Every application we use has a fritter-to-value ratio.

Some are pretty low, like a (simple, non-graphing) calculator: you push the buttons, you get your answer. Basically no frittering to get the result you want. The fritter-to-value ratio is really low.

But then there are things like Facebook, which (for most of us) can have a really high fritter-to-value ratio. It’s not that there’s no value in what we do on Facebook, but the amount of frittering we do can easily wind up outweighing that value.

Beware the high-fritter “helpers”

When the release of shiny new gadgets is a daily occurrence–not to mention the myriad apps for each of those new gadgets–there’s high potential to find “helper” applications to make your life easier, more fun or more effective.

There is also high potential to spend loads of time frittering away with options and tabs and “Oooh! I can color-code this!” and sorting and trying and switching-because-this-isn’t-quite-perfect-so-maybe-something-else-will-work-better.

It’s really easy to lose hours (sometimes even whole days) frittering on things that don’t have much, if any, real value to you in the long run. Especially if you’re someone who lights up at the thought of new ways to sort, organize, use, visualize, do; the urge to fritter will grab you long before the realization that what you’re doing isn’t all that effective or valuable has a chance to set in.

Frittering masquerades as productivity

The worst part about frittering is that it feels so much like useful action. It’s usually not until we look back on the time spent frittering that we realize how little we actually accomplished. In the midst of it, we think, “Wow, I’m really getting organized!” or “Yes, this is the app that will solve my time management problems!”

Even when we’re frittering on social media, we fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing something useful: “I’m connecting with people. Connecting is good. It is okay that I’ve spent three hours clicking through friends’ photo albums. It’s connection.” (Same person the following day: “How the hell did I spend three hours looking at Facebook photos? I got nothing done!”)

So we can’t rely on ourselves to feel when the frittering-to-value ratio is too high. Because frittering is action, it’s just too easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that because we’re doing, we’re making progress. Not true.

Nip the fritter in the bud

Preventing frittering is about having a clearer picture of what’s valuable in your day, and focusing on that. If you have ten things on your to-do list that need to get done today, taking one step on any of those items is more valuable than trying out a new to-do app on your phone. If connection is valuable to you, then going on to Facebook with clearly defined expectations (“I’m going to wish Bob happy birthday, check out the photos from Anna’s keynote event and leave her a comment, answer the comments on my Wall, and publish a new status update”) will help you keep the valuable actions front-and-center and keep the low- or no-value fritter activities at bay.

Frittering happens when we lose sight of what we want to be accomplishing, or when we aren’t sure what step to take next. We tend to fritter when doing something (even something that gets us nowhere) feels initially more comfortable than figuring out what our next truly valuable step really is.

We all fall into the fritter trap from time to time. It’s part of being a curious and creative person. But chronic frittering is problematic, because you wind up always doing but never gaining much. Some people have lost entire months to what basically amounts to fritter activities. Some people have lost their businesses because they couldn’t sort out what was frittering and what was valuable action.

Fritter busting starts with noticing

Notice what you want to accomplish. Notice what’s valuable. Notice what activities pull you away from that. Notice what actions keep you “busy” but don’t have much real payoff. Garner an awareness of where you fritter, and you’ll better able to prevent it.

For me it’s in new apps and gadgets… I could spend days and days trying out new ways of organizing my data and tasks, only to turn around and spend days and days doing it all over again with some other app or gadget!

★ Where is it that you fritter & what triggers it? How do you keep frittering at bay and focus on your valuable actions?