busy or productive

“How are you?” “Oh, busy”

If someone asks you how you’re doing, what’s the first word that pops into your mind?

I’m going to bet that it’s, “Busy.”

Often nowadays, that’s what I hear. Not “fine.” Not “great!” Not even, “okay.” Busy is by far the top response – and I know this isn’t some new and unusual aberration for me as an executive coach.

A few years ago, the John Hopkins Health Review discussed “the epidemic of overscheduling” around the globe in an article memorably titled, “The Cult of Busy” (and nothing’s changed it seems!).

Not long after, the venerable periodical The Atlantic published a piece about how busyness has become the status symbol of our time – in North America in particular. It’s not just a popular buzzword; being busy has become synonymous with being important and successful. As the article points out, there was a time that having ample time for recreation and leisure was the goal! Those who were admired for their success and their wealth were those who didn’t have to be busy.

So it’s not surprising that Psychology Today has copious articles about combating the culture of being busy (with advice about how to stop being busy or being addicted to being busy or the need to be busy). It seems on some level there is acknowledgement that being busy isn’t healthy.

And yet, this idea of being busy permeates our culture and it’s taken over not just work life but personal lives, too.

It’s time for us as leaders to shift ourselves from BUSY to PRODUCTIVE.

Not sure what I mean?

You can be busy all day but still not accomplish your goals. For instance, you could run around to endless meetings and work on five different projects and be busy, really busy, but not achieve anything truly important.

Busy can be an outcome of being distracted. For example, you could clean your inbox all day and talk with a few team members, but not get to your goals. And if you don’t have goals, here’s a reminder why setting goals is important.

Busy can be getting a lot of “stuff” crossed off your to-do list but not making any progress toward the most important thing on your list. Some folks get so used to living in a constant state of urgency that they lose sight of what’s urgent versus what’s important. Often we are busy when we’re dealing with urgent issues but we’re productive when we’re dealing with important issues.

In our blog about living in a constant state of urgency, we highlight the Eisenhower matrix as a tool that helps folks determine what is urgent versus what’s important. By assigning tasks to one of four quadrants, you can figure out what’s urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not urgent and not important (time wasters!). The goal is to spend the majority of your time working on what is important and not urgent (catching important things before they’re urgent – and thus focusing on the big goals!).

Productive might not feel like a LOT has been accomplished but will feel like IMPORTANT progress has been made (and that’s a shift for many of us – to feel good about progress on something significant rather than striking several little things off a long but perhaps less important list).

NOTE: If you like a to-do list and find joy comes from striking things off that list – one big way to shift from busy to productive is to break up the big goals into tasks THAT GET YOU THERE and put those tasks on the list.

Busy can be directly linked to perfectionism. It can be challenging to be productive (even though we’re still busy) if we are striving for perfection – thinking there is only one right way to do something and spending all day researching it, figuring out all the details.

A productive person tends to think, “What do I need to do to get this done?” whereas busy people often think, “What do I need to do to get this just right?”

So, what can we do to move away from being busy to being productive?

1.     Think bigger, then think smaller. Wait, what?

Decide on 1, 2 or 3 big goals – things that when you accomplish them will set you apart, or they will bring you a next step of success, or they will bring you great joy, etcetera.
Focus your to-do list on the tasks that need to happen to achieve goal 1, then the tasks to achieve goal 2, and so on.

2.     Focus on ONE THING AT A TIME. Busy people are multi-taskers. Productive people are focused on one thing at a time.
Now then, in real life you can’t always be focused just on your one thing. I get that. But the other two things productive people are good at are (1) blocking their time and (2) taking breaks.

3.     Blocking your time and taking breaks means setting manageable chunks of time to get things done, with a break after, constantly. So you might set 50 minutes to work on Task X which gets you one step closer to goal 1. Then you might take a 10-minute break and spend 50 minutes focused on Task Z which gets you one step closer to goal 2. Then back to Task X, etcetera. Now, it might not be 50 minutes and 10 minutes for you. Maybe it’s 20 minutes and 5 minutes.

It might mean trying to pay attention for a few days to how long you can focus on one task before needing a break (ie., before wandering off, before opening Facebook, before staring off into space).

You may find that time is different for different tasks.  Maybe you love math and organizing and so you can go HOURS working on a spreadsheet, but get distracted after 15 minutes of writing a report. Or, maybe you’re the opposite and writing in long stretches is easy for you but numbers are easy to ditch.

Blocking time might mean that instead of setting aside an hour to work on that spreadsheet, you set up 3 blocks of 15 minutes, each followed by a five-minute break.  So that’s an hour in your schedule but you don’t block it as an hour; you block it as 15 – 5 – 15 – 5 – 15 – 5. And you stick to that schedule.

4.     Blocking time for things means also controlling your calendar. I personally have probably the worst thing in the world for keeping me focused – a calendar that my clients can schedule themselves into directly. So, to control my calendar, I make sure to block my calendar ahead of time for things I have to focus on and accomplish.

5.     A key component for successfully moving from busy to productive is eliminating distractions. When an interruption could derail your focus (the person at your office door, the phone, emails coming in, your own boredom or distraction) – you ignore that distraction till break time (or, if it’s that person at your door looking to chat – maybe you tell them that they’ll have your attention in X minutes or at X o’clock when you break from the task you’re working on rather than ignore them!). We have discussed all sorts of ways to stay focused in an office of distractions – it is possible!

6.  Know your goals and define your wins. Some of us need external motivation to get us going or keep us going. Delivering Goal 1 might be a huge goal but it’s still in the distant future. We still have many tasks to complete and it seems daunting to get there. Setting smaller wins along the way might help  – especially if you have any sort of attention deficit. So, perhaps you remind yourself you can grab some chocolate almonds, as soon as you finish this task – and not before. Or, you remind yourself how good it’s going to feel to go to see a movie tonight and not think about work  – but you know that will only happen if you push through and finish Task X before you leave for the evening.

Coach’s Questions

How often are you busy rather than productive? What are some things you could do to be more productive? How can you encourage your team members to be productive?