In our fast-paced, always-on, multi-tasking society, we see being “busy” as a sort of badge of honor. A badge that earns respect amongst your peers because if you’re busy, you’re obviously doing something right. But is “being busy” really all it’s cracked up to be?
Staying busy is a necessary evil in most our lives. Most of us feel that if we’re not doing something, we’re missing out on some sort of opportunity — an opportunity that may have no actual end goal. And that’s why, far too often, what’s keeping us busy isn’t actually that important.
“Most of us have no problem with being busy, but we’re often busy on the wrong things,” says Angie Morgan, coauthor of Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success. “You could spend nine to five just emailing, but that’s not driving results or moving you toward longer, bigger goals. When people say, ‘I’m so busy,’ it really means, ‘I’m a poor planner,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to prioritize or delegate.’”
In fact, according to a Gallup Poll, sixty-one percent of working Americans say they don’t have enough time to do the things they want. Why? Because consuming ourselves with busywork and not prioritizing or delegating tasks actually decreases our ability to be efficient during our day-to-day.
How to Identify Busywork
Renee Cullinan, co-founder of the management and work-practices consulting firm Stop Meeting Like This, says, “Busywork has a double negative impact.” She says busywork “consumes time that could be better spent on other things, and it drains energy. Longer term, it breeds a work culture that values activity over results and busyness over effectiveness.”
In order to stop busywork from impeding upon your productivity, you must first identify it. Cullinan says busywork typically fits one of these three scenarios:
- You don’t have a clear objective or end goal of what you’re doing
- The effort to complete the task is disproportionally high compared to the actual outcome it will produce
- The team seems to be swimming upstream or running in place; missing deadlines because of inefficiencies (especially like reply all chains or status meetings that get nowhere)
Addressing the Busywork
The most important aspect to eliminating busywork is to address its purpose and importance. Ask yourself, does this tie into your work or does this clearly align with supporting business priorities? If it doesn’t fit into one of these two categories, it’s likely a form of busywork — which could give you reason to push back on the priority level of the task.
First, though, seek clarity on the objective of the task before pushing back. “Rather than going to your manager and saying, ‘This is crap and not the best use of my time,’ get some insight as to why it’s important,” says Morgan. “You may not see the direct value, but that doesn’t always mean it doesn’t exist.”
Understanding the priority level of the task at hand will help you better manage your time to get all the little things done. And if you see that the problems are daily work practices, learn to optimize your time further by only attending meetings where your role is clear. Remove yourself from email chains that don’t warrant your final say or lists and subscriptions that aren’t applicable to your job role.
Getting a Handle on Busywork
Unfortunately, there is going to be busywork that you can’t avoid forever. But the key to handling these tasks to prioritizing. Personally, I keep a running list of what I’m doing — and I mean everything that I’m doing. If I don’t have time to respond to an email right away because I’m in the middle of writing a blog post, I make note of it. Keeping a simple “wish list” of low priority tasks will keep your priorities in check.
Knock these items out while you’re waiting on people to dial-in to your conference call, or later in the day when you’re running out of creative steam and hitting a productivity crash. Doing these seemingly meaningless tasks during quick five- to 10-minute intervals will help you stay in control of your workload and save you a lot of time at the end of the day.
When it boils down to it, like Morgan said, busywork is a direct product of poor planning. Take time to identify your daily priorities, take those lower tier items and work on them in short intervals. You’ll end of feeling less stressed and more accomplished at the end of your day.