How Much of Your Work Is Really Busywork? Six Ways to Tell, and What to Do About It

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter F. Drucker, Austrian-American business expert and productivity guru.

What is productive work? Simple: work that helps you reach your goals. But sometimes, you may wonder if your work is really making a difference. Perhaps minor tasks have overtaken your focus. Perhaps you’re procrastinating. Perhaps you’re living in your inbox.

A recent poll of 1,987 U.K. workers revealed they did productive work for about 2.5 hours a day on average. RescueTime’s study of 225 million hours of worktime in 2017 produced the same figure for users worldwide. Most of rest of the day was wasted with busywork and other unproductive activities.

How can you tell if you’re gunning for the global average for productive work? Look for these six key indicators.

  1. Your to-do list is glutted. Having a long to-do list doesn’t mean you’re productive. It may mean the opposite., for example, gives you the option of marking to-do tasks with red, orange, yellow, or white circles by order of priority. A red circle indicates high priority work. How many of your tasks fall in red-circle territory? If it’s more than three, you’re in trouble. If your task list is longer than 10-12 significant items, ditto. Take a critical look at your to-do list. What matters most? Focus on that and lower the priority of the rest as much as possible. Do high priority tasks first or during high-energy times of the day. Otherwise, you may make poor decisions about your time, and default to the easiest job left on your list.

  2. You’re biting off more than you can chew. If everything really is high priority, delegate what you can, triage your list mercilessly, and stop taking on more work. If people keep shoveling it on your plate, let them know you can’t handle more.

  3. There’s no passion in your work. You don’t like it much, so you do just enough to get by. You might even be a little productive, but you’re really just killing time. Routines can help take up the slack, but if you’re always running on automatic, at some point you’re going to drift off into the weeds. You may end up spending more time preparing for work than actually doing it. You don’t do your best work, so your productivity drops. If this is true, find ways to motivate yourself, if only by mental effort. Find some aspect of your work you enjoy, and learn to love it. Spread the love to other parts of your work. This is tough, so award yourself regularly—with coffee, snacks, or an extra quick break—for accomplishing productive tasks. Think about how doing a good job could translate into promotions.

  4. You don’t know why you do things the way you do. Someone told you to do it this way. You’re just following the rules and procedures. You have no idea why. Why use this report template? Why constantly recycle the same code modules? Why send people the same report every week, when it would be as effective to send it every month? Does anyone even read it? Find out. If you stopped doing a particular task, what would happen? Would someone scream, or would anyone even notice?

  5. Someone has to do it. Yes, there’s always low-value work someone has to do. But should you spend hours filing, printing, copying, or straightening up your cubicle? There’s a work hierarchy for a reason. If you’re a highly-paid professional, leave lower-value work for interns, support people, and/or entry-level professionals for whom the work is important.

  6. You often pretend to feel, look, and act busy. Enough said. Whatever your reason—boredom, lack of passion, insufficient work, hating your job, or laziness—start focusing on strategic work. The same methods for kindling passion will work here. If you simply can’t stand what you’re doing, it’s time to find work you like more.

The Way It Should Be

No one’s uber-productive every day, but your job shouldn’t be an exercise in futility. What would you rather be: an underutilized placeholder or a productivity powerhouse?

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland