Are You Busy or Productive? 5 Questions That Will Help You Allocate Your Time / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Staying busy and being productive are not the same thing. Learn why, and how to make the most of your time.

Think of your busiest coworker. They’re probably always in a hurry: coffee in one hand, phone in the other, so many thoughts whirling through their mind that they forget to greet you as they rush off to their next task.

Being busy isn’t easy, but you figure it must pay off for them in productivity, right? Not necessarily.

In my experience, there are some big differences between being busy and being productive.

Here are five questions that will help you know if you’re busy or productive, and help you better allocate your time.

1. Properly prioritize

Busy people tend to have a lot of priorities. They keep busy with loads of day-to-day tasks but don’t focus enough energy on the tasks that help them or their business reach long-term goals.

Think of it in terms of the Pareto Principle, the idea that 20 percent of your efforts are responsible for 80 percent of your desired results.

Figure out which priorities make up that 20 percent for you, and you’ll have a lot less work to do to reach your goals.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair, uses a speech to help encourage his employees to have the right priorities:

"I keep things focused. The speech I give every day is: 'This is what we do. Is what we are doing consistent with that, and can it change the world?'"

Busy people make the mistake of thinking the more work they do, the better the results.

Productive people are good at taking a step back from the minutiae details of their job and examining the big picture; they see what truly matters. It's then they can make their workflow planning more productive.

2. Stay on task

Any person working in a demanding position can tell you that multitasking makes you feel like you’re being super productive. But it turns out humans are actually pretty lousy multitaskers.

Research from the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when our work is interrupted by distractions like text messages and emails. 

When you multitask, you’re not actually doing two things at once. You’re switching back and forth between two tasks, both of which require your attention. This increases stress and decreases productivity.

That’s why productive people take the time to close down their email clients, turn down the radio, and shut the office door when they want to get something done. Focusing on one task at a time makes you more efficient, more intelligent, and healthier. 

3. Quick vs efficient

You probably remember a time in college when you had to write an essay, and you wanted to get it done so soon that you didn’t even read the instructions. It’s a good example of quickly, and in this use case, it usually results in a bad grade.

Efficient workers take the time to evaluate the task in front of them and identify the best approach before they start. It takes a little extra time, but the result is usually significantly better than if they rushed through it.

Efficient people also see the value in taking time for themselves when they need it.

It turns out knowing when you need a break is good for productivity as well: research has shown taking breaks improves productivity. Scientists recommended you work for 52 minutes and take a break for 17 minutes.

Take a little extra time to do the task right, and take breaks to help you focus, and you’ll decrease the chances that your boss will ask you to do it again.

Productive people focus on doing the task well, instead of doing it fast.

4. To-do list

Busy people love to-do lists. I know some even put things like “cook breakfast” on their to-do lists just so they can tick it off. 
Ticking things off your to-do list can feel good because it shows you accomplished something. But is it really the most productive way to do things? No.

Teresa Amabile, director of research at Harvard, told Inc. that to-do lists aren’t optimal for the kind of work done by leaders.

"The really important things that don't generally have a specific deadline may be what you should be spending most of your time on," she said.

You don’t have to throw your to-do list out, but make sure it doesn’t dictate your day. Figure out which tasks are actually the most important, and focus on those. 

5. Determining when to say yes and no

Being opportunistic in the business world is valuable, especially if you’re an entrepreneur. But say yes to everything and you’ll be that person who always has a loaded plate.

Business Etiquette Expert Jacqueline Whitmore says “no” is the most important word you can use. 

“When you say yes to every opportunity, your actions become reactive and it can bleed into other areas of your business," she said. "Reactive entrepreneurs often become slaves to the demands of clients, employees, investors, and partners.”

Productive people say yes strategically, adding on extra tasks and projects when they know they have more free time, or when they know it could really help meet their goals.

Take the time to learn more about the task before you blurt out “yes,” and you can avoid neglecting other projects that might be more important.

So what’s the verdict – are you busy, or productive? Let me know in the comments:


Photo credit: Pixbay

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