Busy Work Doesn’t Mean Better Work

Our culture has an addiction to busyness. We wear it like a badge of honor to be able to tell someone we’re too busy, have too much work to do, or have X amount of impending deadlines when we turn down plans or invitations. But a full day does not equate to a productive day.

Managers in corporate settings often assign their employees tedious tasks just to give them something to do. They fear stagnancy and laziness in their team members, so they make sure to fill their calendars to the brim with assignments. It could be busy work (“Brainstorm 20 ideas for a new initiative”), dead-end work (“Write a major proposal for this client—even though it may very well get turned down”), or other projects with hardly any relevance or possibility for a productive result.

We do it to ourselves, too, by making up our own busy work when we have lulls in our to-do lists or even to procrastinate big and important projects. Tidying our workspaces, cleaning out our email inboxes, or ordering office supplies are all tasks that fill time and make us feel good, but they don’t move us toward a larger goal.

Caroline Beaton, a television producer for HGTV and the Travel Channel, says, “Truly important work that distinguishes us and serves our personal, professional, and global bottom line frequently feels daunting and dissatisfying when we’re doing it.” Our loftiest goals take time and space for innovative approaches and solutions. The filler work—the organizing of desks, the filing of important documents, the answering of emails—that often inundates our days might make us feel more productive, but how are these mindless tasks moving our careers and companies forward?

The fix to busyness reliance comes from the top. Leadership teams must learn to loosen their grips on the reigns of false productivity and working their employees down to the last minute of the workday. Doing more stuff feels good, but according to author of “The 4-Hour Workweek” Tim Ferriss, “Being perpetually busy is akin to being sloppy with your time. It’s ultimately a form of laziness.”

Curating an environment that encourages creativity, and allowing workers time that’s not constantly work-centered, is one way for executives to initiate a more positive and productive workplace. Urge employees to take some downtime (yes, even on the clock) and pitch in with their own ideas and efforts to strengthen the company.

In fact, researchers have proven that downtime impacts creativity greatly. Taking the time to unplug, disconnect from the outside world, and sit with our thoughts (an action that psychologists call the “incubation effect”) is when our most innovative ideas strike.

Employers who give their teams the freedom to take mental breaks and wholly trust them to prove their value by providing more unstructured time build an environment of trust and loyalty among staff. Employees want to succeed and achieve lasting results because they feel respected, understood, and trustworthy.

This team loyalty not only increases morale, but has longer-lasting effects, too. Team members who feel valued will in turn want to work toward the greater success of the company. They’ll show up with compelling ideas, demonstrate interest in working together and leading others, be engaged, drive profitability, and feel more fulfilled with their work. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we want most?