What To Do About Busy Work?

What To Do About Busy Work?
This post was previously published. It has been updated.

A reader asked me, “What are your thoughts on ‘busy work’? For some whose jobs are based more on time than production, it’s easy to get caught up doing some busy work to justify one’s existence.”

I realized that there are actually two types of busy work: that which we engage in when our time is our own, and that we engage in to fill working hours owed to someone else. But we can turn busy work into productive time with a bit of planning and action.

What Is Busy Work?

Busy work can be defined as anything that keeps you occupied for a time without really producing anything of use.

Examples of busy work: from school, sheets of paper to be filled out with facts already learned; at home, clipping coupons and filing them although you will never touch them again; and at work, things that will contribute nothing to the business function but are given out so that people are not idle.

Busy work definitions can change from person to person, though. My husband sees my knitting as busy work (“you could just BUY a sweater”) while I see it as a relaxing hobby.

My Job Hours Belong To Someone Else

Since I am a consultant, my work is very much based on time rather than the production. My productivity during my billable hours is very high – that is what makes me a successful consultant. If I produced at the level of some of my teammates, I would be able to do 4 hours of work and call it a week.

But that isn’t how hourly billable works, and while I generally have work to fill my time, there are times when I need to fill my time, and do so in a manner that benefits the client.

My Free Time Belongs To Me, And Yet I Engage In Busy Work

My free time, outside of work, belongs to me. Even though I am aware that little progress can be made toward finishing my projects and goals when I engage in busy work, I still do it. The siren song of Instagram or video games or reading fiction or even something so silly as sorting markers and pens calls me, and I leave my projects or necessary tasks undone.

I have even gotten to the point where I identify I’m doing something unproductive…and I keep doing it.

Busy Work On Your Own Time

It’s always been my thought that I should never engage in busy work when I am on my own time. If a task really is not producing anything of use, I would be better off putting my time and effort into doing something else.

(That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes engage in busy work  as a form of procrastination, but that’s a subject for another article.)

The best way I know to get past it is to have a list of my projects and have either actions that require small bits of time, or where the project is out so that I can work on it as it is. Examples of this are to have my knitting ready to go so I can pick it up and knit a row; an article ready to be revised; or fruit and veggies ready to be cut/prepped for eating during the week.

I can limit the siren’s call of time wasters by scheduling them in. My Instagram is limited to 15 minutes on Fridays. Video games are limited to 15 minutes on weekends on the phone, or scheduled in for a single hour during the week. And I don’t read fiction unless I am in my reading chair (having a designated space outside the main areas of the house has the effect of making me think about what I am doing).

Better Options Than Busy Work at Work

But what happens when the time is not your own? Most of us work for employers who require us to be present for a certain number of hours, and expect results for those hours. If there isn’t enough work to do, or you are very efficient, you may be assigned busy work to fill the time.

This doesn’t have to be bad, though. If you can find a way to keep busy without resorting to something meaningless, you can turn this time to your advantage.

If at all possible, don’t let someone else come up with something for you to do. This will probably result in meaningless work as they hurry you on your way. Instead, fill your time with something that benefits you and the company, and let your boss know about all the benefits!

Learning new skills

Our employers like us to learn knew skills. However, I have only heard of mythical companies that actually grant time to learn those skills. If you have some downtime, pick something that will benefit your job as well as yourself.

Here are some specifics: take a software package somewhere you’ve never had it before; read the management book your boss has on his desk; or catch up on trade news.


Analysis, unless it is your primary job responsibility, often gets shuffled under the daily tasks. Everyone can do analysis in their jobs, ranging from process improvement to work flow design.

Pick something that you think could work better and work to improve it. If at all possible, implement it, or make a good case to your boss why it should be implemented.

Getting Organized

When things are busy, it’s hard to stay organized. Take some time and clean out the files (desk and computer). Rearrange things so you can find them faster. Pull together notes from various sources into one place.

Chipping Away at the “If I Had Time…” List

If you don’t have one of these lists, start one. My list is a running list that I make a note of things I need to look at more closely.

If I see some code that is particularly snarled but it’s not relevant to what I am fixing, I make a note of it and clean it up later. It’s kind of like an on-going brain dump so that I can be more proactive about problems.

Start Your “What I Did This Year” List

Annual reviews can be a headache if you don’t recollect what you did. Start a list of the major things you accomplished; and don’t forget to put any of the above projects on your list!

We can turn downtime into useful tasks if we choose to stay away from busy work. The next time you have a slow period at home or at work, think about what you can do that benefits you.


  1. Mike

    There’s personal busy work, yes, but there’s also the value of ‘puttering’ (or ‘pottering’ as the Brits say it). There’s something quite soothing about sorting through one’s environment and just sifting or moving things with half a mind. Like dozing, but wide awake. Here are some neat little thoughts on puttering:

    I sing in praise of puttering – CSMonitor.com

    The Value of Puttering Around

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