Chances are you spend more time at work than you do actually working. A fair amount of time in just about everybody’s workday typically gets consumed with “fake work.” You know what I mean: You’re at your desk, but you’re not actually accomplishing anything. You might be Googling things at random, shuffling through a document or file folder, or cleaning out your email inbox.
It’s not that these tasks aren’t marginally useful now and then, but they’re among the lowest-value things you can do, and you do them way more than you probably need to–typically in order to procrastinate. Sometimes fake work is a sign that you’re just spending too much time at work overall. Our brains can only concentrate for so long before they need a break. So if you find yourself fake working, the first thing to do is get up and walk around a bit. If a short break helps, then just build those into your routine.
Often, though, you need a better plan to power through your fake work. Here are three things you can do to maximize your productivity when you catch yourself procrastinating with fake work.
1. Practice A Skill
When I was a graduate student, one of my mentors advised me to study things that would let me pick up new skills continuously, because once I started teaching I wouldn’t have much time to learn to do new things. He was right. I’m glad I learned a lot about programming and statistical analysis early on, because my subsequent career has left little time to brush up on those areas.
Whenever there are skills you need to improve, the time you inevitably spend fake working offers a great chance to do that. Keep a bookmark on your browser to videos that might help you refine some new work-related skill–whether it’s programming, interpreting personality scales, or negotiating. Even 10 or 15 minutes spent working on a new skill can really add up over time. (Whatever you do, don’t try forcing yourself back into whatever focused task you’ve just caught yourself procrastinating on–it won’t work.)
2. Keep A Book Handy
One of the reasons your brain gravitates toward fake work is because it craves a more passive task, something that requires less intense focus. Reading is something of a happy medium between deleting emails and designing an original presentation or performing statistical analysis. So keep a book handy that you can reach for as an antidote to fake work. Collect recommendations from friends or colleagues who have broad interests. Snag an actual paper copy of one or two (to give your eyes a break from all that screen time) that you can leave in strategic places around your workspace. If you find yourself gravitating toward your favorite fake-work activity, pick up the book and read for a while.
If you feel guilty about reading on your work time, start a blog page and write about whatever interests you from your reading; you can keep it private if you prefer or share it with your colleagues to jump-start discussions. Psychologists know that taking notes or writing a short summary can help you absorb what you’ve read.
3. Save Up The Fun Stuff
Some of the things you do at work are more fun for you than for others. Find those tasks that you have to do regularly and put them aside rather than tackling them right away. When you find your motivation to get things done flagging, pull out one of those fun tasks. Use your low-productivity time to do something that you actually like to do. Save the times when you’re really focused and motivated for the less pleasant, more difficult work.
In other words, plan ahead to procrastinate–knowing that you’re going to do so inevitably. It’s when you pretend otherwise that you’ll find yourself sliding into fake work. But if you keep a running list of fun work tasks to dig into when you find your mind wandering, you’ll be able to prod it back on track more productively–and dislike the experience of doing so a little bit less.