How to recognize when you’re spinning your wheels

Paul Doerwald • February 2, 2023

I’m not sure that “spinning your wheels” is actually the best metaphor.

If you’re driving and you’re stuck in mud, snow or ice, you can tell when your car is spinning its wheels. You hear the engine revving, your wheels are spinning and you’re going nowhere fast.

The solution is either drive slowly so you tires get grip or to rock back-and-forth until you get out of your rut.

When you’re working, spinning your wheels isn’t as obvious. You can’t hear the high-pitched whine of the engine. You don’t see the mud flying. You don’t hear the tires against the ice.

Instead, you keep driving, oblivious.

You keep spinning until you realize you should have arrived, but you’re still far away.

We all do work that doesn’t move us, our business, or our clients forward. These are the time wasters of our professional lives.

I’m not referring to YouTube or games. Those are deliberate choices we make when we need a break.

I’m not even referring to our admin tasks: bookkeeping, timesheets, invoicing, HR, tidying our desks. We may hate these tasks and put them off as long as we can. But when we do them, we know we’re doing them.

I’m referring to the work we do trying to deliver value that does’t move the needle. We’re busy, but we’re not accomplishing anything.

In the January 20, 2023 edition of her Freelance Friday newsletter, Lizzie Davie (@lizziedavey, shares some of her productivity hacks:

I’ve created a master list of Direct-To-Consumer brands doing cool things that I can pull examples from. This saves me scrolling for hours trying to find relevant case studies and screenshots to include in each piece.

Before the swipe file, this was my number one time-suck. I could literally spend ALL DAY scouring the web for top examples because I'm really picky about the ones I include.

Now? It takes a matter of minutes.

Her realization is significant. She used to spend all day scouring for examples, but now accesses that same content in minutes.

How did she come to this realization?

I asked her, and Lizzie replied, saying:

I don’t think there was a specific “a-ha” moment, but I did find myself dreading writing pieces that needed a lot of examples/case studies because I knew I would have to spend a long time looking for them. I’d end up putting them off for ages and then find myself rushing to get them finished.

Spinning wheels hint #1: Dread is a powerful emotion, but it creeps up on you. Lizzie found herself dreading work that she should actually embrace.

To help her focus and complete her writing tasks on schedule, Lizzie time blocks:

I set chunks of time during the day for writing so I know when a piece has gone over the set time.

Spinning wheels hint #2: Lizzie had a mechanism (time blocking) that showed her that a task was taking too long.

Spinning wheels hint #3: Lizzie was becoming frustrated.

As a copywriter, Lizzie bills by the completed piece, not by the time it takes to do the work. Compressing a day’s worth of research into minutes is literally money in her pocket.

Once she realized her time suck, she created a swipe file suited to her work and her clients’ requirements.

However long creating and maintaining the swipe file took, it’s saved her days — and money — since.

I know I’ve personally struggled with it. I often don’t recognize that I’ve been spinning my wheels until I’ve spent hours in the mud. And even then, it’s most likely because I chose the wrong path, rather than repeating a task.

I procrastinate the work I don’t enjoy and that takes a long time. As I write this post, I am realizing that I put off writing about product changes. The cost of updating screenshots is high:

  • clearing my computer’s desktop
  • de-personalizing my workspace
  • choosing a screenshot with the right amount of detail without leaking private information
  • blurring out anything private that remains
  • giving the screenshot an SEO-friendly name
  • uploading it to our CMS, and then linking to it

Perhaps I can outsource screenshots to my development team? Perhaps I can use a separate computer with its own, depersonalized login?

Is there some work that you find yourself avoiding? Perhaps there’s an opportunity for you to invest some time now to get the benefit later.

To achieve your own “aha!” moment, so you can see how you’re spinning your wheels, you need to take a step back. Get a 10,000-foot view of your workday... or at least a 500-foot view. You can’t see the nearby superhighway of productivity if your windows are caked with mud.

Clockk Insight, which we launched today, is there to help you get that higher view of your workday. Your daily Insight email will show you where you spent your time. You’ll receive the email when you’re no longer in the thick of your work. Take the opportunity to scroll through your email. Look at the time you spent delivering value to your clients, and compare it to the time you spent doing other tasks.

Does some of that time make you cringe? “Ooh, I really went down a rabbit hole there!”

Is some of it work that you could have had a virtual assistant do?

Is there something you can do — like creating a swipe file — that will save you that work in the future?

Listen to what Clockk Insight tells you, and look for opportunities to make your day more efficient.

Sign up to Clockk Insight now.

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