Death by Distraction: How I Plan to Save 41% of my Life

I did the math. I’m on pace to waste 33 years of my life.

Imran Esmail
Mindful Memos


Everything you need to build the life you’ve always wanted is out there — the only thing missing is your attention.

Be honest, have you read 5 or more Buzzfeed articles today? Do you sit at your desk about to start work in the morning and then as you’re typing into the browser bar, your hands start moving by themselves — f…a..c..e..b..o..o..k — next thing you know it’s like a Momento moment and you wake up 2 hours later wondering what the hell just happened.

We do this each and every minute, day after day, year after year by blindly following ingrained habits. Whether we are randomly browsing Reddit, watching SNL clips on Youtube, reading through chain emails from friends, or just mindlessly flipping through TV channels and at the end of the day we look up and we have nothing to show for ourselves.

Some people do this their entire lives!

According to Robin Sharma, author of the bestselling book “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”, we are distracted for a total of 2 hours per day or once every 11 minutes. Thats 12.5% of our day or 10 years of our lives — just on distractions!

Why do we care so little about our time when we know we have a finite amount on this earth? It’s more important than money, more time lets us focus on our family — on our health.

Can we even do anything about it?

Yes, it is possible — but like anything worth doing in life, it doesn’t come easy.

Here is mine:

Rewind to Moncton, New Brunswick in 2010

Before I show my results, let me rewind to 2010 when I was employed as a productivity consultant with Grant Thornton (I know, the irony). My job was to go into any kind of manufacturing facility from furniture warehouses to lobster processing factories and uncover lost productivity.

Sample breakdown by employee of productivity

We would basically follow employees around for half a day and categorize their activity as value added, non-value added and other.

We would finish with a chart to the left — green representing work, yellow admin and non-work in red. This way, we could see at a high level where the company was losing time, and therefore money. Multiply that by the employee’s salary and you get the total size of the opportunity.

The red area is where:

  • People were just plain non-working. In my experience, people were doing even less than I caught them not doing. I often found people with upwards of 60% idle time in their day and they would be actively searching for work while I was next to them! The sad thing was 1. the job was probably demoralizing for them and 2. it was costing their employer money. Everyone was losing.
  • People were doing their job ineffectively. This includes them not having access to the right tools and information at hand.

The results we achieved by reducing this idle time was nothing short of astounding. With our clients, we were able to double production at a granola bar manufacturing facility and cut the hours worked by 30% at a plastics manufacturer.

This process we employed was used during the height of manufacturing in North America when we treated people like machines and thought the only parts of the equation were time and manpower to get output.

1928 Ford Rouge Complex Model A assembly line

Obviously, they were horribly wrong but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and in fact, there are many insights you can uncover from applying the framework.

Turning it on myself

Ok, so how does this apply to the average person? Over the last few weeks my productivity had fallen significantly but I also knew that only when we see the size of the problem will we do anything to change it.

So I set out to quantify my “laziness” and uncover where I was losing the most time. I started with writing down each task and how long it took for 2 weeks.

Daily recordings of activities for 6/14 days

That part was a pain in the ass and didn’t even cover enough of the details that I usually recommend we gather for my clients. Nonetheless, it was a useful exercise and I had a lot of insights from going through it:

Value-added time was only 31% of two weeks

Above is my breakdown — as you can see 41% of my time was spent on non-value added tasks (dammit march madness) including things like movies, television, social media, commuting and reading articles among other culprits. Obviously, things like commuting are not recoverable but certainly I can scale back my random articles, Facebook and television watching.

Here is a detailed breakdown by task:

Actual vs ideal breakdown of daily activities

Again, it’s clear way too much time is spent watching TV and I can use that time to meet my goals. The real question will be what tactics can I use to make sure my attention remains on task. I would have never known how big a problem it was unless I had seen it like this.

It really puts things into perspective!

What is my wasted time in years?

I need to put this 41% into the context of dollars and cents or years of my life otherwise its just another nebulas number that won’t mean anything to me. If I can see how many years of my life my bad habits will cost me, I can get the sense of urgency I need to deal with the problem.

So here’s the oversimplified math:

Non-value added in years = 41% x 80 years = 32.8 years

Projected time watching TV = 28% x 80 years = 22.6 years

What! 23 years watching TV. Ok, it was a bad week and this math is really basic but even a little less is more than half my life so far!

Quick wins

Given that TV is my biggest drain of time and it won’t be easy to go from 31 hours per week to my ideal of 11 hours or less right away. I needed to transition myself — here are two strategies I’m using that you can employ as well:

Going on a good diet

What you feed your mind with, you eventually become so I started this playlist on Youtube of motivational videos featuring Tony Robbins, Robin Sharma, Tim Ferriss, etc. If I am going to watch something I may as well look at things that get me pumped and in the mindset to change my habits. I’ve cancelled my cable already and now just use a Chromecast to stream this to my TV.

My motivation playlist

Perspective statements

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to become conversational in Spanish. That means I’ll need to learn 2000 words to get 80% coverage of the average text. It takes about 3 months or 90 days with 20 minutes of focused practice daily.

That’s a total of 1800 minutes or the average amount of TV an American watches in 6-7 days!

So my perspective statement is — would I rather:

  • Become conversational in Spanish
  • Watch 10 Storage Wars Episodes, 5 made for TV movies and 5 hockey games (I’m Canadian)

Obviously, it’s not a one for one trade but imagine what else can be accomplished in those three months if it only takes 20 minutes of focused work per day to learn a language.

This doesn’t mean I can’t watch my favourite shows. We all need breaks — but reviewing this statement daily makes me really think twice about spending so many hours in front of the television.

Dangers of just hacking

Everywhere I see “10 Productivity Hacks to SuperCharge Your Day” or “15 Ways to be More Productive Now” and frankly, they have some good ideas.

But I read these lists and maybe…maybe 1 out of 10 apply to me and the others are like “Don’t eat cheeseburgers for lunch or you will be lethargic after” and then I’m like fahhhhk now all I want is a cheeseburger and i’ll have to go to the gym after — there goes 1 more hour out of my day.

The real problem is that these “tactics” or “hacks” end up being a waste of time without a framework for how they apply to YOU. What you need to do is look at them from the context of your life to decide where and when you can recover lost time.

Final thoughts

Is going through this process really worth it? Absolutely — if you want to do something with your life. I personally needed to see how bad things were to give me the urgency to change — you’re probably very similar.

Here is some food for thought — below is the loss of life expectancy by select activities compared to being distracted:

  • Being 15% overweight = 777 days = 2.13 years
  • Smoking a pack per day = 2250 days = 6.16 years
  • Being distracted for the next 50 years = 1521 days = 4.16 years

Why do we put so much focus on our body while totally ignoring our mind? Even if you think your schedule is jam packed, I promise you there is plenty of space in it to better focus and start that business you’ve always wanted or learn that new skill you’ve been putting off.

If this is a big problem for you, I encourage you to try this method out on yourself. If you’d like some direction just message me on Twitter.

In the next post, I’ll walk through some of the tactics I’ve used for my own situation and walk through my new daily schedule. Highlight and share the quote below and I’ll let you know when its ready.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work in hand. The Sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus” — Alexander Graham Bell

Thanks for reading and please recommend this post below.