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 on those days, you were caught between productivity and busyness.

There are different types of “work” you might do in a given day. You have the work you don’t need to do; the work you just need to get done; and the work that moves you toward your goals and accelerates your life.

The problem is, 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. 

busyness and feeling frustrated

You can’t do everything in a day. A day is finite, and only has so many hours. 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 finity 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 that they can’t do everything have a power that most people don’t: They experience the difference between productivity and busyness.

Productivity and Busyness

Productivity and busyness are two ideas that are commonly melted down into one. And it kind of makes sense. They not only 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 a lot 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.

So if it looks like a duck, it feels like a duck, and it has goofy little feet like a duck…

busyness is not a duck
ceci n’est pas une cane…

Busyness is not a duck. Look at me, listen: It is NOT a duck. It just wants your crackers. Do not give it your crackers.

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 just wear you out.

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

Intention

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. A busy day where you try to take on (and finish) everything that comes along 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, then work on that list 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 what you’re saying “yes” to. This means you have to learn 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. You cannot spend two hours cleaning your apartment, and also spend 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, and so they make it by default. Highly productive people know that they are always making these choices, and 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.

In other words, there is productive work, there is busy work that you should get done quickly, and there is busy work that you don’t actually need to do. 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 “no”s.

There are many reasons you can find yourself starting into 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 for. 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. A lot of the time, we already know what the most important thing to be working on is. But we get intimidated by it, and we shift to something else as a distraction

It always helps to be aware of your motivation for something. Finding out 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. The stuff that doesn’t have one, usually doesn’t need to be done at all.

What am I saying “no” to?

Even if you have work and a good reason to do it, there may be something else out there with a better reason, a stronger why.

Productive work on your priority should have a strong and burning why behind it. Washing the dishes also has a strong why behind it. It doesn’t supercede your #1 Most Super-Important Thing, 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 your use of the phrase “You’re not on the list.” Preferably with your arms crossed, looking all tough and stuff.

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. 

Not really. But kinda. It’s productivity math. BTW, if you ever want to get yourself into a cool nightclub like the one described above, don’t lead with phrases like “productivity 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. 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.

intense dishwashing

Other things you do to remove a negative, or a potential negative. Household chores, paperwork, and maintaining personal hygiene protect you from certain health or legal problems, but they don’t add much beyond that. Even when you really 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. You can climb up on the counter and wash the shit out of that bowl with both hands and one of your feet while howling your absolute best barbaric warcry, and your dishes will be just as done as the next guy’s.

A task that subtracts a negative can be a necessary endeavor, but when it’s done, it’s done. So don’t put more into it than you need to. 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, the outcome to your why

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 of that one time you washed the dishes. 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 greater the outcome will be. 

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. That’s because 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 hard questions, and you’ll see a massive spike in your ability to build great, productive days, and not just busy ones.

True productivity leads to massive gains in your health, wealth, and happiness that radiate out through all parts of your life. Personal growth has a powerful ripple effect that is difficult to predict, but always leads to new layers of peace, fulfillment, and joy.

What are you doing today to combat busyness? What are you saying “yes” to, and what are you saying “no” to?

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4 Comments

  1. Ann said:

    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!

    March 17, 2020
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      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.

      March 29, 2020
      Reply
  2. Cassie said:

    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!

    September 18, 2020
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      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.

      September 21, 2020
      Reply

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