Avoiding the Vanity Work Trap

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By Janet Choi

If you’re in the business of dealing with web and social media metrics or are familiar with entrepreneur and The Lean Startup author Eric Ries, you probably know about vanity metrics. Basically, these are numbers that sound impressive but don’t necessarily mean anything of significance because they’re not actionable by themselves. In other words, vanity metrics are “good for feeling awesome, bad for action.”

Many of us fall into an analogous vanity work trap. We do things that sound impressive or important, making us feel productive but essentially don’t propel us to any new heights. Maybe it’s that umpteenth networking event or coffee meeting, or obsessing over social media followers or responding to emails during vacation, or even dutifully doing all the things we think we’re supposed to do. The vanity work trap sucks us in using other people’s ideas of success.


Avoiding the trap is all about uncovering what really matters. The same so what?” test used to escape the lure of vanity metrics is useful for your own work. That question of what matters, of separating vanity work from substance, is one of slowing down, of inquiry and honesty. As PandoDaily’s Francisco Dao, who has written about his own version of the “so what” test (asking yourself, “Why the f*** would I do that?”), notes:

If you’re not honest, you’ll come up with bullshit answers which puts you right back at square one. But if you are honest and really make an effort to come up with legitimate answers, I think you’ll find that asking the question clears away a significant amount of clutter and noise.

Without honest examination of what matters, our paths can’t really lead us forward.

Sometimes, we’re caught in a vanity work trap of others’ design. We may be assigned busywork or get swept into spending too much of our energy and attention into tasks that are never really explained or go anywhere. Yet, we appear in a flurry of activity, giving ourselves and our supervisors the appearance of contribution.

While it’s much harder and scarier to ask why a meeting or some company song and dance matters when it’s a manager’s directive, it’s worth trying not just for the sake of your individual sense of purpose and progress, but the organization’s. Leaders and managers can avoid setting such organizational vanity work traps by confronting reality and facilitating your team’s progress.

The very act of pausing to ask questions like so what?, now what?, why?, why the f***? impacts the ultimate direction you head and ensures that, as Alain de Botton says, “we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.”

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