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False Hustle: How Keeping Busy Is Making You Less Productive

Asking yourself three simple questions each week can help you avoid the false hustle

It’s easy to be busy; it’s hard to be productive. Raise your hand if you’ve spent entire days answering "quick" email after "quick" email; spent hours in your task manager organizing your tasks for productivity; spent a half-day organizing tidying up old design files; or looked back on your week and realized you worked your ass off, but you’re not really sure what you actually accomplished.

Bad news, those with raised hands: you’re a victim of false hustle.

I have been, too. Everyone falls into the false hustle trap at one point. It’s not intentional—after all, there’s a lot of work to do in a day—but false hustle can torpedo business goals and ultimately our motivation at work. Here’s what I mean by false hustle, and how to avoid it.


"False hustle" is a term that has origins in baseball. When Sammy Sosa would sprint from the dugout to the outfield, but then jog after a ground ball or a fly ball, he’s false hustling. Basically, he’s expending energy and working hard, but not in the right areas. Not where it matters. Here’s my modified definition for us non-steroid-injecting office workers: False hustle is when you expend your energy on tasks that don’t ultimately help you reach your goals.

You can’t know what false hustle is, or isn’t, if you don’t know what your goals are—yearly, quarterly, monthly, even weekly goals. We only have so many hours in a week to reach our goals, so we need to make optimal use of that time. You know as well as I do that those hours go fast, whether you’re running a design agency, or clocking time as a front-end web developer, or really any other position in the mix. So, when we hustle without direction—when we succumb to false hustle—we make it all the more likely we’ll miss our goals. And when we miss our goals, our motivation tanks. Suffice to say, life is more enjoyable when we’re motivated.


If we unpack goals—big ones—they’re made up of strategies and tactics. At the end of the week, if we’re working smart and not working on time-consuming, non-progressive tasks, we should be able to look back at what we accomplished and line up those accomplishments with either a tactic or strategy we’re working toward.

How can we actually know we’re moving the needle? All I do is ask myself a few simple questions every Friday at 4 p.m.:

  1. What did I accomplish this week?

  2. Did I move the needle toward my monthly/quarterly goals? How?

  3. What can I do next week to move the needle further?

Then, I block off the upcoming week accordingly. Literally that means I hop into Google Calendar and block off chunks of time (e.g. 10 a.m. to noon on Monday) for specific tasks that tie into my overall tactics, strategies, and ultimately goals, for the following week. For me, it’s a simple way to keep moving ahead with purpose.


This isn’t just about agency owners or freelancers; the whole idea of avoiding false hustle is one that works best when adopted by everyone in an agency. Every great place to work has a big goal; a vision that motivates the whole team to work toward.

It’s about developers challenging themselves to learn something new—to try a different solution—for yet another straightforward CMS-powered website. It’s about designers spending downtime learning new skills, or designing something for open-source release that will benefit the community and raise the profile of the shop. It’s about any member of the team feeling empowered to question the CEO / Principal / WhateverFancyTitle when she feels she's being asked to do work that doesn’t move the needle.

In the end, it’s about asking ourselves how we should be spending our time to help make steps towards that big, exciting, motivating vision—and then acting on it.

All of this isn’t to say those menial tasks like answering emails or cleaning the coffee machine don’t need to be done. They do, and maybe they are actually helping us reach our goals. But it’s too easy to fool ourselves into equating busy with productive.

JEFF ARCHIBALD 01.14.15 8:00 AM

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