Productive or Just Busy? Tips and Tricks for Eliminating Busy Work

When you’re staring down the intimidating abyss that is the modern workday, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Starting to accomplish tasks like responding to emails, clearing an overflowing answering machine, or organizing a cluttered desk can help create a feeling of productivity.

That’s great! But once we’ve spent the day completing task after task, what has actually gotten done? What projects have been moved along? Goals accomplished? If the answer to that is nothing, then it’s been a day of busy work.

Busy work: those little tasks that don’t really have to get done but can quickly become a huge time suck. 

The biggest problem with busy work isn’t the work itself, but its use as a distraction for important, pressing, or difficult tasks.

Falling into the spiral of busy work can be subtle, and hours may have passed before realizing no meaningful work is getting done because busy work feels productive. It disguises itself as “getting stuff done” while diverting attention away from the difficult tasks and projects that will help your goals. So how can busy work be avoided?

Nail Down Your Busy Work

Using tools like WasteNoTime can help pinpoint your sources of busy work.

Using tools like WasteNoTime can help pinpoint your sources of busy work.

The first step is determining just where all that time is going. If you find your busy work taking place online, programs such as WasteNoTime can help you track the time spent on certain websites. If not, keeping a time log of your day can reveal hidden elements of busy work in your day. This can help you pinpoint exactly where your time is going--then adjust. 


Now comes the hard part: actually eliminating the busy work. First, establish priorities, addressing and work on anything time sensitive. Prioritizing goals (yours, company’s, etc.) is a good place to start. For instance, what’s more important: clearing your inbox or research for your upcoming marketing campaign? Just because it may not be urgent, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need work. 

Once goals are established, figure out what activities and projects are going to move you towards them. By shifting your focus and efforts to goals rather than tasks, you can escape the pattern of crossing things off the to-do list and get into the habit of regularly working towards goals.

Shift Your Mindset

Programs like StayFocusd can keep your productivity on track.

Programs like StayFocusd can keep your productivity on track.

Another method is project-orientation. Sometimes, when goals seem too big and results too far away, breaking things down into projects and sub-projects can help navigate completing meaningful tasks. What can you do today that will finish a project? If you can’t, then what will get you the closest to finishing? Shifting your mindset to focus on and prioritize goals and projects over simply completing task after task can be challenging, but as time passes, you’ll find yourself not just feeling productive, but being productive. 

Use Technology to Your Advantage

Another trap comes when distractions pop up. An ad for those shoes you’ve been eyeing or a promotional email for flight discounts pops up, and that’s all it takes to completely derail your focus. 

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Technology can help with this! Programs such as Freedom or StayFocusd can allow you to block websites for a certain time period. Whether that means blocking all internet access for a period of time, or just sites such as social media that distract you most, staying focused on the task at hand comes much easier when you’re not derailed.

Collaboration to Combat Busy Work 

 Working in collaborative office environments can allow you and others to fight busy work together. Checking in on one another and asking about current projects can keep everyone on track and accountable for meeting deadlines or pushing through creative blocks. 

Deadlines Are Your Friend

If you can set deadlines for projects, the busy work can actually weed itself out until other priorities are addressed. Some projects have hard deadlines, other ongoing projects might not be so cut and dry. By setting deadlines and breaking down large projects into smaller, achievable segments, large goals seem less daunting. 

We’ve been pretty harsh on busy work so far, maybe unfairly so. But until we have robots to carry out our organizational, administrative, and mundane “busy work” tasks, they can still be really important at times. A messy desk or thousands of unread emails can become distracting and stressful. By delegating specific time to it (and sticking to that time!), busy work tasks can be completed effectively.  The major kicker is staying firm to that delegated time and keeping focused on just that task. Giving yourself 30 minutes to clear an inbox can easily turn into an hour or more, “just five more minutes” at a time.

Madeline Adler