The Busy Work Trap (and How to Avoid It)

When I was running my clothing retail store years ago, I would spend a minimum of six days per week, 10-12 hours a day, working on my business. I was a workaholic with a mile-long to-do list and full-tank of passion and motivation mixed together.

I was geared up and ready to do whatever it took to succeed…or so I thought.

Each day, I would block out my schedule with activities I thought were industrious—setting up displays, updating the website, going to networking events, Facebooking, accounting, and ordering merchandise. I was a machine.

Every moment of my day was filled. I was preparing to arrive at my destination of success. Only, I’d bought the wrong ticket. My ticket was to Busyworkville. Not Successville.

As I spent more time in the business, I began to notice that my hard work didn’t equate to higher sales. There were diminishing returns on my efforts.

If I were to graph out my progress—putting “time, energy, and hard work” on the X axis and “profits” on the Y axis—it would look like a flat horizontal line that had plateaued a long time ago. There wasn’t a distinct linear correlation between the two, and for quite some time, I couldn’t figure out why.

What I eventually learned paved the way for all of my current successes…

I took a deeper look at what I was spending the majority of my time on. What exactly was I accomplishing every day? Every week? What was the result of my 60-72 hour weeks of hard work?

That’s when it hit me.

I realized that none of the tasks I was tirelessly working on every week brought in any additional revenue into the store.

Let’s be honest—it didn’t matter how freakin’ amazing my store looked or how cool my website was if very few people ever saw it. But for so long, I kept trying to tweak and perfect these elements instead of spending my time working to get customers IN THE STORE.

That’s where the money was going to be made.

The problem was that I was focusing on busy work…work that made me “feel” productive, but didn’t equate to any results (i.e. more customers, more sales, more money).

And because I was so wrapped up in it, I wasn’t working on most important tasks – the things that would directly make my business money and allow it to flourish.

I felt like I was being productive every day. I felt like I was making progress towards my goals. I felt like I was in control.

But that’s how busy work traps you—it’s a feel-good illusion that makes you think you’re on a direct path to success when you’re spinning your wheels on the way to Busyworkville. Just because you’re managing your time efficiently, checking things off your to-do list, and working like crazy doesn’t mean you’re actually accomplishing anything to further your business.

Never confuse movement with action. To have action, you must have purpose.

This is why so many entrepreneurs have delays and setbacks on the journey to grow their businesses.

Think if I’d spent 10-12 hours per day working on things that directly made me money—marketing, pitching the media, speaking, and working to bring more people into the store. How quickly could I have ramped up my business then? Answer = A LOT FASTER.

Even if I spent a meager half of my time doing money-making activities, my “success graph” would have been climbing instead of flatlining. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to get my retail store out of the red and into the black.


There’s one simple question to ask yourself before you tackle ANY new task…

“Will this task directly make me money?”

  • If the answer is “yes”, work on it. And don’t stop until it’s completed.
  • If the answer is “no”, “I don’t know” or “maybe”, delegate it to somebody else or put it on the back-burner. Then move onto to the next money-making activity.

If you don’t know if a certain task will make your business money or not, look in your rearview mirror and ask yourself:

“Has this same activity or task directly made me money in the past?”

  • If “yes”, go for it.
  • If “no”, give that tasks a little more thought before proceeding.

Base your definition of productive money-making work (versus busy work) on your own personal experiences, not on a fellow business owner’s actions or advice.

Once you get a sense of which business-related activities directly make you money, it will become easier to figure out what to spend your valuable time on.

Begin dedicating at least 75% of your time working on productive tasks and the other 25% doing any other work that needs to get done no matter what.

You’ll notice a HUGE difference in your business’s growth when you take this approach. It’s definitely worked for me and it’s the secret sauce that the savviest of business owners use to arrive (and stay) in Successville.

Photo credit: Photo by Phil and Pam Gradwell License:
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Ken Okel - 4 years ago

Thank you, Laurel, for that great tip. Like many, I’ve logged a lot of frequent flier miles to Busyworkville!

Your advice is easy for all of us to follow. I find too that it’s good to put a reminder of it up in my workspace so that I’m constantly reminded of spending time on my profitable activities.

    Laurel Staples - 4 years ago

    Thanks for the comment, Ken! I have to remind myself of the busy-work lesson over and over again…it’s so easy to get distracted. Like your idea of putting a reminder in your workspace!

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