Death to Busy Work

Death to busy work.I’m not sure I can adequately describe my feelings regarding busy work. Hatred? Disgust? Loathing? Yes, perhaps loathing is the word I seek. I loathe busy work.

First, a definition of busy work. Busy work does not equal mundane task. Mundane tasks, such as balancing the checkbook or analyzing the number of visitors to a site or the number of new e-letter subscribers (Are you a Write Right subscriber?), serve a purpose. They may not be the most fun of tasks, but they do have a goal.

Busy work is busy work. My first experience with busy work happened at my job at McDonald’s. I was told I needed to look busy, so I wiped tables that already were clean, and I piddled around the fountain drink area and made sure the condiments and other containers were full even though I had just checked the condiments and containers. The appearance of productivity wore on me. I came to hate my job. I wanted to do something, not merely pretend to be doing something.

I suppose my issue with busy work is that it is unproductive work. It doesn’t require thought; it’s mindless and aimless. Such work drains my energy. It only makes me want to beat my head against a wall. The work that brings me the most joy requires attention and involvement.

Thus, I say, “Death to busy work.” What say you?

Photo: Flame Thrower (CC BY NC SA 2.0)


  1. I say you are one smart cookie! Death to busy work indeed! Cheers! Kaarina

  2. Hey Erin,
    I’m with you. I save my busy work for the very end of the day, and this includes MOST emails, the ultimate productivity killer 😉
    My very first job was at McDonald’s and my manager told me the very same thing. Funny that.

    • Craig McBreen Maybe it’s part of the McDonald’s training program?
      Emails can kill productivity, perhaps because I want them to be perfect, too…

  3. Erin did you know Craig McBreen loves McDonald’s so much now he bought a franchise just so he has a steady supply of those golden strips of goodness?
    I have a busy work detector. It’s sort of like a BS detector and clearly mine is not working. 
    I surely dislike that form of work and when you are part of a big machine there are times when the “real” work dries up for a while. It happens. What to do, what to do? Hmmmmm…….maybe I will work on my blog format. That will surely keep me busy. 🙂

    • rdopping Craig McBreen Perhaps that’s part of the issue, too. I know a lot of people who think you have to work sixty hours per week to be productive. I don’t agree with that mentality, but people have to get at least forty hours in, right? It’s frustrating.
      Craig has a franchise? Well, that’s news. ;D

  4. timbo1973 Hmm. I wonder if busy workers despise productive work in the same way that productive workers hate busy work. Maybe we should run a poll?

  5. Busy work has been a problem in american manufacturing since the dawn of the industrial revolution. In Eli Goldratts best selling book, “The Goal”, he showed how dangerous it is to make everyone work, cranking out products they didn’t need, to fill up a warehouse, and waste raw materials, just to keep busy and lower “accounting costs”. (I put it in quotes because cost accounting is the devil)
    It seems to me that it is the same in the McDonalds example. Now, a better manager could take advantage of the time to have someone calibrate the fountain drink machines, clean the fryers, or they could chat quietly among themselves. If everything is done, which is rare in a McDonalds, then have a little fun. There is value in keeping employees happy, there isn’t value in busy work. (Note: I was in McDonalds management for seven years.)
    Why would an owner want their managers to have their employees doing something that makes them feel worthless? You wouldn’t, because employees have value and the busy work isn’t helping with the bottom line and one might argue making it worse.

    • ExtremelyAvg I think you may have hit upon the crux of the issue: employees are people, and people have value. Everyone needs to be treated in that manner regardless of station.

  6. My wife worked at a very well respected national fashion/department store. The young people, she found, wouldn’t do the crappy work like tidy up the store when it was slow, so that it would look nice when it was busy. It was really an essential part of the job, even for young men wearing ties and young women wearing heels. They’d rather hang out in the stock room and talk about what to do after work. 
    It was just one of the things 
    Why would they anyone want you to ‘look busy’, when there’s plenty of actual work to do if you put your mind to it? I’m a big fan of Chick-fil-A and In-n-Out Burger, where they have lots of young people on each shift and no one is ever trying to look busy — the ARE busy. 
    I think ExtremelyAvg is right, the example you gave, and my wife’s example, are both a failure of management. People need to respect each other and the value of plain old work.

    • barrettrossie Indeed. At one point, I had a job in sales for Nine West. Most of the time, I was busy (productive busy). The only down time I recall happened in the last hour before closing. My manager was awesome and would encourage us to use the time to catch up on schoolwork – as long as were in the shoe department and could come to the aid of customers – or to try on the shoes. Either of those options only were available if we had tidied and cleaned the department. That is such a crucial part of sales. It shows a respect for the product, for the customer, and for one’s co-workers.


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