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What's busy work and why is it so common

What’s Busy Work, and Why Is It So Common?

What is busy work? As the name would suggest, it’s activity that keeps you occupied, but doesn’t necessarily create value. It’s justifiable to anyone who happens to ask, based purely on the hours of effort it consumes.

Busy work often has formal authority behind it. For example, you may be bound to follow a process prescribed by your company. Or you’re responding to a request from someone higher up.

By definition, busy work is low value and, importantly, it helps you to avoid something that’s harder, or not as much fun.

Very often, busy work is part of the rusted-on activity of the company—the historical activities that are performed diligently, but without question.

The most important thing to understand about busy work is that it’s not the most important thing that you could be doing—it’s a space-filler.

When your people are doing busy work, it’s hard to see it, let alone stop it! Most of the time you don’t even know it’s going on!

Busy work tends to hide in complexity. So the more complicated something is, the harder it is to see which pieces of the work do and don’t add value.

Let’s start at the root of the problem: people don’t want you to see their busy work… and this applies to leaders and individual contributors alike!

For your front line people, busy work is driven by three things; familiarity, mastery and security.

In terms of familiarity, people find comfort in doing things over and over—it increases their confidence. Knowing they can handle their work without having to extend themselves provides a level of certainty: they know what to expect when they come into work each day.

Mastery is important for people to feel good about themselves. When they’ve mastered a task, regardless of whether or not that task delivers any value, the increased proficiency drives a sense of accomplishment.

And when it comes to security, this is the real kicker. People feel that, if they can demonstrate that they’re really busy, that they’ll achieve a level of indispensability. Conversely, if the work they’re doing disappears, well, their job might disappear too!

So, that explains the individual contributors. But how about the busy work that leaders indulge in? I never cease to be amazed at the creative ways that leaders can find to avoid the hard work of leadership.

For example, it’s easy to get caught up in “task list by email”: there are always things that you can react to and do… like going to meetings you shouldn’t be in, because you’re paying someone else to run those meetings.

If you can fill your diary with everything except leadership work, well that’s what you’re going to do! As long as you’re doing busy work, you couldn’t possibly have time to focus on the real job of a leader… capability building… setting standards… stretching your people to lift their performance… driving superior outcomes using the challenge coach, confront model… having the difficult conversations with your stakeholders… communicating an unpopular decision.

As long as you’re doing busy work, you don’t need to face into the most difficult leadership tasks. And what’s even better is that, in many businesses, working long, hard hours is still seen as a badge of honor… the higher up you go, the harder you’re supposed to work.

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