Like many of you working in an office somewhere, I am given an endless amount of busy work and meaningless projects so that my boss can justify being a boss. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not his fault. It’s just the way the system works.
In turn, I avoid doing most of this work through a process of procrastination, mild insubordination, and apathy. This is also how the system works. And most of the time, the office hierarchy is in harmony.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. I used to actually do my job. Then one day I noticed that the project my boss needed done immediately sat on his desk for a month before he even looked at it. And at that moment, was borne the Laws of Working in an Office…
The First Law of Working in an Office:
By definition, any work your boss assigns to you is of little or no importance whatsoever. Logically, this makes sense. By giving a project to you, the boss has deemed it too tedious, too trivial or too low a priority to deal with himself.
While it may seem disheartening to learn that most of your assigned work is absolutely inconsequential, there is a tremendous upside to this…
The Second Law of Working in an Office:
There is an old saying in business, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Therefore, by delegating assignments, your boss is indirectly implying that he doesn’t care if the work is done right. Otherwise, he’d do it himself. Taking it a step further, your boss probably doesn’t care if is or done on time, either. And frankly, I doubt he really cares if it is even done at all.
Indeed, these laws can be very liberating. However, I can’t instantly dismiss everything that is assigned to me as a complete waste of time and energy. Occasionally, there is actually something worthwhile that needs doing. Being able to tell the difference is the key to being a selectively productive employee.
When assigned a new project, always feign a positive outlook. Give every indication that you share your boss’s enthusiasm for this BS. But don’t actually do anything yet. Even though your boss has given you a massive amount of work to do, pretend that the ball is still in his court.
Now begins the waiting game. At this point, your job is to merely wait for him to follow up with a question on the project’s status. If you’re lucky, he’ll never mention it again, meaning it obviously wasn’t worth doing in the first place. Pat yourself on the back; your investment in procrastination has reaped massive dividends.
Unfortunately, it won’t always be that easy. Even if he does bring up the project a second time it still doesn’t necessarily mean that any actual work will take place. You’ve just got to handle the situation tactfully. Thankfully, I have a proven system for just such an occasion.
I call it the “Just Say No” method. I borrowed the name from the anti-drug abuse ads from the ‘80’s, since it works in the same manner. Essentially, if someone tries to get you to do work, Just Say NO.
Imagine your boss wandering over. Initially, the conversation centers on sports or some other pedestrian topic. Pleasantries aside, he soon reveals the real motivation for his visit:
My Boss: “Centaur, are you working on the cash flow project we talked about last week?”
If done correctly, your boss should be taken aback. Now, the trick here is to not say anything else. Don’t offer an excuse or explanation for your insolence. Be forewarned, there will be an awkward moment of silence and your boss will look at you to break it. Don’t. Just say the word “No” matter-of-factly and consider the issue resolved. Also, consider sipping your coffee or leaning back in your chair, as this is a subtle sign that your focus is elsewhere. Body language is everything!
You’re not out of the woods yet, as most bosses are very persistent. Remember, that’s how they made it to the top of the office food chain. And more often than not, they won’t settle for such a glib answer.
My Boss: “Did you read the emails I sent you regarding the priority of this project?”
Me: “Sort of.”
If possible, try and say this with a twinkle in your eye. It takes practice, but if you can develop a good twinkle, your insubordination will be construed as playful.
My Boss: “Well, the project is due at the end of the week… And I need to review your work and then the results need to be sent over to accounting for them to-”
Me: “Oh yeah, I’m aware of all of that.”
This is an important step. It’s critical to interrupt your boss in the middle of his sermon about how important this project is. Try and act like you know more than he does. But, you can’t just settle for a simple interruption. You must be dismissive as well.
And now, we’re at a fork in the road. If this was a truly meaningless assignment, you’ve officially called his bluff. Knowing he’s defeated, the only thing your boss can do at this point is to try and save face by leaving with a “Ok, we probably have more important things to do right now anyway… but try and work on this in your free time.”
If this happens, be gracious in victory.
Me: “Oh yeah. I’ll definitely take a look at this sometime next month.”
Both parties can leave with their heads held high, knowing this will never happen. In an understated way, your boss will actually respect you for more for not being intimidated into doing your job. Trust me.
Unfortunately, there is another way this could play out. It might not be a bluff. At this point, your boss could decide to reiterate the details and deadlines of this project. If that’s the case, it looks like you’ve got some legitimate work on your desk. The good news is that if this is a real assignment, at least you know for sure.
The Third Law of Working in an Office:
If you have positive confirmation that you’ve been given real work, sharpen your pencil, crack your knuckles and dominate the project. Seriously, the secret to office success is doing an outstanding job on the small fraction of projects actually worth doing, and totally neglecting the rest. If practiced over several years, this pattern of behavior will ultimately lead to a position in upper management.
So what happens to the rest of those tedious projects? Some will simply blow away, like dandelion spores. Others will get outsourced to India or something. As for the remainder…
The Fourth Law of Working in an Office:
If you develop a consistent reputation for refusing menial projects, they will gradually be assigned to others, namely the less-assertive people in the office. Go ahead and put your feet up, as there is no greater satisfaction than a job well done by someone else.