How to distinguish between real work and busywork

‘Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.’  Thomas Alva Edison

A few days ago, we were talking about the distinction between real work and busywork in relation to creating legacy and making progress on your legacy projects.

What a leaky roof can teach us about real work

Thinking of the distinction between the two reminds me of the situation they keep telling you about in management seminars, when your roof is leaking and you have fewer buckets to hold the rain in than you have holes in your roof.

So you keep running around, constantly shifting buckets around so the floor doesn’t get too wet, when what you should be doing instead is going up and fixing the roof. Sure, the floor will get very wet by the time you’ve finished fixing the roof, but now you’ve got a long-term solution instead of a short-term one that leaves you exhausted despite not having made any progress.

Five signs you are doing busywork rather than real work

If this sounds like fancy imagery rather than something you can apply to your own situation, here are some concrete tell-tale signs that you are doing busywork instead of real work:

1. Your work overwhelms you but doesn’t challenge you. Real work is challenging but not overwhelming.

2. There are some vital actions that you haven’t got around to. Real work is those vital actions.

3. You never have time to stop and think. If you are not thinking, you are unlikely to be taking the long-term into account, and are therefore only coming up with solutions for the short-term – such as putting buckets underneath the holes in your roof instead of fixing the roof.

4. You are only addressing short-term problems. Real work involve planning ahead, not just dealing with emergencies. As some of your emergencies are only emergencies because you did not take action on them when there was plenty of time, this means that addressing long-term problems will allow you to only have real emergencies to deal with, i.e. emergencies arising from completely unexpected circumstances rather than your own lack of organisation skills.

5. You are continually bumping up against the same problems. Real work consists in large part in setting up excellent systems, so you do not have to go over the same old problem time and time again. Good systems will in turn provide you with more time for focusing on the long-term instead of always having to deal with short-term emergencies.

What do you think?

How do you deal with real work vs. busywork in relation to your own projects? How do you make sure you do real work? I’d love to read your ideas, thoughts, and personal insights 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