06/02/2008 12:30 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Wasting Time: Are You Reading This at Work?

(Part 3 in the "Core Competency Moms" series)

One of the great things about being a writer is having an excuse to interview fascinating people. For instance: Carol Fassbinder-Orth, a rising young biologist I profiled recently for Scientific American. She grew up on an apiary featuring 100 million bees.

Yes, she got stung a lot.

But more interesting than the bee stings is what Fassbinder-Orth has been doing since then. She's only in her mid-20s. Nonetheless, she just accepted a professorship at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., where she'll be specializing in the ecology of zoonotic diseases (ones that transfer between animals and people). Since I write a lot about higher education, I often hear horror stories of 7-year PhD programs and people being forced to do multiple post-docs before a tenure track job opens up. Fassbinder-Orth, on the other hand, finished her PhD in five years. It might have taken less time, but she'd actually transferred from Louisiana State to the University of Wisconsin at Madison after one year, and changed topics as well. She landed her professorship over people who'd done post-docs, even though she interviewed when she was 8-months pregnant. With her second child. She'd had her first child during her first year of graduate school. And she still managed to finish on time and with flying colors.

Did I mention that she mentored undergraduates as well?

Her secret was being extremely efficient. "You have to be," she told me. "There's no way to have two kids and do everything." She didn't go out with her lab mates much. She didn't linger over lunch. She also didn't chase experiments that had a limited chance of success. She simply figured out her goals - being a mom, and advancing as a scientist - and executed against them. By focusing exclusively on these two things she did best (the "core competencies" I've been blogging about here on the Huffington Post lately), she was able to do both.

I've been thinking about Fassbinder-Orth's story as I've been reading through various time management books these past few weeks. What makes some people shockingly productive and others not? It's a question we in our modern society spend much time and money trying to answer. Moms who also hold paying jobs, who often shoulder the equivalent of two full-time positions, can become downright evangelical about our planners, our 43 folders, or our resolutions to Never Check Email in the Morning (to quote Julie Morgenstern). Yet while we get a lot of stuff "done," we seldom get as much "done" on our grand life to-do list as people like Fassbinder-Orth seem to do with ease.

Why not?

Over the years, I've studied a number of enviable overachievers. You know the kind - say, the mom of multiple school-aged children who happens to be the governor of Alaska in her spare time. I think the answer comes down to this: Most of us waste time in three ways these people don't. The good news, though, is that once we understand exactly how they focus - and hence create space for the things that matter most - we can adopt their mindset as well.

These are their three principles:

1. You have more time than you think you do. We modern, techno-savvy creatures have black belts in pissing away hours. A 2007 survey found that American workers waste 1.7 hours during an 8 hour day on things like Internet surfing, gossiping around the water cooler, long lunches and the like. This was down from a bit over two hours per day in a 2005 survey - perhaps a function of the slowing economy and lax labor market - but 1.7 hours is still a long time. We take a long time transitioning between things. We develop rituals that die hard - like reading headlines first thing in the morning or, say, perusing blogs (are you reading this at work?). One click leads to another, and next thing you know it's time for that mid-morning cup of coffee you absolutely have to go get.

We also waste a lot of time at home. We watch TV - 4 hours and 35 minutes of it a day, according to Nielsen. We check email again and then wind up looking at pictures of celebrities at Suffice to say, a mom who's racing to drop her daughter off at day care before she hits the lab for three hours, then teaches a biology class, then picks up her daughter, plays with her and gets her fed before the babysitter comes (because mom teaches a community college course at night in order to make ends meet) sometimes gets a little behind on the news of Brangelina's twins. So it goes.

2. Do not mistake things that look like work for actual work. Being productive and being busy are not even close to the same thing. One is running forward; one is running around like a hamster on a wheel.

Truly productive people understand the difference. Yes, checking email can be "work." But often, people send pointless emails designed to keep others in the loop - or to prove that they were "working" at 7:30am. This is not work. Meetings are usually considered "work," but a 2005 Microsoft survey found that the average American full-time worker spent over 5 hours per week in meetings, and the vast majority of people did not find these meetings productive. That makes them "not work." Another fascinating study once found that when you triple the number of employees in a corporation, you halve each of their productivity. Three-halves is still bigger than one, so in general companies are better off growing, but you give up a lot. This is because you no longer simply respond to the client's request for a proposal (work). You hold a meeting to jockey over who will be the client-facing contact and wind up getting most of the credit for the proposal (not work).

The list goes on. Traveling to a meeting you could take by phone or TelePresence-type software is a waste of time (and frankly, of fossil fuels). Weekly teleconferences with no particular agenda - other than the fact that it's Friday and the conference call shows up on everyone's calendar - are not work. Riding hard on an employee for leaving at 5pm rather than 6pm - when you have no idea whether he or she has actually done his or her job requirements for the day, week, or what have you - is not working.

Working means achieving results. This is not a particularly profound statement, but it's a surprisingly rare philosophy. Of late, many publications have breathlessly covered Best Buy's Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) policy. The basic concept is that many headquarters employees can work where and when they want as long as they get their jobs done. Job descriptions are set by task and accomplishment, rather than time. ROWE is a great success. Productivity is up. Employees are happier. And yet few companies have replicated it. I recently read the story of a young father at another company who agreed to take a 20% pay cut in order to get a 32-hour week. I suspect that no one knew whether his colleagues were wasting 8 hours a week, or if he would accomplish 20% less in 32 hours than 40 hours. Maybe he'd accomplish just 10% less. Or maybe he'd accomplish 10% more. Who knows? But no one stopped to ask the crazy question of whether an employee should be judged on time, or on his results.

Truly productive people structure their lives so they're judged primarily on the latter.

3. Know where you're going. This last principle is the biggest paradigm shift. You can resolve to "never check email in the morning." You can be in a job where you're judged only on results. But if you're working on the wrong things - things that aren't related to your big goals in life - then you're not being productive.

Fassbinder-Orth's story is instructive here. She could have continued working on her first PhD topic indefinitely. After all, she was having a baby. She had a lot on her mind. Yet somehow, she managed to step back and decide she wasn't headed in the right direction. Once she decided that, any time spent on the first project would have been wasted. So she switched universities and projects.

As she switched topics, she also made the change with an eye on her goals. She chose a field that was hot (West Nile Virus) - a smart idea for landing an academic position in a tight market. She thought through the experiments she could do and chose a path that didn't require her to be at the lab all night. She chose experiments where she knew results were possible. Her goal was getting a PhD and starting her teaching and research career. So she figured out exactly how she could achieve that goal.

This process of choosing what you want to do, rather than reacting to what comes along, is quite tough. There's a whole school of thought that life is a journey, not a destination, and to some degree that's true. But time is a finite resource. Any time spent on one activity is time not spent on another. If there are big things you're trying to do in life, you can't afford to waste much time on things you're not trying to do.

This is the core competency concept in a nutshell. Time spent folding laundry is time you're not spending with your kids. Time spent in stupid meetings - or at a job that doesn't thrill you - is time you're not spending with your family or developing a career that does let you contribute to the world in the best way you can. When you do manage your time right, though, you can do just about anything that's important to you.