According to research published this week, we waste up to three hours of every working day doing things other than the work we are supposed to be getting on with. Wasting time is something I am familiar with. I waste my own and I watch other people waste theirs.

As a psychotherapist, many times I have witnessed a client come to the realisation that a particular pattern of behaviour no longer works for them and that this might be a pattern that underpins their whole life, for example how they relate to other people. Yet, to take charge of themselves to make necessary change feels so scary that they put it off — it just feels too big to make the alteration. When they finally do make the change, they often report that what seemed to be a massive and arduous journey was in fact a tiny step. There is nothing like realising that we are mortal to give us that push that enables us to take steps to stop wasting our lives.

When I first became a parent and only had 30 minutes of baby’s nap time to complete a chore, I found I could complete it, whereas before baby, the same task may have taken me hours. When I had a finite amount of time I somehow found the extra focus to make that time count.

Researchers in Sweden are finding out the same thing. When workers have a six-hour working day, they are completing the same number of tasks they used to manage in an eight-hour working day. I don’t suppose this will be a massive surprise to new parents who have suddenly had to get a whole lot more efficient with their time.

My fledgling has now flown and the nest is empty once more. I have more time and procrastination has crept back into my life. But why shouldn’t I spend time on Facebook, seeing where my old school friends are going on holiday this year? What’s the harm of a game of Scrabble against the computer? Why not enjoy the latest Twitter storm? I found yet another app to play with recently, called iMoodJournal. This app sends you a reminder several times a day to record how good or bad your mood is and you log in whatever activity it is that you are doing at the time. In the interests of increasing my self-awareness, I added this to my list of activities. It wasn’t a waste of time, because it has shown me, with the hard evidence of my own observations, that despite my assuming that procrastination was fun, I actually don’t enjoy it. Free-floating dread

Not unlike my clients, I have found that I waste the most time just before I embark upon an activity that feels as though it is going to be more overwhelming, difficult or boring than it turns out to be.

We are all familiar with the cliche that an author’s house is at its cleanest just before they embark on a new book, but timewasting doesn’t just happen before we embark on a new creative endeavour, it happens before we have to do the washing up, before we have a tricky phone call to make and most often before we go to bed, and then again before we get out of bed. Merely shifting from one activity to another can be hard, and people who are often late are probably those who have the most difficulty with this type of shift.

A type of low-level background free-floating dread can also mean that even when we have embarked on the task we were putting off, we somehow fear surrendering to it. We interrupt ourselves with music, Facebook notifications or Instagramming the cat, so that it takes twice as long as it otherwise might do. In this fashion we are not fully facing the dread.

The time-wasting distractions draw out the task, making it harder and longer than it needs to be. This, in turn, reinforces our negative feelings when next faced with a similar job. When we cut down the time allowed for a task, as in the Swedish experiment, we will probably find that not only can we finish it, but that also by having to fully surrender to it, it won’t be as bad as we feared it would be.

Labelling an activity as “time wasting” sounds judgmental. Should we not enjoy ourselves in order to relax from time to time? Of course we should. Time spent connecting with people, being immersed in a good story and other forms of rest and relaxation are essential to a life well lived. However, it’s when we are mindlessly giving in to low-level dread and anxiety, when we allow such feelings to rule us and make us procrastinate that we are vulnerable to not making the most of our short time on Earth. Wasting time is a form of mindless, misguided self-soothing. We can do what we find mildly comforting in the moment or we can use our uniquely human capacity to imagine the future, to plan, to delay gratification until after whatever courageous step we need to take is taken. Be it getting out of bed, limiting our time on Facebook or saving the world. Carpe diem.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist. Her most recent book How to Stay Sane published by Pan MacMillan.