If you're at a job where you don't feel like your work's accomplishing much, business consultants Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson have a few suggestions for how to stop spinning your wheels with "fake work" and get real work done.
Image a composite of photo by Eneas De Troya and the cover of Fake Work.
If you feel like much of the work you do is "fake work", then it's time for a change. Today we're exploring the book Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem by Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson.
What Is Fake Work?
Working harder is often confused with working effectively, especially in countries like the US and Australia that have a harder, faster, longer mentality when it comes to work. So how can you get a bead on your own work and determine if you're working on the stuff that matters or just on the stuff that your boss packs into your day?
Peterson and Nielson define real work as work that is critical to and aligned with the key goals of an organisation—whether we're talking about your entire company or your one-man wolf pack. Fake work, conversely, only has the illusion of value. Time, energy and money are funneled towards projects that don't help the organisation or the individual achieve their goals or produce effectively. Endless meetings, layers of paper work, reporting to multiple managers, and the misguided rewarding of people who work long and hard hours instead of short and efficient ones all contributes to a culture of fake work.
Identifying Fake Work
If fake work is anything that doesn't contribute to the goals of your company or your personal goals, what does it look like? Here are a few of the simple ways Peterson and Nielson say you can identify fake work. Photo by Pascal.
Pay attention to the context. In their analysis of workers and workplace patterns they found that people failed to see when the same task was effective in one context but ineffective in another. What is real work, like checking a few emails from key teammates, becomes fake work very quickly, like wasting hours every week replying to emails from people outside your core team.
Take stock of how much time you spend in meetings and training sessions. If you're constantly tied up in ineffective and lengthy meetings and training sessions that fail to increase productivity or efficiency, you're knee deep in mind-numbingly boring fake work.
You spend an inordinate amount of time working on (or assigning) tasks that don't contribute to real growth and development. The running joke about TPS reports in the movie Office Space is as funny as it is precisely because nearly all of us can relate to, on some level, the experience of doing meaningless reports and office busywork that nobody reads or cares about.
You are unclear exactly what your job description is and/or fail to check the tasks dumped upon you against the greater company or personal goals. If it feels like your job description has become "whatever my boss arbitrarily demands" and you've taken to doing tasks handed down to you automatically without weighing them against the greater mission of the organisation (or even your department), you're falling into this trap.
Fake work is often difficult to spot because it's easy to not notice your job description slowly shifting as your boss starts assigning more and more arbitrary work or perhaps you were even hired to do fake work right from the start—companies often have entrenched traditions and methods of doing things that are part of a greater history of fake work and inefficiency. Continually ask yourself if the work you are doing is furthering the goals of your company, your professional goals, and your personal goals. If you're lucky the answer will be a frequent affirmative, if you're in an environment swamped with fake work you'll have to roll up your sleeves and start making changes.
Shifting from Fake Work to Real Work
Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem is a wide-reaching book that covers techniques and strategies for both individual workers and bosses to shift towards real meaningful work and a greater workplace culture of meaningful work. Here, we're focusing on techniques you can use immediately as an individual worker. (If you're a manager struggling with a company culture of fake work, the latter half of the book focuses on top-down changes.) Photo by Scot Campbell.
Even if you feel like your work culture creates a lot of fake work, you probably don't walk into your boss's office and brashly announce that most of what your team does is useless. But you do want to become an active participant in your job and steer yourself towards real work. Peterson and Nielson suggest the following:
Seek out work that furthers the goals of the company. Your boss might be so overburdened that he passes down tasks to you just like tasks are passed down to him without thinking about the big picture. Do the analysis for him. Actively request tasks and projects that further the goals of your workplace and your professional life.
Be honest with your boss about the nature of the work assigned to you. Once you've started requesting better work, you can start pointing out, professionally, what work isn't "working". Done so professionally will show your boss you're focused on the goals of your workplace and on working towards them. Even better, she may start reconsidering the projects and tasks she accepts from further up the chain which will free up your entire team for more real work.
Communicate with your team. Even if they haven't articulated it as such, nearly everyone is aware, on some level, of fake work. The other people on your team and in your department are likely struggling with the same problems you are. Communicating with teammates helps you see what work is really valuable and what work isn't—while trying to keep conversations positive.
Do the real work. This sounds painfully obvious, but if it were truly obvious, fake work wouldn't really be a problem. What were you hired to do? What would your ideal workday look like where you were able to work on only tasks that advance useful projects? Start framing all your tasks in the light of real work. Stop responding to emails that don't matter, find ways to dodge meetings that kill your most productive block of afternoon time, and hack the garbage out of your to-do list. (If massive lists of tasks and projects are a huge time sink and source of anxiety for you, check out how to clean out your to-do List for guilt-free productivity and maintain a project list that doesn't crush your soul.)
In the absence of a clear mission, make your own. You're more than capable of creating a personal set of goals if your workplace has dropped the ball. You can't strong arm the CEO into steering the company, but you can focus within your small slice of work and try to steer yourself and your team members.
Ferreting out fake work, as stealthy as it may be, isn't difficult once you get started. You'll have an even easier time of it if you're able to get your teammates and boss on board with your death-to-fake-work crusade. For more ideas and techniques on identifying and reducing fake work, fostering real work, and shifting your company's work and goals into alignment, check out the rest of the chapters—including some great real-world stories from employees and managers across the world—in Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem.