5 Time Burglars to Avoid

desk with clock, mug, glasses and typewriter

Time is a precious commodity. As music teachers, we not only have to protect classroom time, but we have to carve out a few minutes (or hours!) here and there to take care of our must-do, non-negotiable tasks.

In order to be as productive as possible, you must be mindful of the things that distract you — time burglars — and how to deal with them. Here are my top 5 time burglars and how I have learned to take my time back from them.


Time Burglar #1: Email

email envelopes flying off a smart phone In 2007, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is so cool! I can get my email on my phone!” That was before I knew better.

Digital boundaries are challenging ones to enforce. Email is one of the biggest time burglars. Think of an email inbox as a to-do list where other people ask or tell you what to do. Unless you are a mid- to upper-level administrator, there is little to no reason why you should be accessible by email 24 hours a day.

I check email three times a day, and I also use those times to send out any messages. I write a note on my to-do list if I think of a message I have to send someone, but I don't send out emails outside of school hours.

I've also been guilty of writing novels over email. My new rule is to pick up the phone and call if it takes longer than three sentences. I break this rule when I know I'm dealing with a professional human-time burglar.

If your very first task is to check email every morning, you may be subconsciously telling yourself that other people's work comes first. Yes, this may be work that only you can do, but consider experimenting for a week. Take just 10 minutes to knock out something small that you know you have to do at the start of your day. Then, check email to see what others want you to do.


Time Burglar #2: Active Procrastination

Have you ever carved out time to do a crucial task, only to get distracted by dozens of other small tasks? You probably fib a little to yourself, don't you? I sure do. I tell myself, “No, I didn't actually do the thing that I needed to get done, but I did check off 10 other minor tasks!” Never mind the fact that those minor tasks could have waited, been done by someone else or not been done at all.

Active procrastination is hands down my worst time burglar. If I even stray a little bit and check my email or take a look at another project, I'm toast. It's a focus thing for me, and it's incredibly addicting to keep racking up those checked-off tasks.

Remember Dug, the dog from the Pixar movie "Up?" He'd cut off mid-sentence to exclaim “Squirrel!” whenever he thought he saw something move. My solution? I remove the possibility of being distracted by “squirrels.” First, I lock my phone and smartwatch in a drawer. Then, I write down the action items for my current project on a sheet of paper or a notecard. I focus best when I work without a computer and away from everyone. My wife and I have five kids, so it can be challenging to find time alone, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes I'll sit in the yard or on the patio with my back facing the house.

man sitting in a coffee shop in front of laptop with headphones on If I use my computer, I stay focused thanks to a few timers that block certain time-wasting websites. Furthermore, recognizing locations where you work best will help you avoid burgling time from yourself. When I have some extended writing or computer work to do, my go-to productive environment is a coffee shop where I sit with my laptop and headphones, listening to idle chatter and the ambient sounds of a café from a website called Coffitivity. (And yes, I see the redundancy of sitting in a coffee shop while listening to fake coffee shop sounds, but it keeps me from getting up and socializing with every table.)

According to a theory called Parkinson's Law, the work you have to do will expand to fill the time you have. In my case, active procrastination often works hand in hand with Parkinson's Law. For example, if I allot two hours for preparing concert programs, programming literature or checking email, it will take two hours. Add a few tasks to that list, and the workload magically adjusts to fit the timeframe. So, in an accidental “Inception”-type moment, our planning and perception of time itself may be a time burglar. And now I've gone farther away from reality, so back to Earth, and on to...


Time Burglar #3: Broken Instruments/Equipment

clarinets during marching band event Oh, the countless times I’ve had an excellent plan for my free period, only to be presented with a pile of plastic, rods, screws and unidentified objects. (It’s always bass clarinets, right?)

Some of these broken instrument issues can be addressed with preventive and routine maintenance, such as regular reminders to oil valves, grease slides and corks, loosen bows when not in use and complete standard instrument care checks. Once a month, ask students to check for any loose screws on their instruments (because tightening a screw takes five seconds but looking for a screw on the floor is a lost cause).

But instruments and equipment will eventually require surprise repairs. In my case, this is a time burglar that I allow to happen. If you're lucky, you’ll have a stock of extra instruments that can quickly be loaned out to a student rather than making a quick fix during class. I have come to accept that broken equipment is inevitable and that it is a priority for me to address the situation quickly. However, do not get too far into problem-solving mode because you’ll end up wasting time you don’t have. My general rule is that if I don't have the proper tool to fix the instrument, I can’t complete the job. So, I’ll send it to the shop and focus my efforts on finding a short-term replacement instead.


Time Burglar #4: Things You Don't Have to Do

This is a big one and a relative to active procrastination. Ask yourself: Does a specific job actually need to be done? If it does, does it have to be done by you? (In my article, “Prioritization: Accentuate the Right Things,” I list several tasks you can outsource.)  

Tasks that are unnecessary or that are better suited to be done by others, rob you of time you can spend completing your goals, projects and missions. We have a finite amount of energy each day and if we spend time on unnecessary tasks, burnout is a real possibility. Do not take time away from chasing and living your passion because once you go bankrupt, it's hard (but not impossible) to build back up.

Take a look at your current list of tasks. Is there at least one that can be deleted, shelved temporarily or deferred politely to someone else? Think of it in another way — if you do all the work yourself, you are now the burglar! You are stealing all the opportunities for yourself, instead of giving others the chance to grow, experience and be a part of your team. This is a harsh statement, but it has kept me in check over the years.


Time Burglar #5: Colleagues

man sitting at desk in front of laptop looking annoyed at a female colleague

You know who these people are. You enjoy talking with them. They're probably even friends. But you had 20 minutes to get some reports and grading done, and this person stole all this time! You always end up behind on your work when they visit. You might even wonder, “don’t they have any work to do?” You've just come face-to-face with a time burglar.

Confession time: I'm a reformed-time burglar. I used to come in very early at a previous job to get most of my work done. I had a 20-minute break in the middle of the day, and I would drop in and visit the orchestra director. This became a habit and something that I looked forward to. I completely missed the social cues of his “uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah” responses while simultaneously typing on his computer.

These are the most challenging time burglars to deal with. You don't want to be mean, and you might actually welcome the break from all your work. If you have conflict-avoidance tendencies, this may be absolute torture to address. But ask yourself, “Who's time is more important?”

Consider packaging it this way. Say, “I really love talking to you, and I enjoy sharing these war stories with you. I'm apprehensive about bringing this up, but I only have so much time to get some pretty important things done. Can we chat later?"

So, how did my colleague handle it? He was a little blunter, but I needed to hear it. He calmly yet firmly said, “I love chatting with you, Don, but this is the only 20 minutes I get to work on some particular tasks. You are welcome to come and sit in the office, but I'm just letting you know that this work is my priority right now. Pick a bar and grill for you and me to go to next week, and we can have a couple of uninterrupted hours to visit."

Finally, there's this option — put them to work. “Hey, it's great that you stopped by. I need some help with a few tasks. Can you help out?" Two things will likely happen: 1) the time burglar will say “yes,” and you get some help, or 2) the time burglar will suddenly have some work that he or she has to do on their own and exit gracefully. Win-win situation.

Let us know about time burglars that you have encountered and conquered. Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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