facebook/MySpace. I’m not an addict of either of these sites, but I can see the appeal. My teen-age daughter is addicted, and I know many adults who are too. There’s no shame in that, but you should realize that it’s an addiction, combining the appeal of blogs, email and forums.
  11. Digg. After spending an entire day reading the articles on Digg, and the comments, I cut myself off from Digg before a real addiction could form. But I know first-hand that this can be very addicting. There’s a huge community on Digg, and there’s always new stuff, and you could do nothing else but read through Digg. Get off it before it consumes your life.
  12. Productivity tools. I’ll admit, I’m a victim of this. New productivity tools are coming up all the time, from to-do list managers to contact managers to cool GTD tools to new utilities and plug-ins. But it’s not productive to be constantly switching tools and twiddling with them.
  13. Online shopping. Amazon, Ebay, and the hundreds of other popular shopping sites online. The worst thing about these sites is that you don’t only spend a lot of time on them (there’s so much stuff out there!) but you also end up spending a lot of money. This was one reason I cut up my credit card.
  14. ESPN.com. I haven’t been a sports addict for years, but I know there are many out there who can spend a lot of time each day checking on scores, fantasy football stats, watching the action, watching replays, reading commentaries, and chatting on sports forums. Sports fans, know that you just might have an addiction.
  15. Humor sites. When I find a great humor site, I can spend a long, long time reading through the archives. If you haven’t gone to any of these sites, don’t do it unless you have a day to waste: Maddox, Pointless Waste of Time, The Onion, The Daily Show, Comics Curmudgeon.
  16. Wikipedia. One of the most useful sites on the planet. Also very addicting, especially if you become involved in contributing to the articles. But even if you don’t, one article leads to another, which leads to another … and there’s your whole day.
  17. Flickr. People have got some great photos out there. And they put up such personal stuff that surfing through Flickr is a new form of voyeurism. An addicting form, that is.
  18. IMDB. Want to look up an actor or a movie title? Sure, just open up the Internet Movie Database, one of the greatest things ever invented, and do a quick search. But hey, there’s a link to another movie you’re interested in, and wow, you forgot about that actor, and cool, there’s trivia and goofs for that movie too. Hours down the drain.
  19. Ask MeFi. MetaFilter has one of the best online communities around, but there’s just so much stuff on there that you can never run out of reading material. My favorite is Ask MetaFilter, in which you can find great answers to just about any question you can think of. But what about this question, for all you Ask MeFi folks: “Where did my day go?”
  20. Blog stats. If you are a blogger, there’s a 99% chance that you check your blog stats, and your ad stats, more than once a day. And a very middling to good chance that you do it much more than that. I’m a victim of this, so I can’t preach, but here’s a realization I came up with (be prepared to be blown away): your stats and your ad revenues don’t change much in 2 minutes. And 2 minutes later, not much has changed still. It took me way too long to realize this.

Written for Dumb Little Man by Leo Babauta

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