Maynard Keynes, one of the economic geniuses of our times, said on his deathbed, “I wish I’d drunk more champagne.” That’s good advice, but don’t just drink champagne. When you too are on your deathbed, it’s unlikely you’ll say, “I wish I’d answered more emails.” Every task you do can be given one of three labels:
Bad Work: time-sucking, life-sapping bureaucratic tasks that keep growing like weeds through the cracks of your working life.
Good Work: useful work that makes up most of your working day. It’s important and productive It’s getting things done. It’s familiar and comfortable. For an organization, good work is the reliable engine of profit.
Great Work: work that challenges and inspires us. This work has meaning and makes a difference. This is the creative, strategic, differentiating work that we hoped we were signing up for when we began a job. It contains both reward and risk.
People are doing less great work than they want, and they are hungry to do more. Why aren’t we? It’s not bad work that’s the major problem—it’s actually the good work. Good work expands to fill every moment we have and because it’s comfortable and familiar, it seduces us and keeps us busy. How do you stop the busywork? Here are three practical tips:
Pick a great work project. If you’re like most of us, most of what you do is good work. Great work, if you have any, tends to be squeezed into the edges. You could begin a brand new great work project, and sometimes that will happen, but an easier way to do more great work is to review your current good work obligations, and pick one to “amp up” to great work. What’s a project that’s rolling along … and what would be different if you turned it into great work? What extra time and focus would you give it? Who else would you get involved? What would you say “yes” to? And what would you say “no” to?
Embrace adequate. Excellence is highly overrated—at least, the belief that everything needs to be excellent. The truth is this: it’s impossible to deliver everything at such a high standard, and nor should you want to. Absolutely deliver excellence for great work for the work that matters, but review your good work and set “adequate” as your standard for performance.
This is a tough idea to embrace, particularly if you’re smart, keen and ambitious. It’s because “adequate” sounds really similar to “inadequate”. But adequate means good enough, sufficient, and perfectly OK. And every time you deliver good work an iota over adequate, you’re wasting your time, energy, passion and effort. The price you pay for that indulgence is less time and capacity to do your own great work.
Have two working spaces. When we begin our working day starting up our computer and churning through our emails, we lock our body and our brain into good work mode: productive, efficient, and processing what needs to be. Great work takes a different type of thinking—one where you want to be creative, strategic, and focused. Shifting to that type of thinking is almost impossible when you’re in good work mode.
Setting up a different space to do Great work will help. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It could be a meeting room down the hall, a table at the cafeteria, a coffee shop, or even just a different space on your desk. I have two desks in my office—one with my computer on it and one which is (mainly) clear of junk where I do my great work.
It comes down to this: to do more great work you’ve got to stop the busywork, and the more tools you have to do that the better.
Michael Bungay Stanier is the senior partner and founder of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less good work and more great work. Michael’s new book Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork and Start the Work that Matters contains fifteen practical exercise to do more great work and has original contributions from Seth Godin, Michael Port and others. You can follow Michael at @Boxofcrayons on Twitter.