Beware of Fake-Work and Make-Work.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I remind myself that all work isn’t created equally. Just because I’m busy doesn’t mean that I’m being productive.

I imagine that every kind of work has its fake-work and make-work. For example, as a writer, I remind myself:

  • create, don’t fiddle around with italics and formatting
  • typing isn’t the same as writing
  • cruising around the internet isn’t the same as “research”
  • answering emails, checking Twitter and Facebook, and similar tasks, while important, must not be allowed to get in the way of writing and thinking
  • if I’m finding it very hard to write, I should stop trying to write and instead, start thinking harder
  • if I’m finding it very easy to write, I’m probably falling into cliché and should start thinking harder

Of course, one of my Secrets of Adulthood is that the opposite of a great truth is also true, and I have several resolutions aimed at helping me not to worry constantly about being efficient, but instead, to Force myself to wander and Schedule time for play. Sometimes, I work best by doing things that don’t look like “work.”

In your job, do you have to fight the urge to do fake-work and make-work? What form does yours take?

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Yes! This is exactly something I’ve been dealing with lately. For example, last night while writing my own blog post, that should have taken me 30 minutes at most, I got sucked into YouTube videos as “research” that probably added an extra 30 minutes to the task at hand.

    During a typical work day I find I spend much more time emailing and commenting on creativity than being creative myself. Then, I end up staying at my day job late because I’ve been “connecting” all day long, which–though important–could have been saved till later.

    Thank you for reminding me that there is a distinction between busy and productive. The toughest thing for me is often reminding myself to be productive first, so I can have time for the busy work. And sometimes my most productive days actually feel the least busy, because I’m focused on one thing, rather than running around like a crazy lady.

  • I like the last part of the last bullet-point…”start thinking harder”. And I would add that lets you start thinking DEEPER. Effort shows.

  • Thanks for reminding me to “create, don’t fiddle around with italics and formatting.” – I’m guilty of it.
    A trick I learned recently is to type my ideas on a simple notepad- and ideas just keep flowing.

  • Yes!! These are all fantastic tips. I always get sucked into fake “research” when I should just be writing. Great reminders.

  • sandrastaples

    I agree with your fake work observation. I too have a penchant for formatting and fonts.

  • clearlycomposed

    My favorite fake work is looking for photos and images. Holy mother of pearl, can I spend time doing that! I am finding a balance with it though and budget in time to enjoy it so it is no longer is a distraction from my work online. Cool post! 🙂

  • I’ve set a goal in action towards this this month Gretchen. I’m only allowed to do things like Facebook/Twitter for 30 minutes in the mornings and then that’s it for the day. Today is day 1, it’s going well so far.

  • nielmalan

    Just being busy does not mean being productive. Likewise, when friends complain that they didn’t get much done, I often point out that that doesn’t mean they weren’t working. Planning, measuring, tidying, collecting, these are all part of work that doesn’t ‘produce’, but is just as essential.

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  • Exactly!

    You probably have heared the motto:

    Work Smarter Not Harder?

    Well on the left side of my Travel Blogspot you can find an interesting little book titled: ‘The Lazy Way to Success’.

    When I listend to a Teleseminar with the author I had my own ‘un-quesioned asumption’ that you probably couldn’t expect really valuable information in a book with a simple title like that. But it really does
    seem to make sense.

    Somehow we seem to be conditioned to
    wanting to make things more complex
    or difficult than needed.

    It also did learn me not to have to many
    ‘Un-questioned asumptions’, something to think
    about when your thinking, – or your ‘Thinking Habits’ – go into ‘autopilot mode’.

    All the Best,
    To your Happy Inspiration,

  • bkurecka

    OMG! Just what I needed to hear/read/know. Maybe the fake-work has been the reason why I have slipped into being a “wanna be-writer” instead of the “writer” I was and want to be. Thank you, thank you. I’ve printed it and will tape it to the monitor to keep me on track.

  • Hi Gretchen, I love this article!! I often find myself doing fake work. But I find that when I discipline myself and think about the work that I’m doing then it becomes make work instead of fake work. Thanks for sharing!! Have a lovely weekend!!

  • aspiringgeek

    I became acquainted with you when you guest-posted on J.D. Meier’s (& immediately pre-ordered your book).

    This is an exquisite post. The fake-work allows me, if I”m not careful, to squander hours, even a whole day. Effectiveness demands not that we stay busy, but that we do the right things. Nicely done!

  • My form of “make- work” can sometimes take the form of taking on too many opportunities. Being really passionate about what I do, it’s challenging for me to say “no” to many of the great opportunities that come my way.
    Yet, then what happens is that passion gets too overwhelming and the “workload” increases leaving me really, really tired.

    My “job” is to remember my priorities and accept a limited number of opps so that I can focus and finish what I start.

    🙂 Susan

  • almae825

    I’m in law school and my fake work is cleaning instead of studying. I definitely work better when I’m not surrounded by messy surfaces and dishes piled up in the sink. But I take it to the extreme by avoiding exam prep in lieu of wiping down cabinets, vacuuming baseboards, and sticky rolling pet hair off of my couch.

    • gretchenrubin

      I do the same thing. My apartment is never tidier than when I am working on
      a hard piece of writing.

  • The difficulty you mention of writing and typing and being fidgety reminded me of this recent article I read on the New York Times about a desk that allows you to stand. I thought you might be interested in reading it, so here’s the link:

  • Hi–just wanted to say that I just started your book, and absolutely love it! I am only on Chapter 2–but when you wrote about working on not having the need for your husband to praise your work, or even notice it, I wanted to shout YES! that is me to a T. Great reminder and great writing! Thank!

    • gretchenrubin

      So glad to hear that that part resonated with you! Sigh. Still a struggle!

  • “if I’m finding it very hard to write, I should stop trying to write and instead, start thinking harder / if I’m finding it very easy to write, I’m probably falling into cliché and should start thinking harder”

    Smart. And a fine line indeed. When you’re in the zone though, it’s tough to break away even for a second and take a critical eye to what you’ve just written. Then you might get caught up in editing and revising. I like to just pound out first drafts. And then go back and deal with the cliches. But that becomes tedious and gross and I then think, why didn’t I fix this garbage the first time around. It’s like… tether ball. You beat it one way and it still comes back around and hits you from behind. I guess. If you’re playing solo. Wow. Ha. I was aching for a cliche there. But I guess you win some, you lose some.


  • Yeah. I agree that typing is not like writing.
    I always find myself love to write especially when I create my own definition of happiness.

  • michaelneugarten

    I would like to disagree with the idea that wandering is somehow ‘inefficient’. Suppose you are a tourist in a new city, say Paris. You can either go straight to the ‘Mona Lisa’, with your eyes closed until you’re standing in front of it – this would be the focused way of doing things – looking for what you’re looking for. Or you can, deliberately, wander around a little, and even ‘wonder’ around a little. Which of the two approaches is likely to give you more insight as to the people and the place? I think the answer’s clear.
    HP used to have a management idea called MBWA – management by walking around. I’ve morphed this into the notion of management by wandering around, and thence to management by wondering around. It can be a real eye-opener.
    The idea that wandering is somehow inefficient is a very western one. We are so fixated about zooming-in and focusing on what we are doing – necessary though this often is – that we forget the utility of de-focusing, stepping back, and wandering around.
    If we’re not careful we can lose a wonderful aid to serendipitous discovery of new ideas and insights.

    • SIreland

      Interesting that you used Paris as your example – the French have a word for wandering around with little intentional focus – flâneur! And actually, I’ve found that to be a flâneur in Paris is one of the most productive ways to spend time in that city – because, you’re right Michael – you see so much to wonder about when you’re not actually looking for it!

  • michaelneugarten

    Thanks for that. I’d come across the idea of the flaneur in the past but had no idea it was so richly connected.
    Following this idea, you may be interested by a book by an American landscape history professor, John Stilgoe – called “Outside lies Magic” who exhorts his students to get out! and notice …
    His book begins thus:

    GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Forget about blood pressure and arthritis, cardiovascular rejuvenation and weight reduction. Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore.
    Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modem technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.
    Flex the mind, a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around-the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic.
    The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted-all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it. take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.

    (John R Stilgoe – Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, 1988, Walker and Company, NY)

    Wonderful stuff!

  • Fakeworkstudy

    I am a university student at BYU and we are trying to understand more about “fakework.” This is a short 12 question Survey.

    You might need to copy and paste the link unto your browser

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  • I started my own happiness project last month due to your ideas. It’s incredible how such a small thing can change your life in one month!