Success stories

How Busy Work is Killing Your Team’s Productivity

by: John Coburn
How Busy Work is Killing Your Team’s Productivity

There’s no other way of saying it;

Busywork sucks. 

Busywork can be a cause of massive frustration for us and our teams. It feels like we’re just adding fuel to the fire as we race toward burnout.

Unfortunately, it can’t always be avoided.

I mean, we have to get around to answering our (infinite) emails, right? Or, how about redrafting the same non-critical work 10 times in a row in the pursuit of perfection?

While it often catches us off guard, there are steps we can take to catch it, fix it, and do meaningful work on a day-to-day basis. 

So what is “busywork?”

Lexico, the powered-by-Oxford dictionary, defines “busywork” as;

 “Work that keeps a person busy but has little value in itself.” – source


Basically, it’s the unpopular relative of productive work, and the truth is we’re all guilty of it.


Even the best trained will still do it despite their best efforts. It’s just impossible to resist the call of busywork sometimes. We can get sucked into it without even realizing, and commit to hours of frantic low-meaning work.

The trick is to identify it as often as possible and minimize its effect on our teams (and ourselves).

How it impacts your team

There are a ton of ways in which busywork can negatively impact your team. The first and foremost is progress. Busywork is a great way to maximize effort (often through multi-tasking) while achieving very little. This means your team members could be working extremely hard and barely push the needle. 

This often leads to lower levels of accomplishment, frustration, and eventual burnout.

Burnout results from chronic, work-related stress, can lead to job dissatisfaction, and even turnover. (This is especially the case for marketers — check out these  steps you can take to make sure your teammates are being heard.)

How to catch it

It can be challenging to see busy work — especially when knees deep in a seemingly important project.

However, there are some good ways to spot it before it becomes a serious problem.


Make sure you’re leading by example. Managers and leaders (like yourself) are especially at risk of committing busywork because they have so many responsibilities. You are an expert in your field. That’s how you got into the position you find yourself now.

This can make it extremely difficult to avoid some of The 7 Deadly Sins of Team Collaboration.

Micromanagement is the big one. Managers fall prey to a “well I can do this better than this person, so I might as well” mentality easily. I mean, when working with a junior member of the team you often can do the work with a higher quality result.

This, however, is a trap. And a slippery slope. And to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. 

The instant an employee is unnecessarily micromanaged, a few things happen. They don’t feel trusted, they become more reliant on their manager in the future, and the manager has just added a lot to their work-load. 

Taking a very different approach can result in a very different outcome. For instance, if you visibly take the initiative to evaluate your own productiveness (instead of micromanaging your team), it accomplishes 3 things. Namely, it;

  1. Gives you a chance to tackle the most important things and steer your team in the right direction
  2. Lowers your team’s guard (making it easier to have meaningful discussion around work)
  3. Gives them a chance evaluate their own productivity and take corrective steps

Have a QUICK meeting

Having a meeting is sometimes necessary to help get your teammates moving in the right direction. It’s a chance to see what they’re working on, how they’re working, and what you can do to help them succeed. 

However, it’s important to keep these meetings short and infrequent to avoid wasted time and disengaged teammates

How to fix it with goal defining: “There can be only one!”

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Now that you’ve actually spotted it, you can start defining how to be more regularly productive. By setting goals based on your company’s mission (i.e. “what are the actionable steps we can take to get there?”), you can help your team really hone in on the top tasks or task for getting there. 

With such laser focus, your team can more easily avoid the pitfalls of multi-tasking and dig into the world of deep work. 

Cal Newport defines deep work as

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Ideally, you should have one exceptionally clear goal that you are working to at any given moment. 

It can be challenging to narrow it down that much, but it makes a massive difference. Each additional item on your to-do list is another chance you’ll get distracted. 

Project management software

You can also get your team on the same page and super focused with task management software (like Taskworld). Task management software lets you organize your teams’ project details, while keeping communication effectively in one place.
Sure, there will still be use for email, but task management software keeps critical communication specific to the project or task at hand. This means that, instead of digging through hundreds or thousands of emails to find a missing attachment, it can be directly in your tasklist or project chat. 


Wrapping up

As your teams scale, it is crucial that meaningful work is a core component of your company strategy. It encourages your teams to be engaged with their work, and to take ownership of whether or not they are actually moving things forward, or spinning their wheels. 

If you or your team commit a fair amount of busywork, it should be exciting to know there is an opportunity for improvement.

What you can do right now

  • Schedule a fast meeting with each of your teammates
  • Ask them, “what is the single most important thing you need to do right now?” (Make sure they know your and the company objectives)
  • Let them know what they need to figure out, what you can guide on, and that you trust them to get it done.

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