You may have heard the term busywork buzzing around recently.   You may have worked all day and got to the end of the day and wondered what you have achieved. It is likely you have been engaged in busywork.

What exactly is busywork?

Busywork is work that keeps people busy but has little value. A person may appear occupied and busy, but they are not actually achieving much. They may give the impression they are busy and doing something, rather than giving the appearance of doing nothing.

Doing busywork does not mean that the person is being lazy, it just means that they are spending their time doing work that does not really need doing and distracts them from their meaningful work.  Answering lots of irrelevant emails rather than writing a report that is urgent, or making that wedding cake that is booked for the weekend.

Being busy can be seen as working harder, whereas being productive means we are actually achieving what we plan to achieve.

Examples of Busywork

Examples of busywork include filing or sitting in meetings or processing paperwork.  Busywork doesn’t just take place in offices though, it can occur in most works of life, education, the military etc. People can be given tasks to keep them busy, rather than for them to produce or achieve something meaningful. A simple example is cleaning a clean room again, just to keep busy.

Good Quality Work

Many of us are constantly being distracted from being productive. We are kept busy with texts, social media, phone calls, emails that all need to be dealt with, but can also prevent us from achieving what we need to achieve.

A person may have a report to write that day. They come into work and see there are 50 emails to answer. The phone keeps ringing leading to unnecessary conversations. By 3pm in the afternoon, the person still has not even started the report, but has been working all day. But achieved nothing meaningful.

Research suggests that we have three or four hours a day when we will produce excellent, high quality work. The rest of the day our work gradually drops and becomes of lesser quality.  If we spend our three or four hours of excellence doing busywork, we will probably achieve very little.

Busywork or Being Productive?

To decide if a person is being productive or engaging in busywork, we need to consider –

  • Do they spend all or part of their day trying to look, act or feel busy? If the answer is yes to any of this, then they are most likely doing busywork, not productive work.
  • When a person thinks that work “has to be done” but they would rather be doing something else more important, it is likely it is busywork. For example, spending time sitting in meetings when they could be doing important work.
  • If a person is not sure why they are doing something, it is often busywork. For example, creating a new template for reports when the current one works just fine. Or sitting in a meeting again for no apparent reason.
  • If a task distracts them from using their skills to do something more meaningful. If a person is not using their skills, they are probably stuck doing busywork. Everyone is good at something.If they then spend their time doing something else that they are not so good at or they do not find so rewarding, it is also, most likely busywork.
  • If a person feels like they are working hard but getting nowhere, again it is most likely busywork.

    So, busywork is anything a person does to make them feel, look or act busy. It is not necessarily meaningful work. They are not necessarily achieving what they need to that day. They just look busy.  This does not mean that they are productive.

    Avoiding Busywork

  • At the start of every day, a person should sit down and plan what they really need to do. What is essential today? Then they should focus on those goals.
  • Writing a weekly or monthly action plan can also keep a person’s focus on the overall goal for that week or month.
  • Emails, phone calls, messages all need to be answered. But do they need to be answered right now? If it is urgent, then yes, a person should respond immediately. But if not, planning a time to answer messages, emails and texts can be useful. For example, answering them for the first hour of the day, then turning off their emails and putting their phone away and getting down to the meaningful work. Then planning another time or two during the day when they will check their emails and messages.
  • Take time away from the work environment.Going to work elsewhere can help you to focus. A coffee shop, a library, another part of the building. If it’s not possible to leave the work environment, perhaps shut the door, put a “do not disturb” sign up.
  • When people interrupt, it can be useful to arrange an alternative time. “I can’t talk now, so can I catch up with you at 3pm?”
  • Take a break to refocus.If a person realises they have spent the last hour on busywork. Perhaps take five minutes to revisit their day’s action plan and refocus themselves on what they need to do.
  • The person should consider their role and responsibilities. What are they required to do as part of their job? If a task they do is outside of this remit, what do they do? Delegate? Delay it? Do it anyway (they might have to)?

To avoid busywork, the essential point for the person to consider is – Is what I’m doing important and necessary right now? Remember the right now part, because some busywork tasks do need doing, just perhaps not when there is something meaningful and important to do.

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