Fake Work

We have all been there – you are busy all day but as the day ends you still haven’t done The One Thing that you really should have finished today. What were you doing all day? Fake work. You fell into the trap of fake work.

From Paul Graham’s post on Self Indulgence:

And yet I’ve definitely had days when I might as well have sat in front of a TV all day—days at the end of which, if I asked myself what I got done that day, the answer would have been: basically, nothing. I feel bad after these days too, but nothing like as bad as I’d feel if I spent the whole day on the sofa watching TV. If I spent a whole day watching TV I’d feel like I was descending into perdition. But the same alarms don’t go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I’m doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

Characteristics of Fake Work

  • It’s easier than real work (this is why we prefer it)
  • It isn’t obvious to people that you are doing it (fake work is rarely publishable / shippable)
  • It doesn’t pass the following gauntlet of tests:
    1. If I did this all day how would I feel at the end of the day? Does it feel good in the short-term only?
    2. Can I justify it to a coworker? (“Well these files need to be organized by color name in Spanish so that we can get to them rapidamente next time”)
    3. Is this defensive or offensive?

Some examples

  • Your computer says it needs to restart, and you restart it shortly after. “When it restarts I might as well see if any apps need updating as well on my phone”.
  • You know the hotkey for your “get new email” in your email client. (I mean really)
  • Organizing your todo list.
  • Refactoring code is non-complex ways.
  • Trying out a new writing application or messing around with new fonts.
  • Organizing your email.
  • Reading blog posts, especially those mildly related to The Important Task That Must Be Done.
  • Over-formatting presentations, spreadsheets, etc.
  • Cleaning your office.

Reality

There are times that you need to read blog posts or clean your office. In fact one of my favorite productivity hacks is to do *something* when I’m feeling procrastination creeping up on me. I will intentionally clean my office as a break with the intention of returning to full strength afterwards. The trick is to not let doing *something* ruin doing the *one most important thing* that must be done.

Final Note

The main issue with fake work is that you could be working on the right things in the wrong place. Do you care about the problem? Are you digging in the right place? This is a complex personal question, but make sure you have an answer.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

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