The weighted total futility index

US scholars surveyed 5,000 people to estimate how much time we waste on unproductive tasks at work

A young web designer works in a design studio.
A young web designer works in a design studio.Daniel Allan (Gallery Stock)

You know the drill: Restart your computer (as the IT specialist always recommends). Try to sign in three times with the same password. Accept that you have forgotten your password and create a new one (the third this month). Re-type the new passwords, which mysteriously never seem to match. Log on to the internet. Check your email. Get frustrated with autocorrect. Turn off the video that started, even though you didn’t hit play. Look at your e-mail again (we check it every 6 minutes, or 121 times a day). Try to get rid of the advertisement that has commandeered your screen but somehow close the window you were using instead… Working these days means wasting a lot of time all day long.

Every so often, people obsessed with quantification pop up to share depressing estimates. They tell us that, over the course of a lifetime, we spend a decade scrolling on our phones and four months deciding what to watch on Netflix. A study cited by The Economist and attributed to professors affiliated with the Maryland and Delaware Enterprise University Partnership (MADEUP) applies these principles to our work lives. After asking 5,000 people in the United Kingdom and the United States how many minutes they spent on unimportant tasks each day, they calculated the weighted total futility index (known by the felicitous acronym, WTF). WTF determines how much time we waste doing unproductive tasks at work. That figure excludes the amount of time people spend in meetings; the authors believe that such activities are not equally pointless for everyone (although for many they are).

For example, the study shows that we expend a good part of our time and energy tussling with autocorrect. The autocorrect feature insists that it’s right and doesn’t realize that you’re the one sending the e-mail until your third correction. Experts estimate that we spend 20 minutes a day engaged in this process. Of course, we also spend hours correcting our own mistakes. The most common error the study found was typing “thnaks” instead of “thanks.”

Cumulatively, throughout our working lives, we spend 145 days logging in; the study notes that’s the same amount of time as a “goat’s gestation period.” All told, we waste several months trying to remember passwords, entering incorrect passwords and resetting them repeatedly. Just under five months of our lives are devoted to doing this, as well as to simply staring at our monitor screens, waiting for something to happen, as if the computer will bear its soul to us.

The Maryland and Delaware Enterprise University Partnership’s weighted total futility index also includes the time we spend turning off notifications, rejecting persistent prompts to update our operating system and closing pop-up ads.

Over the course of our working lives, we spend 4 months cleaning our computers and 6 weeks deleting e-mails and files. We spend several days snooping around in Slack messages that aren’t intended for us, closing notices about articles we’ll never read and deactivating notifications for events that will never happen.

Design and formatting work – for example, setting the margins on a Google Doc or finding exactly where a missing bracket goes in an Excel formula – are among our most time-consuming inconsequential tasks. The MADEUP study says that the hours a worker today spends changing font size and color during their entire career add up to a whole year, the same amount of time it took Shakespeare to write King Lear.

Another task that’s high on the WTF list of timewasters is the process of proofreading a document and commenting intelligently on the text, which must then be accepted, deleted or responded to with even smarter comments. That ritual generates a cascade of multi-colored comments, the sequence of which no one can determine. We should also mention some of our most time-consuming minor dramas such as when documents aren’t saved, batteries run out and Internet connections fail.

Although this study would not withstand strict scientific scrutiny because it only extrapolates figures, its estimates are not far from the numbers that the IDC consulting firm found. The company says that each employee spends more than 14 hours a week reading and answering emails, over 13 creating digital documents, and almost 10 searching for information. IDC puts the cost of adapting to new technologies – and their constant updates – at $7.48 million (7.5 million euros), while another 7 million are the result of failing to find what we’re looking for in enough time for it to be useful. The Gallup consulting firm refers to this downtime as mental absenteeism, that is, we’re there in physical presence only.

Technology is at the core of the weighted total futility index. However, it could also be helpful for synchronizing autocorrect options, implementing facial recognition instead of passwords, and using fingerprints to log in. We probably still wouldn’t use our time to write King Lear, but at least we wouldn’t have to remember impossible passwords anymore.

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