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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Busy Work and Fake Work

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

In “Fake Work” Peterson & Nielson (2009) contend that “much of the hard work people do for their organization does little to link people to the strategies that are intended to help the organization achieve its goals” (p. xx).

The authors discovered that roughly 50% of the work employees do “fails to advance the organizations’ strategies.” They decided to give this “ineffective work” a name – “fake work.”

“Fake work…include[s] everyone from the inattentive CEO who changes strategy too frequently, to the social-climbing manager who creates busywork to make herself look important, to the shirking line worker who just doesn’t want to do anything today” (p. 50).

I love this sentence:

“Lots of people squander their effort with long to-do lists that are chock full of busywork” (p.89).

Many years ago, I worked in a place where a man (I’ll call him Dilbert) was the living, walking, breathing example of “busywork.” Each morning, Dilbert would complain that he has so much to do. And, at first glance, it did appear that he had a lot because there were always piles of papers stacked up on and around his desk. Dilbert made it a point to mention how busy he was to anyone who asked him how he was doing. “I’ve got so much to do today,” he would lament.

The funny thing was that although he had a large mountain of paperwork on his desk, he actually never really “worked” on them because he was too busy telling people how busy he was. Because he wanted to make it evident of the amount of work he had on a daily basis, he would frequently sigh loudly and say to himself, “I can’t get anything done because I’ve got so much to do!”

One of the things I always like to do is to find a better, faster, and/or more efficient way to do a task or job. I’m sure there’s a fancy-sounding name to it, but I am a firm believer in the idea that things are not complicated, but that people tend to make things complicated.

In Dilbert’s case, analyzing his work habits revealed two things.

  1. He couldn’t tell the difference between nonessential tasks and critical tasks.

  2. He didn’t know how to prioritize his tasks (even when his boss told him which ones were the “priority” ones).

Peterson & Nielson (2009) describe situations like this as when “busyness overwhelms emphasis” (p. 31).

The irony was that Dilbert’s “job” was actually not hard. But if you asked him, it sounded like he was about to perform brain surgery every morning and by midday he was mentally and emotionally exhausted. What’s more, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that perhaps the easiest answer to Dilbert’s “busy work” and “fake work” problem was that he never really “worked.”

I still think about Dilbert every once in a while. I bet he still has a mountain of paperwork piled high on his desk that he’s never gotten around to actually working on. Yes, I know, it’s because he has so much to do.

For people like Dilbert, who struggle with not doing much but always being swamped with “fake work,” Peterson & Nielson (2009) recommend doing it now to avoid fake work, or as the famous Nike commercial slogan declares, “Just Do It!”

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


Peterson, B.D., & Nielson, G.W. (2009). Fake work: Why people are working harder than ever but accomplishing less, and how to fix the problem. New York: Simon Spotlight.



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