Busy is Not Productive if It’s Just Busy



All too often, and more so on the weekends, we find ourselves saying, “I’m too busy to do that,” or “I’m too busy all week at work,” and other phrases quite similar to that. The Next Web writer Sean Kim recently wrote a column titled “Why telling ourselves we’re too busy is bullshit,” highlighting the idea that busy is different from productive.

We are asked to be productive all the time. In our jobs, the management structure or clientele certainly demand productivity. At home, if we are not productive, we have creeping lists of things that simply never get done. Busy-ness can get in the way of that productivity if what we are really doing is postponing the important things, or mis-prioritizing altogether. Kim points out a list of attributes that separate busy people from productive ones, including what in my industry is called “WIP,” or work-in-progress.

People who have too much work-in-progress always seem busy, and in fact they probably are quite busy, but the to-do list does not shrink. Having many projects partially finished is far less productive than banging out tasks to completion, one or two (or when necessary, a few) at a time. In the agile software development community, limiting WIP is a celebrated attribute of employees and teams.

According to lifehack.org, no one can be too busy if they prioritize properly. Lifehack contributor Conor Neill writes, “if you have 3 priorities, you have priorities. If you have 25 priorities, you have a mess.”

But how can priorities be rearranged? Sometimes, there is just a lot to do.

Author Gary Keller recently wrote “The One Thing,

a book about how if you can identify the one thing that you can do that will make everything easier to do, your productivity can soar. What One Thing stands between me and a productive day? Or, what One Thing can I get out of the way, learn, achieve, etc., that will exist in harmony with the other things on my list, making everything that much easier?

Identifying that one thing leads away from WIP and directly to productivity.

Reprioritizing goals can often be connected to that “one thing,” but it is also a heavy-hitting tool in the attempt to limit WIP. If I say “yes” to too many things, surely my brain perceives that they are nearly all of equal importance, and I try to attack them all, but I am setting myself up to fail. I will be busy, yes, but I will not be productive. The skill of saying “no” to some activities, tasks, or events is a difficult one to master, particularly for those of us who have families – or even dogs. The desire to keep everyone satisfied, from partner to kids to Rover, is a strong one. Warren Buffet is credited with saying that the definition of integrity is that you “say no to most things.” Hey, there is a reason those pro/con lists were developed in the first place!

im-too-busy Another aspect of busy not equaling productive is that busy people tend to tell you how busy they are. Feeling productive is not the same thing as actually producing, so just the action of being busy does not, cannot, suffice. When we want to really accomplish something, we make time to do it. We focus on the task at hand, make it important, and grind it out – sometimes to the exclusion of other things. And that is just fine. Action supports production far more than words do (unless you are a writer, in which case the words are important – but not the words, “I’m busy making excuses for not writing because I am too busy!”

In his book, The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, Gary Kogon claims that people have gotten far too proud of the sensation and claim that they are busy. Inc.com visits this in their Inc. Video, “Productivity Playbook.”

Barbara Hemphill, of the Productive Environment Institute, has exceptionally good advice for remedying the “busy” out of our productivity. She claims that while busy people have very long to-do lists, productive people carve out the three clear goals of the day, and write those down instead. Hemphill insists that “if you consistently do not get those three things done, then it’s time for some serious conversation with yourself.”


She recommends that in order to be truly productive, we should return to (if we ever were there) “single-tasking” as a way to remove ourselves from multitasking. (Back to that WIP idea, here we go.) By limiting the day’s prioritized tasks to three, we are more likely to stay on task and not allow distractions to sway us off course. The end result? Results. The ability to say, “I did X,Y, and Z today” instead of lamenting that A, B, and C are still on our task lists.

The takeaways? I think there are a few. Learning to manage time productively is more than just good time-management. To be truly productive, we have to show that things were completed. An author talks very little about what she is writing now, but is super-proud of what was just published. The complete work is the thing.

So in order to do that – Limit the number of tasks we take on.

Prioritize the tasks we agree to

Agree only after considering “no” as a viable option

Remember that there is no prize for being busy, but there are                                                          rewards for work  completed.

So now, I suppose that in order to cross one item off my three-item list, I should now hit the “publish” button and send this one in. Tomorrow I’m going to be really busy…No, but I AM going to be very productive!




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