How to Be Productive Instead of Busy

Dart hitting bullseye. Skitterphoto
Image by Skitterphoto at

When I bump into someone I haven’t seen in a while, we exchange the usual, “How’s it going?” greetings. In response, I habitually say, “Oh, I’m keeping busy.” I’m sure that’s a stock phrase for a lot of people.

But think about what it means to be busy. Busy keeping up with email, busy editing blog posts, busy writing articles, etc. What do I have to show for all my busyness?

Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4 Hour Workweek and other bestselling books, says, “Focus on being productive instead of busy.” In other words, just because you feel or look busy, you aren’t necessarily achieving anything.

What’s the difference between productive and busy? It’s the contrast between working hard and working smart. When you’re productive, your work is getting you closer to your goals. Productivity is less about the hours you put in and more about what you accomplish from your effort.

Being busy isn’t always bad; it means you’re taking up time working on tasks that might or might not produce a finished product. I often fall into a busy mode when I find comfort in menial tasks, like organizing my email folders. In doing so, I avoid tackling the challenging, uncomfortable tasks, like writing my next book, that could yield big dividends down the road.

Want to be productive rather than just busy? I still lean more toward the busy side of things, so here are some tactics I’m trying:

Productive Folks Know How to Say “No”

"No" written on paper. Cottonbro at
Image by cottonbro at

Any time you say “yes” to something, it’ll cost you time and effort. Also, when you say “yes” to too many requests, you over-commit yourself. You end up over-promising and under-delivering, which will hurt you professionally. I’m learning to say “no” more often, and I increasingly have more time for things I want to do.

Respect the 80/20 Rule

Can you identify which of your tasks yield 80 percent of your results? If you can, then you’ve probably tackled the 80/20 rule. Another term is the Pareto Principle, which states that 20 percent of your activities yield 80 percent of your outputs. Increase your efficiency by focusing on the few jobs (the 20%) that generate the most results.

Automate and Delegate

laptop, tablet, smartphone. Pixabay
Image by Pixabay at

Do you have time-draining tasks you can delegate to others or to a service? Automate or delegate the more time-consuming tasks and focus on what matters to you. When I moved to a new apartment two years ago, I got someone at Okay Relax to find a mover and schedule a moving date for me. If you’re a writer, I suggest buying software like Grammarly to reduce your editing time.

Productive People Get Stuff Done Early

I’m a morning person, and I follow a morning routine because that’s my productive time. If you’re like me, you might benefit from tackling your most important tasks before 11:00 AM. It’s easy for an afternoon to fill up with breaks, distractions, and a strong desire to nap. Take advantage of your morning; it might turn your busy activity into productive outputs.

Feet sticking out of bed. Pixabay
Image by Pixabay at

Don’t Get Buried in the Weeds

I once spent two hours searching for the perfect image to insert at the top of a blog post. I’m now embarrassed at what a time suck that was. What sends me down this kind of spiral is getting overwhelmed by the details. While it’s sometimes useful to be detail-oriented, this tendency can become dysfunctional if it shifts your attention away from more essential tasks.

In Conclusion

The next time you find yourself spending too much time on something and having nothing to show for it, try one of these tactics. Staying busy can be harmful if it gets in the way of your productivity. Remember, work smart, not hard! Be more productive and less busy.


Cyclists holding up sign, "Black Lives Matter. Period." Life Matters
Image by Life Matters at

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Betty says:

    Good post! I always remember, “Anytime you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. unsettled essence says:

      Wow, wish I would have thought of that. Thanks for adding it here!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Betty says:

        I heard it somewhere, but it has always stayed with me. Enjoy the day!

        Liked by 1 person

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