Are You the Office Time Bandit?

UPDATED: October 20, 2015
PUBLISHED: July 29, 2015

Nobody wants to be one of those dreaded office pariahs, people we’ve probably all worked with—the office screw-up, the whiner, the deadweight, the drama queen, the brown-noser, the credit thief… 

These days, in our sped-up culture, there’s another kind of problem employee who causes as much or more grief than any of those stereotypes, because nobody recognizes the havoc they create and nobody feels like they can or should be reproved. As a result, these problem employees never even realize they’re a problem.

Who are they? They are the office time bandits, people who interrupt your work whenever they want. They steal the precious resource you can never replace: your time. You can never get that time back—and you probably never had enough time in the first place. You always have too much to do and not enough time to do it. But when you get interrupted, you don’t feel like you can brush off the interruption, so instead you drop what you’re doing, take care of the interruption and then try to get on with your regularly scheduled work. And the time bandit carries on like nothing unpleasant ever took place.

Now here’s where it gets uncomfortable. If these time bandits never recognize themselves, if nobody ever calls them out, if they consider their behavior normal and innocuous because everyone simply tolerates it instead of stopping it, is it possible that you could be your office’s time bandit and just not know it?

How many times a day do you go down the hall, stick your head into somebody’s space, find them hard at work but think nothing of saying, “Got a minute?” How often, when you are working on a project and you need a little more direction, do you just pick up the phone and call the boss? When you see a group of co-workers meeting, are you the person who walks in to see how it’s going or just make some friendly small talk?

Then this is your wake-up call.

Let’s be clear, time bandits are not jerks or bullies or tyrants. They are not lazy—in fact, sometimes they are the hardest workers, the most attentive to deadlines and details. They often believe they have good reason for interrupting, that their important work is being held up for a small piece of information that they can get by just by a “tiny” interruption. Why wait hours for a convenient time for the other person when “it will only take a minute”? Sometimes they are the friendliest people at the office, always ready with a sociable overture.

So, what’s so bad about these friendly, hard-working, diligent time bandits again? They know not what they do! And they may very well be you.

First of all, it’s not “a minute.” It’s a lot more. There’s the interruption itself that throws you off task.  Then, while you take care of the time bandit’s need, the thoughts you had assembled for your task scatter. When the time bandit leaves, you have to gather them again. Let’s face it, that’s frustrating—going to extra effort just to get back to where you were before. And frustration has a way of dissipating the energy that good work thrives on.

And wait, there’s more. Now there’s distress at having to make up for lost time, and with distress comes fatigue. And who is at the top of their game when they are frustrated, distressed and fatigued? So what happens? You make some mistakes, so you have do-overs, which take even more time, which makes you even more frustrated….  So goes the whole unhappy process, all because neither you nor the time bandit realized how damaging frustrations are.

As an efficiency and workflow consultant, I’ve asked workers to add up how much time they lose to interruptions. They all start out thinking it’s minimal, but as they calculate it, they routinely come up with three to five hours a day. Seriously. That’s about half the normal work day. No wonder you always have “too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

So think about it. If you are someone who, through the best intentions or not, frequently interrupts people at work, consider how much chaos your innocent act inadvertently causes. Don’t be your office’s time bandit!

Want to make the most of your time on the clock? Find out 8 ways to balance your workload for max productivity.

Edward G. Brown is the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had and co-founder of the #1 firm in culture change management consulting and training for the financial services industry, Cohen Brown Management Group.