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Are You Busy or Productive? (And Why the Distinction Could Cost Your Business Thousands of Dollars)

Productivity is about working smarter. Busyness is about working harder. One will burn you out and the other will turn a profit. Here's how to distinguish and master the two.

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Blake Reichenbach

Blake Reichenbach

He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about myself throughout my time as a blogger and entrepreneur is that I am great at being busy… but not always great at being productive.

From the very beginning, I’ve made it a point to bootstrap everything. When I launched this website back in ye olden days of 2017 under the name BlakeWrites, I wrote and edited most of the content we published. What I didn’t write, I paid for (out of the $35,000 salary I had at the time, which was a big ouch). I’ve built nearly every page of my website from scratch, custom coding templates, assets, CSS files, and Javascript by hand. Plus, I’ve done (and, until recently, continue to do) all of the editorial calendar planning, content strategy, marketing, monetizing, and so on.

My to-do list stays a mile long. As is the nature of business, it could very easily stay a mile long, too. No matter how much work I do, I’m never going to run out of tasks with everything that can be done. Running a blog and making it profitable is an ongoing, infinitely complex beast. As much as I enjoy all of the nuances of technical SEO and content strategy, it’s incredibly easy to get on a merry-go-round of tinkering, adjusting, tweaking, and experimenting.

All without actually making a profit.

On the surface, it may sound like if I’m doing all of these things, then surely I’m working toward something great, right? Wrong!

All of these tasks and responsibilities are things that I could do, and that many folks in similar positions do, but ultimately, these are just duties that make me busy. I spend my time ricocheting from task to task, struggling to stay afloat. Every time I look at the list of things that I need to do, I recognize that there is even more waiting for me. Even more destructive, I’ll often start working on one project, think of another project, and then end up crossing eighteen degrees of separation from my original task. I may start a dozen different tasks, but complete none of them.

Luckily, knowing these things about myself means that I can identify, address, and correct these behaviors. I talk about this topic quite a bit in my book, Big Picture Living: A Guide to Finding Fulfillment (Even When Everything Sucks), so be sure to check that out if you’re interested.

This cycle is incredibly stressful. It feeds into burnout, and it makes work feel unrewarding. It’s also incredibly common– I’ve never been in a workplace where this wasn’t the case.

In United Statesian culture, multi-tasking and working long hours in the office are seen as badges of honor. We love to lament our misfortune over drinks, playing at one-upping each other to see who works the most. There’s something to be said about the ripple effects of post-Capitalist society and the Protestant Work Ethic, but since this isn’t a sociology course, I’ll save that for another day.

Instead, I’ll be a bit more succinct. I’m one of many. Most of us are great at being busy but struggle with meaningful productivity. So, let’s take a look at the differences between the two and some of the strategies you can implement to spend less time being busy and more time being productive.

The Differences Between Being Busy and Being Productive

The working style I previously described– bouncing from task to task, leaving loose ends and building stress as you go– is the prototype of being busy. Being busy is a matter of expending energy with or without much return. If you find yourself saying things like “I’m drowning in things to do” or “I can’t seem to get caught up,” there’s a good chance that you’re busy. Behaviorally, busyness is going to be hand-in-hand with things like multitasking, checking your phone, checking social media, or daydreaming.

Productivity, on the other hand, involves doing more by trying to do less. Productivity is rooted in focus and stringent prioritization. Rather than looking at the list of things that you could do and bouncing around between tasks, productivity requires that you evaluate what tasks are going to be the highest impact and which are best suited to your unique skills and interests.

In his book, Change Maker: Turn Your Passion for Health and Fitness into a Powerful Purpose and a Wildly Successful Career, John Berardi describes the early days of Precision Nutrition. Now, Precision Nutrition is one of the most well-known, profitable businesses in the fitness and wellness industry. It wasn’t always that way, though. As Berardi describes in his book, early on, the small team at Precision didn’t try to do everything. They focused very specifically on a few tasks each week, intentionally turning down opportunities and possibilities so that they could focus on the one thing they had planned for that week. Whether it was creating content, assembling ad campaigns, or interviewing customers, they kept their focus on one task at a time. Berardi even described a situation in which he met with Precision Nutrition’s accountant, who had made an offhand comment about the state of disarray of their books; keeping their books tidy wasn’t the priority of the week, so it didn’t happen. And it paid off for them. As they’ve grown, they’ve surpassed a company value of approximately $200 million; they make enough money that they can pay some great accountants to sort out their messy books.

If you’re interested in gardening (or garden-themed parables, I suppose), perhaps a good way to think of busyness and productivity is in planting seeds. Suppose you were to go out in your back yard with a fistful of flower seeds. You toss them around the yard haphazardly, working up a sweat and hoping for the best.

You look over your fence and see that your neighbor is planting flowers too. Rather than scattering seed sporadically, she has drawn up a plan for where she wants each plant to go. She then gathers the supplies she’ll need and starts planting one plant at a time. She digs the first hole to the appropriate depth, places the bulbs, and fills in the hole with compost and soil. She then waters the top soil and places a garden marker in front of the newly filled hole.

In the time it took you to scatter seeds across your entire yard, she’s only covered about six square feet. You’re chuffed with yourself for having covered ten times as much ground as your neighbor.

Over the coming weeks, you start to see some seedlings sprouting in your yard, but they’re sporadic at best. Since they’re in shallow soil, they’re easily killed by being stepped on, prone to being dug up by pests, or withering in the sunlight. Your neighbor, however, has a small but thriving garden. Her flowers are coming up strong and beautiful, and her vegetables are prolific, producing peppers and beans faster than she can pick them.

Being busy is like spreading seeds over a wide area in a short amount of time. It may cover a lot of ground, but nothing is done with very much intention or focus, and the payoff is scarce.

Productivity is like the gardener who took the time to prepare and tend to her efforts. She intentionally covered a smaller area, but what she did cover paid off tenfold.

Four Strategies for Maximizing Your Productivity

When you focus on being productive instead of busy, you’re going to be more satisfied with the work you’re doing, and you’ll see a higher return on investment. Being productive will make you more profitable and will help you establish yourself as an authority in a given area. As great as that sounds, most of us spend more time being busy than being productive because productivity is hard. Our culture essentially hardwires us to value busyness over productivity, making a productive mindset seem counterintuitive.

Despite this, there are a handful of effective ways to get better at being productive and to use that to create a healthier mindset when it comes to working. Here is what I would recommend based on what has worked well for me:

  1. Avoid Multitasking. I’m coming out swinging. This is probably the hardest strategy on the list because most of us have never learned how to avoid multitasking. When I’m at work, I usually have several tabs and windows open because it’s a part of my company’s culture to be responsive and available via email and Slack and have meetings sporadically throughout the day and juggle conflicting responsibilities. That’s a standard arrangement. To limit your likelihood of multitasking, consider blocking all push notifications on your computer, working with your windows maximized so that you can’t see other programs or toolbars, and communicating clearly with your coworkers as to what you will be working on at specific times throughout the day.
  2. Take time to make a plan. As discussed, one of busyness’ biggest appeals is that there will always be more to do. If you’re not intentionally and unapologetically prioritized, you’re going to be more likely to juggle tasks and context switch throughout your day. At the start of your week, take some time to make an inventory of things you could do and then narrow that list down to a single item. Rather than envisioning it as a to-do list, think of it as a sports tournament bracket. I’m in Kentucky, so March Madness is a part of my heritage; even though I don’t uphold my people’s traditions, I know how brackets work. Do that with your priorities. Assess what will have the most significant impact and what is best suited to your unique skills, abilities, and interests. Everything else can either be delegated or can wait.
  3. Keep a Time Journal. When you find that you struggle with staying busy, a good way to gauge the cause of your busyness is to keep a time journal. There are apps and software platforms out there that can automate this, but I prefer a spreadsheet. As you go throughout your day, make a note of how you’re spending your time. Account for everything you do. If you pause from 9:30 AM to 9:45 AM to pick your nose while staring out the window, write that down. Whatever you do with your time, note the action and the amount of time spent doing that action. As you do this, you’ll start to notice trends in how you’re spending your time. This will help to illustrate where you’re busy rather than productive. Gaining these insights, you’re then in a better position to take a hacksaw to your routine and cut out the fat.
  4. Seek to create a system of accountability. Often, as you talk about your problems or situations with others, you’ll come across the solution you’ve been missing on your own. Having a coach or accountability partner is a fantastic way to assess where your biggest challenges lie when it comes to productivity. If you want to be more productive at work so that you can leave early and devote more time to competitive knitting, for example, don’t just keep tossing your dreams by the wayside when things get tough. Talk through your challenges with someone who can adequately question your assumptions, reframe your roadblocks, and create an action plan to help you reach your goals.

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