Stop Being Busy: Three Distinctions Between The Busy And Productive

forces of habit article

Stop Being Busy: Three Distinctions Between The Busy And Productive

“Busy is a decision.”

– Debbie Millman

James is a college student who prides himself on his busy schedule. From the moment he wakes up in the morning, to the moment his head hits the pillow, James is constantly working. Lecture, clubs, his job, or homework, James is in a constant state of doing.

Jessica—also a college student—sleeps in on the weekends and yet, strangely enough, attends lecture, clubs, her job, and does her homework all the while enjoying her hobbies like yoga and painting.

But listen to how they describe themselves:

James: I am stressed the fuck out, I never have time to myself, but everyone expects me to perform so how could I not be busy?

Jessica: Sure I have things to do, but I am pretty relaxed on most days. I do what I need to do.

Here we have two decisions living very similar lives yet if you take a look at the mindset, the level of life satisfaction greatly differs. Why?

What is productive and what is busy?

An important distinction needs to be made between when we are busy and when we are productive. Nowadays especially, the two terms seem to be experienced and used the same, but couldn’t be any more different. Here are two common definitions of the terms

Busy “having a great deal to do.”

Productive “achieving or producing a significant amount or result.”

The issue is that far too many people are confusing the two, and it’s causing them to live their lives constantly doing stuff while not accomplishing anything. Today I’ll go through three chief distinctions that will help you identify whether you’re busy or productive.

Productive people seek out the big wins | Busy people set too many goals at a time

Aim starts where goals begin.

Being busy lacks a key characteristic that those whom are productive have; aim.

Productivity is goal driven. Without an aim you may find yourself doing a lot, but a whole lot of nothing. You need an aim to be productive, without it, you’re only producing a significant amount of nothing. You can do 100 things today, but if none of them actually led to real results, what’s the point? When you hone in on what is most important—your aim—you can make substantial progress.

For example, when I first started reading for growth, I was so excited about reading that I would read a little of one book, and little of another, and another. Sooner or later I was reading a little of over 5 books.

I don’t remember much from those books.

But when I chose a single book and prioritized reading it, I started to remember the lessons I learned and even started to read more books.

If you would like to start being more productive, the first step is to find out what would be considered the highest priority task—your personal big win.

We can have big wins of the day, week, and year. Your big win is the single task that if accomplished gives you the immediate satisfaction of having completed it.

Productive people prioritize this big win before everything. Each day they remind themselves what the big win is and they do not become distracted by all the other tasks.

Productive People Calculate Before Saying Yes | Busy People Say Yes To Everything

Overbooked and overwhelmed, the busy person is constantly working because they just don’t say no.

They forget it’s not about how much you do, it’s about how valuable what you do is.

To produce significant results, you need to treat your time like the finite resource that it truly is. Before saying yes, ask yourself, is this worth my time? When you limit what you spend your time on, growth becomes possible in the remainder.

Having less in your life means you have more time, attention, and focus towards the things that matter. Take your work space for example.

Where you work makes a huge change in how you work.

Leveraging your environment to work for you.

In the busy notice the mess of sensor stimuli available that steal your attention. When the mind wanders it uses whatever is available to it to perpetuate the train of thought. Distraction after distraction the busy person is unconsciously agreeing—saying yes—to more, which ultimately lead to less.

Personally, this has changed my life. As a minimalist, I chose to ditch a majority of my material belongings leaving space to own only what I love.

Once I realized I could do the same with my time, I started to leverage my energy towards only the things I love. By removing the things that stole my time and attention, I am now able to cultivate only my priorities.

It’s easy to believe that doing more will lead to better results. But go ahead and try doing less—you’ll be happily surprised.

Productive People Set Unrealistic Deadlines | Busy People Approach Deadlines As They Come

Busy people do not leave space for uncertainty.

But how about if the unrealistic—deadlines set ahead of time—deadlines productive people set allow for more to get done in shorter periods of time.

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion"

This idea is Parkinson's Law. It explains why unrealistic deadlines make for more significant results. When we aim to get things done on the deadlines of others, we wait until the last minute and rush our work. Yet when we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we now work under the stress of our own deadlines—now we have entered the realm of the productive.

Productive people create time constraints for themselves to take advantage of our innate tendency to use all the time we leave to complete a task(s).

Georgetown Professor Cal Newport, discusses this in his book Deep Work. He recommends we leverage our time by using a Fixed-Schedule Productivity technique. It’s essentially Parkinson law put into effect.

Dr. Newport uses a fixed-schedule productivity in his own life. While working towards becoming a tenured professor, Cal never works past 5 during the weekdays. Because of this, he needed to prioritize what he would be doing each day.

Cal didn’t have time to do 50 things, but he could certainly get 2 or 3 things done. By only completing 2 or 3 things each day for weeks and weeks, the end results are a substantial amount of progress.

Not only does fixed-schedule productivity get more done, you get so much free time! So I recommend you try it out. I like to use a calendar template—any day to day calendar will do—and build my week every Sunday. That makes it so I am flexible yet not flimsy with my time.

Stop being busy. Start being productive

Remove the word busy from your vocabulary.

If you have to use the word busy you are not focused.

When a moment arises where you think you are too busy for something, ask yourself if what you’re doing is in alignment with the big win of the day or part of your priorities.

Saying no does not have to mean you are too busy, saying no can mean you have priorities.

Be proud of your drive to stay focused; show it off. Rather than sticking to the busy card; it’s a cop out answer and only makes you look and perform poorly to others and yourself.

I hope that after reading this you see the difference between busy and productive, and start to remove all the busy from your life to make space for all the amazing things you are capable of doing.

For more content on developing your life to your maximum potential, look no further than Forces of Habit. Here I talk more about becoming more intentional with your time—and eventually your life.

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