Kill Busywork: The One Skill to Focus On What Matters

Imagine everything you do could fall into one of three buckets:

1. Bad Work.

2. Good Work.

3. Great Work.

I’m not talking about the quality of the work you deliver – I’ve no doubt that’s fine. I’m talking about the meaning the work has for you and the impact it makes.

Let me explain.

Bad Work is the work that makes no difference yet consumes your time and energy. Put less politely, it’s those soul-sucking, spirit-draining activities that make you question how you ever ended up spending precious moments of your life on anything like this. Endless meetings. Paperwork. Busywork.

Good Work is most likely the work you do most of the time, and you do it well. It’s necessary stuff that moves things along and gets things done. Organizations are primarily set up to do Good Work: create a product or service, do it efficiently, sell it to the world.

There’s nothing wrong with Good Work– except for two things.

First of all, it’s endless. Trying to get your Good Work done can feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, a never-ending task. And second, Good Work is too comfortable. The routine and busy-ness of it all is seductive. You know in your heart of hearts that you’re no longer you stretching yourself or challenging how things are done. Your job has turned into just getting through your workload week in, week out.

And then there’s Great Work. Great Work is what you were hoping for when you signed up for this job. It’s meaningful and it’s challenging. It’s about making a difference, it matters to you and it lights you up.

It matters at an organizational level too. Great Work is at the heart of blue ocean strategy, of innovation and strategic differentiation, of evolution and change. Great Work sets up an organization for longer-term success.

The challenge is that Great Work carries with it uncertainty and risk as well as impact and reward. We’re pulled towards what Great Work promises and pushed away by its threat. We want to free ourselves from the regularity and comfortable rut that is Good Work, and yet we’re tugged back by the familiarity and certainty that it provides.

Why don’t you do more Great Work?

When I ask people how much of each type of work they do, here’s what I hear:

* 0% – 40% on Bad Work.
* 40% – 80% on Good Work.
* 0% – 25% on Great Work.

Regardless of the numbers (and probably more important), no-one yet has said to me, “I’ve got too much Great Work. I’m overloaded with meaningful, engaging work that really makes a difference.”

So why aren’t we doing more Great Work? Why does life at work feel like a conveyor belt, churning through tasks to try to make it to the weekend – when, let’s face it, we’ll most likely open up the laptop “just to stay on top of our email”?

It comes down to this

At the heart of doing more Great Work are the choices you make. Not just what you are saying Yes to. But – and this follows your Yes just as the back of the hand follows the front – what you are also saying No to.

That sounds simple enough, but you know it’s not.

Sure, it’s easy to say a knee-jerk Yes to whatever comes along. We all do that. It’s much harder to be mindful and thoughtful and clear and bold and courageous as to what you really want to say Yes to.

And for most of us, it’s a nightmare to say No.

How to say No when you can’t say No

There are some people in your life to whom it’s fairly easy to say a clear No.

Category One: People you have a really close relationship with. Spouse, kids, best friends. You’ve got a solid enough relationship that No is going to be OK.

Category Two: People you have absolutely no relationship with. Telemarketers come to mind. “Hello, I’m from Hardsell Credit Card Company, can I …” <click>.

It’s everyone in the middle – and it’s a big group – that’s the challenge. For instance, it includes most everyone you work with.

So stop thinking about saying No.

Think about how to say Yes More Slowly.

Because that’s what’s really killing you. It’s not saying Yes. It’s saying Yes quickly.

Saying Yes More Slowly

Here’s how it goes.

Someone asks you to do something.

And, while nodding your head, you say “Sure – and let me just ask you a few questions first.”

And then you pick and chose from some of these questions. (Your goal is to ask at least three of these.)

* Why are you asking me?
* Who else have you asked?
* When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
* If I could only do part of this, what part would it be?
* What part of this is something that only I could do?
* What standard do you expect this to be done to?
* Is this more urgent than X, Y and Z that are currently on my list?
* Have you checked with [name] about me taking this on?
* How does this contribute to [Great Work Project]?

You get the gist I’m sure. And I’ve no doubt that you can add some questions of your own.

When you start saying Yes More Slowly, one of four things happen.

First, the person will answer all your questions and make a very good case for your to say Yes. Which is fine – you’re saying Yes for all the right reasons.

Second, they’ll tell you to stop with the questions and get on with it. (Sadly, this isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ that will work all the time.)

Third, they’ll go away and find the answers to your questions – which at the very least will buy you some time.

And finally – and this is a good result – they’ll go and find someone else who’s less trouble, someone who hasn’t mastered the art of saying Yes Slowly.

Time’s ticking

Kevin Kelly once explained how to calculate the date of your death. Mine is September 15, 2043 and that means – as I write this – I’ve got 12, 275 days left on this planet.

You’ll have more. Or less. But in any case, the minutes and hours and days are ticking away.

You can keep doing the busywork. Or you can do more Great Work.

Here’s how Steve Jobs puts it:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Do more Great Work.

Don’t settle.

By Michael Bungay Stanier. Michael’s new book Do More Great Work: Stop the busywork and start the work that matters offers 15 practical strategies to find, start and sustain more Great Work. It features original guest contributions from Leo “Mr Zen Habits” Babauta, Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau and others. You can watch the Do More Great Work movie at and follow Michael on Twitter at @boxofcrayons.