Are you one of the many Americans who waste their time at work? Find out the causes and how to fix your bad habit.

Corporate America has long been a source of fodder for comedians, anti-establishment naysayers, and even 9-to-5 workers themselves. Just this morning, as I waited for the bus alongside a cluster of other women, all of us wearing nearly identical black coats and sporting similar bags both on our shoulders and under our eyes, I watched a strapping young EMT with dreadlocks checking us out through the window of his ambulance. He smiled cruelly as he watched, as if thinking, Look at those office drones—they’re like cattle waiting to be herded downtown. They’re probably addicted to canned air. 

This snarky sentiment is so prevalent in American society that animator/director Mike Judge wrote an entire movie in 1999—and a brilliant one at that—about just how bleak life inside cubicle walls can get. If you haven’t seen Office Space yet, drop everything and rent it. If you have, you probably laughed as hard as I did during the scene in which the main character, Peter Gibbons, describes a typical workday at his company, Initech, to two consultants who’ve been hired to orchestrate layoffs there. “I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late,” Peter begins, and goes on to say, “Uh, and after that, I just sort of space out for about an hour… I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. In a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.” 

Peter may seem like an extreme example of workplace lassitude, but the truth is, many Americans aren’t far off from being just like him. According to a 2005 joint study by AOL (formerly America Online) and, employees waste 2.09 hours on average in an eight-hour workday—and that doesn’t even include the time they take off for lunch. This statistic may give those of us who enjoy underachievement and looking for loopholes a sense of empowerment, but the real question is: what are these people doing with all that free time? And why do they feel justified in wasting so much of their own time and so much of their employers’ money? 

Procrastination Station

AOL and’s findings were based on an online poll of 10,044 American employees. According to these respondents, the top five time-wasting culprits (in descending order of popularity) were:

  • Personal Internet use.
  • Socializing with coworkers.
  • Conducting personal business.
  • Spacing out (à la Peter Gibbons).
  • Running personal errands.

Of these activities, the first was by far the most prevalent: 44.7 percent of the surveyed workers claimed that surfing the Web was their primary non-work-related activity. The study also found that men and women squandered equal amounts of workday time; notably, however, the majority of human resources managers who participated had the impression that women were less efficient than their male coworkers.

Since 2005, has conducted this same poll annually—it’s now known simply as the Wasting Time at Work Survey—and has achieved strikingly similar results each year. Personal online use and mingling with coworkers continued to top the list of time wasters in 2008, but personal phone calls overtook spacing out as the fourth-most popular activity. Differences in efficiency between different age groups have emerged as another common thread since the survey first occurred: since 2005, employees age fifty and older have reported wasting only thirty minutes or less each workday, as opposed to the most egregious group, people born between 1980 and 1985, who spend an average of two hours per day slacking off. (So much for bright young minds.)

Stuck in a Rut

Some employers might be shocked to realize that their worker bees aren’t buzzing quite as busily as they should be, but these yearly studies also point the finger at the underserved companies themselves for not providing their staff with enough incentive to focus on the tasks at hand. In 2008, 46 percent of the respondents indicated that professional dissatisfaction was driving them to waste time at work, 34 percent felt underpaid, 24 percent believed they didn’t have sufficient deadlines or incentives to perform, 19 percent claimed their workdays were too long, and 18 percent accused coworkers and friends of distracting them during business hours.

All of these factors paint a grim picture of life in the average American workplace. When employees become resentful, they rebel in small but insidious ways against the institutions that they believe are neglecting or overworking them. For employers, the cumulative damage inefficient, embittered workers cause can be staggering—according to the AOL/ study in 2005, the 2.09 average hours wasted in the American workplace cost companies $759 billion in wages for which they received no return on investment. For employees, using work hours to engage in non-work-related pursuits can be self-defeating; time that could be spent getting ahead on projects or acquiring new skills to work toward promotion is too often thrown away on shopping online, buying groceries, or talking to friends on the phone.

Waste Not, Want Not

Remember that only you can change your situation if you are one of the many Americans who are not satisfied with their jobs. Whether that means actively seeking out more stimulating tasks in your current role or changing careers altogether is an individual decision. However, making small adjustments can mean the difference between dreading going to work every morning and enjoying your day-to-day.

First, take baby steps—make a concerted effort to set manageable goals regarding what you hope to accomplish each workday. Create a to-do list when you arrive at work; then make a pledge to yourself that you’ll work uninterrupted for a predetermined amount of time, be it one hour or half the day. Don’t open any non-work-related Internet windows or check personal email; rather than succumbing to these distractions, tackle your most difficult projects first. When you’ve reached the end of that time period, see how many tasks you’re able to check off—and use that as a gauge to adjust your list as needed in the days following.

Second, prioritize organizing your workspace—even if you have to sacrifice a lunch hour or two to get it done. Sanitize your desk, keyboard, phone, and other work surfaces, file loose papers, and display your to-do list prominently.

Finally, establish your own rewards system if you believe your employer doesn’t appreciate your efforts enough. For example, if you complete your to-do list every day for an entire week, treat yourself to a delicious dinner, a bottle of good wine, or even just a long bath. After all, taking time to pat yourself on the back for your hard work is just as important as receiving accolades from your colleagues.

Precious Time

Millions of Americans are fortunate to work for companies that don’t put them under a microscope and trust that their time-management skills are well-developed. But when studies like AOL and expose the startling degree to which many workers are misallocating their business hours, it’s time for employers and employees alike to assess and revamp their professional habits. Peter Gibbons may have ended up being promoted in Office Space after he owned up to his laziness, but that’s what’s known in the film world as suspension of disbelief.

How Americans Waste Time at Work

According to various sources, Americans waste an average of 2.9 hours each day at work. This time is often spent doing non-work activities such as surfing the internet, checking social media, and texting.

However, this time also includes activities that are synonymous with and necessary for working in an office, such as bathroom and coffee breaks, socializing with coworkers, and managing the distracting noises and activities that come from working in the same vicinity as other people.

Other time-wasters include reading and responding to emails (the average employee receives 304 work-related emails a week) and sitting in meetings (employees spend an average of 21.5 hours a week in meetings).

The biggest time-wasters at work are unnecessary meetings, emails, and surfing the internet or on social media. 20% of workers say they waste time because they’re bored or aren’t interested in their jobs.

Employees say that 80% of the interruptions they experience at work are trivial. Often, less than 60% of the workday is spent being productive.

All of these distractions and time-wasters cost American companies an average of $1.7 million a year for every 100 employees they have, thanks to decreases in productivity while salaries stay the same.

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