Episode: Fake Work and How to Avoid It

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Megan Hyatt Miller: A battered Ford Focus pulls up to the British Museum in London. Out steps a paunchy 45-year-old man. His plain sport coat and dull brown shoes contrast with the museum’s grand neoclassical façade. He’s headed for an appointment with John Curtis, one of Britain’s foremost experts on ancient art. It’s 2005 and the art market is booming. This seemingly average middle-class man claims to have stumbled upon one of the greatest finds of the century.

Michael Hyatt: In the dusty back office of the museum, the visitor produces three stone objects that have been sitting in his father’s garage for decades. They appear to be Assyrian carvings, depictions of a battle scene. They could be worth millions. A ripple of excitement runs through the museum curator. Then a look of concern breaks across his face. He agrees to hold the carvings for further examination. The truth is he suspects the pieces are fake and that this nondescript nobody of a man may be one of the greatest art forgers in history.

Megan: In fact, he was. Shaun Greenhalgh, the average guy with the beat-up car, was the brains behind one of the longest-running art forgery scams ever. Police later discovered that Greenhalgh, along with his 84-year-old father and 83-year-old mother, had duped the art world for nearly 20 years.

Michael: They had passed off over $20 million worth of fake paintings, sculptures, and artifacts, and Greenhalgh had made all of them in a shed behind their public housing project. He may have been the most successful art forger, but he’s far from the only one. Experts say counterfeit art is everywhere. As much as half of the artwork now on the international market could be fake.

Megan: Most of us probably don’t deal in high-end art, but there is another forgery rampant in the workplace, and it could be costing your organization millions. What is it? Fake work. Fake work, like art forgery, looks exactly like the real thing, but it does nothing to help you achieve your goals. Endless meetings and needless reports, wordy emails… To the untrained eye, they look just like real productivity, but at the end of the day they accomplish nothing.

Michael: Experts say all this busywork may account for nearly half of your workday. All that fake work costs time and money. Even worse, it ruins your productivity. So, whatever happened to Shaun Greenhalgh? To pay for his art forgery, he spent nearly five years in prison. What is your fake work costing you?

Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’ll show you how to eliminate your number-one productivity killer: fake work.

Megan: As leaders, we begin each day with the best of intentions, but we often go to bed at night wondering exactly what we’ve accomplished. The problem? An endless stream of busywork invades our schedule and keeps us from doing the things that really matter. Here at Michael Hyatt & Company, we’ve perfected a system for focusing on your most important priorities. Today, we’ll show you three simple steps for eliminating fake work. You can escape the frustration of those meaningless tasks and end every day knowing you’ve accomplished the things that move your organization forward.

Michael: But before we dive in, we’d love to hear from you. If you’re enjoying Lead to Win, and even if you’re not, I’d love to get your feedback. Would you please leave a review of this podcast? We’ve made it super easy to do. Just go to That’s it. It’s only going to take about two to three minutes, and it’ll be extremely helpful to us in terms of getting the message out. Thanks so much.

Megan: All right. Today we’re talking about fake work, which might be a new concept for some of our listeners. What do we mean when we say fake work?

Michael: First of all, I think we should say that this phrase needs its own hashtag.

Megan: I know.

Michael: #fakework. I can see it now. Let’s define real work. Real work is anything that moves your business forward. It’s that simple. This is probably the work you were hired to do or that you got yourself into business to do. For example, for a salesman, it’s sales. For a lawyer, reviewing briefs, writing contracts, filing pleadings, before the court, whatever. For a doctor, examining patients.

Fake work is everything that doesn’t move your business forward. We sometimes call this busywork. It’s the needless reports, the endless meetings, the pointless emails, so much of organizational life, but too often this fake work is what keeps you from being productive, which, again, I want to define in terms of what moves the business forward.

Megan: Okay, confession time. Can I tell you what my favorite form of fake work is?

Michael: Yes.

Megan: Organizing. If I have something I probably really need to be doing and I am not being disciplined, I’m organizing. Just ask Joel, my husband. He knows it well.

Michael: The truth is you’re not alone in this. I think this really afflicts writers. I can tell you that I’m never more compelled to organize my closet or my desk than when I have a deadline.

Megan: I know. I can get lost in it. All right. This is not just our concept, though, because there are actually some pretty impressive stats that go along with this. Research shows that most people spend two and a half hours a day…get this…on email.

Michael: And they can’t even remember what they responded to after they’ve done it.

Megan: Right. I don’t even want to know how that translates to your whole life cumulatively. It’s terrifying. A survey of 182 senior managers, as reported by Harvard Business Review, found that 65 percent said that meetings keep them from completing their work. Can we get an amen? Seventy-one percent said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Also an amen for many people. Sixty-four percent said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking, and that’s probably the biggest threat. We all know this is true.

Even 68 percent of employees said they don’t feel that their work group goals or the things they’re working on together translate into real work tasks. That’s kind of a clunky way of saying it, but basically, they have goals that are totally disconnected from what they spend their time working on. Then 56 percent don’t understand their company’s goals. It’s pretty hard to go to work on your company goals if you don’t even understand them.

Michael: Totally. That’s why I think we have to differentiate between being productive and being busy. They’re not the same thing. Everybody is busy, but not that many people are productive.

Megan: And we’re not talking about productive as in getting stuff done. That’s an important distinction. You could be getting all kinds of things done, but they could be the wrong things and, therefore, you’re not producing results.

Michael: That’s why it’s important to define it as getting the right things done. Again, the right things are…what? The things that move your business forward. That has to be the litmus test of what’s fake work and what’s real work. By the way, I think it’s important here to define, especially for our clients who may be listening to this, the difference between fake work and what we call backstage work. There’s backstage work that prepares you or enables you to do your front-stage work, which is where you get paid. So we’re not talking about backstage work. That’s totally legitimate, but fake work, busywork that, again, doesn’t move your organization or your business forward.

Megan: As it turns out, for example, no one is paying me to organize the office.

Michael: That’s right.

Megan: Or my closet, for that matter.

Michael: So, what’s the cost of fake work in your organization? We said already that people spend about two and a half hours a day on email. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument half of that is legit. Think of how much time you spend on email. Would you agree that’s probably…?

Megan: Absolutely.

Michael: Half of it is legit; half of it is fake work.

Megan: Well, not now because I know about this.

Michael: But before…

Megan: Certainly before.

Michael: Here’s the math. Let’s just take a salary of $100,000. That’s roughly translated into $50 an hour times 1.25 (because, again, we’re saying half) hours a day times 5 days times 50 weeks equals $15,625 per year to do fake work that looks like email processing.

Megan: Okay. Here’s where it gets really scary. If you’re a business owner…

Michael: Oh, don’t even think about this.

Megan: Multiply that number times all of your employees, and we’re just talking about one kind of fake work.

Michael: Yeah, this could be millions and trillions and gazillions of dollars nationally. Big problem.

Megan: I think the real question is…What opportunities could your team seize if they weren’t spending three to four hours a day on nonproductive tasks?

Michael: This is why the most efficient, most productive companies are growing at outrageous rates. That’s because they’re not engaging in this kind of fake work that looks like busyness…

Megan: Like bureaucracies.

Michael: Right. What happens, too, is that when you have a lot of fake work going on, then you have to hire additional people to do the real work, so your overhead bloats, so your profitability goes south. There are a lot of bad, unintended consequences from this fake work.

Megan: All right. To summarize, real work is anything that’s aligned with your goals. It drives results, and it moves your business forward. Fake work, on the other hand, is everything else. The problem is this kind of fake work is pervasive. It’s hard to eliminate.

Michael: It’s hard to even see.

Megan: It’s hard to see. Some of us feel stuck with it. Maybe it’s outside of our control, like somebody else asked us to do it. We have three tips today to root out fake work, and I’m excited to dig into them.

Michael: Good. Some of these are not going to be intuitively obvious, but I think once I say them you’ll see how these root out fake work. The first step is to review your goals every day. The main reason we do this is because it’s easy to lose visibility of our goals, and when we don’t have visibility of our goals, our work becomes directionless and we’re much more prone to fall into the pattern of fake work.

According to Peterson and Nielsen, 70 percent of workers don’t routinely plan how to support agreed upon goals and tasks in their work groups. We all know this intuitively. Those of you listening, you know this. You go through all of these exercises in your business where you set these goals, and how often does that set of goals languish on a shelf somewhere and you don’t look at it anymore? The way to combat that is you have to review your goals every day. Daily review keeps your priorities front and center.

Here’s my process for doing this. Every day in my morning routine, as I’m setting up, engineering my day, and really creating a blueprint for success, one of the first things I do is I review my goals for that quarter. We teach in Your Best Year Ever no more than seven to ten goals annually and no more than two to three per quarter. So, I’m only focused on those two to three goals that are due this quarter, and I’m asking myself the question, “Is there anything I can add to my task list today that is going to move me in the direction of achieving one of those goals?”

Megan: So you’re really looking for alignment between your tasks and your goals rather than just focusing on getting things done. Most people just have a task list, but it doesn’t refer back to anything that’s more important, and that’s the problem.

Michael: Because the goals I’ve defined for the quarter, I’ve defined the win in advance. Like we were talking about in the previous episode where we were talking about reengineering processes, defining the win. The win for this quarter is get these three things done, and if I’m not actually working on it and getting those things done, then I’m just involved in fake work.

Megan: One of the ways this shows up for leaders is that they don’t delegate, so they feel really busy and overwhelmed, which is actually a very convenient cover for not doing the work they need to be doing. Here’s maybe what that would look like. Let’s say you have a problem with a product or a financial issue you need to resolve. It’s complex and maybe a little bit harder than what you understand naturally. You’re going to have to do some real digging in to get to the bottom of it.

Instead of doing that work, you could attend a whole bunch of meetings you feel like you need to attend to give your input, when in reality you could delegate the decision making that happens in those meetings to the people who are actually holding the meetings. You start showing up for meetings you don’t need to be in as a leader. You start butting into other people’s work and giving input.

You start holding on to small tasks, like managing your own calendar, for example, or doing correspondence you don’t need to do or taking trips that might be helpful to the business but not absolutely necessary. You start doing all of these things, which are really a distraction from the hard work that’s going to drive your business forward. This happens a lot.

Michael: It does. Again, just to underscore it, it’s a way of avoiding the real work. One of the questions to ask ourselves… We’ve quoted it numerous times, Dawson Trotman’s quote about never do anything that others can or will do when there is so much of importance to be done that others cannot or will not do. When you find yourself doing something that someone else could easily be doing, that’s probably fake work. At least it’s fake work for you. It may need to get done and it may be important to your business, but if it doesn’t need to be done by you it’s probably fake work.

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Megan: All right. What’s next?

Michael: The second step is to select three high-leverage tasks each day. I first blogged about this back in 2014 in a post called “The Beginner’s Guide to Task Management,” where in those days I was identifying my three must-do tasks. Now I’ve simply shortened that to the Daily Big 3. I like to focus on three big tasks. If I can get all of these related to a goal for the quarter, great, but they don’t have to be. One of the important things to realize is that every goal is a project, but not every project is a goal. There are some projects that are important to the business that don’t show up in my quarterly goal list.

Megan: Right. They’re legitimately important, not like fake important.

Michael: Right. There are more than those three things I have to accomplish in a given quarter, and there are a lot of important things I have to accomplish, but they’re not goals. So in my Big 3 I’m going to have three tasks that are related to really important things that will move my organization or my business forward. What are those three things that are going to move the business forward?

Those are the things that if I only accomplish those three I would go to bed feeling great. We have this in the Full Focus Planner. We have the Daily Big 3, and then we have a list for other tasks. Those could be errands you have to run or conversations you need to have or emails, but if those things don’t get done, it’s probably not a big deal. They can be done tomorrow. The Big 3 are the things that are significant.

Megan: So they have to be important, they might also be urgent, but they can’t just be urgent.

Michael: Yeah, because sometimes the important things are not urgent, and those are the things that get postponed, and those are the very things that either could help us avoid a crisis, which would make them be urgent or make them be important, or they could help us accomplish something that’s really important.

Megan: I love this because it’s the antidote to feeling both overwhelmed and like you didn’t accomplish anything. At the end of the day, even if everything else was crazy in your day, you know you’re going to at least have accomplished three important things, and only three. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you only have to do three things.

Michael: The cool thing about it is when I wake up in the morning and identify my Big 3, that’s doable. I’m not looking at a list of 20 things and being defeated before I even start. So many people do this. They wake up with an impossible to-do list and, therefore, they feel defeated. They go to bed with maybe two-thirds of them still left undone, and they feel defeated, so every day they’re losing energy because they’re not making any progress, and they don’t feel like they’re making progress.

Megan: Or they’re slamming through a huge task list, but it doesn’t relate back to their goals, and they’re not getting the results they want.

Michael: That is fake work.

Megan: The idea of the Big 3 is about simplicity and focus, which reminds me of a great quote from Steve Jobs where he says, “That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” He was the master at that.

Michael: This also lends itself to deep work, what our friend Cal Newport talks about, because when you have a few tasks you’re really focused on, you can spend the time to think deeply about those tasks and really do significant, high-quality, high-leverage work.

Megan: So, the first step in eliminating fake work is to review your goals every day. The second step is to choose three high-leverage tasks each day, and that brings us to the third step.

Michael: The third step is to identify and eliminate fake work from your business. To think of this as a sports metaphor, in a sense, when you do your Daily Big 3, that’s like playing offense. Now you have a game plan. Now you know how you’re going to run the play. In terms of defense, this is where you have to eliminate the fake work, because that’s going to be rushing at you, much like in a football game when you’re trying to play offense these things are coming in at you.

The problem is we don’t see ourselves clearly. One study showed American workers think of themselves as 11 percent above average in productivity. It’s kind of like Lake Wobegon where everybody is above average. So first we have to evaluate the work we do every day and ask, “Does this drive results for my business?” This is how we build self-awareness, by the way, as leaders. We have to ask ourselves these questions and then be really honest in how we answer them.

Again, according to Peterson and Nielsen, whom I quoted before, evaluation is the ultimate way to guarantee that real work is done, because it forces you to measure your effort in terms of actual effect. If your work is misaligned or fake, your evaluation will register red flags if (and this is my commentary) you’re honest.

When you recognize fake work in your routine or in your activities, you just have to decide you’re not going to accept it. You’re not a victim. You choose the things you do every day, even if you’re working for somebody else. We still have more discretionary time than we like to admit, so if we’re going to persist in fake work, that’s a choice we’re making, and we’re probably deceiving ourselves and hindering the progress of our business.

Megan: One of the things you can do is just go back through your calendar over the last month. Print it out or whatever is easiest and identify which of your commitments are actually driving results, things you already did. Not things you’re going to do, but what did you actually do? I think that could be very sobering.

Michael: I do too. I think it’s worth mentioning, too, because people who listen to this are leaders… Go back to episode 20 of Lead to Win where we talked about “Leadership and the Law of Replication.” As a leader (and this is scary to think about), if you’re involved in fake work, you’re probably going to replicate that commitment to fake work in the people who are working for you.

Megan: No doubt.

Michael: So there’s a cascading effect of this fake work. It doesn’t just stop with you. People can see it more clearly in you, probably, than you can see it in yourself, and in a subtle way it gives them at least unconscious permission to engage in fake work themselves. I think this is why so often, even in the work environment, people want their workers present. They somehow think that if they’re present they can watch when they’re doing fake work or not fake work, but that really doesn’t work, because it’s easy to deceive ourselves.

Again, first evaluate the work you do every day. Second, eliminate it from the business to the extent that you have control. This is not just your problem; it’s institution. In fact, it’s cultural. You have to organize your workplace for productivity. Now, the modern workplace is built around distractions…open offices, electronic communications, meetings, constant notifications and disruptions…so we have to initiate consciously best practices for communication.

We talk about this in our book No Fail Meetings. Eliminate nonproductive meetings. Just because a meeting has been a standing meeting for months or years doesn’t mean it’s still productive. That, too, can be fake work, and a lot of meetings fall under that heading. Allow employees the freedom to concentrate on deep work. That’s one of the things you gain by eliminating this plethora (I love using that word) of fake meetings.

Megan: That’s right. One of the things we’ve done here at Michael Hyatt & Company is that we’ve created… You’ve talked a lot about a personal Ideal Week, where you arrange your week around a certain structure to maximize your productivity. We’ve done that here at our company, so we have Thursdays as a no-meeting day. Just about every Thursday (there are a few exceptions) is a no-meeting Thursday. The purpose of that is to allow our team to do deep work without interruptions, and that has been revolutionary for us. People just love it. They’re getting so much done, and so much of what they’re doing is driving the business forward.

Michael: So true. There’s a great article by Rishawn Biddle in Michael Hyatt Magazine this week called “Stop Busywork Now!” and you can check that out at By the way, with the release of each podcast we release a suite of articles at that support and go deeper in whatever podcast episode we’re talking about. I don’t think we’ve ever mentioned that before. The podcast is like the feature of that particular magazine, but there’s a whole suite of articles that support it.

Megan: So much good stuff there. Back to what you were saying about employers wanting to have their team members on-site so they can manage them. Just listen to this from Gallup: employees who spend 60 to 80 percent of their time working remotely are likely to have the highest workplace engagement, and many, many studies show the link between engagement and productivity.

Michael: We certainly have witnessed that at Michael Hyatt & Company, because our entire team has been remote, and we have so much productivity it’s amazing. That’s why when we built our office we said, “Hey, let’s not screw that up.” One way to screw that up would be to require everybody that they have to now work in the office. That would be highly inefficient, and that would cost us… I don’t even want to think about how much money that would cost us.

So in our office we say, “Look. Here’s a place to work if you want to work. Everybody is invited. Nobody is required. If you need to do deep, focused work and you’re going to do that best at home, great. Do it. You don’t have to ask your supervisor. You don’t have to sign up for a program. You have the discretion to work where you’re going to be the most productive.”

Megan: I just had a thought about another way leaders can get in the way of the kinds of results they’re looking for. Very often, leaders are taught to evaluate the people on their teams by the tasks they accomplish rather than the results they produce. So often, if we’ll hold people accountable for results instead of the process, then we’re going to get what we’re after.

If you’re feeling like you have a lot of fake work in your organization, a great place to start is asking yourself, “What am I holding people accountable for?” If you’re a micromanager and you want to see people’s task lists or you insist on being in the process with them, very often you’re creating the very thing that’s slowing your organization down.

Michael: Here’s a really subtle way I’ve seen in organizations where this can perpetuate the wrong kind of thinking: requiring people to give you activity reports.

Michael: Exactly.

Michael: I used to have a guy who worked for me who would, of his own initiative, submit to me an activity report. Usually it was like two to three pages of what he had done the last week. I’m thinking to myself, “Why do I care what you’ve done? What I care about is the results. How has this moved you toward achieving the goals I’m holding you accountable to?”

Megan: The worst thing is when it’s a salesperson. They show you all of the calls they’ve made, all of the things they’ve initiated, yet there are no sales to show for it. You’re just banging your head against the wall, because that’s not the point.

Michael: “Show me the money.”

Megan: Exactly. You know what? That’s true for all of us. That’s what our businesses run on, and if we’re not producing results it really doesn’t matter.

Michael: I totally agree.

Megan: So, today we’ve learned you can eliminate fake work and be much more productive by taking these three simple steps: review your goals every day, choose three high-leverage tasks each day, and have zero tolerance for fake work in your business. Before we come to a close, I just want to remind you that fake work is costing you and your business both money and opportunity. Be ruthless in finding it and eliminating it. Dad, do you have any final thoughts?

Michael: Yeah, I do. I think before you decide to add any additional people to your business, one of the first things to ask is, “Can we eliminate fake work?” In other words, if people were working in a more productive fashion, would we need that additional person? I think this is the place to mind first before just throwing more people at it.

Megan: I want to thank our sponsor LeaderBox. It provides automated personal development in a box. Check it out at Also, be sure to visit to get the show notes and a full transcript of today’s podcast.

Michael: And don’t forget when you go to, every podcast is supported by a suite of articles that have to do with this topic. We don’t want you to miss that. Thanks for joining us on Lead to Win. If you like the show, please share it with others by leaving a review at It’s super easy to do, and it helps us so much.

Megan: This program is copyrighted by Michael Hyatt & Company. All rights reserved. Our producer is Nick Jaworski.

Michael: Our writers are Joel Miller and Lawrence Wilson.

Megan: Our recording engineer is Mike Burns.

Michael: Our production assistant is Natalie Fockel.

Megan: Our intern is Winston.

Michael: We invite you to join us next week, when we’ll share a surprising practice that could really boost your leadership skill: get a hobby. Until then, lead to win.