Your best days at work are full, busy and enable you to head home or log out tired, but not exhausted. Still, unless you regularly connect all that activity to results, being busy doesn’t always equate to productivity. When you really pay attention, you can even find an alarming portion of time spent in “fake work.”
That’s the term MOMeo Magazine editor, Carla Young, uses to describe all those activities that masquerade as important endeavors, but actually steal time from progress on key goals. It can show up in excessive office tidying or file reorganization, or even in external demands like another brainstorming session around your boss’s latest passion project.
If you’re someone who works in terms of billable hours, it can be much easier to spot productivity saps. If you’ve been at it from eight to five with only an hour of billable time, you know you have a problem. But, as a salaried team member, it can take a little more sleuthing to see when you might be “busy” wasting time.
Recognize fake work
The first step to avoiding this time suck is spotting fake work when you’re in the middle of it. The simple answer is anything that doesn’t move you closer to your goals or move the business forward. Sure, you need to have an organized work space, but constant rearranging and tidying might be a sign that you’re avoiding a more difficult project. Talking with colleagues is a great way to build your network and gain input to move a project forward. But when the conversation drags on or meanders into directionless complaining, it becomes more brain drain than brainstorm.
Social media engagement and email, despite being worthwhile business tools, can also morph into what Young calls, “productivity-draining distractions.” Rooting out fake work involves recognizing your personal tendencies around avoidance and distraction. Consider these strategies from Young and others to avoid busy work and really get something done.
- Work from a focused task list with self-imposed deadlines. Without daily goals, or with too many of them, it can be easy to get sidetracked with whatever comes your way. When you choose just a few top-priority tasks to address in a day, you give yourself meaningful focus. To stay on target, you can easily ask, “Is what I’m doing right now making it more or less likely I’ll complete Task X by the end of the day?”
Of course, many projects are too large to complete in a day. Select a small part that you will take to completion and specify what that looks like. You probably can’t hire a new sales manager today, but you can talk to three contacts in the business who might know of viable candidates, write a job description or discuss with team members how the job could be better configured. Goal setting experts call that “chunking.”
- Stop checking email. You know it. We all know it. Email is a fantastic tool, and an addictive time suck. You need focused time away from email and phone interruptions to make substantial progress on tasks. Turn off notifications. Shut it down. And, if necessary, let your team know you are available by text in an emergency for the next three hours, but, otherwise, cannot be interrupted. Research shows there is a significant time lag created by asking your brain to toggle back and forth between the project at hand and other distractions, like email.
- Use your calendar. Hire your calendar to act as your personal time manager. Especially if it’s shared with others on your team, using your calendar to block out periods of time for specific activities makes it clear to you and others what you are supposed to be doing when. If your calendar shows that 9-11 is set aside to write that key report and you’re deep in a conversation about a better office arrangement, you’ve gotten off task.
- Acknowledge the temptation. By paying attention to when you most often succumb to the siren call of fake work, you can more easily set yourself up for success. Very often, it has to do with procrastination and avoidance. If you learn to recognize those patterns, you can choose to override them. “Whatever you do, don’t give in,” Young advises. “Stick with your productive project and save your fake work as a reward for getting it done.”
- Beware of assigned fake work. We rarely have trouble finding fake work for ourselves, but sometimes others give it to us in the form of assignments or requests. This can be an especially dangerous trap for women. Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University, Linda Babcock, Ph.D., researches women and negotiation and has found that women spend much more time than men serving on committees and doing work that benefits their organizations but for which they aren’t paid. She calls this “non-promotable work.”
It’s a tricky line to negotiate your response to such projects, and women can be penalized for saying no. If you can be candid with your boss, talk openly about your concern that serving on the holiday party planning committee or creating a new onboarding system for interns will take too much time away from your progress on projects X, Y and Z. Then spell out the bottom-line impact of those activities.
No one is ever totally free from time-consuming work that doesn’t really move you forward – and let’s face it, some of these tasks are simply fun, easy and provide a nice break – but learning to recognize them can help you make more conscious choices about when to stay the productive course and when you can veer off for a little indulgence.