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Updated Oct 20, 2023

How to Reduce Busy Work for Your Team

Busy work is no fun. Here's how to eliminate nonessential work from your business.

Leslie Pankowski headshot
Leslie Pankowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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No one enjoys busy work. When employees are involved in too much nonessential work, they’re distracted from the core purpose of their roles. The consequences can be severe, from hurting employee morale by making staffers feel unimportant to decreased revenue due to poor productivity. It can even bleed into your company’s reputation if busy work distracts your team members from providing the quality customer service your clients deserve. To solve this problem, businesses should make the most of their resources and ensure workers are doing tasks that help the organization’s end goals.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right project management software for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

What is busy work?

Before you can understand how to reduce busy work, it’s essential to make sure you grasp what exactly it is.

“Busy work is defined as tasks that team members do that do not bring immediate value to the company,” said Bill Chase, chief marketing officer at Bellhop. “There are, however, certain tasks that may seem like busy work, such as data entry, that actually provide great value to the business.”

In other words, not all busy work may be detrimental to your business. Some tedious activities are critical to your operations and need doing regardless. But the busy work you want to reduce is the kind that doesn’t benefit your company and strays far from accomplishing your organization’s goals.

What are examples of busy work?

Here are some of the most common types of busy work.

Bikeshedding: This refers to putting a lot more focus on low-value tasks while putting aside tasks that require your immediate focus and are far more important. For example, a business owner spends hours trying to fix their printer to print business cards instead of taking the time to transfer funds in their business bank account to cover payroll. At the end of the day, having enough cash flow to pay your employees is a more critical task than generating business cards, but the business owner got caught up in busy work.

Giving into norms: This is when people get so hung up on expectations and traditions that they lose focus on what really matters or waste time on meaningless activities. For instance, an employee believes it’s inappropriate to leave work before their boss does at 6:00 p.m. So for the last hour of the workday, they try to look busy by fiddling with trivial tasks instead of using their time more wisely. They’ve engaged in busy work just to support a perceived norm.

Allowing mission creep: This occurs when plans for an organization or a specific project needlessly expands beyond the original purpose and turns workers’ attention away from the core things that need to get done to complete the primary goal. An example is when an executive forces a subordinate to work on something that only benefits that executive and distracts the team member from their main responsibilities. As a result, the employee could grow resentful because they want to use their time better but can’t because of the forced busy work.

When it comes to company mission statements, a common mistake is not updating them as your company evolves. This is different from giving into mission creep and is meant to keep everyone in your organization aligned.

How can you reduce busy work?

Fortunately, there are easy ways to address busy work, whether it’s your staff getting lost in it or you yourself going off-track from what really matters. Here are five strategies for eliminating busy work and enjoying better productivity.

1. Leave the “busy” mentality behind.

People love talking about their busy schedules, but that’s not always something to boast about.

“I believe busy work is the product of a dated culture that based performance on how much time you spent at work rather than the quality of that work,” said Shane Green, president of SGEi. “Whenever I talk to managers who are working more than 12 hours a day, I always ask why. When you dig into their schedule and work, you will often find busy work at play.”

Instead of asking yourself if you’re busy (because the answer will always be yes), ask what you’re busy doing. If you’re busy with work that isn’t helping your bottom line, that’s busy work and isn’t worth your time. Over-performance isn’t advantageous if it comes at the expense of efficiency. [Read related article: Easy Ways to Boost Your Productivity.]

2. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

For your team to be as efficient as possible, everyone needs to be on the same page with the company’s goals.

“Being results-focused and paying close attention to the organization of work are both key factors,” Chase said. “Clearly defined goals make it much easier for team members to focus on what’s really important and determine which tasks don’t work toward the defined goals.”

Chase has weekly team meetings to review to-do lists so that work isn’t being duplicated and each team is working toward a goal. It is also essential for all employees to have well-defined key objectives. They should then align all their actions toward achieving those objectives instead of spending time on busy work.

3. Write down your responsibilities and review tasks.

Start every workday with your to-do list for the day. This list should only include items within your core mandate for the organization. It would be beneficial to prepare this list at least a day in advance or very early in the morning.

Write down your responsibilities and review each task, and coach your managers and employees to do the same. Green recommends you place each task into one of the following categories.

  • Delegate it: If a task is necessary but isn’t a good use of your time, delegate it.
  • Dump it: “If this task does not make a difference or someone else would not notice if it did not get done, then dump it,” Green added. “It is a great exercise every six months to challenge whether tasks, reports or processes are still necessary, especially as new technology or software becomes available.”
  • Do it: Complete tasks that are valuable to your company’s bottom line.
  • Delay it: “This is a task that will need to get done, but it is not urgent and can be completed when time permits,” said Green.

When it comes time to actually complete your “Do it” work, focus on the biggest challenge first to avoid putting all your effort into minor tasks.

Did You Know?Did you know
Being able to delegate responsibility effectively is a sign of a good leader.

4. Use software to track projects.

While company leaders should try to eliminate busy work, some activities that seem like busy work are unavoidable. Managers should distribute this work evenly among employees so no one feels underappreciated and to ensure workloads are balanced. Project management software, such as Basecamp and Trello, let you see what projects employees are working on, if a certain employee is working on too much, doesn’t have enough to do or is wasting precious time.

“We use Jira to streamline our marketing, creative, development and even some customer service tasks,” Chase said. “This program allows us to see who has what projects assigned to them, and we can easily reassign [projects] to a different person or adjust deadlines as needed.”

See our recommendations for the best online project management software. Some of the top time and attendance systems and highly rated employee monitoring software can also help you track work activities so you can better allocate assignments and reduce busy work.

5. Take some time off and refocus.

Trying to do too much may drain your energy and make you less productive. There is no reason to work just for the sake of working. It’s more crucial to take some time away from your desk and relax. Use this time to identify what you want to achieve with the time left in your workday. 

Encourage employees to use their allotted PTO. With a break from the monotonous and mundane, they can come back to the workplace refreshed. Team members with a strong sense of work-life balance will find it easier to be productive with meaningful tasks when on the clock.

Which strategy works best to reduce busy work?

Busy work may be a universal problem plaguing most industries and companies. But the solution to reducing it is probably as unique as the people, products and places involved with your business. That’s to say, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The strategy that works best for you or a particular employee may not be a catch-all. 

To solve the problem, start by defining the type of busy work you or your employees are engaging in day after day. Next, consider the reason why those busy work habits took root in the first place. Then review the strategies above and select the ones that make the most sense for the issue you’re trying to fix. As the company’s owner, you’re best positioned to reduce busy work and get your team back on track, working together toward achieving the goals of your core business. 

Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

Leslie Pankowski headshot
Leslie Pankowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Marketing expert and small business owner Leslie Pankowski has spent nearly 30 years guiding companies through their advertising efforts. Her consultative services include market analysis, audience analysis, media proposals, campaign effectiveness and more. She is skilled at using data analytics to drive business decisions, developing strategic partnerships and drafting communications plans. Pankowski has taught marketing concepts and best practices to the next generation of business leaders at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business (from which she holds an MBA), the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College and at Marymount University. She is also passionate about business leadership and talent management and has served as a consultant for the executive staffing company vChief.
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