Busy Work: The Ultimate Illusion

At some point or another, whether during our education or career, we’ve all undoubtedly come across someone in a position of leadership who is insistent upon the merits of busy work. Professors who dole out countless assignments and superiors who readily make long strings of demands both fall into this unfortunate category. What many fail to accept is that this busy work does not amount to much progress.

A mentor once told me to “work smart, not hard,” and I initially pushed the thought aside in order to do just what he was cautioning me to avoid. It seemed like such an obvious and simple concept that I automatically assumed I was already applying it to my work. It wasn’t until that night as I was mulling over the happenings of my day before bed that I finally came to a realization:  I wasn’t as “smart” as I had previously thought. I had spent my day working through tasks that could have been more easily completed by someone else. It will forever be a struggle of mine to delegate tasks to others and to further prioritize those that I am best suited to complete.

Taking on too much at once creates a sense of what John Kotter, chief innovation officer of Kotter International, calls “false urgency” in a contribution to Forbes’ website. This illusion of a critical situation is essentially a response to the stress created by an overwhelming amount of work looming in the future. We must learn to recognize legitimate urgency for what it truly is and to adjust accordingly. Too much activity is a breeding ground for anxiety, which can only lead to more substantial problems.

Some keys to working smart include:

1. Prioritize – Keep a complete list of tasks that you must complete. Even keeping track of the smallest duties can help you effectively plan your day. Try using word processing software or to-do list applications so you can easily delete and reorder items, and arrange these items in reverse order of due date. Especially crucial tasks should be highlighted and possibly moved to the top of the list.

2. Delegate – It is often horribly difficult to pass work onto others. We can only completely trust ourselves to get the job done correctly, right? While this may be true, certain tasks must be prioritized and entrusted to the care of others for the sake of time. It’s okay to keep a watchful eye out at first, but try to build trust with peers. Learn their specific strengths and make assignments accordingly.

3. Organize – An effective presentation is one that is structured and streamlined. Basically, get to the main point quickly. The minds of busy colleagues are likely to wander should you include heaps of meaningless “fluff” in your argument. Time wasted on an unorganized mess with an unclear objective can be better spent on issues that truly matter.

4. Evaluate – Take the time to step back from your projects, and ask yourself, “Is this really necessary?” Are you making progress? Is your work truly accomplishing something beneficial? By eliminating things that are irrelevant or insignificant, you can find more time in your hectic schedule to devote to what really matters. Remember, it’s okay to take shortcuts as long as you don’t let the quality of your work suffer.

In summary, keep things simple. Work smart, not hard, and never lose focus on the ultimate goal.

Adapted from, “Why Busy Work Doesn’t Work,” John Kotter, Forbes.com