Like any other human being, I fall into the trap of wasting time during my workday.
But, here’s the thing: If I’m going to be squandering those moments anyway, I’d always rather kill that hour or so with something enjoyable (read: falling down the YouTube black hole). If you ask me, that’s far better than investing unnecessary elbow grease into a pointless task or project that’s masquerading as something important.
Oh, you think so too? I can’t blame you. Nobody wants to expend their efforts and energy on something that ultimately doesn’t matter.
However, sometimes it can be deceptively tough to figure out whether or not a task is worthy of your efforts—or if you’re just misusing your hard-to-come-by working time.
Keep your eyes peeled for these three red flags to figure out if that task is worthy of the hours you’re committing, or if it’s really just fruitless busy work.
1. You Can’t Instantly Name the Benefit
There’s this old story about a meatloaf recipe. I’ll spare you the long-winded version, but essentially generation after generation would cut the ends off of the meatloaf before putting it in the oven. Nobody ever asked why—they just stuck with what the instructions called for. Come to find out, that only started because the original cook didn’t have a large enough pan. It was a totally unnecessary step that people just continued to stick with.
You probably aren’t cooking meatloaf at work (and, if you are, can I come for a visit?). However, this same trap is still all too easy to fall into.
If you’re wondering whether or not what you’re working on is deserving of your time, this is the best place to start: Test your ability to name the benefit off the top of your head.
Are you staring slack-jawed off into space trying to think of the results your efforts will produce? Well, you might be doing something just for the sake of doing it—which, as those meatloaf chefs will be quick to tell you, isn’t a productive use of your time.
2. You Can’t Point to a Company Goal it Relates To
In an ideal world, every single thing that you do at work directly ties to some sort of overarching company goal.
There’s an important disclaimer here, though: This doesn’t mean that every single thing you do needs to generate groundbreaking, applause-worthy results. Instead, you just need to be able to relate what you’re currently working on to the larger picture.
For example, perhaps that data entry feels mindless and mundane. But, you also know that it’ll make it much easier to keep your customers updated—which contributes to your company’s objective of improving customer relationships this year. See? You’re chipping away at a larger goal.
If connecting those dots seems absolutely impossible? You could very well be working on something that isn’t worth doing at all.
3. You’re Doing it for Someone Who Has Never Thanked You
When I was just an eager, entry-level marketing assistant, I prided myself on my ability to go above and beyond expectations. Here’s just one example: My boss would pile up business cards on her desk. Every couple of weeks or so while she was at lunch, I’d take that stack and then alphabetize them in her rolodex (yes, she still had a rolodex).
She never mentioned my clearly thoughtful gesture or explicitly thanked me for it. But, I just knew she appreciated my willingness to do things without being asked.
Come to find out, she never actually looked at those business cards. She’d simply enter the information in Outlook right away and then toss the business cards aside (hence the pile that was collecting cobwebs on her messy desk). Long story short, I was totally wasting my time by putting those cards in meticulous order.
Are you repeatedly doing a task for someone who has never so much as acknowledged your efforts? That person might not be ungrateful like you originally thought. In fact, he just might not even realize that task is getting done.
Ask yourself this: If nobody even notices, is it really that important?
Be forewarned, these red flags don’t necessarily apply if someone (particularly your boss!) specifically assigns something to you. Then you’re probably going to need to swallow your pride and get it done regardless of your own personal opinions about whether or not it’s worth it.
But, if you have a little more control over your own workload? Be sure to keep an eye out for these red flags to ensure you’re using your time as effectively as possible. Because, if you’re anything like me, if you’re going to waste your time, you’d rather do so with something fun.
Photo of person thinking courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author