Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Myth of Keeping Busy

How to take a macro view and change your perspective.

Key points

  • While being "busy" may seem important, simply being busy to be busy accomplishes nothing.
  • There are a number of creative ways to help avoid busywork.
  • It is not only possible to avoid busywork, but rewarding and meaningful as well.
Source: PTilly/Shutterstock

I have worked my entire adult life. I have even worked a portion of my childhood—going door to door washing cars for five dollars a pop in a Los Angeles suburb where I grew up. And in all that time, I have witnessed a phenomenon that took me well into adulthood to understand.

That phenomenon is the amazing ability that we humans have to be busy simply to be busy—accomplishing nothing more than meaningless tasks. [1] Literally producing nothing but the perception and appearance of being busy.

It gets worse. On top of that, people who appear to be busy are often esteemed or viewed as being important at work, even if there is no meaningful productivity from all this busyness. It's quite amazing from a productivity standpoint how many hours are wasted on endless meetings that go nowhere and on paperwork that amounts to nothing—in fact, new research shows that 70 percent of meetings keep employees from doing productive work. [2]

Here are three tools I have identified from a creativity and innovation standpoint that can help you keep on track—getting real and meaningful things done—rather than just being busy for busyness' sake:

1. Ask Questions

When we ask questions instead of just doing, we uncover some profound reasons why we are doing what we are doing. [3] Far too often, we are driven by the task at hand, and completing the task is our only goal. But we need to broaden that if we are to invite creativity and innovation into our process.

So, instead, ask questions. Questions like "Why are we doing this?" and "Who gets the most benefit?" are a really good start no matter what you are working on. Questions like "Do we benefit internally as much as our customers or clients do externally?" may be even better. When we ask questions—any questions, really—we give our work meaning in a far greater scope than just executing a task.

Asking questions can also lead to creative discoveries. The way that we ask questions and the types of things we are curious about may be completely different from one person to another. So asking questions—especially from multiple team members—uncovers vastly different perspectives on the same problem. In other words, asking questions can reveal a path toward a solution that would never materialize if we hadn't asked the questions in the first place.

2. Look at History

If there are certain tasks executed by your company or in your career over and over again with little results—it may be time to look at history. Often, we are so busy in our careers that we are focused on accomplishing the tasks ahead of us, irrespective of where those tasks are leading. It's almost as if we have our blinders on—not knowing how each part of our tasks go together to make up the whole of what we are doing.

So, for instance, if you are constantly reinventing the wheel at work—say for proposals that need to go out to market—if we look at the history of what is going on and why that is, we can uncover some incredibly creative and innovative tools that can help remedy the situation. We may find in this case that our process for proposals is lacking—or that we don't fully have a grip on our pricing model, and that is why our proposal process is a mess.

Like the domino effect, most issues in business are interrelated. And we may uncover that someone who used to quarterback our proposals has been shifted to another department, and that is where the gap lies. Again—it is all about looking at the history of a particular task and then analyzing how we got to where we are today—and using history to solve problems.

Too often, people are afraid of history because it is seen as something that is "slowing us down," "wasting energy," or something that is "impeding progress in some way." But I argue that a tree without its roots is no tree at all. If we don't know what happened yesterday, we can never be prepared to handle what will come tomorrow. So instead of constantly looking forward, it's good to take a peek back every once and a while to make sure that you are not just busy for busyness' sake—but you are indeed working to solve issues that matter.

3. Take a Macro View

There are too many times at work when we subjugate tasks to particular teams without an explanation of the full impact each part has on the whole. This leads to a number of issues, not the least of which is being busy for busyness' sake.

The other main issue that happens is burnout and fatigue, as folks who don't have a good idea of where the company is going and what their role is in that journey become frustrated and disconnected. A skeptic may say that staff becomes empowered to execute tasks—fair enough—but these tasks are meaningless without a broad-scope macro view as to why the tasks are important in the first place.

So instead, take a macro view. A macro view is a long-term vision or plan that allows for multiple little victories to be achieved along the way. These little victories can be tasks, or they can be something else—but keeping track of these victories and stopping every once and a while to recognize accomplishments is very important.

It creates less wasted energy and work for work's sake—and gives meaning to each person completing the seemingly meaningless tasks. It gives meaning to these tasks and builds a sense of camaraderie that—yes—the tasks can be done, and they lead to a bigger macro picture. And that is something that everyone can contribute to and feel proud to accomplish. Nobody uses the appearance of being busy if they know how important their role is in the entire apparatus.

The myth of being busy for busyness' sake is a damaging enterprise across all levels. Who hasn't worked somewhere where being chained to your computer and "doing something" all day was seen as a job well done—regardless of whether the "doing something" was of any value?

But there is hope. Just doing things and endlessly grinding over tasks that may or may not be important is not only a waste of time, but it is also demoralizing and leads to burnout and disengagement. [1] The three tools above can help you institute a new process that will lead to meaningful work instead of busy work—and there is plenty here to boost creativity and drive innovation and meaning for your business and career moving forward.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: metodej/Shutterstock


[1] Waytz, A. (2023). Beware a Culture of Busyness Organizations must stop conflating activity with achievement. Harvard Business Review

[2] Laker et al. (2022). Dear Manager, You’re Holding Too Many Meetings. Harvard Business Review

[3] Brown, E. (2018). Asking the questions that unlock innovation The MIT Leadership Center's Hal Gregersen says brainstorming in “question bursts” is the best way for innovative leaders and problem solvers to find solutions. MIT News Office, Institute Office of Communications.

[4] Demarco, T. Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency. Pgs 33-42. (Currency Publishing, 2002). Slack.

More from Nir Bashan
More from Psychology Today