Being Busy Isn't Being Productive

In modern western society, we place very little weight on resting and put a huge emphasis on working hard, and why shouldn’t we? Those who work hard succeed, right? I was taught this from an early age and it has persisted from schooling into the professional world. I found myself getting in earlier, leaving later, and taking shorter lunch breaks all in the name of hard work until I realized that working harder wasn’t my goal (and shouldn’t be yours).

Don’t get me wrong - hard work is a good thing. My revelation was simply that my self-praise for attempting difficult labor far outweighed that of working quickly and greatly diminished any downtime that may have come as a result from efficiency. I felt a sort of guilt that comes from completing tasks “too quickly”. I was totally misapplying my efforts. I was very good at staying busy, but being busy does not lead to results.


I went from staying busy to staying productive.

  • Staying busy doesn’t necessarily lead to results.
  • Staying productive is all about results.
  • Staying busy starts working without a plan.
  • Staying productive knows how much time is available and seeks to maximize that time.

Working for a startup has forced me to completely change my mentality for the better. It became impossible to ignore the significance of my time and the benefits of efficiency. Everyone’s time-sensitive contributions are vital if the company is to stay on schedule, so everyone's work would get shaken were any of us to simply “stay busy”.

While working to shift the “busy” mindset I had held my entire life, I began to realize some broad things about how to become and stay productive. The list below is intentionally fairly broad, as everyone will find unique ways to apply what I’ve learned.

Stop working. Go home.

The first lesson I learned is that I was shooting myself in the foot by trying to muscle through 60+ hour work weeks for months at a time. I, like many people, believed that the key to success was all about putting in the most time. I essentially never shut off. I would leave the office late only to go home and work some more for weeks and weeks, not realizing that I would actually achieve my goals quicker if I were just willing to scale back my working hours, if not rest completely.

From, the productivity from a 60-hour work week eventually falls below that of a sustained 40-hour work week.

A study from Good Technology, cited by Sarah Perez on TechCrunch revealed that 80% of Americans work after hours. So much so that by the end of each week, they've effectively worked another full day. It can feel as if you absolutely have to check your email during dinner, before bed, and first thing in the morning, and that it's not actually work. Spoiler alert: it is. This inability to remove your mind from your work is contributing to the steep decline in productivity depicted above. Learn to call it quits at certain times and return to your work refreshed and motivated.

Delegation and Automation Will Save Your Life

Learning to delegate does a number of great things, the most obvious being that it takes tasks off of your plate which helps when trying to maintain productive and sustainable work weeks. The less obvious is that you earn the trust of team members, who will work to rise to the challenges set before them. And when you delegate authority, it helps to grow those around you into leaders who will one day delegate themselves, further strengthening your position without overwhelming your workload. In the same breath, learning to automate repetitive tasks can save a large amount of time in the long run. It helps if you're tech savvy enough to build an automation tool for yourself, but you don't  have to be. There are a whole host of automation bots out there that people can use without any knowledge of how to code.

Perfectionism is Paralyzing

Perfectionism is the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. This is unrealistic as metric for any employee including yourself, largely because perfect is unattainable and very ambiguous. It becomes even more absurd when there are deadlines to meet and expectations of growth. Details may be what distinguishes your business, yes, but mean nothing without the broad strokes upon which they are built. If you will not move on until you feel that every element is perfect, you will never move on. Delegation helps greatly with this, because you will have to start accepting others’ work and influence as part of your standard. Similarly, if you are waiting for the perfect situation to present itself before making decisions with your team or company, then it will pass you by when it finally does come. You cannot hold an expectation of perfection for yourself, your team, or your situation.

“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight” - Brené Brown

If you are at all feeling overwhelmed with your work, then there is a good chance that you have been operating under the “stay busy” mindset. Look for ways to implement these tactics and more into your workflow and experience the freedom of productivity!