Career

How To Master The Art Of Looking Busy

Looking busy without being busy isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you have to look busy so you can actually work on the things that matter. Here’s how to trick others into believing you’ve got a full plate so you’ll get the breathing room to actually get things done.
Title image made using minoru suzuki (Shutterstock).

The point of looking busy is to remind your boss and your coworkers that your time is valuable, that there are only so many things you can work on at once, and to give you some breathing room so you can actually think. In short, looking busy reminds everyone that you are busy, and gives you some freedom at the same time. Whether you use that freedom for valuable brainstorming or wasting time on your favourite tech blog is a choice we leave to you.

In this post, we’ll walk through some way to make sure everyone you talk to — whether it’s your boss or a distracting coworker — knows that you’re busy without you beating them over the head with the fact. A few of these tips may seem counterproductive, but stick with us; we’ll explain why it all works. Let’s get started.

Tackle The Big Wins First

The first thing you need to do is determine the difference between what’s important and what’s urgent. Let me offer up this checklist that I like to go through whenever I’m confronted with something I don’t want to do:

  • How important is this?
  • How urgent is this? As in, how quickly — if at all — does this need to be done? Will the storm pass before it matters that I’ve done it?
  • How visible is this?
  • Who is this important to? Is that person important to me?
  • What’s the likelihood that said important person will forget about this before it’s a non-issue?

Keep this mental checklist handy. We’re about to make two lists: our to-do list, and our “sure yeah I’m working on that” list. The former is composed of items and projects you’re actually working on. The latter, not so much. Photo by Christopher Whalen.

Your to-do list is the list of things that you’re already familiar with. The things you have to do, like pick up the dry cleaning, work on your pet project, study for the big test — all the things you need and want to do. These are the things that excite you, and the projects you get at work that are really interesting and that you want to tackle.

If you have items that are important, or urgent (that is, they have actual deadlines and the work required to meet them means you need to start,) put them on the actual to-do list. If you’ve been assigned something visible, drop it here too. Even if it’s something you’re not thrilled with, visible work is the best work when it comes to keeping up appearances. If it’s important to someone who is important, it goes here too.

The to-whatever list is a new idea for a lot of you: this is your list full of crap that you’re assigned that’s clearly busywork: things that are neither important or urgent. These are the little things that your boss tells you that you have to do that we all know he or she will eventually forget about, or the problems that will solve themselves if you just sit back and let it happen, instead of whip yourself into a frenzy like your boss might want you to. This is also the dumping ground for projects that take a long time, things with nebulous due date or things that you don’t want to do at all.

Don’t burn the list: you need it, especially for those times when you need to update someone on your status and you know they’re tired of hearing about the real work you’re doing, or when someone brings up that item they assigned you way back when. You’ll also need it for those times you get stuck in a meeting with someone trying to unload their entire project or workload onto you. Think of it as insurance.

Always Be “Busy”

Now that you have your lists in order, start working on the things you’re passionate about. Spend your day working on the important things, with a little of the urgent things thrown in, and a lot of the visible things that will help your actual career get ahead. Unfortunately, none of us work in a vacuum, so get ready for coworkers and managers to interrupt. Have your lists at the ready? Here’s what to do: Photo by Horia Varlan.

  • Start saying no. Use your lists to support you. When someone asks if you can tackle something that you know instantly is unimportant, can be done by anyone, or will inevitably lead to you having to waste your time, say no. Or rather, say no tactfully and professionally. Say things like “Well, this week I’m working on X and Y (from your real list) and I need to get to A, B and C (from you whatever list). I don’t think I can fit that in.” Be ready for pushback, and be ready to be flexible. If you get a lot of pushback from your boss, revise your assumptions: this thing may be important, and if it’s easy, it may be important to the right people and can earn you some points. Keep moving and don’t get stuck in one position.
  • Pick your battles. Remember, the goal here is to maximise your appearance of activity while minimising effort. That means you’ll have to run a little to play ball: pick up little things you know have a big impact, and make sure everyone knows you’re the one taking on the work. Don’t shove it in their faces, just smile and be proud you can contribute. When you nail that highly-visible problem to the wall or solve that tricky situation your boss knew only you could handle, the brownie points you earn will be priceless.
  • Never say “Not much” when someone asks you “What’s up?” or “What’s on your plate today? You should always have an answer for that type of question, especially when it’s coming from someone in authority. One of my last bosses liked to start the day by dropping by my desk and asking what I had going on today. I learned quickly that if I didn’t have an answer for him, it meant two things: First, I wasn’t thinking about the day ahead and I wasn’t on top of my game, and second, it gave him carte blanche to start delegating. Don’t make that mistake — when someone asks you what you’re working on, have an answer. The more detailed and varied, the better. Pull from your Whatever list if you have to. Oh, and make sure it doesn’t sound too much like yesterday’s answer, or you’ll arouse suspicion that you’re not making progress at all.
  • Use Scotty’s Principle, but don’t talk about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Scotty’s Principle, it boils down to this: pad your estimates for how long it takes to do things by about 25%. It works wonders in the real world too — the only place where Scotty tripped up was by telling us about his rule and by consistently delivering faster than promised. Don’t make that mistake — always pad the time required to do something, but only deliver ahead of schedule sometimes. You don’t want anyone thinking you can do it all the time, or your padding will be useless, and people will start pushing you to deliver sooner than you say. Remember, the padding isn’t just to give you time to do it, it’s to give you time to do it when you want to, and within the time it’s needed. Also, don’t give away your secret. Loose lips and all that.
  • Look the part. While I’m a fan of keeping a tidy, organised desk, no one should walk past your computer midday to see an empty desktop or lack of papers on your desk. Don’t clutter for the sake of it, but keep a notebook and some scrap paper handy, and keep it out, along with a few pens. Get a second display and keep your email client open in one screen and your work on the other. Keep a few apps open in the background at all times. (Excel is a favourite. I love MS Project for this, but that was because I was a project manager.) Set up a “Boss Key” with AutoHotkey or Process Manager. It’s remarkable how far a few extra displays and some open windows goes to making you look busy to someone who either doesn’t really know what you do, or can’t see your screen enough to know that full-screening email on your laptop display while you work on an external monitor doesn’t mean anything.
  • Use technology to your advantage. In one of my last jobs, the biggest responsibility I had was to stay on top of my inbox and fire off responses to critical questions when I had to. With a decent smartphone, I could do that just about anywhere, and anything I needed to get to a computer for I could always push off a few hours. Don’t be afraid to work remotely — use your phone or tablet to your advantage to check in and stay engaged enough that you look like you’re working. More than once I was “working from museum” or “working from pub” when I was supposed to be “working from home” thanks to my smartphone and remote desktop. Again, don’t abuse it and tread carefully — the moment you get busted is the moment you ruin it, possibly for everyone.

With practice you’ll find that you have more time in your day, because you’ve mastered the subtle art of saying “no” even when you don’t have wiggle room to say no. Your coworkers will come to understand that you’re busy, but if you do this right (by which we mean with flexibility and a smile on your face) they’ll understand and only approach you when they really need your help (and those things should go on the to-do list.) Bonus: you’ll always be busy, but you won’t always be stressed, which is a huge bonus.

Be An Email-Responding Ninja

Here’s a productivity and an evil tip: clean out your inbox. Seriously, we talk about Inbox Zero all the time, but there’s more to be gained from it then a self-satisfied sense of accomplishment. A clean inbox gives you a leg up on what’s probably one of the best ways to look busy: being super-responsive. When you have the ability to glance at your inbox, see a new message come in, and instantly fire off a reply before the sender can even lift their finger off the send button, you really look like you’re on top of your game. Granted, there are two schools of thoughts on this: the first is that it makes you look less busy because you have time to reply to email, but if done well, it makes you look like you’re always working, even at off hours and even if your replies are “I’ll get back to you on this as soon as I can.”

Again, pick your battles — you don’t want to sit there and get into heavy details in your responses unless it’s appropriate. With that said, the majority of the questions you probably get via email are things that someone could figure out if they looked hard enough, read an email or document you’ve already sent them, or paid attention the last time you told them. Fire off a super-fast reply with what they need to know in it, and they’ll be in your debt and you’ll look like a freaking hero. Don’t do this too much though, or else it will backfire on you — it’s great to be known as the guy in the office who’s always on top of his email, especially when no one else you work with is, but like everything else you need to walk the line between this being a badge of honour versus an expectation.

In the same vein, make use of scheduled sends, such as telling Microsoft Outlook to delay sending messages until a certain time, or services like previously mentioned ToutApp, Right Inbox, and a service we love, Boomerang, to schedule your messages and track when they’ve been opened. This way you can write in advance, send a couple of replies super-late at night and earn the prestigious “overtime” award. Again, don’t make it a habit — just enough that when you do it, people sit up and say “wow, he was up answering emails at 1am/5am?”

Stretch Your Boundaries

The best thing about looking busy is that it gives you the freedom to work at your own pace. That means that when you don’t want to work or don’t have to work, you can do what you want — as long as you’re looking busy. If you’ve picked up a side project, spend some time working on that, if for nothing else but inspiration. Working on something else or taking a break to do something really refreshing will give you energy when it’s time to hit the grind again, and if everyone thinks that you’re busting your hump when you’re actually taking those breaks, everyone wins. Photo by Morgan.

At the same time, remember that the amount of work you have to do always expands to fill the time allotted to do it. That means if you take a work from home day to “catch up on documentation” and decide to take a three hour nap in the middle of the day because you know no one’s checking in or you can say you were “running errands”, be ready to put in extra time on the other end of your day. You still have to do enough to make that telework day look productive — but it still gives you the freedom to do what you want when you want to do it.

Use Your Powers For Productivity

A lot of these tips are secrets I’ve honed over the years to really look the part of being swamped when I’m not. Add in a little emotional reaction when someone challenges you on how busy you are, sell it up by believing it, and people will trust that you’re really getting things done at work . . . and here’s the dirty secret: It’s because you are.

Remember, being busy is not the same thing as being productive. What we’re talking about here is being productive: Getting the important things and the things you want to do done in a timely manner, and sifting out the crap that eventually worms its way into our inboxes — all while deflecting as much crap as possible so we can focus on the important things. It takes a few white lies here and there, a little playing on the ignorances of others, and a little keeping up appearances, but you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t a little evil, would you?

Lifehacker’s Evil Week is all about topics such as password cracking, social hacking and other ‘questionable’ tricks. Knowledge is power, and whether you use that power for good or evil is in your hands.