Are You Doing the Important Work, or Do You Just Think You Are? | TechWell

Are You Doing the Important Work, or Do You Just Think You Are?

Wolf in sheep's clothing

The older I get, the more I realize there are traps laid down for us in life. By this I mean things or activities that deceptively seem beneficial but actually aren’t. One of them is the problem of “playing work.”

“Playing work” is when we do activities that look like work—they may even feel like work—but deep down, we know we aren’t being productive. For example, it may be fun to argue with coworkers about which version control to use next, tabs versus spaces, Emacs versus Vim, or which responsive design JavaScript library is best. But is that the best use of your time? The problem comes when we avoid the real work, the work that carries us forward, in order to do the not-work.

When I moved from being an employee to consulting, then running a small consulting firm, the opportunities to not-work (yet feel like it) exploded. I could spend time on Twitter “getting my name out there”; I could go to every single conference. Everyone with an email list suddenly wanted me to take their course that would boost my business to the next level. I could reboot my website, create a new logo, order stickers and T-shirts, or hire a professional mentor. Plus, there was balancing the books, organizing the company, and meeting with the accountant and the lawyer. If I really wanted to, I could spend forty hours a week doing things that do not help my little company find new customers, serve existing customers, or develop new skills or offerings.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, the Sirens were dangerous creatures with sweet voices whose bewitching songs enchanted sailors. To get to the Sirens, the sailors just had to run their ships into rocks, crash, and drown. That is what happens when we’re seduced by the siren song of not-work. Our productivity falls through the floor, real work becomes less interesting, and we crash.

More tragic still, in most organizations, there is a delay between slacking and consequences. On a few high-functioning team, the low producer will be found in a week or less, but on most, it may take months or years for anyone to notice you have slowed down—especially if it is only 10 percent here or 20 percent there.

Personally, when I’ve found myself not-working for an extended period of time, I get a strange sort of headache and feel as if I’m turning into a zombie. I recognize an addiction cycle sneaking in. It is painful.

If you don’t have your own physical warning signs, ask yourself some important questions: What are the main things your team needs to do? What do you need to do to help that happen? What percentage of your time are you doing that, and what percentage are you doing … other things? Do those other things help you move faster?

If your answer to what percentage of your time is spent furthering your team’s goals is “Not enough” and the answer to the last question is no, then it might be time for some introspection—and, perhaps, some tough conversations.

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