Are You Doing Real Work or Fake Work?


ave you ever spent a whole day at work, maybe even a whole week, only to wonder what you actually accomplished? Do you find that happens often? If so, it might be because you’re doing fake work, not real work.

The worst part about fake work is that it’s not fundamentally enjoyable. When you procrastinate an obligation by escaping to the golf course or binging Netflix, you may feel guilty, but you’re at least in theory indulging in something pleasurable. Fake work does not feel like a secret reward. It feels like pointless drudgery. You’re spending time doing something that doesn’t matter and that is also unpleasant to do.

Real Work vs. Fake Work

Every job and every office has work that needs to be done. If it didn’t, the company and the role wouldn’t exist. However, more often than not, real work can get lost in the sea of fake work. Think of the TV show, The Office. Many projects that consume the lives of the characters on the show are trite or useless. They demoralize employees, keep them occupied, and mire the entire company in a culture of mediocrity.

Bearing that in mind, how can you tell the difference between “fake work” as we’ve defined it and unpleasant-but-necessary projects?

Simply put, real work is work that advances your job or the company, while fake work is work that you’re doing to avoid doing the real work.

Imagine two employees: One moves through an office, filing documents, talking to peers about upcoming meetings, and blasting back responses to emails as soon as they hit his inbox. The other sits at her desk, staring at the wall as she contemplates something, occasionally scrawling a few words on a note pad. Which one is really working?

Technically, both are working. However, in our scenario, only the day-dreaming one is truly advancing the company. She’s brainstorming efficiencies that will eliminate the need for the endless meetings and emails her colleague frantically inflicts on the team.

Real work involves activities such as goal-setting, finding creative solutions, decision making, and planning. It is often not very impressive to see. Fake work, a.k.a. busywork, looks, well, busy. In fact, fake work often looks more like “work” than real work does.

Why We Get Lost in Fake Work

We’re all aware that others notice our efforts, and none of us wants to seem unproductive. That’s why the lure of fake work can be so irresistible. Fake work makes us look like team players and high contributors, while the quiet, sedentary, supremely necessary real work can make us look like slouches. However, consider what happens in a business or job when solutions aren’t found and decisions aren’t made?

The business flounders. It literally can’t progress.

Think of it like a conversation. If someone is always talking, then they aren’t listening. In the same way, if you’re always busy doing busy work, then you aren’t giving your actual, important work the attention it requires. This is why it actually would be better if you were testing out your new sand wedge or re watching Tiger King. At least then you’d be relaxing, and a relaxed mind is much more likely to see opportunities for growth and to find solutions to tricky problems.

How to Cut Out the Fake Work and Make More Time for the Real

The solution is actually easier than it sounds.

Before you mindlessly fall into busy-ness, ask yourself: Is this task really necessary? Does it further my career, advance the company, or improve my well-being? If it does, great! Keep doing it! However, if it doesn’t, it’s probably fake work that you should spend as little time doing as possible.

There isn’t enough time in a day or week to do absolutely everything, so prioritize the things that really matter. Spend more time on high-yield activities. Paradoxically, you won’t be as busy, but you will get more done.


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