The plague of unproductive "work about work" has infiltrated the workplace. And it's even more potent and pervasive than we thought. 

Take a guess: How much time do you spend on "work about work" such as checking email, searching for information, sitting in unproductive meetings, or the countless other tasks that don't move the needle in terms of advancing your career trajectory? Now, to get an accurate gauge, double your estimate. 

According to a recent Asana study (full disclosure: I work for Asana) based on a 2019 qualitative survey among 10,223 global knowledge workers--workers whose jobs center on knowledge and information--workers grossly underestimate the time they spend on work about work. While global knowledge workers think they spend over a third of their time on work about work, they actually spend nearly double that time--60 percent--on work about work.

While there's no cure-all for work about work, there are protective measures you can take. Here are three strategies to avoid falling victim to toxic and unproductive work. By embracing these strategies, you'll be primed to build up powerful immunity against work about work. 

1. Check for duplication.

The iron cage of bureaucracy no longer holds workers captive in rigid hierarchies. Most forward-thinking workplaces today embrace flexible and rather autonomous work. But this flexibility comes at a cost. Knowledge and information is increasingly dispersed throughout the workplace--in Slack channels, Dropbox folders, emails, corporate intranets, and, yes, still even in file cabinets. 

The Asana study found that, on average, workers spend four hours and 38 minutes each week--the better part of a full workday--on pure duplication of work. Without a centralized work management system, workplaces are susceptible to severe work duplication.

If you aren't privy to such a system and suspect you're duplicating something someone has already done, do some research. Use Slack to ask your co-workers whether someone else has done something similar. While you might need to play broken telephone to get at an answer, it's usually worth the effort. 

If you discover that you're not duplicating work, document your process and share it widely. Better yet, try to automate your workflow so that you aren't carrying out the same task time and time again. Déjà vu has no place in today's fast-paced workplace. 

2. Reduce app fatigue.

When it comes to the workplace, there's always an app for that. With the workplace teeming with apps, app fatigue quickly rears its ugly head. The Asana study revealed that knowledge workers use an average of 10 different apps in the workplace. The result is frequent context shifting. It's not surprising that the study also found that the more apps and software workers use, the longer they spend distracted or procrastinating. 

How do you Marie Kondo your app stack? As a first step, focus on the "three C's": communication--the likes of Slack and Microsoft Teams; content--the likes of Dropbox and Google Drive; and coordination--the likes of Asana and Trello. If there are four or more C's in your stack, it's time to do some early spring-cleaning. 

3. Take breaks.

A study conducted by Columbia Business School professor Jonathan Levav and colleagues found that Israeli judges were significantly more likely to grant parole at the start of the day and immediately after scheduled breaks. 

We're not designed to work for hours on end. It's easy to go through the motions and deprioritize breaks, but this a recipe for disaster. You're likely to suffer from decision fatigue and, in doing so, imprison yourself and your colleagues. 

The Asana study revealed that, on average, workers take only two breaks during their working day. A staggering one in 12 takes no breaks at all as they don't have time! Prioritizing breaks can reduce decision fatigue, equip you with a fresh perspective, and, in turn, make you more aware of the time you're spending on "work about work." 

I'm a big proponent of setting alerts to remind you when to take breaks. While it's generally advised to take a break at least every 60 minutes, this might not always be possible. If you absolutely can't spare the time for a proper break, embrace the micro-break. How to pack the most punch? Stare at a nature-related image.  A 2015 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that individuals who glimpsed at an image of a flowering green roof for a mere 40 seconds exhibited higher levels of attention as compared with those who glanced at a picture of a barren concrete roof. 

We're entering in a new era of work. The workers who will thrive in this brave new world will take a stand against work about work. By developing immunity and liberating themselves from the shackles of work about work, they'll be able to thrive. 

Published on: Nov 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.