Stop being busy – and start being productive

Everyone seems to be busy these days – it’s almost seen as a sign of status and success. For social entrepreneurs, working with limited resources and facing ongoing pressure to make a difference, long hours can seem inevitable. But being busy isn’t the same as being productive, argues Think Productive’s Hannah Urbanek, who offers four tips to get out of the busy trap

When people ask how you are, how often do you respond: “Busy”?

The strange thing is, although it’s known that busy times mean less focus on our own wellbeing or on making time to get high-quality work done, being busy has become somewhat aspirational.

As much as we complain about being too busy, we’re also strangely resistant to focusing on being productive instead of busy. Yes, you read that right – being busy and being productive are two very different things. 

Here are four ways to get started.

1. There’s always going to be more work 

Let’s face it: no matter how many hours, days, weeks or months you put in, the work will never end. Even when some projects come to a finishing point, there are new projects waiting. So, instead of staying at your desk for longer and longer each day, use tools to help you structure your day and prioritise accordingly. 

You don’t have to be tech-savvy to make the most of these. We like to recommend platforms such as Trello, Asana and Remember the Milk, but you can also use a combination of Outlook tasks and your calendar, or simply pen and paper. Whichever your weapon of choice, here’s how you can start to get organised. 

As a starting point, divide your project list into four sections: 1) Urgent and important, 2) Important but not urgent, 3) Urgent but not important, 4) Neither important nor urgent. Now, prioritise the tasks in your ‘urgent and important’ column, then move onto the ‘important but not urgent’. Ideally, you delegate the ‘urgent but not important’ and delete or decline the ‘neither important nor urgent’. 

Divide your project list… [so that] you know you’re focusing on the really value-adding tasks

Now that you know you’re focusing on the really value-adding tasks, you can finish work on time and focus on recharging your batteries in the evening, without feeling like you’ve forgotten about something important. 

2. Make space in your calendar

If you’re using your calendar (whether online or in a physical form) to keep track of important deadlines, meetings and events, you’re already on the right track to ensure you’re not just busy being busy, week in and out. Chances are, however, that your days are quickly filled up with back-to-back meetings, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for actual work, as well as the critical thinking time that’s needed. Instead, as you plan ahead, make sure you’re leaving enough space in your calendar not just for project work but also for unexpected things that pop up. 

If others can access your calendar to book in time with you, make sure you’ve set blocks of private appointments. That way you get control over what your day actually looks like. Have you been putting off brainstorming ideas for a new project? Set a private appointment for two hours in your calendar for some valuable, uninterrupted thinking time.  

3. Emails = busy work 

Similar to the feeling of overwhelm we feel when we see our calendar being booked up day in, day out, just glancing at our inbox can cause hearts to sink. How many emails are you currently treasuring in your inbox? Do you find yourself refreshing your inbox 10 times a day? 

Here’s the thing: answering and composing emails is busy work. We hardly ever feel like we’ve had a productive day when all we did was answer emails all day long. Limiting yourself to processing your emails two or three times a day can help you cut down the amount of busy work you do in a day. You can even set up an automated message to tell people you’re processing your emails twice a day. It might be stressful to think about doing this, but if it’s really urgent, people will pick up the phone or come over to your desk.

We hardly ever feel like we’ve had a productive day when all we did was answer emails all day long

Another important thing to remember is that we get the email we deserve. Before you hit send on the next email, stop and ask yourself: “Does this have to be an email, or is there a better way to communicate this?” Whether it’s picking up the phone, mentioning it in the next meeting, walking over to someone’s desk or simply taking the courage to make decisions yourself, there are always other options. 

For example, since our own team at Think Productive has started using Slack for internal communications, everyone’s email count has significantly dropped. We also put together our own Communications Manifesto, which highlights how we use the different tools (Slack, email, WhatsApp, phones, etc.) and what the expected response time is. 

4. Take off the busy badge 

We tend to wear our busyness like a badge of honour. We can’t say it often enough – busy is not the goal, and being busy does not make you productive. 

The things we sometimes see as unproductive or even a waste of time are often the most productive things we can make time for. And yes, this includes taking a proper lunch break away from your desk and leaving the office on time to get some rest. Meanwhile, the things we sometimes mistake for work can be the very things that stop us from being able to do our best work. 

Let’s choose what we make time for, rather than let busy dictate what we haven’t got time for. 

Hannah Urbanek is head of marketing at Think Productive, a UK-based time management training provider that aims to boost productivity and wellbeing of companies and organisations.