How To Stop Busywork From Holding Your Career Progress Back

Chances are you spend a lot of your day on useless busywork without even realizing it. Here’s how to spot it and eliminate it.

How To Stop Busywork From Holding Your Career Progress Back
[Photo: Flickr user Monica R.]

We’re all so busy. Sixty-one percent of Americans today say they don’t have enough time to do the things they want to do. But often what’s keeping us so busy isn’t that important.


“Most of us have no problem with being busy, but we’re often busy on the wrong things,” says Angie Morgan, coauthor of Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success. “You could spend nine to five just emailing, but that’s not driving results or moving you toward longer, bigger goals. When people say, ‘I’m so busy,’ it really means, ‘I’m a poor planner,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to prioritize or delegate.’”

People treat being busy as a badge of honor, but it could be damaging your career and organization, says Renee Cullinan, cofounder of the management and work-practices consulting firm Stop Meeting Like This. “Busywork has a double negative impact,” she says. “It consumes time that could be better spent on other things, and it drains energy. Longer term, it breeds a work culture that values activity over results and busyness over effectiveness.”

How To Identify It

To avoid letting busywork consume your day, you first have to identify it. Morgan suggests looking at your job description and organization’s objectives. “Work that is connected to those things should have a meaningful outcome,” she says.

Cullinan says busywork often fits one of these three scenarios:

  1. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  2. The effort seems disproportionately high compared to the results, such as polishing an internal PowerPoint presentation for the tenth time.
  3. The team is running in place, with long “reply all” chains, boring status meetings, or missed deadlines.

One reason we can become consumed with busywork is because it’s easier, says Morgan. “Work that has more meaning is often intellectually challenging work, she says. “It can be harder, but after pouring two hours into it you’re going to feel good.”

How To Address It

Always tie your work and tasks to clear business priorities, says Lori Scherwin, founder of the career-consulting firm Strategize That. “When other work pops up, ask yourself how it fits into producing one of those goals,” she says. “If it doesn’t, it likely falls into the category of busywork and gives you a reasonable basis to push back on doing it,” she says.


But don’t push back without seeking clarity first, adds Morgan. “Rather than going to your manager and saying, ‘This is crap and not the best use of my time,’ get some insight as to why it’s important,” she says. “You may not see the direct value, but that doesn’t always mean it doesn’t exist.”

Cullinan suggests talking to your manager about how your key goals and deliverables compare to how you spend your time. “Ask, ‘Can you coach me on what actions I can take to optimize how I use my time?’” she says.

And if the problem is related to daily work practices, try to reduce the amount of busywork you have by only attending meetings if your role is clear or asking to attend the relevant part of a meeting, suggests Cullinan. Also, reduce email busywork by avoiding sending messages that neither advance the dialogue nor produce a specific action, and by removing yourself from lists or subscriptions that aren’t applicable to your job.

When And How to Handle It

Unfortunately, some busywork will eventually need to be completed. Keep a “wait list,” suggests Scherwin. “You likely run into daily situations where you are waiting; meetings run over, calls start late, people dawdle in,” she says. “How much time are you wasting? Possibly up to several hours a week.”

Prepare a list of small but important tasks you can do in five- to 10-minute intervals to keep you on track, such as catching up on reading, emails, or scheduling. “You’ll get through these busywork tasks during the day, rather than having them pile up at the end of the day, and thank yourself for finally getting out of work on time,” says Scherwin.

Reducing or eliminating busywork requires some cultural nuance, says Cullinan. “One person’s definition of busywork may be someone else’s definition of perfection or collaboration,” she says. “If you think your actions could be misinterpreted, proactively communicate your intent, or consult someone in the organization who is particularly good at making great use of her time.”