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Move fast and kill things: why you should banish busywork

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Being busy is one of the most wonderful vanity metrics in existence. Busyness or “utilisation”, to give it its formal name, is almost universally regarded as a good measure of… something else. This is a classic example of the cognitive error known as substitution, because what we really want to track is productivity but productivity is hard to measure and the human brain is lazy and frequently substitutes a hard thing for an easy thing without telling you.

To measure productivity you need to look at what people have done and evaluate it, often making use of complex, qualitative judgements, frequently involving intangible value; this is hard and doesn’t fit easily into a spreadsheet or a predefined evaluation process. So, as a proxy for productivity, we use busyness.

This is a considerable problem based on natural, cognitive challenges and the fact that people like to take the path of least resistance. It’d be bad enough if that’s where it stopped. But that’s not where it stops. Because then we add management!

Department managers are under a lot of pressure because they have to petition the business to give them budget to hire people. They have to argue really hard that they absolutely need all the people they have. So they get pressured on something. They get pressured on, you guessed it, utilisation! A manager who has a team member who looks a bit too chilled out, someone without enough to do, is likely to lose that person! So managers aren’t just biased towards their staff being busy in a normal, human way. No, managers work within a system which is biased towards busyness!

Try telling your manager that your work is a bit slow at the moment. Chances are you’ll get a knee jerk response: they’ll give you something to do! Anything! Because anything is better than nothing, right?

Wrong.

In the workplace (and in life, for that matter) people need three things to be happy, things I’ve talked about before:

1. Autonomy – the freedom to choose what they do and how
2. Purpose – a clear idea of why, the intent of their work
3. Mastery – the chance to learn and improve within a clear value framework

Busywork, something to do rather than spinning your wheels, is almost certainly not going to hit at least two, possibly three of those things. But it gets worse.

Lets say you’re a clever, hardworking person who is always finding ways to be more efficient. You manage to increase your efficiency by 20% and now you’ve got a day a week free. What are the chances that, at this very moment, there’s some really valuable work waiting to be done? Not great, right?

Really valuable work rarely waits to be done. So the work you’re likely to find waiting for you when you’ve managed to improve your efficiency is the low value, bordering on pointless work that’s not important enough to give to anyone who’s busy! Busywork!

But you have to stay busy, right? So you take on this extra busywork. The result? Smart, hardworking people end up doing the lowest value work! And that work reduces their happiness and their work satisfaction because it lacks purpose. This irrational bias towards busyness actively reduces the productivity and wellbeing of your best staff.

Lastly, as if by way of a cherry on the top of this ice-cream sundae of wasted energy, all this unimportant output, all the stuff we make people do which really isn’t important, all of it has to be stored, often commented upon and sorted through. All this busywork becomes someone else’s workload.

Have I convinced you that busyness is a bad measure? Good. Because now we come to the fun part. How to avoid the trap: build in busywork-killing measures, right in the system. Here are some half baked ideas of mine to get you started (you can do better).

1. Task employees with petitioning you to kill off busywork. At the end of every month your employees have to come to you with a task of some kind and convince you that it no longer needs to be done or can, in some way, be automated. Anyone with spare time on their hands can use that time to drive out waste by identifying tasks which shouldn’t exist.

2. If you give a task to a member of your staff he or she has the right to challenge you to tell them two things, clearly and simply; a) what’s the purpose of this work and, b) what’s the value and to whom? If you can’t answer both those questions your employee gets to go home early!

3. The Friday Afternoon Execution – it stands to reason that employees who are using their time well should do important tasks first and leave less important ones to later in the work cycle. So crud should end up on the Friday afternoon to-do-list. So, when you’re buying your employees lunch on Friday (do this, seriously), ask everyone to justify what they’re doing that afternoon. If it turns out to be busywork, let your employee reclaim that time for something else.

4. Encourage your employees to start their own small business and let them run it during work time as long as they get their work done. Madness? Perhaps. But consider this; the devil makes work for idle minds and nothing kills work satisfaction like feeling bored. And great employees who feel bored are probably already thinking of doing something else on the side too. So why not let them do it while remaining great employees of yours? Sure, if their company is a huge success they might leave, but that’s life! In the meantime you get a busy, happy employee, learning lots and bringing all that growth and experience to your business.

5. Don’t assign tasks. This is a simple one. As a manager you should never assign tasks to anyone. Allow people to choose their own tasks. If you find something that no one is choosing to do, look at it and figure out why. Is it boring? Is it unchallenging? Is it valueless? Instead of assigning crap work to unenthusiastic employees, and then spending your days making sure they’ve done it, spend your days making the work better and let employees choose what excites and challenges them.

Like I said, you can certainly do better than these, but, as per my previous digital utterances, a half baked idea often contains a really lovely loaf of awesome if you’re willing to preheat the oven, set the timer, and overcook a metaphor.

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