People love to say they are busy.

Ask your colleagues how they are doing today and see how many come back with an answer like:

  • “Yeah, I’m good – busy!”
  • “I’m fine but super stretched.”
  • “I’ve got a million things on.”

Now, there is probably a reason behind these answers, namely that people want to look valuable and important – “I don’t know what my company would do without me.”

(Newsflash: they’d probably be fine.)

But is our obsession with trying to complete a crazy ‘to do’ list actually making us all far less productive?

Probably – and we’ll come to why.

But first, what’s the difference between busy and productive?

Busy vs productive: the definitions

What does ‘busy’ actually mean?

The dictionary definition of busy
Source: Google search

And what does productive mean?

The dictionary definition of productive

The biggest difference is that busy is defined as having a lot to do, or ‘keep oneself occupied’, whereas productive is about significant achievements or results.

That seems clear.

It means that you can be busy all day, but still fail to achieve results. You can be busy (i.e. occupied) but not productive.

Perhaps you’re spending your time on the wrong things. Perhaps you’re not prioritising your workload properly.

Why do people try and be ‘busy’?

People often feel as though being seen as busy makes them look important.

Others might enjoy looking busy to avoid being assigned more work.

In some cases, people just want to have enough time to finish their tasks before the end of the day so that they can go home and relax, but they don’t want anyone to know that they’re actually ahead of schedule.

A lot also depends on the culture of their workplace. In some environments, being busy is seen as a status symbol to make people feel more valued. This culture of busyness is slowly being eroded by other factors, such as closer scrutiny on:

  • Employee mental health.
  • Safe and fair working practices.
  • Employees needing a bigger sense of purpose.

Why being productive takes self belief.

In contrary to being busy, people who are productive generally do it for themselves.

Being ‘busy’ is a look to impress others, while a productive person might finish their workload in half the time.

A productive person doesn’t worry about being finished too early and being perceived as not doing anything.

They’re also less likely to be concerned about appearances because ‘productiveness’ fills people with a sense of achievement that’s felt internally.

In some ways, productive people are almost the opposite of busy. Productive people:

  • Don’t overfill a to-do list
  • Take on so many tasks they feel overwhelmed
  • Care less about the perceptions of others, and more about an internal sense of achievement.
  • Do have an overall goal or vision

How to be productive over busy

CEOs and those in leadership positions have generally mastered the art of being productive. That’s how they got there – either by building their own business, or by climbing through the ranks.

Leaders can nearly always spot the differences between busy and productive people, and tend to hire those who exhibit that sense of self-leadership.

Productive people are self-motivated and confident.

To become more productive, you can:

1: Make lists!

One simple way to get started is with making lists.  Doing this has helps immensely in feeling productive.  There’s a feel-good factor to seeing all the things you’ve accomplished every night!   

All it takes is a few minutes of your time in the beginning, but you’ll save yourself some stressing when you get to the end of the day or week. Keep to five or six items so your tasks are achievable.

2: Keep track of productive moments throughout your day

Figuring out when your productive times are is another helpful move towards feeling productive. Some people are most productive in the morning before they start work, while others find that they do their best work late at night once everyone else has gone to bed! Generally, tracking your personal performance is a great habit to get into, as it will have wide-ranging, knock-on effects in other areas of your life.  

3: Make sure to take productive breaks

Everyone’s productive moments will be different, so it’s important to take productive breaks based on what you need.  For some people, productive breaks might involve clearing out your inbox or catching up with friends; for others, productive breaks could include working through their lunch hour!            

4: Keep track of unproductive minutes

Figuring out where your productive time is going can tell you something about how you’re currently spending your day (and night). Checking social media or watching an extra long episode of your favourite series can easily sneak up on us and before we know it the afternoon has disappeared!  

Try keeping a record of all tasks during the week and see if there are any patterns in when you get your most productive work done.  That way, you can schedule important tasks for those productive hours and try to minimise time spent on distractions.

Good luck!

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