Are You Productive Or Are You Just Busy?

Productive vs Busy

I know you’re busy. Probably too busy to read this article, and your main decision on whether to attempt it or not doesn’t revolve around the strength of the content or any reputation of the author for providing value. It’s the length because who has time to read page two? Certainly not you! Please stay with me. I’ll keep it brief.

Believe it or not, studies—including one done by researchers at University College London’s Centre for Time Use Research—show that people are surprisingly working less and sleeping more than they did 50 years ago. In most cases, this means the idea that people need to be “busier than ever” is simply not true.

But unfortunately, through increased access to portable technology, it’s now more convenient to find opportunities to create busy. Busy is easy, so we conceive ways to fill our moments with self-imposed emergencies. We also continue to confuse important with urgent.

We find ways to make too many things artificially important, and then once we think they have become important, we believe they are urgent. Our days are spent with a phone glued to our hand because we feel guilty about taking a moment for ourselves. We micromanage near and far in order to project an aura of importance. “Look at that guy. He has been on his phone all morning conducting business. He must be important.” We think others are saying this of us as we pace the hallways, incessantly jabbering on while accomplishing little.

As parents we spend countless hours worrying that we don’t offer enough time to our children. But researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that moms devote nearly double the amount of time to childcare activities now than they did 50 years ago and fathers have nearly quadrupled their time. Ironically, all that time spent worrying would be better spent engaged with those we care for and about.

We have created a culture that envies the frantic. Somehow, we have agreed that while every day of our lives is comprised of 1,440 minutes, the only way to get ahead is to make each one of them stressful and occupied with restless activity. Activity means productivity, right? Wrong.

During a speech in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented an idea that would later lead to the Eisenhower Matrix or the Eisenhower Urgent/Important Principle. He used this principle to manage his time and responsibilities so that only truly urgent and important matters were brought to him. Through it, he found urgent and important were traditionally mutually exclusive. The really important matters were seldom urgent, and the most urgent matters were seldom important. If it worked for Eisenhower, I bet it would work for you too.

Start by spending some time identifying where you spend your time. What is causing your stress and busyness? Are the deadlines you impose on yourself real deadlines or has it become habit to find things to check off to feel more accomplished, so you assign manufactured completion dates? Remind yourself that it’s ok not to feel busy 24/365. This doesn’t make you any less important. It makes you smart. Focus on activities that guide you in the direction of your goals. Doing so offers a meaningful way of connecting your present to your future and provides a positive emotional return on investment through your time.

Eisenhower used his principle to become a five-star General of the Army, lead Allied Forces to win WW2, be elected and serve as president, help start the cold war, launch the U.S. Interstate Highway System and NASA, and in his spare time, be an avid golfer, farmer, oil painter, husband, father, and bridge player. He had the same amount of time in his day as you do. While yours is busy, his was productive. His use of the Urgent/Important Principle allowed him to separate decisions and actions into four separate quadrants, maximizing his results.

  1. Urgent and Important (do immediately)
  2. Important, but not Urgent (schedule to do later)
  3. Urgent, but not Important (delegate to someone else)
  4. Neither Urgent nor Important (eliminate)

Think of it this way—urgent has true upcoming deadlines. Important applies to items that contribute to long-term goals or mission statements. When looking at your daily and weekly activities, divide them between the quadrants and focus your time wisely in the first quadrant versus attempting to be busy by including all four. As Tim Ferriss says, “Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Being busy is often a result of focusing on items that are not urgent and important and may not even align with your values. Identify your values and how your daily decisions and activities work to either move you closer to them or simply add stress and you will be amazed by how much more productive and happy you are in whatever matters most to you.

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