The Business of Busyness: How to Start Actually Being Productive

Do you ever have those days where you feel like you did so much, but you got nothing done? I’m willing to bet that you were caught between productivity and busyness on those days.

You might do different types of “work” on a given day. You have the work you don’t need to do, the tasks you simply need to complete, and the work that moves you toward your goals and accelerates your life.

Sometimes they all look very similar, so it can be hard to tell which is which. That leads to days of unconsciously weaving through a mix of all three, feeling like you’re working hard and not making much progress on anything. 

You can’t do everything in a day. A day is limited and only has so many hours. So, unfortunately, you cannot fit an infinite amount of work into a finite amount of space. But fear not, because here comes the good news:

Acknowledging the finite nature of your time is the first step to harnessing its strength. Treating time as infinite is a surefire way to have it slip through your fingers. Appreciating its finity is the key to making conscious choices and getting way more out of it.

People who fully understand this limitation have power that most people don’t: They can see the difference between productivity and busyness.

Productivity and Busyness

Productivity and busyness are two ideas that we often combine into one. And it kind of makes sense. They look similar to the outside observer, but they also feel pretty similar on the inside.

A highly productive person has a full schedule. So does a very busy person. Productive people tend to get lots of things done, just like busy people. A productive day goes by quickly, uses all of your energy, and wears you out by the end. And a busy day does too.

While these two things may look nearly identical, they are anything but twins. 

Productivity takes you to new places. Busyness keeps you right where you are. Productivity yields long-term results, and busyness does not. Productive days lead to brighter futures, but busy days wear you out.

So what is the difference? It all comes down to one simple notion:


That’s it. That’s all there is to it. A productive day that you fill on purpose builds up your life and moves you toward your goals. On the other hand, a busy day scatters your focus and doesn’t get you very far.

Keeping yourself busy is easy. “Stuff to do” will always find you. All you have to do is accept that stuff, add it to your list, and work on it until you collapse into bed at the end of the day.

Productivity, on the other hand, is hard. To be productive, you have to think critically about when to say yes and when to say no.

And make no mistake, by saying yes to one task, you are always saying no to anything else you could have done with that time. 

For example, you cannot spend two hours cleaning your apartment while spending those same two hours working on growing your side business. 

With a fixed number of hours in the day, it’s always a choice. Busy people don’t recognize this choice, so they make it by default. Highly productive people know that they are always making these choices, so they endeavor to make them intentionally.

How to Get Rid of Busyness

So, how does one create this intentionality and unlock productivity? The cure to the busyness problem is asking yourself the right questions about how to spend your time and taking the answers seriously. 

When you ask the right questions, you’ll be able to identify the work you can do today that will help you execute your greater plan, the work that you need to do today that’s not in service to that plan, and the work that you don’t need to do at all – despite what anyone tells you.

When you ask the right questions, you’ll be able to identify the work you can do today that will help you execute your biggest goals, the work that you need to do today that’s not in service to that plan, and the work that you don’t need to do at all – despite what anyone tells you.

In other words, there is productive work, busy work that you should get done quickly, and busy work that you don’t need to do. So if you want to reach your goals, you need to learn to separate the three. And to do that, start with some of these questions:

Do I need to do this? Why do I need to do this?

The first question you ask should be the one that filters the most out. Simply asking if the task you’re heading into is something you need to do at all can yield a surprising number of nos.

There are many reasons you can find yourself starting work you don’t need to do. It could be external pressure, like a coworker asking you to do something that isn’t your responsibility and that you don’t have time to do. It’s okay to say no when it doesn’t make sense for you. If you don’t show respect for your time, no one else will. You teach the world how to treat you.

Or you could be the one assigning yourself unnecessary work. So often, we already know what the most important thing to be working on is. But we get intimidated by it and shift to something else as a distraction

It always helps to be aware of your motivation for something. Discovering your “why” is a quick way to reveal work that you’re picking up by default with no real reason behind it. Work that serves a purpose always has a strong why behind it. Usually, the stuff that doesn’t have one doesn’t need to be done at all.

What am I saying “no” to?

Even if you have work and a valid reason to do it, there may be something else with a better “why.”

Productive work on your priority should have an intense and burning why behind it. Washing the dishes also has a strong why behind it. It doesn’t supersede your top priority, but you should still make some time for it. 

You may have a logical reason for deep-cleaning the inside of your microwave, but is it a strong enough reason to justify everything you’re saying “no” to?

Remember, when you say yes to something, you are always saying no to something else. Always. Consider what that something else is to help you make intentional decisions.

Think of your to-do list as an exclusive nightclub and yourself as one of those scary tough-guy bouncers from the movies. Everything you let inside your cool-exclusive-time club means turning away something else. 

You can choose to let in every Sloppy Joe that comes along in Kirkland-brand sweatpants, but then you may have no room left in your club when a big celebrity comes along who could explode your business that night. So be liberal in using the phrase “You’re not on the list.” Preferably with your arms crossed, looking stern.

Is this adding a positive or subtracting a negative?

So you have a task and a good reason to do it. And today is the day to do it. Do you put in just enough to get it done, or do you put every mother-stuffin’ ounce of available time and energy into it? Well, it comes down to a bit of math. 

Here it is: Is this work adding a positive to your life or subtracting a negative?

Some things you choose to do add something good to your life. For example, reading an enlightening book, spending quality time with your family, and finding new clients add excitement, love, and material wealth to your situation. The more you put into these things, the more you get back.

Other things you do to remove a negative or a potential negative. Household chores, paperwork, and maintaining personal hygiene protect you from specific health or legal problems, but they don’t add much beyond that. Even when you lean into these things, you won’t get more back.

There is no level of intensity with which you can wash the dishes that will notably change the outcome. Even if you climb up on the counter and wash that bowl with both hands and one of your feet while howling your absolute best barbaric warcry, your dishes will be just as clean as the next guy’s.

A task that subtracts a negative can be a necessary endeavor, but once you finish it, that’s it. So don’t put more into it than you need to. Instead, conserve that energy because you can always keep adding to the things that grow you.

How much will this matter in a week? In five years?

One final way to make an intentional decision about what fits into your day is to consider the lasting impact. 

Subtractive work tends to have a short-term benefit. Washing the dishes makes a problem go away for about a day, or until there are more dishes to do. One year down the road, your life won’t be markedly different because you washed the dishes one time. So get it done and get out of there!

Additive, priority-oriented productivity has no limit. Pulling together extra money to pay off debt accelerates you toward a goal of financial freedom that you will feel for many years to come. The harder you approach that work, the faster and more significant the outcome. 

Likewise, spending quality time with your family has much more to offer than getting chores done, and you’ll always be grateful to have spent that time.

Everything you put into these activities will come back tenfold.

Busy people may not understand how something like a family game night can be productive. They’re focused on what’s in front of them instead of what matters most to them. That is the difference between productivity and busyness.

Get in the habit of asking yourself more challenging questions, and you’ll see a massive spike in your ability to build great, productive days, not just busy ones.

Real productivity leads to massive gains in your health, wealth, and happiness that radiate out through all parts of your life.

Avatar for Sam

Hey, I’m Sam. I created this blog 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: How to Start Actually Being Productive”

  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.


Leave a Comment