Beating the Busywork Trap

Not all hard work is useful work. Learn to tell the difference, and you might find you can do your job just as well – but with far less stress and exhaustion

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Here's a thought experiment, adapted from the work of the psychologist Dan Ariely:

You lock yourself out of your house, and you have no spare keys, so you call a locksmith to pick the lock and let you back in. He arrives, gets out his equipment, and spends several hours labouring at the task. Eventually, he succeeds – and after packing up his things and wiping the sweat from his forehead, he charges you £50, which you pay.

Now imagine the same scenario, except with a much more talented locksmith: the job takes him a few effortless seconds, whereupon he demands his £50. For a few seconds’ work? Most of us would feel ripped off. And yet that reaction makes little sense. After all, you received the same benefit for your money. In fact, you got back into your house quicker; arguably that’s worth even more. But you’ve been influenced by what psychologists call the labour illusion: the more effort something takes, the more valuable we judge it to be.

We make a similar mistake in our own lives whenever we treat “working hard” as something inherently virtuous in itself. Arriving home at the end of the day and collapsing exhausted onto the sofa, it’s easy to conclude that you must have had a really productive day: after all, you’re exhausted! Yet the truth is that effort and effectiveness aren’t always connected.

Personally, I’m actually more likely to feel depleted after a full day of busywork – emails that didn’t really need my attention, administrative tasks I could have skipped or postponed – than a day of deep concentration on a project that really means something.

Ambitious people naturally and understandably want to do more, achieve more, experience more. But it’s always also worth asking if there are aspects of your life in which you’re investing too much effort, simply because it makes you feel dutiful and diligent and hard-working to do so. If you can keep your house generally clean with a couple of hours’ work a week, it doesn’t make you a better person to spend 12 hours on it instead.

And two really focused, well-slept hours at your desk, first thing in the morning, may be many times more effective than a busy-but-pointless day that drags on into the evening.

Follow Oliver on Twitter @oliverburkeman and find out more at

Oliver is the author of the books The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking and Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.

Oliver Burkeman

Columnist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, -


Go to the profile of Mary Fenwick
over 7 years ago
Thanks Oliver - I particularly needed to read this today. Mary