The Business of Busyness and The Great Productivity Myth

Being highly ambitious, competitive, or any other sort of high achiever typically comes with notable strengths — perseverance, focus, and strategic thinking, to name a few. But if you are one of these types, you know there are also some common blind spots. For instance, many high achievers tend to lure themselves into the trap of busyness.

Busyness makes a person feel highly productive, often when the opposite is true. We treat being busy as a badge of honor, even while it slows us down and stresses us out. This misdirection is what makes such a precarious pitfall for energetic high achievers. Fortunately, a deep well of research and thought leadership now pave the way for us to get out of the business of busyness and get back to doing our best work.

Busyness vs. Productivity

Busyness is the state of keeping oneself occupied, usually with a multitude of tasks, projects, and other responsibilities. It typically involves frequent jumping between unrelated tasks. Busyness can feel exciting or engaging, but it can just as easily be stressful or overwhelming.

On the other hand, productivity describes the results of a person’s work. A highly productive person produces outcomes. What those outcomes are depends on the task, goal, or project.

It’s easy to confuse busyness with productivity, but there is a vital distinction between the two: the difference between input and output.

Busyness describes what a person puts into their work: energy, time, emotional investment. Productivity describes what comes out of a person’s work: deliverables, income, fulfillment, etc. 

While busying yourself with commitments and deadlines can contribute to productivity, it doesn’t necessarily. More often, staying constantly busy does little to help with your goals, and plenty to burn you out.

The Cost of Chronic Busyness

Busyness, whether in your personal or professional life, means keeping many separate things on your plate at once. While that may feel like the heart of productivity, multitasking usually makes you less productive, not more.

Trying to juggle too many streams of information in your mind at once takes far more time and mental energy than doing one thing at a time. How busy you are directly impacts the quality of your work.

When you have a busy day of frantic task-switching, there’s a good chance you’ll get less done than you would have with a bit of time management and prioritization. This hindrance, in turn, can lead to increased work stress and decreased job satisfaction.

Very busy people are also highly vulnerable to job burnout. Keeping yourself busy with work and stress all day, every day, is a recipe for chronic exhaustion and potentially serious mental health implications.

The Picture of Productivity

More often than not, true productivity is slow and intentional.

Counterintuitively, a person can be highly productive without working excessively long hours, taking on every possible task, and always having a packed calendar. Unfortunately, in most cases, things like these will derail productivity rather than fuel it.

A more thoughtful approach to productivity can lead to increased, higher-quality work output, but the benefits go far beyond that.

Intentional productivity involves taking a closer look at your day and making more careful decisions about what will take up your time and resources and what won’t. Separating things this way helps to get more done in less time and feel more satisfied with the results.

Productive people can deliver on the things they need to achieve big goals, and they don’t let minor nuisances get in their way as often. That can lead to better work-life balance and more free time at the end of the day, even after achieving significant outcomes. As a result, it empowers a greater degree of both success and personal satisfaction in multiple areas of life.

How to Avoid Busyness and Be More Productive

Plan First, Act Later

Having a plan is the first line of defense against the chaos of being too busy. Your plan could be a to-do list, a carefully planned schedule, or a simple list of priorities. The method you use to plan is not the most important thing here; the most important thing is to be intentional.

A plan for your day sends a message to your future self. When you start to become busy at work, at home, or anywhere else, you have that plan as a reminder. You can check back with it to recenter yourself on what you decided was most important for your day. When you prioritize early, you will have clarity later.

Schedules and to-do lists are rarely perfect, and there will always be days that don’t go according to plan. There is always room to adjust as we go, but having the initial shape of it helps with easier decision-making throughout the day.

Those who plan are far likelier to reach the end of the day and feel satisfied with their accomplishments. 

Take Breaks

One highly counterintuitive productivity tactic is to take breaks. The cult of busyness tends to look down on things like rest and leisure time, but breaks can significantly boost productivity.

Productivity doesn’t only rely on being less busy; it also needs times when you’re not busy at all.

Mental and physical overexertion are two of the highest costs of being busy too much of the time. If you constantly keep yourself crazy busy, you will continually drain your energy and eventually drive yourself into burnout. After crossing that line, getting anything done at all becomes incredibly difficult.

The body needs rest; if you don’t give it that rest willingly, it will take it anyway. So it’s always better to take time to rest and repair intentionally, before burnout forces you to slow down.

Cultural messaging about productivity discourages taking time off. But short breaks during the workday, as well as downtime at home and occasional days off, are some of the best things you can do for your productivity. Sometimes, we all need to slow down to speed up.

Filter Out Distractions

Distractions are a great way to stay very busy while doing nothing productive. Every distraction that comes your way has the potential to take you away from the work you want to get done. Unfortunately, a scattered, distracted, busy day can do just as much to tire and stress you out as a highly focused one.

Distractions come in many forms, and each can impact different people differently. Conversations and requests from other people, a chaotic environment, and scattered commitments are all big sources of distractions, but you will likely know the ones you struggle with most.

It’s practically impossible to create a perfectly distraction-free day, but there are plenty of great ways to reduce distractions in your environment and encourage focused work. A little bit of preparation can go a long way in this regard. Establishing boundaries with family and coworkers, setting up your environment for success, and strategies like the pomodoro method can be a huge help in staying on track with a core focus.

Learn to Say No

Saying no is an absolutely essential tool for anyone who doesn’t want to end up overwhelmed and stressed by being too busy. It seems a strange paradox in life that the busier you are, the more others will ask of you.

Between work tasks, social plans, and personal favors, there are many ways another person may offer or ask for something that would require your time, energy, or other resources. Each time you say yes to one of these things, it means you will also say no to something else. It may not be a deliberate choice, but your time is finite, and you can only fill it with so many things.

Making more deliberate choices about when to say yes and when to say no helps you protect yourself from being always busy and exhausted.

Sometimes when a coworker, friend, or family member comes to you with a request or opportunity, it’s an absolute yes. At least as often, though, these extra commitments will take much more out of you than they give back. For those times, you won’t regret building a healthy relationship with the word no.

Busting Out of the Busyness Trap

In a modern 21st-century world, it is entirely too easy to stay really busy at all times. Various work and life commitments put heavy demands on our time. Beyond that, we have seemingly infinite options for entertainment, hobbies, and leisure activities to overfill our so-called free time.

We must also face an endless stream of cultural messaging that celebrates this busyness. From coworkers bragging about their long work days to movies idolizing the busiest among us as peak achievers, it’s easy to feel like you need to keep busy at all times to catch up. But the reality is that busyness doesn’t help us get more done. It just sucks away our resources and leads to exhaustion.

Life is busy, but you don’t need to make it busier in order to do great things. The ability to produce quality work while retaining a degree of mental peace is the gift of people who can slow down, determine what is most important, and focus on one thing at a time.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

4 thoughts on “The Business of Busyness and The Great Productivity Myth”

  1. I am laughing at the idea of ‘over cleaning the microwave’. I leave so many things undone and ‘on my list’ for so long – but I go after those nooks and crannies in the microwave regularly!

    • For sure! Some of those tasks that we’d normally leave on the to-do list indefinitely suddenly become more appealing as an alternative to doing something else that we’re more intimidated by. For me it’s usually cleaning something around the house, but I think we all have some kind of chore that we’d rather put time into to feel “productive”, while really we’re hiding from the actual productive work.

  2. The power of thinking about “what matters most”… so profound, impactful, and important!
    Oh… and I deep clean the microwave for stress management and relief. Call me crazy but let’e be honest… some people run, yes… RUN for the same reason!

    • Oh, absolutely. I’m a stress-cleaner too. I find that taking a half-hour break from something really difficult to tidy up the house a bit can be a big boost for me, but then I also have to watch out for the trap of spending entire afternoons obsessing over cleaning simply because it’s easier than the thing I know I really need to do.


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