How to Stop Being Busy and Become Productive For Real

by Amy Steinberg Published Apr 10, 2018 Last updated Apr 10, 2018

There are many definitions of the word “busy,” but the one that seems to resonate in today’s world is “doing enough things during one’s day that it is hard to imagine fitting anything else in.” Rather than saying “fine,” or “I’m doing well,” when asked about one’s life, it has become customary to respond with “I’m so busy!”

In the more literal sense, we are all busy doing something all of the time. We try our best to find some time for leisure or even just breaks from our work. Measuring our value, success, or other positive traits based on how many physical hours we are engaged in activities is unproductive and can be a very dangerous metric.

Being busy is only a beneficial element for as long as we are engaged in productive tasks. The truth is that doing productive tasks for too many hours in a row can jeopardize our health, threaten our quality of work, and even cause burnout. As Thomas Edison said:

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends, there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

Rather than creating corporate cultures of “looking and acting busy,” focus your own energies and the energies of those around you toward productivity. Here are some strategies and best practices.

Budget realistic blocks of time for tasks.

By using your schedule to create chunked hours and half-hours for different tasks, you eliminate the need to spend precious minutes thinking about what to do next. A few minutes of planning puts you in the zone for the whole day, so you can truly take breaks between tasks rather than just worrying about what is best to do next.

Praise yourself and those around you who accomplish quality work, not those who work late.

Quality work can be judged by superiors, customers, or even just raw results in a database: regardless, praise those whose work per hour is excellent, rather than the person who puts in hours until midnight to get the big numbers. Those people are more likely to be a short-term gain and a long-term loss, so you want to emphasize, as often as possible, that the amount you get done in an hour matters more than the total work accomplished.

Use the Pomodoro Method to cut distractions.

The Pomodoro method is a simple way to avoid being distracted while working, which is a main source of low productivity even among extremely busy people. To follow this method, set an alarm for 25 minutes away and tell yourself one or two small things that must be accomplished before the alarm sounds. During that time, block all distracting websites and focus entirely on the tasks. At the 25 minute mark, you get a 5-minute break. Then, assign yourself new mini-tasks and get back to work. You’ll be stunned at how much you accomplish in 3 hours of Pomodoro method.

Isolate repeated tasks, like to-do-lists and email, and do them systematically.

Figure out when is the least interrupted time of your week and load it up with tasks that need to be done quickly and with little thinking, like email or writing new to-do lists. Conversely, some people know that after lunch is their most sluggish time, so they save all easy, repetitive tasks to do right after lunch.

Question the need for multiple long meetings.

Meetings have value for establishing rapport, brainstorming, and delegating, but they are not perfect for every communication need. Help your teams focus on having meetings at very strategic moments when everyone in the room is valued, and reduce all other meetings to quick check-ins, email updates, and one-on-one phone calls.

Be the person who takes time off on the weekends or evenings to engage in a healthy lifestyle.

In 2010 a study was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology that tracked the moods of 74 adults, ages 18 to 62, who worked at least 30 hours per week. Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester says, “Our findings highlight just how important free time is to an individual’s well-being. Far from frivolous, the relativity unfettered time on weekends provides critical opportunities for bonding with others, exploring interests and relaxing – basic psychological needs that people should be careful not to crowd out with overwork.”

Note which things in your schedule could be done faster and remove the roadblocks to that speed.

Efficiency grows over time and taking a few minutes to consider which items in your schedule are currently slower than necessary pays serious dividends. If you discover that moving to a different part of the office when you really cannot afford to be interrupted, for instance, will cut down on how long a particular task takes, that might be the time to slip out to a vacant conference room!

Consider which tasks in your work can be automated.

Spend a few minutes of setting up filters on email so you aren’t constantly re-reading, moving, and deleting unnecessary emails. What if you could use an online scheduler rather than taking phone reservations? You may reduce how much time you spend on the phone without cutting out the functionality of being able to schedule appointments. Some elements don’t naturally fit with automation, but for anything that does, your productivity boost will be great.