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Being Busy doesn’t always ensure Productivity

December 3, 2018
Being Busy Is Not Necessarily Being Productive

I have found that many people have a natural aversion to idleness: we’ll go out of our way to stay busy, even if we have to invent things to do. But being too busy can be counter-productive. ‘Busy work’ does not contribute to productivity.

Furthermore I also sense that we have a bias toward action: when faced with a problem, we prefer to act, even if it would be best to pause first or do nothing.

Together, both of these behaviours show that choosing to be busy is the easy choice. Being productive, by contrast, is much more challenging. What helps remedy this dilemma?


Take time to step back and reflect on a regular basis. Reflection helps us understand the actions we’re considering and choose the ones that will make us productive.

Even 15 minutes of planning each morning can help. So the next time you feel busy, stop and think about what you actually need to get done.

So raise your hand if you feel busy. Keep it up, still, if you think the busyness is hurting your productivity. If your hand is still up, then you should keep on reading.

It’s very easy to succumb to the temptation of staying busy even when it is counterproductive: It is the way our brains are wired. But there is a remedy that we can employ to translate that predisposition into productivity.

Reasons We Often Feel Busy

There are reasons we often feel busy (but not necessarily productive) — and they are self-imposed.

People have an aversion to idleness. We have friends who will, by choice, drive miles out of their way to avoid waiting for a few minutes at traffic lights, even if the detour means their journey takes more time. Research suggests that the same applies to work, where many of the things we choose to do are merely justifications to keep ourselves busy.

We have a bias toward action. When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to do something, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.

The action bias can lead us to jump into developing solutions before we fully understand a problem. I find that people feel more productive when they are executing tasks rather than when they are planning them. Especially when under time pressure, they perceived planning as a waste of time — even if it actually leads to better performance than jumping into the task head-first.

Being Productive is Sometimes Hard

Choosing to be busy over real progress can be an easy choice; being productive, by contrast, is much more challenging. What helps? Therefore reminding ourselves that taking the time to reflect can help make us more productive.

Reflection has such beneficial effects on performance because it makes us more aware of where we are, gives us information about our progress and lends us the confidence we need to accomplish tasks and goals.

Let’s look at two types of CEOs. The first engaged in advanced planning, interacted primarily with his or her direct reports, and was more likely to have meetings with many people who performed different functions. The second type of CEO was less likely to plan ahead and more likely to meet with outsiders in one-to-one meetings. The most successful were the planners, who were linked to higher firm-level productivity and profitability.

Learning to stay in the centre involves stepping back, allocating time to just think, and only then taking action. Through reflection, we can better understand the actions we are considering and ensure they are the ones that will make us productive.

As this mentor says constantly – “Don’t avoid thinking by being busy.”

Time Management 101

Finally, we can recall Stephen Covey’s time-honoured Time Management Quadrants/Matrix and the 4 types of activities we do at work:

  • Quadrant 1-Important and Urgent Tasks

  • Quadrant 2-Important and Non Urgent Tasks

  • Quadrant 3-Not Important and Urgent Tasks

  • Quadrant -Not Important and Non Urgent Tasks

We all must be vigilant with our time and minimise Quadrant 3 and 4 activities. The more we are in the first two Quadrants, the more truly productive we’ll be.

Adam Wilson Small
Adam Wilson

Owner & Mentor

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