Busy work (also referred to as make-work and busywork) can refer to activity that is undertaken to pass time and stay busy but in and of itself has no actual value. Busy work also occurs in business, military and other settings, in situations where people may be required to be present but may lack the opportunities, skills or need to do something more productive. People may engage in busy work to maintain an appearance of activity, in order to avoid criticism of being inactive or idle.
In the context of education, busy work allows students to work independently, to test their own knowledge and skills, and to practice using new skills learned in the educational setting. It can consist of various types of schoolwork assigned by a teacher to keep students occupied with activities involving learning and cognition while the teacher focuses upon another group of students. The functionality of busy work is associated with levels of interest students have with the content of the work, levels of enjoyment students have in performing the work, how purposeful the work is, and how accomplishment of the work is perceived by students. The perceived results of the work by students is significant: when students feel that they've succeeded in accomplishing a functional task, it's congruent with learning and the attainment of new skills.
Busy work can also be used to keep the students occupied with educational tasks during idle times, such as instances when time in school remains but the day's curriculum has already concluded. This application of busy work to consume idle time was common in primary education, but the need for work to have educational content, rather than existing just to consume time, is now preferred.
Busy work has historical precedent in primary education. Entire books have been published that document various busy work activities and curricula per student grade levels, types of activities and how the work is associated with various types and stages of learning. Examples include Plans for Busy Work (published in 1901) and Education by Doing: Occupations and Busy Work for Primary Classes (published in 1909).
Conditioning students to believe that busy work carries the same value as progressive work can lead to students maintaining this belief later in life, carrying it through to the workplace.
Business and work settings
In business and work settings, people may engage in busy work simply to appear like they're being busy and productive, with the primary goal of actually simply maintaining an appearance of activity in efforts to protect their employment status (i.e. to avoid termination or sanctions). Workers believe that it is more important to maintain a constant appearance of working urgently so that others, and they themselves, believe that what they are doing is important. Constant urgency amongst workers can lead to disproportionate distribution of actual work, as workers may put off important work due to attempting to complete previously appointed less important work. Maintaining very high levels of constant busyness may actually be detrimental to the operations of a business or organization, in which new tasks are not undertaken in a timely manner due to workers already being in a state of continuously being very busy. This can also lead to workers taking shortcuts to accomplish tasks more quickly, which can negatively affect the quality of work results. Busy work also can be counterproductive in work settings because it may not be aligned with the overall objectives and priorities of an organization's plans for attaining and maintaining success in its ventures. The assumption that activity in the workplace is more important than productivity in the workplace can lead to employees thinking that quantity of work is better than quality of work, which is not productive to the overall functioning of a business.
Busy work is used in armed forces to keep servicemembers from becoming bored, inactive and idle. Tasks of this sort include drill, memorizing regulations, getting haircuts, spit and polishing footwear and other cleaning chores such as scrubbing the deck.
- (1901) Plans for busy work - Boston Primary Teachers' Association - Google Books
- Paul Monroe (1910), "Busy work", A Cyclopedia of Education, p. 475
- (2001) Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency - Tom DeMarco - Google Books
- Kotter, John (January 19, 2012). "Why Busy Work Doesn't Work". Forbes Magazine. Retrieved September 1, 2012.
- Randall M. Miller (2009), The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life in America: The War of Independence and antebellum expansion and reform, 1763-1861, p. 356, ISBN 9780313337031
- "The Treatment of Dipsomaniacs". The British Medical Journal. London: British Medical Journal. 1 (741). 13 March 1875. JSTOR 25240702.
- (1909) Education by doing: occupations and busy work for primary classes - Anna Johnson - Google Books
- (2010) Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork, and Start the Work That Matters - Michael Bungay Stanier - Google Books
- USATODAY.com - Be sure 'busy work' isn't keeping you from growing your business
- (2012) 
- The dictionary definition of busy work at Wiktionary
- Kotter, John. "Why Busy Work Doesn't Work".