I poked my head up above my cubicle and saw at an entire floor of people busying themselves with meetings, reports, and who knows what else. But what difference were any of us really making to our customers? We were all so busy doing ‘fake work’ that we’d lost sight of what mattered. It was then I decided (for the second time!) that corporate life was not for me. I just couldn’t stand the disconnection between working hard and actually doing something useful.
I didn’t quit straight away though. Instead, I decided to focus exclusively on work that would have the biggest impact. I declined most meetings, left hundreds emails unread and unanswered, and worked hours that suited me (at the time I was training for Everest and so would saunter in at 9:30!). I was not surprised when my manager called me in for a meeting….
Expecting to be told to pull my head into line and conform, I was instead given a promotion! It turns out that no-one had noticed that I had stopped doing all that low-value work. But they had noticed my results in other areas. By avoiding fake work, I’d created time (and head-space) to focus on a handful of strategic projects that were very important to the business. And these did make a difference.
How much of your workday is spent doing ‘fake work’?
Working hard, putting in long hours at work, and feeling exhausted is pretty much the status quo these days. If you ask someone how they are, the standard response is ‘busy’. Yet are we actually getting much done? For all this ‘hard work’ we’re doing, are we accomplishing much?
We all know theoretically that the important thing is to ‘work smart’ in order to be productive, but it’s not always easy to put this into practise. If you think about your day today (or yesterday), what work did you do that was actually important? How long did this take? Chances are it makes up a pretty small portion of your workday. It’s the same for me too.
So how are we ‘working hard’ yet not spending much time on important work?
We can blame distractions or too many meetings, but the real answer is we’re engaging in too much “Fake Work”. We spend way too much time doing things that are not linked to any strategic objectives. There’s a whole book about fake work, and it’s a very real thing!
Fake Work Checklist (you’re probably doing several of these things)
How much time did you spend on these types of things today?
- Engaging with businesses trying to sell you something that you have no intention of purchasing
No, you don’t need to respond to every outreach email or take every call that comes in. Yes, it’s nice to be polite but not at the expense of getting things accomplished.
- Learning something you have no immediate need for OR no bandwidth to implement
Of course, learning new things is great but how many blog articles have you read or courses have you done without implementing? That’s what really matters. Instead, embrace the philosophy of ‘just-in-time learning’. Trust that when you’re ready to implement, you can learn it then.
- Tweaking copy or design – when it’s already relatively good
Having high standards is great but it’s probably time to let go of that perfectionist tendency. Ask yourself, “will anyone else even notice?” before making more changes.
- Networking without objectives
Is this actually ‘networking’ or really socializing? If it’s the latter, that’s fine – but don’t call it work. When was the last time something actually came from all this networking you’re doing?
- Attending trade shows or conferences (unless you’ve identified this as a core part of your strategy)
Are these moving your business forward or just taking up a whole lot of time? Couldn’t you find that same information online in a fraction of the time?
- Endlessly checking your stats pages (website traffic, SEO results, etc)
Of course ‘information is power’, but how often do you really need to know these things? I doubt it’s daily! When did you last take action because of some new insight you gained from this information? How about doing something that might actually change those statistics?
- Endlessly checking your competitors
Of course, it’s good to know your market, but having too much focus on your competitors doesn’t actually grow your business. All the time you spend thinking about them is time not spent creating something. Plus, you really don’t want to think too similarly to your competitors – it’s far better to know your customers and be unique.
- Spending time on social media without specific objectives
We all know about the dangers of wasting time on social media, but if your business uses social media as part of it’s marketing, then the lines are very blurry! Know exactly what you’re intention is, then get in, do it, and get out! For instance, this might be; respond to all comments on my business page and post a new update.
- Unnecessary meetings
Some meetings are necessary, for example 1:1 meetings are an essential for team performance, but do you really need another team-wide meeting just to get status updates? Maybe a quick phone call will suffice. Or maybe you could use a system to get team members on the same page. If you’re being invited to a meeting, ask for the agenda beforehand and check if your contribution is really required. Changing the meeting culture of an organization can be hard, but it can save a lot of people a lot of time.
- Reorganizing something that doesn’t really impact your ability to do real work
Shuffling things around can feel like work, and there’s certainly something to be said for being organized. But does reorganizing your files, your book shelves, or your homescreen really save you time later, or just make you feel better. If you can find your archived emails by searching, do you really need to sort them into labels or folders?
There’s probably lots of other activities we call ‘work’ that really fall into the category of fake work too. And just to be clear, none of these things are detrimental in themselves, but without a strategic objective they can quickly fill up our days and lead us to feel like we’re working hard, but wondering why we’re not making real progress.
Why do we do fake work?
If fake work gets us nowhere, why do we do it?
The short answer is because it’s easy and/or somewhat enjoyable. Or at least easier or more enjoyable than that pesky real work we should be doing! And if we believe it’s work, we somehow feel righteous or vindicated or worthy by keeping ‘busy’ like this. Although we’d never admit it, most of us opt for spending a full day doing fake work over 30 minutes of hard thinking.
How do we eliminate fake work and focus on real work?
Try this for an exercise…
- Write down a couple of specific objectives for your business
- Next to each of these, list 10 small actions that would be likely to move you closer towards those objectives
- Schedule 3 actions a day into your next week of work – each of these should take less than an hour
- Get these done before anything else!
These things are real work. Things that might move the needle and really make a difference.
The actual activities might can sometimes seem too easy, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re not worth doing. (For example, making a phone call, sending an email, making a decision – all of these things can make a difference.) On the other hand, sometimes your actions seem too difficult and daunting. (For example, figuring out how to build an app, finding a co-founder, or upgrading your CRM system.) With these types of things, break them into much smaller actions and start with just the first step.
Use fake work as your reward for real work!
The activities listed above can probably never be eliminated, but instead, they can be used as mini-breaks between short stints of our real work. Pick one of your high priority actions and do that until it’s done. Then allow yourself to do something easier from your fake work list.
For example, if you love checking your stats, only allow yourself to do that after you’ve made those 5 prospecting calls. Or if you enjoy meeting colleagues for lunch, make sure you’ve done your high priority action before that. Or if you want to read some industry blog posts, do that after you’ve written your own new content.
Making these things the activities you fit in around truly high priority actions makes a huge difference to your productivity.