The Difference Between Busy and Productive

It’s hard to make it through the workday without hearing the word busy. People talk about how they are too busy to take on extra tasks or lose track of the day because of how full it is. However, being busy doesn’t always mean being productive.

The Difference Between Busy and Productive

In fact, it’s possible to be busy throughout the entire day without ever getting much done. It’s time to rethink how you approach your task list. Here’s the difference between busy and productive and how to prioritize productivity instead.

What is the difference between busy and productive?

Busy refers to having a lot of tasks to complete, meetings to attend, and things to do throughout the day. A busy day is packed with actions and activities from start to finish. Productivity, on the other hand, involves mindfully completing valuable tasks. It means moving projects forward and accomplishing your goals.

Just because you are busy doesn’t mean you are productive. You might start your day with a meeting that could have been an email, then spend 15 minutes unclogging the printer, and work an hour on reports that few people look at for more than a few seconds. During this time, you are busy, but you aren’t actually doing anything of value.

Focus on productivity

Focusing on productivity means reducing and eliminating busy tasks. It involves creating space where you can focus on the most important items on your plate. Here are a few steps you can take to get less busy and focus instead of being productive.

Start by auditing your time

The first step to stop being busy is to look at where your time goes throughout the day. Consider what you want to accomplish versus what you get done. Evaluate whether you comfortably hit your deadlines or if you frequently have to work late because of daytime distractions.

Here are a few common issues that keep you busy—but not productive:

  • Meetings that last too long in any given week
  • Meetings where your attendance isn’t essential or even valuable
  • Office distractions like casual conversations with coworkers
  • Email messages that pull you away from meaningful work
  • Work chat groups that ping throughout the day
  • Mindlessly scrolling on social media
  • Checking your inbox whenever a new email comes in—rather than just once per hour, for example

You might also have coworkers who lean into weaponized incompetence. They pretend to be too inept to do something (or claim that you’re so much better at doing it than them) so the task gets put on your plate instead. This can make you busy as you pick up the slack of others instead of focusing on your own productivity.

After you complete your time audit, identify and eliminate sources of waste. Even if you only free up an hour or two each day, you can immediately become less busy and reinvest the time in productivity.

Practice daily goal-setting

The next step to bring productive (not just busy) is to start setting intentions each day. Approach your workday with goals of what you need to get done and which tasks are the most important to you. Focusing on these actions will prevent you from getting derailed by distractions and tasks from your peers.

Some experts recommend the 1-3-5 rule for productivity. Each day, you will set one big thing you want to accomplish, three medium things to complete, and five small tasks. You can then adjust your day to make sure you create space to get this work done.

Depending on the nature of your work, you might develop other healthy habits for goal-setting. However, each end goal is the same. You want to prioritize your most important work and create a barrier between these productive accomplishments and busy tasks.

Create productivity time blocks

Finally, you can create time blocks that allow you to work on meaningful projects that maximize your productivity. These are distraction-free zones that help you hit your 1-3-5 goals or focus on the most relevant work for your job. Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Ban meetings before 10 am so you start your day by completing your most important tasks.
  • Create unavailability hours in your calendar where you turn off your chat and email messages. These are periods for deep work.
  • If your workplace has a flexible schedule, arrive before your coworkers for a distraction-free office. Alternatively, clock in later and work later.
  • Know when you’re most productive. Some people are early birds while others thrive in the afternoon. Set your meaningful work hours during these peak periods.

If distractions persist, you may need to speak with your manager about your goal-setting and productivity. Your boss and your coworkers need to respect your time and your workload. Other people within your company might also benefit from these time management practices as well.

Breaking busywork habits takes time

You won’t be able to eliminate busy tasks throughout your day. It’s natural to socialize with coworkers and help your peers when they get stuck on projects. The goal of switching from busy to productive isn’t to eliminate interactions with others or to stop supporting your peers. Instead, this process should help you better achieve your goals and take control of your time.

Helping others can become less stressful when you know that you already achieved your goals for the day. Don’t let busy work control you. Take steps to better manage your schedule and tasks so you get meaningful work done each day. This will make you more productive—and happier!

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