Are You Giving Yourself Busy-Work?


Busy-work is work for the sake of work. You aren’t doing anything meaningful, just doing things to appear busy. Although few people do this intentionally, I believe that an unreasonable proportion of what we do simply doesn’t matter. It exists only to fill time.

I’m midway through a trial to severely cut my e-mail and web usage. As someone who draws his major income from blogging, I’m dependent on the web to deal with customers, network with colleagues and stay informed on the latest technology. So it might be surprising that I’ve cut my net usage to once a day and stats/revenue checking to once a week.

What happened in the cut back? The answer: surprisingly little. This along with various other controlled cut-backs has opened my eyes to the danger of busy-work.

What’s Eating Your Time?

When I wrote an article about interesting uses of the Pareto Principle, I got a few complaints. Many people wrote to me that there job is filled with things that they don’t consider important, but just need to get done.

This view that busy-work is a necessity is a common one. I’d like to offer three counter-points to this view:

  • If your work truly, absolutely needs to get done, it’s important. Just because an activity isn’t central, doesn’t make it unimportant. Eating is only indirectly related to writing, but if I don’t eat I’ll die and if I’m dead I can’t write. Indirectly important work isn’t always busy work, although a great deal of it can be.
  • If you are forced to do unimportant tasks you should seek a position with more autonomy. I’m my own boss when running this website, but I’ve been an employee at the bottom. Tim Ferriss gives some great examples of how to gain more independence at work in The 4-Hour Workweek. It isn’t easy, but if you want to be more than a mindless cog it needs to be done.
  • If you haven’t tested, you don’t really know. If you haven’t actually tried cutting back web usage, restructuring your workday or eliminating particular tasks, you don’t actually know what their importance is. There isn’t any harm in testing. If things get too overwhelmed, you can put an emergency stop to the test.

Busy-Work is in Life, Not Just 9-5

The other problem is when you focus on busy-work in simply a work context. In reality, busy-work exists everywhere. Chores that don’t really need doing. Commitments that offer no value. Friends you don’t enjoy spending time with. All busy-work.

Why do you continue to do busy-work? For starters, it is probably because you are deceived into thinking it is valuable. Checking e-mail five times a day appears more valuable than once per day. Writing ten articles for your blog a week appears more valuable than writing four.

The second reason is because it is a habit. Routines mask out your ability to decide what is a valuable usage of time. Read here if you want some more info on how to keep bad habits from ruling your life.

Won’t Cutting Busy-Work Just Mean More Work?

Another complaint I here about this process of elimination, is that you just end up with more work to do. The factory worker who becomes more efficient now is expected to do his job at twice the rate. This is a by-product of the industrial age where efficiency was only a virtue for management.

In reality, you are the manager of much of your own life. Even if you work in a job, you can discuss with your boss options for using time you rescue from busy-work. By focusing on quality, rather than just more work, you can see the true benefits of eliminating time-wasters.

How to Eliminate the Busy-Work and Focus on Quality

There are two major approaches I’ve recognized in getting rid of the busy-work: expanding and minimizing. As an expansionist, (although not dogmatically so) I believe the way to reduce busy work is simply to fill your life with higher quality ways to invest your time.

The expanding method basically places many commitments on you, so you are forced to get rid of the busy-work. I check e-mail once a day because I have to. I’ve taken on interesting responsibilities, activities and pursuits that require me to be efficient. With no pressure, I fall back to doing busy-work by default.

Having a full life can require a bit more stress-management, but I find it far more satisfying than boredom. By slowly adding new pursuits (and dropping busy-work or pursuits that lack quality) I’m always doing what I enjoy. This works both for work and leisure, so don’t feel you have to be a workaholic to enjoy expansion.

Minimize and Simplify

The opposing force that can also reduce busy-work is to simplify. If you want to check out a man that embodies this philosophy, read Leo’s writings at ZenHabits. By focusing on simplifying work, he’s managed to reach the goal of high-quality time.

In practice, I don’t believe expansion and simplicity are in conflict. They are simply opposite sides of the same coin, just with a different focus. In both cases, the result is the same: higher quality time and getting more out of life.

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