Is “Work About Work” Killing Your Productivity? Here’s How To Get Back On Track

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If you’re intentional about time management and productivity, you already know that not all work is created equal. But even the smartest, most savvy professionals can fall into the trap of a pervasive energy-crushing enemy: Work about work.

In its Anatomy of Work Index 2021, Asana defined “work about work” as “activities that take time away from meaningful work, including communicating about work, searching for information, switching between apps, managing shifting priorities, and chasing the status of work.”

“A good first step is acknowledging the existence of ‘work about work’ and naming the phenomenon as a cause of lost productivity. Since we know that what gets measured gets managed, it’s then important to get a deep and granular understanding of the main activities causing lost productivity, when those activities tend to happen, and what causes
them to happen,” says Simon Pouliot, founding partner of Converge-X, a boutique advisory firm serving organizations in the health, wealth and protection sectors.

Why ‘work about work’ happens to the best of us

“The irony of ‘work about work’ is that it can feel like it’s productive because we’re
accomplishing some task and getting an immediate result, although this result is not one
that has value for the organization,” adds Pouliot.

“For example, responding to an instant message on Slack while I am working on finalizing a board presentation gives me a form of instant gratification because I took care of something I needed to do, but this caused me to drift away from my productive work and have to expend energy to get back into it.”

Besides unproductive multitasking and tasks that are distracting you from your priorities, even some of your daily interactions are breeding grounds for the process of busywork to take place. Pouliot shares a classic example related to presentations:

“For example, we often see people starting their work presentations with an explanation
of the process they used to get to an answer or an insight. We don’t really care about
the process, just give us the answer we’re looking for, and if we have questions about
how you got there we’ll make sure to let you know.”

The negative consequences of work for the sake of work

You’ve probably gathered that this phenomenon wastes time and resources. But it can also zap employee morale and weigh down entire organizations, according to Pouliot.

“An organization burdened with too many ‘work about work’ activities can exhaust and demoralize employees who feel like much of their valuable time is spent on low-value activities such as reporting, for example,” he says.

“Productivity often follows the 80/20 rule where 80% of results come from 20% of the time we spend focusing very deeply on a task without any distractions, and we should aim to foster work environments that encourage such deep focus and high productivity moments.”

The opposite can be devastating. Working without feeling like you’re moving the needle is a surefire way to crush morale and foster frustration that can damage the fabric and culture of a team.

How to get back on track when it happens to you

So how do you get back on track once you’ve realized you’re engaging in ‘work about work’? Awareness is the first step, says Pouliot.

“Noise is everywhere, and once we recognize this, we can start cutting through it. It’s important to realize that there are simple remedies and quick wins that can be implemented to cut out huge amounts of ‘work about work,’ allowing to increase productivity with minimal efforts or investments.”

He recommends breaking down your days to analyze where you’ve lost time and where you’ve been most productive. Identify instances of wasted time caused by “work about work.” Then, you have two options: eliminate those activities or bundle them together so you can tackle them all at once in a focused period of 30 or 60 minutes. This will prevent later workflow interruptions.

“For example, not checking emails during the first two hours of my workday allows me to focus on completing actual productive work, only after which do I clear necessary ‘work about work’ activities like scheduling meetings or responding to requests,” he adds.

Another simple hack includes asking yourself “What would be the most productive use of my time right now? “This sounds like a very benign habit, but it forces a degree of discipline and intentionality that allows cutting through a lot of the ‘work about work’ noise.”

Finally, turning off notifications at various times and on various apps like Slack or Teams can also help increase the duration of the uninterrupted, high-focus work moments that are basically the antidote to “work about work.” You’ll be less tempted to let your mind drift or give in to the instant gratification of responding to someone.

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