These days, it seems everyone is “busy”.

When people ask me how things are going, I often say “busy”.  I hear other people say it too: “Yeah, I’m pretty busy, you know.  Lots of stuff going on.”

I wonder if we take too much pride in our busy-ness.  We think that just because we are running around crazy, that must mean we are accomplishing a lot of things.  Or even if we don’t feel that’s true, we let other people assume it to be true.  We don’t correct them.

But I don’t think being busy means you are necessarily productive.  Sometimes juggling multiple tasks makes us less productive because we aren’t giving enough attention to any one thing.  So busy-ness can actually hurt our productivity.


There has to be a balance

As with most things that I talk about, I think there is a healthy balance.  Just as it’s important to find a good work/life balance, it’s also important to find a balance between busy-ness and productive-ness.  If there are tasks that keep you busy, but keep you from actually getting real work done, you should probably try to cut out those activities.

For example, if there are meetings that you go to just because the person in your role has always gone — reevaluate.  If you aren’t contributing anything to the meeting, and you aren’t taking anything away, then you don’t need to be there.  Save the time and work on the things that matter.

Sometimes productive work makes us busy.  And that’s okay.  What I’m talking about is unnecessary busy-ness.  Things that aren’t actually important (remember, urgent does not necessarily mean important).  You have to find a reasonable balance with your ability to do productive work.  When someone asks you how things are going, and you say “busy”, you should probably take a step back and re-evaluate why you’re so busy.  You’ll be better off (and more productive) if you do.


Busy-ness makes us feel important

Even if it looks like you’re the most productive guy in your department because you’re always in meetings — you yourself know how productive you’re actually being.  And sometimes it’s frustrating when you are required to go to meetings or do mindless tasks that detract from your important work.

But keep in mind that you probably have more control over your work than you think.  When a co-worker comes to you frantic about something they’re supposed to get done, and they need your help — you help them because you’re a good person.  And then you almost miss your own deadline, even though you’re working like a madmen to help the other guy and get your own work done.

When we pull it off, we feel good.  We like feeling like we are needed.  But this leads to another issue (which I don’t have time to go into right now) about fixing systemic issues instead of simply putting out fires all the time.

At any rate, the busy-ness makes us feel important and so we keep taking on more responsibility than we can handle.  And we work, and we burn out.  And it’s obviously not a very sustainable approach to life and work.


Be intentional about what you want to accomplish

If you don’t set goals and priorities, you’ll be constantly busy and (ironically) much less productive.

At the start of each day, I recommend writing down a list of things you want to do that day.  Then mark which ones are highest priority, and start by tackling those first.  Even if they seem daunting, do them first.

The idea is that you’ll feel more on top of things, because you will always be taking care of the important things, and you’ll ideally never run into the problem of urgent because you won’t be behind on the things that matter.

You might also have to practice saying no to tasks (and to people that just want you to do their work for them).  Or at the very least, delay your assistance.  Tell your co-worker, “I’d love to help as soon as I finish my high priority items.  Check back with me in an hour.”  You may also find that in that hour, your co-worker figured it out on their own.  And if not, you’ll be less stressed (and better able to help) because your goals were already met for the day.

Anything left on your list at the end of the day gets transferred to tomorrow’s list.  In the morning, pick your “must-do” items and repeat.


Don’t settle for “busy”; be productive instead

Priorities and goals are simple in theory, even though it takes a little discipline to start and maintain the habit.  It’s just a few minutes each day, and it’s definitely worth setting aside the time to assess your work.

This isn’t a new concept, either.  Benjamin Franklin would do this each morning when he got up at 5AM to start his day.  And most people consider him to have been a very productive individual.  Have you ever heard someone refer to Ben Franklin as “busy”?  Me neither.

And keep in mind that I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard.  I’m saying you should focus your efforts so that they are more efficient.  Don’t waste your efforts scrambling — get your goals in order and start knocking ’em down from highest priority to lowest.

Hopefully, as a result, you’ll be not only much more productive, but less overwhelmed and “busy”.