Busy Work

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Some times we just assume things. Like whether something “on our list” really needs to be done. Some times tasks turn in to habits – and we have to ask ourselves whether the original reason we started doing “it” is still viable. It really is a question of value. How much value do I get from doing the task, and how much does it cost me to do it?

Here are some ideas to help you think about busywork in life, career and ministry…

value judgment

The first one is simple – we all do this, and perhaps we get stuck. Ironing shirts is a great example – it takes me about 8 minutes to iron a shirt (I am no master) I earn more than $25 per hour. A fully laundered shirt costs me less than $2. So I can get 12 shirts laundered for less than it would take me to iron 8. Financially not worth my time. If you factor in the opportunity cost of what I could be doing with that hour instead of ironing – even better. The equation is different when I have “negative cash flow” and have trouble making ends meet – but at the end of the day – I have to say – just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.


Tasks that we know need to be redone. If you know you are going to re-do it later – why do it now? I call this “shuffling” – I create more work (lose more time) by doing things that I know will need to be done again. I am not talking about “repetitive” work that is periodic like home maintenance. What I am talking about is half baking something because I don’t have time to do it right – but I can’t stand to leave it the way it is. Its a patch, rather than a long term fix. Of course, sometimes it really is necessary to do – because I have to stop a leak – or whatever. But the time you spend on the partial fix is completely lost.

double dipping

If you have small closets and have a “seasonal” wardrobe rotation – do you wash clean clothes before you pack them? Why? Will you wash them again when you unpack them? Why? Because they were sitting in a basement for 6 months – then why wash them before you pack? Do you rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher? how clean do you get them? Why?

sequence errors

This can be seen clearly when you straighten a room. How many times will you move something around so that you can do some other task, before you move that thing to its final location. It is almost always more efficient to work in an order that allows you to touch something only once. Doing this so you can do that always feels in efficient, especially if this isn’t really important on its own. Find ways to organize your work, so that you are not handling things inefficiently. This can also be seen in “old paperwork” reviews. If you let paperwork sit for too long, you have to review it before you dispose of it. But didn’t you review it when you put it on the stack? Why didn’t you dispose of it then?

weak evaluation

Sometimes we are just too darned lazy to evaluate what parts of the work really are important, and what parts can be deferred or even skipped. There are some rules here, but really – if the evaluation takes longer than the job, then by all means just do the job. But if the evaluation takes much less time than the job and you are confident that you can reduce the work by that amount of time through the evaluation then it is a wash at worst case, and a savings otherwise. When you are half way through the job and asking yourself why am I doing this, it is probably too late to evaluate and get much time back.

not delegating

Is it really you who needs to be doing this task? Sometimes our pride gets in the way – I have to do this, no one else does it as good as me? really? beyond the emotional pleasure of patting yourself on the back, how much benefit do you get? But how hard really is it to show someone else how you want it done? How hard is it to trust them? How hard is it to accept that it isn’t you getting credit for it? But what about the other things that you could do with that time? And what about the person you can delegate to? How does it help them? And how much more can we get done together than you can get done alone?

not planning ahead

Sometimes not thinking far enough ahead puts you in a bind and you can’t delegate, you can’t finish the job, you can’t evaluate. Some of these situations occur because people procrastinate and because they don’t plan to do better. Obviously big things take more planning than small ones, but even a 1 hour job will benefit from 10 minutes of planning. Planning how to move furniture or boxes so I can clean or paint a room so that I don’t “box myself in”. deciding where to start when washing a floor, so you don’t have to wash part of it over where you stepped on it. Simple planning has immediate benefits. Having people available to help may require some communication – in advance. Planning has immediate benefits.

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