Courtesy AtTask

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” – Thomas A. Edison

You’re busy. If you’re like most knowledge workers, you put in long days at work.

But how much of that is good work? The kind of concentrated, important core work that systems analysts would call “mission critical,” and most of us might call fulfilling.

Truthfully? Probably not too much.

A recent survey asked more than 2,000 employees who work for big companies to analyze how they spend their workdays. The workers broke it down like this: 45 percent of their time is spent on primary job duties. And 55 percent on … busywork.

Workers surveyed by Harris Interactive and AtTask, a productivity software company, said more than half of their days are taken up with menial administrative tasks, interruptions, wasteful meetings and, no big surprise, EXCESSIVE E-MAIL.

“Having people feel, ‘Boy, I’m spending over half my time on things that aren’t really important to my job,’ is the kind of thing that leads to burnout, disengagement and just going through the motions,” said Joe Staples, AtTask chief marketing officer.

In other words: Work Zombies.

“If you’re surrounded by work zombies,” he said, “it’s impossible to get things done.”

The survey found that eight out of 10 experience conflict, that four out of 10 say it hurts their productivity. And the biggest sources of conflict in the workplace is not so much personality clashes – that barely registered at 3 percent – but conflicting priorities, a lack of communication and confusion about who is supposed to do what. “And 63 percent said that there were too many cooks in the kitchen,” Staples said. “Everybody wants to be in charge.”

Previous research, notably by Gloria Mark, professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, has found that a lot of the long hours knowledge workers put in aren’t particularly productive because they tend to be interrupted every three minutes. It takes an average of 23 minutes to return to a task after an interruption. And that slogging through an e-mail inbox can eat up as much as one-fourth of the workday or more.

And a recent study found that Americans, more than workers in any other advanced country, not only work long hours, but, what author, economist Elena Stancanelli, called “odd, unpleasant hours” late at night and on the weekend.

But the Harris/AtTask survey is one of the first to uncover just how much workers feel they get tangled up in what I call “virtuous busyness” — when it feels like you’re flying, checking things off your To Do list all day, shooting out emails, racing to meetings.

You feel that if you can just clear one more thing and one more thing and one more thing out of the way, then you can get to the really big project, or cool idea that’s been percolating. But at the end of the day, or the week, or the year, you have the sinking realization that, for all those hours of work, you never did make much of a dent in the big project that would have made a difference and made you feel a sense of true accomplishment.

Technology isn’t the only problem, Staples said, but “the poor use of these technology tools really amplifies the problem.” The problem being, a workforce of disengaged zombies.

In annual polls of thousands of workers over the past decade, Gallup has consistently found that only about one-third of the workforce reports that they feel engaged at work. More than half are not engaged, and about 20 percent are “actively disengaged.”

Why that’s important? In Gallup’s analysis, engaged employees not only report greater well-being, organizations’ employee engagement scores directly relate to their earnings.

TINYpulse, a company that gauges employee engagement, just released its 2014 report of 200,000 responses from more than 500 companies and found what they call a “culture crisis.” A majority, 64 percent, of the employees surveyed felt they didn’t have strong work cultures, two-thirds said they didn’t see any chance for professional growth, about half weren’t happy with their direct supervisor, more than a quarter felt they didn’t have the tools to be successful in their jobs, and only one in five felt strongly valued at work.

What to do?

To cut down on busywork and get to the heart of the matter, AtTask, of course, recommends their own project management software. But here are three pretty easy things you can start doing yourself right away to begin to work more effectively:

1. Set aside concentrated work time for the most important stuff, and do it first thing in the morning, if you can, when your brain is most alert and your willpower strongest. Turn off phone, emails and put yourself, geographically, in a place where you are least likely to be interrupted.

2. STOP CCing everybody on e-mail. Look, I get it. You want to show everyone how hard you’re working. Maybe even show off. Just stop. Get over yourself and get your work done. Communicate directly with the people who most need to know.

3. Work to create systems to prioritize work, clarify rolls and communicate clearly. Consider creating a platform for projects that everyone can update, rather than calling endless meetings or sending another round of e-mail to the team.

And when it comes to creating a more effective work culture, the kind of culture that fosters effective work, TINYpulse makes seven recommendations:

1. Value employees and show it. A recent report found that employee engagement, productivity and customer service are about 14 percent better at organizations that actively recognize and appreciate their employees.

2. Foster a positive work culture.

3.  Focus on professional growth.

4. Recruit collegial, hard-working colleagues.

5. Hire managers that are leaders.

6. Give employees the tools to succeed.

7. Peers are the number one reason, not more money, that people go the extra mile. So enable peer recognition.

With engaged employees doing effective work, imagine, Joe Staples said, what the workplace could become: “If you take the statistic that workers are spending 45 percent of their time on the important work of their job, if you could squeeze a lot more efficiency into that time, then three or four-day work weeks might not be that far-fetched.”

Hey! Want to be more productive? Find time for the things that are important? Let us help you make the time. E-mail me, brigid.schulte@washpost.com, and I’ll tell you how.