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Using Computers to Save Time—or Waste It

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Link-Up Digital

As I’m writing this, I realize that I’ve waited too long to tackle it—not necessarily until the last minute, but longer than would have been ideal to give it all the time that it deserves. I’ve procrastinated.

Procrastination can be a problem not only for writers but for anyone who uses a computer for work or play. The core reason is the truly incredible array of diversions that computers and the Internet provide.

Even if you’re not doing something blatantly time-wasting such as playing a computer game, you can get led astray by links at Web sites to other interesting sites that are ever more irrelevant to your task at hand and by online discussions that start out shedding light on a subject you may be researching but become increasing tangential as they become increasingly interesting.

Common sense tells you that personal computers should save you time. A PC, after all, lets you plan and budget far more effectively than a calculator or table, keep track of people and things far more easily than a roster or list, communicate far more efficiently than a typewriter or telephone, and tap into far more research sources than the largest collection of periodicals or books.

The difference between what personal computers should do and what they do in reality is sometimes referred to as the PC “productivity paradox.” If you look at your own work habits and those of people around you, you’ll see some of the other reasons why.

Those memos with their fancy fonts and elaborate formatting take longer to create than the simple typewritten memos of the past. Likewise with those slick presentations adorned with graphics, sound effects, and animation.

E-mail makes it easy to stay in the loop, but wading through scores of nonessential messages or outright spam every day is a time sink. Instant messaging can communicate an important message instantly, but it can also interrupt and delay.

Then there’s equipment maintenance. Whereas in the past only specialists got silicon under their fingernails, today many people have to deal with software bugs, hardware conflicts, and system crashes by themselves. And when the machine is cooperating, it can lure you into tinkering endlessly to customize it in pursuit of PC perfection.

Experts have tried to quantify the PC’s effect on productivity. Some years ago a survey by SBT Accounting Systems of San Rafael, Calif., showed that the typical computer user in a business setting wastes 5.1 hours a week on PCs. Another study, by Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., showed that 20 percent of employees’ time on the Internet at work doesn’t involve their jobs.

Recently, in an article in the January 2007 issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, University of Calgary professor Piers Steel analyzed procrastination.

Basically it boils down to temptation being the major cause of procrastination. Other factors include the value you perceive in performing a given task, any aversion you may have toward it, your impulsiveness, the sense of immediacy you have toward the task, any lack of motivation you may have, and your belief in being able to successfully complete the task.

In contrast to common belief, procrastination has nothing to do with perfectionism. In fact, says Steel, perfectionists procrastinate less because they avoid delays to perform tasks better.

Steel believes that we’re becoming worse procrastinators. According to his statistics, in 1978 (before the PC age), about 5 percent of Americans considered themselves compulsive procrastinators, while today that figure has risen to 26 percent. He says that 54 percent of procrastinators are men and 46 percent are women, while younger people are more likely to procrastinate than older people.

All this is not to say that you should trade in your PC or Mac for an IBM Selectric typewriter or prevent workers from having Internet access.

It’s not the technology that’s the culprit; it’s how we use it. Because personal computers are so dumb—all they really do is add and subtract zeros and ones—we have to be smart in managing them. When tackling a project, balance substance and style. Looks count, but they’re not paramount.

Establish policies governing e-mail and Web surfing. Guidelines are usually more effective in the long term than prohibitions, including the use of programs that block verboten Web sites. Make sure that all those who need it, including top management, receive enough training to be efficient at the keyboard.

Information technology is no panacea. It’s no chimera either. PCs are merely an extension of ourselves, foibles and all.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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