How to be less busy and more productive

People wear their busyness like a badge of honour. If you want to get stuff done, it's closer to the kiss of death.

by Abigail Ireland
Last Updated: 14 May 2020

How many times have you used the word ‘busy’ over the last few weeks? Being busy is something all managers can relate to particularly at the moment. The danger arises when this state becomes typical for us – when it becomes a badge of honour, and when we start to believe this is just how life is.

I am disheartened every time I hear someone proudly talk about their multitasking achievements or the fact they are getting more things done because of various productivity hacks they’ve discovered. There is a stark contrast between being busy and being productive -  top performers understand this.

Numerous studies prove that multitasking damages our ability to pay attention, recall information or complete activities as effectively as if we had focused on one thing at a time. In the majority of workplaces, there is an overbearing expectation to be constantly contactable, to be available for every meeting and to squeeze as many projects as possible on to one’s plate. 

An abundance of technological tools is adding to this pressure. A 2018 Stanford University study found that “heavier media multitaskers exhibit poorer performance in a number of cognitive domains”. They also had lower accuracy and slower responses than those who focused on one thing at a time. 

It also impacts our overall demeanour and physiology. While some may perceive the term in a positive light, it also carries a number of negative connotations. Other words one might associate with busyness include stress, panic, overwhelm, rushing and scattered. 

At this point, we need to engage in a self-awareness exercise. We need to stop what we’re doing, reflect and work out what our priorities are. The process of regularly reviewing and resetting our priorities is the key to having better control over our time and, subsequently, our lives.

There are three things that make high performers stand out when it comes to managing their schedules.

1) They have clarity on what’s important to them and to the cause(s) they serve

2) They plan in advance and do not get distracted by ‘noise’ that could derail them

3) They are not afraid to say no to people or activities, if required, to keep them on track or keep them sane

So, what can you do to shift from busyness to productivity? 

Tactic 1: Reflect on your life outside of work. If you start to see your friends and family as things getting in the way of work, it may be time to pause, draw a line and reconsider your priorities.

Tactic 2: Decide whether you are busy because you have too much to do or because you are not being productive. Once you determine this, you can develop strategies to improve the situation, one item at a time.

Tactic 3: Accept that being busy is not something to be proud of. In fact, it can be a flaw as it highlights that we are perhaps occupying ourselves to avoid something. Try substituting the word busy with ‘productive.’ If the angle doesn’t quite feel right, you may need to reconsider what you are spending your time on.

The 19th century essayist Henry David Thoreau said: “It’s not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” -  it is your responsibility to find out. 

Abigail Ireland is an executive performance and business coach. This piece was first published by Management Today's sister title People Management

Image credit:  Nora Carol Photography via Getty Images


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