Are You Keeping Busy or Being Productive? | by Vinita | May, 2022

Productivity is not based on the number of hours you put in; it’s the time spent creating value

Credit: Author

How do you feel at the end of each day?

Wish you had more time or happy that you put the time available to good use.

Exhausted from doing too many things or energized from doing a few things well.

Lost without clarity on the value you created or a sense of accomplishment from knowing it fully well.

Irritated and frustrated from lack of control over your schedule or calm and composed from a sense of control over your life.

Business creates an illusion of productivity. Being caught inside the ‘busy trap’ makes it harder for you to see that productivity is not based on the number of hours you put in; it’s the time spent creating value.

Business is also addictive. It saves you from the discomfort that comes from doing hard things — things that will move you forward but require you to step outside your comfort zone. Being busy is then the perfect excuse to avoid doing the work you fear or find particularly difficult to do.

Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist and researcher in the field of neuroplasticity and its application to obsessive-compulsive disorder says:

“What you do now and how you focus your attention influences your brain and how it is wired. Whenever you repeatedly avoid some kind of overtly painful sensation, your brain learns that these actions are a priority and generates thoughts, impulses, urges, and desires to make sure you keep doing them again and again.

It does not care that the action ultimately is bad for you… This means that if you repeat the same act over and over — regardless of whether that action has a positive or negative impact on you — you make the brain circuits associated with that act stronger and more powerful.”

Once you accept busyness as a way of life, your unconscious part of the brain takes over. It learns your behaviors and attitudes and how you respond to difficult situations at work. Working long hours, accepting every meeting invite, and never saying no longer the decisions you make consciously. Your brain on autopilot makes these decisions for you.

It’s similar to driving back home from work in the evening with no memory of how they got there. While your conscious mind was hard at work planning other important events in your life, your unconscious mind got you home safely.

Running on autopilot with no time to pause and think not only leads to poor decisions, but also has a very real impact on your mental health and personal well-being. Consciously practicing behaviors that remove the busy element and replace it with constructive choices makes life more fun and more productive.

Here are the four practices to be more productive without keeping busy.

Get your priorities right

When you don’t know what you want or don’t have clearly defined priorities, instead of focused effort, your attention gets too stretched out. Doing too many things may keep you busy, but when those activities are not aligned with your goals, they neither lead to satisfaction nor growth.

In the short term, busyness can take away the pain of not having a clear purpose. In the long term though, this mindless way of going through life hurts your mental health and personal well-being. You may think it’s too much work that’s impacting your health and peace of mind without realizing that the lack of clearly defined priorities is the cause.

Shifting from busyness to productivity requires intentionality as opposed to going with the flow and dealing with things as they arise. Knowing your priorities gives you the direction and decision-making power to know when to say yes and when to say no.

Begin with an end in mind. To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” — Stephen R. Covey

He adds, “How different our lives are when we really know what is deeply important to us, and, keeping that picture in mind, we manage ourselves each day to be and to do what really matters most. If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Busyness is living a life without an end in mind. Being productive requires being purposeful. Developing an awareness of your goals and where you’re headed will make it easy to stop being busy and start being productive.

Pre-block time

All good intentions die when you’re running on autopilot. Moving from one problem to the next, one meeting to another, one crisis to the next leaves no time for important priorities.

According to Parkinson’s law, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. When you’re not purposeful with your time, you’re bound to fill it with insignificant activities that leave you exhausted at the end of each day (hence busy) without adding value.

Being productive requires giving life to your intentions. You need to take action. A great strategy to do this is to create implementation intentions.

Peter Gollwitzer, psychologist and researcher on how goals and plans affect cognition, emotion, and behavior, describes implementation intentions as making a plan beforehand about when and where you intend to take action.

In other words, when situation x arises, I will perform response y. Research shows that by simply writing down a plan that specifies exactly when and where you intend to engage in taking action, you are more likely to follow through.

Implementation intention = I will [DO ACTION] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

For example:

  • I will work on a new product strategy from 9 am — 11 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in a conference room.
  • I will code a new feature from 11 am — 2 pm Monday to Friday at my desk.
  • I will prepare the tech presentation from 3 pm — 6 pm on Monday and Tuesday in the cafeteria.

Once you have implementation intentions identified, pre-block time on your calendar. Pre-blocking time on the calendar for important activities takes away the need to make a decision on the fly — which in most cases leads to poor choices — and instead attend to those activities when the time arises.

“Make Time is a framework for choosing what you want to focus on, building the energy to do it, and breaking the default cycle so that you can start being more intentional about the way you live your life. Even if you don’t cosmpletely control your own schedule — and few of us do — you absolutely can control your attention.” — Jake Knapp

Optimize time spent in meetings

If your calendar is packed with back-to-back meetings, you’re bound to be busy. Your role may actually demand you to attend a lot of meetings, but look carefully, are all those meetings really worth your time?

Packed calendars make you feel important; they make you feel valued. You may say to yourself, “I am so busy. I have important things to say and do. I must be adding value.”

But the 80/20 rule (also called Pareto Principle) applies here — only 20% of your meetings account for 80% of your results. Richard Koch explains the 80/20 principle this way —

“The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards. Taken literally, this means that, for example, 80 percent of what you achieve in your job comes from 20 percent of the time spent. Thus for all practical purposes, four-fifths of the effort — a dominant part of it — is largely irrelevant. This is contrary to what people normally expect.”

Imagine how productive you would be if you could cut down on that insignificant 80% and double down your efforts on that 20% that actually adds value.

Don’t attend a meeting just because others invite you to it, and don’t schedule a meeting for things that can be discussed and solved over an email, chat, or phone call.

Fewer meetings are not only less taxing on your schedule, but they also give you the mental space needed to do quality work. When you’re working all the time with no space in between, your exhausted mind can’t process new information; you can’t make good decisions.

To stop being busy and start being productive, take a look at your calendar and follow these steps:

  1. Delegate: Identify which meetings are worth attending. Are these meetings only you can do? Which meetings can you delegate? Who else can take your place?
  2. Declutter: Which meetings are not even required? Strike them off.
  3. Reduce: Which of your meetings go beyond 30 minutes? Why do they need so much time? Do you have weekly or biweekly meetings whose frequency can be reduced?
  4. Attend: Highlight the ones that are absolutely important and only you can attend.

Doing this activity the first few times may be daunting. Don’t give up. Repeated over days, weeks, and months, you’ll naturally get good at it. It will also save you a ton of time down the line.

Do a reality check

Finally, to improve, you need to measure how you’re doing.

Your perception of yourself may not be reality. Identifying your areas of improvement requires a lot of work. Pointing out your own flaws isn’t always easy. Instead of relying on your gut feeling, use the data to measure your effectiveness.

A great strategy to do this is to color-code your calendar. Divide how you spend your time into different buckets using these colors (you can use different colors as well):

  1. Green: All tasks that are important, but not urgent. Time spent working on tasks aligned with your long-term goals.
  2. Orange: All tasks that are important and urgent. Time spent in crisis management.
  3. Yellow: All tasks that are not important, but urgent. Time spent acting on priorities defined by others or executing others’ expectations.
  4. Red: All tasks that are neither important nor urgent. Time spent doing work that shouldn’t be done at all.

By color-coding how you spend your time, you can take one look at the calendar and identify where most of your time is spent — in doing work that moves you forward or just keeps you busy.

Busyness becomes a way of life unless you pay attention. By following these four practices — defining your priorities, pre-blocking time, optimizing time spent in meetings, and doing a reality check — your work can be meaningful and impactful without taking a toll on your mental health and personal well-being.

  1. Busyness creates an illusion of productivity which sucks into your time and energy without moving you forward or adding value.
  2. When you don’t know what you want or don’t have clearly defined priorities, your effort is stretched out in too many directions. Being spread too thin in too many places leaves you exhausted without creating value.
  3. Being productive requires intentionality. It requires purposefully making time for work that’s useful and cutting down on inconsequential activities. To do this, set implementation intentions and pre-block time on your calendar.
  4. Optimize your time spent in meetings by dividing them into four buckets — delegate, declutter, reduce, and attend.
  5. Color-code your calendar by type of work (urgent and important) and use that to match perception to reality. Measuring how you’re doing is the only way to make corrections and improve.

Follow me on Twitter for more stories.

Leave a Comment