Online store now open! visit store

Time Management at Work

Time Management at Work: Is Busyness Killing Business?

Effective time management at work has an enemy: busyness.

Picture a manager new to the job, seated at an uncluttered desk. She reaches for her phone and says to her assistant:

“Bring me an in-tray and an out-tray. And oh yes, some paper to shuffle between the two.”

Busyness is the metaphorical equivalent of shuffling paper between two trays. It has the appearance of work, but doesn’t deliver anything.

Busyness is the opposite of effective time management at work. It’s wasteful of time and resources and needs to be managed properly.

This article looks at the nature of busyness, whether intentional or inadvertent, and suggests strategies for identifying and removing it from the workplace. After all, “busy-work” is the antithesis of “meaningful-work”, a key ingredient in the pursuit of happiness.

Finally we offer some practical advice with links to our tips pages or to our e-guide, especially written to help you deal with busyness.

What Is Busyness?

Busyness is time spent doing unnecessary or unproductive work. Its exponents may look busy, but time spent in busyness lacks the effectiveness and efficiency of properly managed time. In a Peanuts comic strip Lucy tells Charlie Brown that she’s decided to take up a hobby. He immediately commends her for deciding to accomplish something. To which she responds:

“Accomplish something? All I thought we were supposed to do was keep busy.”

If the work being performed is unnecessary, it’s time wasted. Putting effort into identifying and removing busyness is certainly not time wasted. It can yield significant rewards. But why does something so wasteful remain such a problem? Perhaps because the most powerful “quality” of busyness is that it has the appearance of work but without the substance.

Busyness is the sugar of the workplace. Sugary foods may look substantial and appealing, but they lack the fibre and value of healthy food. Just as it’s easy to get hooked on the “naughty but nice” sin of sugar addiction, so too can busyness take root in an organisation, and with the same effects. Too little healthy input and healthy activity leads to lethargy, excess weight and inefficiency. If the outlook for sugar addicts is bleak, so too is the prognosis for organisations which allow busyness to flourish!

Without dealing with busyness it’s difficult to see how time management at work can be improved. Because it’s no longer time management at work, but the time management of busyness that is generating work. Unnecessary work. As Peter Drucker once said:

Huddle Collaboration

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

How Do You Recognise Busyness?

So how do we recognise busyness? Often simply becoming aware of its existence can open our eyes to the evidence around us.

Firstly, analyse your work place and try to identify examples of poor correlation between effort and results. Close inspection may well indicate a number of these examples are caused by genuine reasons, such as resource or operational issues. However it’s quite likely a significant number will be due to busyness.

This is where your time management effort needs to be focused. Busyness doesn’t accomplish anything, it doesn’t deliver results for you, and it ruins any notion of effective time management at work.

What does busyness look like? Here are some common features to watch out for:

  • Doing well what doesn’t need to be done – surely the greatest waste.
  • Allowing other people’s agendas – to drive what you do.
  • Doing nice work – but not important work.
  • Confusing fat for muscle – fat incurs additional cost for no additional income; muscle delivers purpose and value (for the customer), and therefore income.
  • Displacement activity – putting off what needs to be done by something that doesn’t need to be done.
  • Doing bits and pieces – allowing unimportant interruptions to distract from important tasks
  • Meetings – cut out unnecessary meetings wherever possible (especially meetings which don’t achieve anything or which you don’t really need to attend).
  • Procrastination. – doing busy work to justify putting off less desirable but important tasks.
  • Indecision. – doing busy work to hide unwillingness to make decisions.
  • Cluttered work – extra time needed to work because of disorganisation or untidiness.
  • Lack of priority not lack of time – doing a large number of things that don’t matter, compared to the small number of things that really do!

So, if time management at work is being adversely affected by busyness, how do we treat it? Start by reading our article: 10 Tips on Time Management: How to Eradicate “Busyness”.

Or, go to our guide Managing Time and Priority, especially written to help you combat busyness. The guide expands on the tips in this article and includes some excellent tools to help you take back your time. It will help you to:

  • Assess your time priorities and manage your actions.
  • Develop coping strategies to avoid the limitations of “busyness”.
  • Manage the impact of other people’s demands on your time.
  • Develop approaches to “getting things done”. Apply practical tools to managing priorities and time, to get the right things done.
  • Help others to manage their time.


  • Tool 1: Commitments summary
  • Tool 2: Time log
  • Tool 3:Time analysis
  • Tool 4: Time planning with task filters
  • Tool 5: Task priorities

Where to go from here:


Read more like this:

Critical Success Factor

Managing Waste in the Workforce One critical success factor for effective management is the way we deal with waste. As Peter Drucker once said: “What is the first... read more

Time Management in the Workplace

Creating Discretionary Time It could be argued that a key element of time management in the workplace is choice. Psychologists argue that the more control we feel we... read more

Read previous post:
Fun at work matters!

Encouraging fun at work can yield real benefits in the workplace, according to Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. They write...