Busywork versus Actual Work. How to figure it out.

I think we’ve all been there.  Especially in day jobs where we’re showing up only for the pay cheque;  on days where you just don’t want to be there, you find ways to look busy that don’t actually tax your brain too much.

That’s busywork.

When you are working for yourself, though, there is zero desire to blow off time like that.  There’s never enough time to start with.

But it’s still possible to waste enormous amounts of time doing the wrong things, because the right tasks as too freakin’ hard.  We’re still working hard.  We’re still doing things that need to be done.  We’re just not doing what we should be doing.

In other words, writing.  Finishing books.  Shipping them.  For all of us, getting the books out there is the most challenging task we have.  It’s the one we can most easily procrastinate about doing.

In “How to Deal with Overwhelm“, I fully explored how dangerous it is to let yourself slide too far down this slippery slope.  It was where I talked about Stephen Covey’s table of priorities, although I frequently refer to it in other posts.  Remember this?

From The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to know where a task fits into the matrix.  This is especially true for creatives, who can very creatively spin up solid arguments for doing that task over there, instead of writing, because [insert your brilliantly logical argument here].

Cal Newport [Deep Work and others], has built an algorithm for figuring out how effective you are–that is, how much work you’re getting done that fits into the upper right corner of the matrix.  The true tasks of your profession.  The frogs you should be eating.

Newport calls this calculation your churn rate, which he devised for the same reason I outlined above:  It’s very easy to be busy, but a lot harder to be truly productive.  Newport doesn’t like to use the word “productive” because most people include busywork in that definition.

Your churn rate will tell you how well you’re staying in the upper right quadrant of Covey’s matrix.

The one weakness of Newport’s calculation, though, is in nominating what tasks and projects are “important to you”.  It’s a subjective decision that could be warped to give you the results you want, which would make the calculation useless.  This is where stringent honesty is needed.

If you can list the critical tasks (those that truly belong in the upper-right of Covey’s matrix–that is, they’re not urgent, but important), then calculating your churn rate will give you an objective measurement of how productive you are.

Tracked over time, it will help keep you from sliding into overwhelm and burn out.

Give it a try.


Scroll to Top