Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The 5 Types of Work That Fill Your Day

Hacking work is all the rage these days, along with tips for managing email, taking notes, and running meetings. But, at a higher level, what can we learn from analyzing the different types of work we do and how we allocate our time?

First, let’s take a look at the five kinds of work we do every day:

1. Reactionary Work

In the modern age, most of our day is consumed by Reactionary Work, during which we are focused only on responding to messages and requests – emails, text messages, Facebook messages, tweets, voicemails, and the list goes on. You are constantly reacting to what comes into you rather than being proactive in what matters most to you. Reactionary Work is necessary, but you can’t let it consume you.

2. Planning Work

At other times, you need to plan how you will do your work. Planning Work includes the time spent, scheduling and prioritizing your time, developing your systems for running meetings, and refining your systems for working. By planning, you are deciding how your energy should be allocated, and you are designing your method for getting stuff done. The best workflows are highly personalized and occasionally borderline neurotic, but they keep us engaged. It may not sound sexy, but Planning Work helps you become more efficient and execute on your  goals.

3. Procedural Work

Of course, there are many motions we go through every day that are neither reactionary nor strategic. Procedural Work is the administrative/maintenance stuff that we do just to keep afloat: making sure that the bills are paid or preparing tax returns, updating a deck for a business presentation, or tracking old outbound emails to confirm that they were addressed/solved. Procedural Work is important, but we must remember to remain flexible in our approach to it. Procedures backfire when they become antiquated and remain only out of habit, not necessity.

4. Insecurity Work

Insecurity Work includes the stuff we do out of our own insecurities – obsessively looking at certain statistics related to your company, or repeatedly checking what people are saying about you or your product online, etc. Insecurity Work doesn’t move the ball forward in any way – aside from briefly reassuring us that everything is OK – and we’re often unconscious that we’re even doing it.

5. Problem-Solving Work

Creativity becomes most important during Problem-Solving Work. This is the work that requires our full brainpower and focus, whether it be designing a new interface, developing a new business plan, writing a thoughtful blog post, or brainstorming the features of a new product. Whether you’re working solo or as a team, you’re leveraging raw creativity to find answers.

The best workflows are highly personalized and occasionally borderline neurotic, but they keep us engaged.

What We Learn When We Audit Our Work

Taking all five types of work into perspective, we can audit our day and the types of work we engage in most.

My typical day includes 2-5 types of work, with the majority being Reactionary Work. I hate to admit it, but I find that Reactionary Work constantly bleeds over into my efforts to schedule myself (Planning Work) and the deep thinking required to solve problems (Problem-Solving Work).

I also find that, between nearly any type of work, I usually slip into a period of Reactionary Work that may include surfing the top of my email inbox, or a period of Insecurity Work, which usually comes in the form of scanning Twitter messages about our business.

Here are a few realizations that might help as you do your own work audit:

  • Problem Solving Work is best done when you are fully engaged with the challenge you face. For many, this means working in a zone free from distraction and the flow of social media. Within groups, the best Problem Solving Work is done when staffing is voluntary and topics fall into the overlap of each person’s genuine interest, skills, and opportunity. Without a real sense of engagement, results suffer.
  • Procedural Work, meanwhile, is best done with the help of technology. Wherever possible, technology should be used to automate systems for managing projects and increasing efficiency. With Procedural Work, you want to minimize the time spent on it and optimize accountability. For those of us that manage teams, Procedural Work should be delegated when possible. Legendary managers recognize that they should spend time on Planning Work, setting up the systems that their teams will use to work, and then minimizing their time spent doing the day-to-day administrative (Procedural) work.
  • Reactionary Work can often crowd out all other types of work; it needs to be controlled by limiting the time you spend on it to distinct blocks throughout the day. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, Reactionary Work seeps into every opening of your time – walks between buildings or a free hour that results from a canceled meeting.  The biggest mistake we make is prioritizing Reactionary Work over everything else. Planning Work, in the form of proper scheduling, can help minimize the gravitational pull of Reactionary Work. Similarly, Procedural Work can help you identify stuff that should be delegated, thus reducing your flow of Reactionary Work.
  • Insecurity Work should be compartmentalized into designated periods of time every day (or every few days if you’re disciplined enough to manage it). Perhaps allocate 30 minutes at the end of every day to run through all of your Insecurity Work at once – checking stats, how many hits your blog received, how many new followers you gained – whatever calms you.
  • Planning Work is, for most of us, too circumstantial. You do it when you get stuck, rather than proactively. But if you believe that organization is, in fact, a competitive advantage (as I do), you need to allocate time for Planning Work and learn methods to optimize it. You should leverage existing systems but then customize them for yourself. After all, making your mark on your system breeds attraction, which in turn breeds the loyalty required to stick with that system long enough to achieve results.

All work is not created equal. Try working with an awareness of the type of work you’re doing, and how it’s helping (or limiting) your progress.


What’s Your Take?

How do you juggle the different types of work you’re doing?

More insights on: Task Management, Time Management

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.
load comments (48)
  • Stanley Ann M

    Thank you. I’m just about to do a big audit of my time. There aren’t enough hours in my day and I’m getting tired and stressed, so I’m looking forward to setting it all down on paper, eliminating some things and getting more efficient. 

  • Sandbar

    Loved this.  Head nodding throughout the entire read as I saw my day described perfectly with chagrin for the small percentage in planning and problem solving.  Auditing in these categories will be very useful. Thanks….

  • michaelwroberts

    Reactionary work consumes far too much of my time, and insecurity work can crowd out important tasks if I’m not careful. By focusing on better planning, I hope to allow for more time for problem solving, which is what I love most about my day.

  • Alaia Williams

    Great article, Scott. I’ve found that Reactionary Work takes up way too much of my day at my job, followed by Insecurity Work. I notice that when I am working on my own projects that I fall more into Procedural and Planning, which is good, because I work as an organizer. I definitely can improve though and this article has helped me better identify how I’m spending my days! I’ve passed this article on to co-workers, clients, and friends!

  • Patrick Cullen

    Thanks Scott, this is fantastic. An audit makes great sense and will help clarify what tasks belong to each type. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there’s some correlation between types of work and emotional states, energy levels, or the time of day. Then, I guess, it’s just a matter of focusing attention when and where it’s needed, controlling insecurities and dampening that reactionary reflex.

  • Guest

    Agreed; I certainly think you’d find that correlation.

  • Scott Belsky

    It would be great to pay attention to the causes of certain types of work…all the more reason for self-awareness…

  • Scott Belsky

    Sounds great; good luck..

  • custom essay

    Great post from an expert and it will be a great knowledge to us and thank you very much for sharing this valuable information with us.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent article Scott-

    Analyzing time allocations in people’s schedules is my job so this article made me smile because it’s all very familiar. :)

    One technique that I’ve found to be extremely effective for myself and my clients is to set aside time to plan at the end of the day or at the very beginning of the day and to not allow ourselves to do any other type of activity until we have clarity on our top priorities.

    Making planning a prerequisite for any other type of activity:
    -Keeps “first things first.”
    -Avoids wasting time on low priority activities.
    -Allows you to get out of work on time because you didn’t forget something important.
    -Gives you the confidence to say, “No,” to less important activities.
    -Minimizes emotional drag caused by wondering if you’re doing the right thing now.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Timothy Solomon

    What about “Procrastination Work”? Work you create to avoid working on what you should be working on (eg making comments on blogs)

  • Joe D.

    Fantastic glance at the work I try to manage every day. Thanks for the thoughtful breakdown!

  • Brett Dudo

    ha!

  • Pencilneck

    An excellent article!  Nice way to think about the less productive work….

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    Very good written
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  • Barry A. Martin

    Need an app for this.
    One hack that might help us be more conscious would be to create windows on my machine that force me to only work in one of these at a time. 

    Thanks Scott.

  • Bjarte Edvardsen

    I have a theory that reactonary work is very related to insecurity work. They both are easily avoided in my workflow when I don’t have access to the internet.

  • Barry A. Martin

    We had a similar discussion here.
    I review something we’ve launched for someone and immediately want to address what I see as emergency design problems that will reflect poorly on us.
    Completely forgetting of course that my clients and their audiences are maniacs about completely different verticals than us.

  • Madhu

    um… where does goofing off fit? :D 

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     I agree that reactionary and insecurity work can have a high correlation.

    Both of them involve “giving up” your power to choose how you invest your time. A more proactive approach that includes planning puts you in a place of responsibility for your actions.

    Although this can be a bit intimidating at first, it’s ultimately empowering and gives you a greater sense of peace, control and meaningful accomplishment.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Jake Sullivan

    My “insecurity work” is reading articles on 99% that remind me of what I am not doing. :) 

  • 99designs vs Crowdspring

    Good insights for managing your work with scheduling. Brilliant tips.

  • jongwon kim

    It’s a good chance to reconsider “Reactionary Work” . Thank your from south korea.

  • Sam

    Great ideas in this article. Maybe the “creative” or “problem solving” part of our work needs to overlap with creative play. 

    http://scientistartist.blogspo

  • free sex

    Cool thing! thanks for sharing. I have never heard about this.

  • Parin Patel

    One of my favorite articles on The 99% so far.

    The challenge that I’ve come across from time to time is that even though I’ve taken the time to schedule and plan my work, the Reactionary and Insecurity times seem to snowball at times (because “something very important just came up and I should respond to this now since I’m checking my email anyway” ;) ).

    It’s maintaining and exercising that power to choose that’s important like @twitter-16722173:disqus mentions below.

    But what’s more is that we often downplay the amount of Reactionary and Insecurity work we actually do in a day.

    And that’s why I believe it’s important to take some time to reflect on your day to see what you actually did during the day/week/month to stay on course and adjust as necessary. 

    Thanks for the great tips Scott!
    Parin

  • Parin Patel

    One more point though. 

    I don’t agree with just allocating 30 minutes to work on Insecurity Work because that doesn’t address the fundamental problem: us hindering our productivity by wanting to do work for the point of doing work and keep us feeling “safe” (and busy?).

    Instead, there should be an underlying reason or objective in mind when checking these stats, etc. A specific purpose.

    Because without that purpose or objective it’s very (verrryyyy) easy to get caught up doing busy work again.  

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Thanks for the shout out in the comments.

    As to your comment on your comment, simply checking through stats, scanning through e-mail, etc. isn’t necessarily insecurity work. It can actually be an extremely responsible and good use of your time if it’s about appropriate monitoring of what’s happening.

    Perhaps it’s less about the action and more about the motive and less about whether you complete this type of work and more about having the proper time allocation.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • David

    I think you missed a catagory – perhaps the most important catagory; project work – the value-added stuff for which client is paying you.  If one is in a service industry than the catagory is “delivery.”  Perhaps you are using “problem” as this value-added catagory, but if all one is dealing with is “problems”… I’d rethink the model.

    The “problem” catagory is needed, and yes, that can be value-add, but I struggle with that label as being the best label for the core of the business; where value is added and people are willing to pay.

  • Eric Johnson MBA

    Excellent point! I teach a virtual and live workshop called Procrastination to Purpose and Profit and you are right. People do that all the time!  It’s such an odd and quirky thing… but in order to avoid something they feel it very painful, they create something less painful to give them a reason to avoid the first thing.  Like last week, when I was starting to work on taxes, I felt this overwhelming urge to redo my bookshelves! LOL :) 

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Hi David-

    I’m not the author, but I think that Scott was referring to problem solving work as time when you are actually creating value and tackling the challenges where clients want you to provide solutions.

    But to your point, it could be helpful to have a category for what you called “delivery” and I typically call “execution.” This is the time spent actually getting the core work done.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Reagan Pugh

    I’ve just started waking up around 4:00am because, after several audits, I realized any creative writing or editing needs to happen before 8:00am or I won’t be able to fully engage. It’s made a huge difference in my output.

  • Joel Colombo

    I think you’re absolutely right about this one… Sometimes I’ve found myself in this type of scenario, where it becomes a never ending cycle without any purpose but to expect some kind of external input that in the end, it keeps the cycle running.

    Regards,

  • writingbee rewiev

    I totally agree with this article.

  • Russell Searle

    This work breakdown made me start thinking about the profitability, the value dimension, of each type of work. I think the value of these activities is implicit in how you suggest that we should deal with each type of work:

    * Maximize Problem Solving activity
    * Ration Planning activity
    * Minimize Reactionary, Procedural and Insecurity activity

    I guess as a general guideline for organizing work time, this is fair enough.

    Arguably, each type has some value, even if it’s hygienic or defensive. And independently of the derived value (the output) of each type of work, I think we have various psychological needs that are satisfied by each type of work.

    I like to treat Planning as a relatively fixed overhead to Problem Solving. Planning is the time when I structure my productive work and set measurements for it, but it is also the time when I think about my work process and develop it.

    And in the interests of maximizing long-term productivity, I would add one more category of work: Play. In creative occupations, you might say that Play is an element of Problem Solving. But Problem Solving is primarily analytical, while Play is emotional.

    Play is where we transcend logic, where we extend our vision and scope beyond the boundaries of the problem at hand. Maybe it is simplistic to put it like this, but I think Problem Solving helps us grow in largely quantitative ways, while Play helps us grow in qualitative ways. I think it is valuable to be conscious of my need for Play, to make room for it and to nurture it.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Excellent points! I love how you described play as “transcending logic.”

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • isabelacosion

    Thanks. This article suggest, to reflect about what kind of work, we are doing on the Web.  “well intended mind” and  focussed  is important. Excellent.

  • Cory Boatright

    This is a great post bro. It’s odd to me that I feel I do my most focused work when there is a great deal of chaos taking place around me. It’s sort of like when the “house is burning down” my mind goes into a super-focused-captain-of-the-ship mode that I guess would be called a 6Th type of work “Intense” work. Just my 2cents.

    Remember… be a servant,
    Cory Boatright

  • lawofattractioncommunity

    thanks…Excellent points! I like how you described play as “transcending logic.”

  • seo freelancer

    great. thx! my opinion: we all started to evolution in never before way. the practice and a real workflow becames the camera of panopticon for a single message. semantic web sitting on the nose. thats a wonderful times, guys.       

  • Sean

    love this post

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    I’m
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  • أمل علي

    I am trying to make my ” insecurity work ” about reading the articles on 99u and what similar`s. The big problem is in ” Reactionary work ” , all social media .. I really want to get rid of them. Maybe I can reduce time wasting.

  • Guest

    I`m trying to make my ” insecurity work ” is reading the articles on 99u and what similar`s, The big problem is in ” Reactionary work ” , all social media .. I really want to get rid of them. Maybe I can reduce time wasting.

  • Jack Peterson

    This helped me get out of “insecurity work” and to start focusing on what matters.
    http://www.apolloplanner.com/

  • Ann Lewandowski

    I’m puzzling over how to think about professional development time — trainings, seminars, and reading newsletters of partner organizations to keep up with activity in the field and future partners. Sometimes it can be “insecurity work”, but much of it is necessary to the quality of my work (even though I can’t bill it to a specific project) or it lays the groundwork for future projects and collaborations.

  • Alex

    In which category would you place “Personal Development work”? Time you set aside to learn (soft Skills, industry news…) and keep updated about what is happening in your industry ?

  • Chris

    We are consistently faced with the demand to succeed where others have failed. I find the challenge to be extracting oneself from the pure definitions of work to focus on the act of business. Capitalism, in our western society, in the correct gauge of whether the exterior labor is both recognizable and/or rewarded. It is true, the terms involving the concept of work overlap greatly upon each days opportunity. It is therefore essential to learn the nuances between self improvement and group participation.

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