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Breaking the Addiction to Busy Work

Why It's so Compelling and How to Quit

Hi, my name is Larry, and I'm an addict. I've been clean and sober for three years, two months, and eight days. My drug of choice was not alcohol, narcotics, or even nicotine. For decades, I was addicted to fake work.

I spent hours formatting spreadsheets. I immersed myself in fact finding excursions, spending huge chunks of time at bookstores and office supply centers, obsessing over a $50 purchase. I spent countless hours in conference rooms, discussing options. I filed reports with meticulous attention to detail, and I checked email constantly, even after business hours. Worse, I answered every message. I took lunch meetings most weekdays, even some weekends. I looked forward to returning to the office to hear, “There's someone here to see you.” I was busy, far too busy, doing work that didn’t need to be done.

It all felt so productive. But all this busyness squeezed my most important tasks, my real work, into the margins. Despite all that activity, I was made little progress toward my goals. Yet like a true addict, I returned to my busy work time and again, even as it drained the productivity from me.

The change came when I went into business for myself. As a freelancer, I quickly realized the difference between fake work and real productivity. Real work is anything that advances the mission of your organization. In my case, that was prospecting for clients, negotiating contracts, and placing my butt in the chair to produce the product. Fake work is everything, and I do mean everything, else.

In business terms, real work makes you money, and fake work costs you money. See the difference?

By some estimates, fake work accounts for fully half of the activity of most employees. It can be difficult to avoid because, like any addictive substance, it satisfies some inner need. If you’re obsessed with purchasing office supplies, scheduling lunches, and replying to emails that should never have crossed your desk, there is hope. You can break your addiction by understanding these underlying causes of fake work—and taking the cure.

It feels good

Fake work is compelling because it meets a psychological need. First, it satisfies our nearly pathological hunger to prove our worth through activity. Busyness has become the status symbol of our time, and researchers have discovered that people actually aspire to it.

Beyond that, some personality types gravitate to fake work because it fills a particular psychological need for them. For example, the rule abider may spend countless hours ensuring others comply with every jot and tittle of company policy. Or the obsessive organizer may spend an inordinate amount of time arranging their workspace.

The cure here is to measure outcomes, not activity. Ticking 30 items off your list doesn’t prove you’re successful, just busy. Measure success by missional progress, not the number of things you do.

It’s a sneaky way to procrastinate

We all do this. Rather than discipline a problem employee, you write a lengthy email to a customer. When you don’t feel like actually analyzing the quarter’s performance, you make notes on how to improve the reporting procedure. Fake work is not goofing off, exactly. But it does substitute for the more challenging work you may want to dodge.

The cure is to ask, “What am I avoiding?” whenever you find yourself doing something not strictly wasteful but probably unnecessary—like checking email for the second time in an hour. The answer will be the real task you need to accomplish.

It’s fun

Play has no specific outcome. It’s just something we enjoy. Fake work can be a form of play, and we sometimes do it precisely because it doesn’t accomplish something.

Meetings may be the worst culprit here, especially when food is involved. While everyone complains about them, meetings are an opportunity to chit-chat with coworkers, grab a second cup of coffee, and enjoy a respite from the real work that demands so much energy. They can be kind of fun. The same goes for running errands, picking out a new laptop, or shopping for the lowest plane fare. They can be more enjoyable than thinking, writing, or making decisions.

Play is essential for well-being, but it’s not a substitute for productivity. In a survey of 182 senior managers in a range of industries, 65 percent reported that meetings keep them from completing their own work, and 64 percent said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. Perhaps worse, 62 percent said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together. In other words, unproductive meetings fail even as play.

When you find yourself dallying on a lackadaisical conference call or a lazy afternoon of internet “research,” ask, “What is this costing me?” That’ll dampen your desire to play at work.

It insulates you from risk

One reason we procrastinate is to avoid risk. If you never have time to start that big project, you never have to figure out how to accomplish it. If you’re always too busy to finish your résumé, you’ll never have to face rejection.

The next time you catch yourself lining up the pencils on your desk or “catching up” with a colleague over lunch, ask, “What am I afraid of?” It might be failure. Or success. Either way, it’ll call out your fake work.

It’s hard to tell from the real thing

The most insidious reason we’re drawn to fake work is that it’s hard distinguish from real productivity. Like a narcotic, which seems to produce real happiness, busy work easily masquerades as true productivity.

Often, the difference is one of degree. As Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson point out, “Sometimes real work and fake work can be exactly the same work—just under different circumstances.” An email may require a response, but not a 1,000-word dissertation. Reporting is important, but daily reports are often a waste of time.

If you are unable to draw a straight line between what you are doing and the mission of your organization, you’re doing fake work. To inoculate yourself against it, review your goals daily. By starting each day focused on your highest priorities, you can easily distinguish worklike activity from the tasks that will truly drive success in your organization.

Take the pledge

If you’re ready to stop feeling frustrated by how little you accomplish and start making progress on the things that really matter, it’s time to take the pledge. Choose the one item that is your refuge from productivity, and call it what it is: fake work. Then resolve to avoid it, one day at a time.

You can start by standing up, right where you are, and saying, “Hi, my name is ________ and I’m a fake-workaholic. I’ve been focused and productive for one day.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we use and believe will add value to our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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