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The difference between busy and productive people

I was laid off from my job a few years ago. Suddenly, I went from long, stressful workdays to a very free schedule. There was no structure, or a to-do list, or much of anything to even think about except what my next meal would be. I was no longer busy, but I was also no longer productive.

Busy, productive, and chocolate

There was a lot of binge-watching going on during those unemployed weeks. I watched old TV shows including that classic I Love Lucy episode with the comical scene where Lucy and Ethel work at a candy factory. They are tasked with wrapping every chocolate that comes by on the conveyor belt assembly line. All is well until the belt starts to speed up and forces them to hilariously stuff the chocolates in their mouths and shirts as they are unable to keep up the pace.

This memorable segment illustrates the main difference between being busy or productive at work. Being productive is having something to show for your efforts, like a wrapped chocolate. Whereas being busy typifies being overwhelmed, frantic, and sometimes getting chocolate on your face. Work can feel like the conveyor belt where we are constantly challenged to keep up with it all but have minimal results for maximum hustle.

Working smart, not hard

Being busy is often tied up with our identity in the workplace. It can make us feel important and needed. With remote work, business is not often seen visually in the way it is in an office environment. No one is seeing us eating lunch at our desk, but they are seeing if we can produce that report on time. This is because the modern workplace is focused on outcomes, not the hours of work we put in.

The key to achieving productivity is to be smart about the way we work. It is still putting in the hours but making those hours count for something. This involves self-discipline to stay focused and not multi-task. At the end of the workday, productive people are generally less burned out and have more satisfaction with their jobs because they used their time wisely and benefited from being less busy.

Exchanging old mindsets for new habits

It takes time to switch from being a busy person to a productive person. It starts with a shift in our mindset and then a change in our actions. It won’t happen overnight, and we may falter at times, but eventually, we will see the advantages of transforming our ways. 

Try these tactics for becoming more productive:

  • DO schedule time for focused work: Headphones on may be the signal in the office not to be interrupted. Remote workers should block off calendars and set “do not disturb” on messaging apps to concentrate on complicated projects.
  • DO use a work hub: A work hub makes it possible for knowledge workers to be productive. Tools and teams are connected in one digital space so they can find things quickly and collaborate effectively.
  • DON’T get distracted: Turn off your phone, change the settings on desktop notifications, and close your office door. Ignore the dishes in the sink and the laundry in the dryer.
  • DON’T skip lunch: Taking regular breaks helps to refresh and recharge you. Pick non-screen-related activities such as going for a walk outside or listening to relaxing music.

When asked “how are you?” our auto-reply tends to be “I’ve been so busy” with a roll of the eyes. Think about the day when you can proudly change that answer. Being productive, not busy, is the key to wrapping chocolates or anything else that comes your way on the conveyor belt of work life.

Emily writes about digital workplace trends and employee experience.
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