Closing the Curtain on Work Theater

18.10.2020 |

Episode #6 of the course How to work from home: From surviving to thriving by Jordan Thibodeau and Joe Ternasky


“The challenge of email is that people send you stuff for free, and it becomes items on your to-do list.”—Esther Dyson

Welcome back!

In this lesson, we will examine the time-sink that is work theater. Specifically, we will define what is meant by work theater and how we can stop such theatrics from sabotaging our schedules and productivity.


What Is Work Theater?

Work theater is another name for tasks that you, your boss, or your company might perform that squander your time and contribute nothing. Work theater is different from our good friend wasted time (i.e. when you get distracted by your favorite Office episode). This lesson will show you how to identify those practices, reduce or eliminate them, and stay focused on what matters. Working from home already dramatically reduces work theater, primarily because it reduces excessive oversight and redundant meetings. It’s difficult to remain on task when you’re under constant scrutiny. That said, being miles away from that manager doesn’t mean you’re off the hook yet. Now that you’re in charge of your own time, it is vital not to waste time with tasks that are unfocused, untimely, or ultimately pointless.


Work Theater Warning Signs

Work theater can be surprisingly hard to distinguish from productive work. Here are some signs that what you’re doing is unnecessary, or worse, counterproductive.

You aren’t certain what is expected of you. Approach this in a positive way with your manager: “I want to make sure I’m doing my best work for you, what does the end outcome look like for this deliverable?” It’s understandable to want to seem effortlessly knowledgeable, but it looks a lot better to question the assignment before you do it than to end up doing it wrong.

You aren’t sure why you’re doing this task. Ask the question, “What is the immediate benefit of this assignment?” Stuck for an answer? Don’t get to work until you know the answer.

You feel yourself drifting off-topic. This is an easy pitfall when you are working without direct supervision or someone to collaborate with. When your manager wants a report on car dealerships in the metro area, but you’ve spent an hour on the three ways people use the internet to prepare for buying a car, you’ve become an actor in the work theater. Remind yourself of the main goal of your assignment, then evaluate how your work is supporting that goal. Make sure that you’re not spending all day chasing down a footnote or statistic that doesn’t matter. One way to address this concern is to use the trusty Pomodoro method. At the end of that 25-minute work session, review what you have done, and see if it has moved you toward your work goals. If it hasn’t, then redirect yourself.

You are spending too much time getting organized. Though it’s important to be organized before you begin working, many people find that they frequently spend huge chunks of time (think a half hour or more) looking for the things they need. Organization is a skill that must be cultivated. If you are drowning in pen-and-paper notes, then consider upgrading to an electronic app that can be searched and easily categorized. If you suffer from an overflowing email inbox, then set aside a specific, uninterrupted time each day to address it. Disorganization is a vortex that will suck your time away. It will fatigue you just as much as real work and leave you with nothing after the hours of work you put into your day. If this is you, do something fast. Disorganization causes mistakes, missed deadlines, and misunderstandings.


To Do

Spend time reflecting on your working day to see if you have taken part in Work Theater. What can you do to stop or at least minimize the times you take part in Work Theater?

That’s a wrap for this lesson. We look forward to having you join us for our next lesson.

Jordan and Joe
Work From Home Teachers


Recommended book

Highly Productive Remote Work by Darius Foroux


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