How to do real work vs. busywork

‘When you write down your ideas you automatically focus your full attention on them. Few if any of us can write one thought and think another at the same time. Thus a pencil and paper make excellent concentration tools.’  Michel Leboeuf

How to distinguish between real work and busywork

When creating legacy, it is crucial that you focus your attention on doing ‘real’ work rather than ‘busywork’. By ‘real’ work I mean the work that will move your legacy project forward; by contrast, ‘busywork’ only makes you look busy but doesn’t actually lead to any measurable progress.

The difficulty arises from our own perceptions of what ‘real work’ is. When working on a legacy project, for example, much of the ‘real work’ consists of thinking and planning, i.e. quietly sitting at your desk and maybe taking over an hour to only write down a couple of ideas on your workpad. Busywork, as the name suggests, would make you look busy – having meetings upon meetings with other people; sending and receiving hundreds of emails a day; drinking coffee till late into the night so you can fulfil all the promises to the people you’ve been meeting during the day.

Not surprisingly, then, ‘real work’ doesn’t look at such to others – and worst of all, it may not look as such to you; whereas busywork does. Plus, all those meetings, emails, and coffees you have through busywork give you the feeling that you are being really efficient and energetic, when in fact you’re just running in circles like a headless chicken.

Falling into the busywork trap

The reason I know this is because I have fallen into the busywork trap countless times in the past. I remember a time when I was working on my Masters research project at Cardiff University, and ended up being roped into sitting on 6 different committees (for some of which I had to travel to London), teaching 5 classes on two different courses, editing two academic journals, organising two workshops, and countless other tasks that had nothing to do with my project.

At the time I loved the buzz that all this flurry of activity gave me, but in hindsight all of this ended up adding a few long months to the length of my project, and didn’t actually teach me much I didn’t know before.

How to keep yourself focused on real work

So, if you’re overwhelmed by busywork and don’t know how to start focusing on real work, what should you do? Here are three really simple strategies you can start putting into practice right away: 

1.) Write down on a piece of paper the kind of work that leads to measurable progress on your legacy project, and the kind of work that constitutes busywork. Keep that sheet of paper in full sight when working on your legacy project. Even just having the distinction clear in your mind will help tremendously.

2.) When on the basis of the distinction you have established in 1.) you realise you are in the course of engaging in busywork, stop and give yourself at least five minutes to rethink what real work you should be doing instead; then write it down on a piece of paper; and then do it.

3.) Follow the advice of Michel Lebeouf (the quote at the beginning of this blog post): get into the habit of writing down what you are going to do next before doing it. The simple act of writing something down gets you to consider whether you should really be doing it, because you are engaging your rational mind instead of following your impulses. If after writing it down it still feels like this is something that you need to do to move your project forward, then do it. If not, follow 2. )

Over time, I have developed quite a battalion of other strategies to help me focused on doing real work rather than busywork – I will blog about them as time goes by; but I hope following 1.) – 3.) will help for now.

What about you?

How do you deal with real work vs. busywork? What strategies do you use to keep focused on the real work? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section.

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Alexa Ispas

I am a social entrepreneur, blogger, and talent scout, interested in helping people who want to create legacy. I have recently completed my PhD thesis in social psychology at the University of Edinburgh, and am originally from Romania. I am writing a daily blog on creating legacy, which you can find at