Leadership

Being Busy & Being Productive Are Two
Very Different Things

by Katarzyna Nawrocka

Being busy seems to be the most desirable state of mind and is often contrasted with being lazy and unproductive. It’s easy to fall into this downward spiral. I’ve even seen articles on how to look busy when you don’t have anything to do at the office. Sounds crazy, but raise your hand if you’ve never opened Excel and copy-pasted meaningless cells like your life depended on it.

Studies show that by saying ‘I’m busy,’ we actually engage in doublespeak. What we really mean is: ‘I matter,’ ‘I’m important,’ but also ‘I feel guilty’ or ‘I suffer from FOMO.’ Not to mention that being busy is a great excuse not to do something you don’t want to do. (Or is it? I feel like it’s so overused that no one believes it anymore.)

I know I may sound like a lunatic, but hear me out, because I’m here to bust that myth of powering through your day like you’re on steroids.

Being Productive: The Urge To Do More

If you don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably seen thousands of articles on how to boost your productivity, learn a new skill, deep-clean your house, declutter your wardrobe or complete a long list of DIY projects during the COVID-19 quarantine. People on social media seem to nail that concept of being busy at all times.

With the world on lockdown, most of us work remotely, but this doesn’t mean we’re not expected to bring in results of our day-to-day tasks. Juggling work and private life while locked within four walls can be a real challenge, especially since telecommuters are said to struggle with logging out of their jobs. There seem to be two sides of this ‘quarantine’ period: one claims we should use this time to unwind, relax, implement a ‘slow’ lifestyle, get closer to our loved ones, etc. The other is all about cramming as many tasks as you can into this strange time. Productivity tools seem to be on the rise, online classes are more popular, and articles on how to keep boredom at bay grow like weeds.

To some, being productive means a long to-do list with tasks crossed off. That's a good way to handle this concept - if you know exactly what you plan to achieve.

Whether you admit it or not, we’re all prone to suggestions. Reading and hearing about people doing, like, 1000%, inspire us to do the same. Or, rather, make us feel bad for not even doing 100%. A typical reaction to this would be taking a pen and writing down a long, long to-do list. Or, going even further, scheduling your entire day to make sure it’s packed with productive, worthwhile tasks.

You may feel tempted to turn your world upside down right now. After all, we have more time now than possibly ever, so perhaps it’s the best moment to tackle some projects you’ve ignored for months. But the strive to achieve more isn’t purely connected to the quarantine period. It’s been there for years and isn’t going anywhere.

Why Productivity Is Not Everything

One of the most intense periods of my life was a couple of months when I juggled graduating from college (that included writing a giant master thesis) and organizing a massive relocation to a country halfway across the world. Looking back at this time, it all seems like a blur, but what happened at the end of it was the greatest adventure I’ve ever had. And I knew from the start it’s going to be amazing once I go through that ‘prep’ period.

What is your ‘why’ when it comes to productivity? What do you get out of it? If you work towards a specific goal (like I did), working hard resembles a marathon: once you cross the finish line, it’s over. But for many of us, it’s hard to point at a justification. I feel like it fades with time, and what was once a phase becomes the new normal.

If you struggle to find a decent reason for being productive, here’s one: efficient work gives you more time to live your private life. Productivity should be about doing what you have to in less time rather than doing more. It shouldn’t be about who does the most or who is the fastest. Heck, it should never be a race to finish, but a ‘hey, let’s all meet there, everyone at their pace.’

Productivity should be about doing what you have to in less time rather than doing more.

So… What Productivity Really Means?

In my previous article, I’ve used the metaphor of scrubbing a bathtub with a toothbrush as an extremely unproductive task. Let’s dig a little deeper into this problem and finally set up the difference between busyness and productivity, so you could feel a huge weight lifted off your shoulders and get rid of that guilt for not doing ‘enough’.

We often associate productivity with being busy: that image of a person constantly in the middle of something, working nonstop, stuck in a pile of duties instantly pops in front of our eyes. A productive person is someone who does a lot. Simple as that.

We all know these superheroes, multitaskers, people who never seem to blink an eye, let alone have some sleep. These individuals are usually intimidating to others. I sincerely envy a friend of mine who can survive on 4 hours of sleep and looks great. I’d love to have this many hours in a day, but it seems I’ve never grown out of this teenage phase when you sleep for eleven hours and still crave more.

Sure, these people do a lot in their day. But before you try to join their ranks, think about what they actually achieve during this time. Are they productive or are they just busy? Do they have the time to do what they truly love or just spend their days chasing deadlines and catching up on everything?

If you look up ‘unproductive’ in a dictionary, you’ll see something along the lines of ‘not worthwhile’, ‘not beneficial’, or ‘not leading to practical or beneficial results’. You won’t find anything about ‘doing nothing’, ‘being lazy’ or ‘not doing a certain amount of things throughout the day’. That’s because productivity means doing something that’ll give you benefits - let it be money you earn at your job, the skills you need, foreign language you’ll speak while abroad, etc. If we’d come back to that metaphorical bathtub - it probably wouldn’t fit into that criteria.

One Step At A Time

I feel like the second we decide we’ll be productive from now on, we jump head-first into a bunch of different projects. It’s rarely the case of ‘I need to accomplish that one thing so I’ll work hard towards it and nothing else’. Working out every day? Sure, schedule that in the middle of the day because scientists say it’s good for your brain. Learning a new language? Squeeze that between yoga class and organizing a garage sale. And then add cooking a fancy dish from scratch every night, followed by a one-hour reading session and some meditation before bed. Somewhere in between, you’ll develop a new skill, spend some quality time with your partner and help your kids grow up to be awesome people. If Beyonce can achieve so much in her 24 hours, why can’t we do the same?

You only have so many hours during the day, so whatever being productive means to you, fit it into that 24 hour period (and get some sleep too).

Well, let’s leave the Queen out of this and think about our goals instead. The projects above sound great and everyone would praise you for striving to be more fit, healthy, accomplished, intelligent and closer with your relatives. The trouble is, you only have so many hours during the day, and you need to sacrifice some of them for a good night’s sleep (no, really. Never ever assume you’ll sleep when you’re older). There’s no way you can handle twenty priority tasks at once, so try to eliminate some of them, at least for now.

If you aim to learn a foreign language, that’s really cool, but why? Do you need it for work or travel? Or did you pick up a class because you feel guilty that you’re not broadening your horizons?

I feel like the latter is quite common nowadays. The culture of being busy leads us to weird places. Places we didn’t even want to be in. Don’t get me wrong - it’s great to have multiple skills in your arsenal. Post-grad schools, workshops, and certificates can do wonders - as long as you actually want to do them, not feel like you should because everyone else does. Before you jump right into another course that’ll eat up a solid few hours of your week, think if it can actually help you.

The Kraken might have its powerful tentacles, but we only have two hands and one brain, and there’s only so much we can do during the day. Trying to squeeze in too much can lead to a declined focus and increased stress, not to mention that overwhelming feeling on your shoulders.

Being productive is not only about sprinting through your to-do list. It also means smart time-management.

Take A Breather

Like I said in the beginning, the urge to do more, especially in these times, can be overwhelming. Falling for it is easy, but it’s even easier just to bury yourself under a pile of blankets and feel guilty because you don’t have the energy or the willpower to engage in multiple projects right now.

The key here is to separate actual productivity and the vague concept of being busy with stuff that brings you no benefits and no joy. Productivity should mean doing what you have to do so you have the time to do what you want to do. Don’t fall in the trap of never-ending chores. Take a breather instead and think about how you can turn in your busyness for more time to relax & enjoy your day.

I hope I got you thinking about how you divide your time and what activities are your priority. Do you have any tips & tricks on how to keep your head above the water when it comes to busyness/productivity? I'd love to learn more about balancing the two!

Katarzyna Nawrocka

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