I recently listened to an interview between productivity expert Grace Marshall and Renessa Boley Layne (founder of Creating Your Perfect Work) on the psychology of being busy. Among other things, Grace talked about the concept of ‘real work’ versus ‘fake work’ and how getting stuck doing the ‘fake work’ makes female leaders feel busy but stops us from getting to the ‘real work’. This really resonated with the conversations I have been having with female leaders who are feeling:

  • overwhelmed with being busy,
  • pulled in too many directions,
  • unproductive in progressing their goals,
  • challenged finding time to do the things they really want to do, including spending more time with family and making time for themselves, and
  • less effective as leaders than they know they can be.

When I began exploring the concepts of ‘real work’ and ‘fake work’ in the above contexts of female leaders, I realised that ‘fake work’ is an epidemic with significant wellbeing and productivity costs. So, I got to thinking about how it can be managed to free leaders to lead and achieve their goals.


Identifying the ‘fake work’

‘Fake work’ has the potential to consume us, overwhelm us, reduce productivity and get in the way of good leadership. According to Grace Marshall, fake work refers to the tasks and activities we do daily that feel productive (things we can tick off a list, thereby getting that oh-so-good dopamine hit), but in fact create more work, deplete our energy, and stop us from getting to the ‘real work’. It includes managing our email inboxes, writing meeting minutes, administrative tasks, tasks for others, the list goes on.

‘Fake work’ is an epidemic with significant wellbeing and productivity costs. As a leader, the ‘real work’ is the work that is going to move you forward in your goals.

A particularly pertinent example of fake work is the ‘glue work’ that women in the workplace are often subconsciously expected to do. Glue work is defined by Squarespace Principal Software Engineer Tanya Reilly as the less-glamorous, and often less-promotable, work that needs to happen to make a team successful. Marketing Director of Atomic Object Elaine Ezekiel describes it as the work that falls outside job descriptions, primarily supportive work that is critical to keep the team functioning but isn’t anyone’s explicit job. It will look different in different industries but could include supporting other employees or clients; showing new people around; setting up for meetings; coordinating tasks; developing team meeting schedules, agendas and minutes; being the representative woman on the interview panel or technical committee; or a range of other things.

All of which are usually fake work and take up even more of our time, leaving us less time to do the real work that is going to achieve our goals, get us and our team noticed as experts, and bring us joy. Tanya Reilly cautions that when not consciously managed, glue work can be career limiting for people in the software engineering industry, pushing people into less technical roles and even out of the industry; but that when managed deliberately, glue work can demonstrate and build strong technical leadership skills.


Replacing it with ‘real work’

As a leader, the ‘real work’ is the work that is going to move you forward in your goals: strategic planning, sharing your expertise with your team, building relationships, investing in collaborations, reading, building knowledge, developing your team. See the difference?

‘Real work’ also includes habits and routines that contribute to our personal wellbeing and resilience: exercise, meditation, time out, spending time with friends, hobbies. ‘Real work’ is harder to do than ‘fake work’, takes longer to see results (so no instant gratification), but frees you to be present and accountable – to be a leader.

‘Real work’ frees you to be present and accountable – to be a leader.

As female leaders, there are also tasks and activities that are important to us as individuals, but don’t necessarily contribute to work or team goals – this might include supporting diversity initiatives, mentoring, sitting on committees we are passionate about, or community, school or family activities. Is this real work or fake work, and how do we factor these into our time? And how do we shift from fake to real work and create more time to do the things we need to do as leaders, we want to do personally, and that will help us achieve our goals?

In her new book ‘The 1-Day Refund’ productivity expert Donna McGeorge talks about the need to create space in our lives to provide the extra capacity needed to optimize our resources, energy and productivity levels. Donna describes capacity as an output of time, energy and attention. In order to achieve the extra capacity needed to optimize our resources, energy and time, Donna recommends that we should aim for a maximum daily energy (and time) expenditure of 85% – leaving a 15% buffer in each day (or 1 day per week) and greater capacity to adapt to disruptions and surge when needed. This leaves us feeling less energy depleted and contributes to greater resilience. It also provides time for the ‘real work’.

We can create this capacity by discarding the fake work and embracing the real work. Here’s five strategies to help female leaders achieve that.


Discard the fake work: Eliminate, Automate or Delegate

There are three approaches to discarding fake work: eliminate, automate and delegate. Identify which tasks or activities are sucking up your time and aren’t contributing to your goals, and then apply one of these approaches.

Eliminate it. Which work can you stop doing, say ‘no thank you’ to, or not pick up in future? You may be surprised by how much of the fake work you are taking on you can simply stop doing. If the work doesn’t need to be done by you, eliminate it.

Automate it. If the work does need to be done by you, develop a system or process that will reduce the amount of time, effort and energy it requires. This could include batching similar tasks, checking your inbox (or responding to emails) at only specific times of the day, reducing the frequency of the task, or using computer automations to manage the heavy lift.

Delegate it. Of those tasks or activities that you are expected to deliver, consider which actually require your direct input. Delegate those activities or tasks that can be done by others. Delegating provides opportunities for your team to learn and develop their own skills and releases time for you to spend on more important activities, like strategic planning, relationship building, writing or collaborating.


Embrace the real work: Focus on Your Purpose and Strengths

What is important to you as a person and as a leader? What is your purpose? What do you value? How do these relate to your work and personal goals? Where are they present in your ‘real work’? Embracing (and making time for) those pieces of work that are in synch with what you value, that contribute to your purpose, will move you closer to your goals and allow you to grow as a leader.

Your strengths are those things that you are good at, that energise you and bring you joy. Using your strengths helps you feel engaged and motivated and promotes growth. By looking for ways to incorporate your strengths into your work you will achieve great outcomes without expending excess energy or effort. Focusing on purpose and strengths will ensure you feel aligned in your work, are growing as a leader, and maintaining your energy.


Discard the fake work: Embrace Imperfection

The challenge for female leaders is that we assume that we should be able to do everything at 100%, all of the time. Which is just not achievable. And this attitude will keep us entrenched in the fake work, limiting our impact, outputs and ability to lead effectively. Learning to embrace imperfection is hard (this coming from a recovered perfectionist) – but liberating. It frees up time, expectation and pressure on ourselves. It allows us to delegate, to be free to make mistakes, ask questions and get curious. All of which contributes to our growth as a leader.


Embrace the real work: Invest in Yourself

Women have traditionally been taught to put others’ needs before their own. So as female leaders, we often under value and don’t prioritise investing time in ourselves, our wellbeing, development as leaders and those things that bring us joy. But this impacts our resilience, including our emotional resilience (a key factor in leadership success), and ability to adapt effectively.

Investing in yourself is critical. What are the non-negotiables that contribute to your resilience and wellbeing? This could include working in a strength area, exercise, pampering, reading for fun, a hobby, or being involved in a community activity. These are the real work, because they enable you to show up each day, healthy and productive.


Discard the fake work: Set Boundaries

Implementing boundaries around the tasks and activities we will do, and the way we spend our time, reminds us, and lets others know, what is important to us and how we value ourselves and our time.

Consider Jane: the leader of a large, busy team that supports numerous other parts of her organisation; a valued mentor; and a mother. By being constantly accessible (and responsive) via phone, email and office drop-ins, including after hours, Jane prioritises others’ goals ahead of her own. In addition, as the person that always says yes to additional ‘glue’ tasks, Jane is filling her day serving others. In doing this, she reduces her ability to complete her own important work and enjoy the non-negotiables that maintain her own wellbeing and resilience; she also reinforces to others that their productivity and goals are more important than her own.

By putting in place some boundaries around her availability, response times, and the support that she will and won’t provide for others, Jane will liberate her time to work on her own priorities and undertake those wellbeing non-negotiables. In doing so, Jane will send a clear message to others regarding the value of her time and her priorities.


Investing in the work that will achieve your leadership goals

What is the ‘fake work’ that is currently taking up your time? How can you eliminate, automate or delegate some of this work? How can you embrace imperfection and what boundaries can you put in place to give you extra capacity – time, energy and attention.

With this extra capacity, what ‘real work’ will you now have time to focus on, that aligns with your strengths and purpose, that is going to help you achieve your goals and the outcomes expected of you as a leader?

With the vision you have for the impact you want to create as a leader, what can you now see yourself achieving when you discard the fake work and embrace the real work, and how do you feel about that?



Dr Susan McGinty is a women’s leadership coach and the Founder and Director of Aya Leadership, a leadership development consultancy specialising in tailored professional leadership development for emerging and established female leaders in STEM professions. She is an award-winning scientist with 25 years’ experience in the STEM and security sectors. Susan is committed to changing the status quo for women as STEM leaders by uplifting more women into leadership roles. She helps women achieve their leadership potential, and partners with STEM organisations to attract, develop and retain talented female leaders.