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Understand the Difference Between Important Work and Busy Work

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

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What if I told you there’s a foolproof way to be more productive, invaluable to your organization, and ready to pounce on new opportunities? There is. You need to understand the difference between important work and busy work. Master this skill and you’ll be a superstar in the

working world!

That’s what this blog is all about. We’ll walk you through the process of evaluating your workload based on your employer’s goals and where you want your career to go.

Understand Your Organization’s Goals

By taking the initiative to understand your organization’s purpose, you’ll give yourself a huge advantage. You can use that information to make sure you’re doing important work – not busy work.

It sounds fairly obvious, but when you get mired in the daily grind, it’s easy to lose sight of the reason you’re there. Plus, not every organization is great at communicating their goals. To be honest, some of them are downright bad at it.

The CEO and executive team might have a crystal-clear vision of what they’re trying to accomplish. But after it filters down through a few layers of management, the message might be confusing at best.

Do Your Research

Search for clarity on your organization’s mission, vision, and values. See if they have business objectives for each year or quarter. Even better, are there goals for your specific department?

Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  • Read your organization’s website – all of it

  • Review the annual report or newsletter

  • Check out the introduction of your HR manual

  • Look on your organization’s intranet

  • Talk to people, especially those outside your normal orbit

In the best organizations, the company or department goals will be prominent on your professional development objectives. But that’s more the exception than the rule. Especially if you’re working for a small or mid-sized organization.

If you can't find the information you need, ask someone who can point you in the right direction. Ideally, that’s your supervisor. But it could be a mentor or another coworker.

Use What You Learned

Now you have more context for your daily tasks. To help the concepts come to life, we’ll use the sample professional, Katie.

Katie is a pricing analyst for a national corporation that provides occupational health services to large employers. She supports the sales team in preparing quotes and return on investment studies.

Katie researched her company mission, which is: To improve the health of your workforce while reducing your healthcare costs. She also asked a sales person about their focus, and learned the goal was to increase clients with multiple locations. Katie also found out that prospects have been questioning the stats that support the company’s claims about reducing healthcare costs.

This information helps Katie understand:

  • She should provide extra attention to quotes for companies with multiple locations, giving sales the best opportunity to win.

  • She could proactively look into research on how occupational health can reduce healthcare costs. This is central to the mission and is also something that could directly impact sales.

  • She could add these goals to her professional development plan. That way, she can document both her initiative and success.

Be Clear on Your Professional Goals

Even though your current employer’s goals are important, you also need to be conscious of what’s best for your career.

Do you have a five-year career development plan? If not, it’s time to create one. The days are gone when you could expect to work for one employer throughout your career. Companies are constantly starting up, merging, and becoming obsolete. You need to be the boss of your career.

Create Your Plan

Here are the key components of an effective five-year plan:

  • What’s your dream job? Be as specific as possible, not only about the position but aspects that may affect your choices (location, whether more education is needed, etc.)

  • What are the personal benefits to achieving this job? This is the “why.” How does this job fulfill your career goals and your personal values? How does this job move you toward any longer-term goals? Answer this by starting with “I would love this job because…”

  • What are the key milestones toward getting this job? Milestones are significant achievements toward your five-year goal. Break it down so it feels more doable. For example, obtaining a certification in your field.

  • What are the individual tasks you need to take toward each milestone? Each task should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely).

Use What You Learned

As Katie created her five-year plan, she decided her five-year goal is to be a Senior Pricing Analyst. She likes her company and coworkers. She’d like to have some longevity with one company before branching out. Her first milestone is applying to a local university for her MBA, since most of the senior level management has that degree.

Being clear about her career goals helped her realize:

  • She should take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with Senior Pricing Analysts and seek a mentor for the MBA program.

  • She should learn more about occupational health. While it’s not specific to her training in Finance, it will make her more valuable to this company.

Identify What’s Important

Now that you’ve clarified your organization’s goals and your professional aspirations, you’ll be able to align your day-to-day work with both. Doing this first will make the difference between important work and busy work immediately obvious.

How to Prioritize

Look at all the tasks you’re doing and review the importance of each of them. You’re going to measure their importance by its cost and benefit.

  • Cost – This is the effort needed per task – time, money, mental resources.

  • Benefit – This is how closely the task contributes to your organization/professional goals.

We’ll use some of Katie’s tasks as an example. She has assigned quotes to prepare each day,

but usually has time to research and organize as well.

As you can see, Katie’s most important work is on the top section of the box. She can organize her week according to tasks that have a high benefit.

But what about those low benefit tasks?

Cutting Out the Busy Work – Work Smarter, Not Harder

If you’re on the bottom of the totem pole, you might end up with some busy work. It might be something that’s important to your manager for some reason but doesn’t really contribute to the company’s goals. Or tasks that have always been done, but no one knows why.

There are a few ways you can manage these:

  • Delegate – You don’t want to dump all the unrewarding work on the intern but if something is taking up a lot of time and it’s not important, see if you can delegate some or all of the work.

  • Automate – There are so many apps out there now, it’s mind boggling. See if something “we’ve always done” can be automated. It will free up your time and make you look good!

  • Talk to Your Supervisor – Have a frank discussion. Many organizations have processes that are ineffective or pointless. See if there’s a true need for the task.

In Katie’s case, she talked to her supervisor about printing out proposals for internal reference. She pointed out that there was a bookshelf of old proposals gathering dust. Everyone had a digital copy. It took a lot of time to print and collate all the materials. Her supervisor agreed, and she was freed up from busy work.


Knowing the difference between important work and busy work can make you a shining star in your organization. Employers appreciate individuals who can see beyond their position. It shows initiative and critical thinking. Always look at the bigger context, so you can be smart with your time and invest yourself in tasks that matter.

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