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Stop Being Busy - Be Productive

This article was originally published by Brien Dunphy on LinkedIn.

Recently, one of my clients came to our coaching session on the verge of tears. A mother of two and co-owner of a medium-sized business, she was exhausted from yet another 60-hour work week. Meeting after meeting (many of which could have been handled with a simple 5-minute phone call) left little time to get her actual work accomplished. Every time she sat down to focus on her tasks, she was interrupted by notifications on her phone, an urgent email from her staff, or an emergency only she could handle. Everything seemed urgent, and she found it difficult to discern the important from the trivial. After a day full of interruptions and fighting fires, she felt defeated and exhausted. Going home was not the respite she hoped for, either. After picking up the children from aftercare, she rushed home, ordered Uber Eats and attempted to help her children finish their homework just in time to check her inbox one last time before bed. Her husband did his share, but he, too, had a demanding career and was just as overwhelmed.

When we took an inventory of what her days looked like and what she was actually accomplishing, she was surprised to find that with all the activity in her days, there was little productivity. The needle wasn’t moving as much as she expected. Important priorities kept getting pushed back by the demands of the urgent. That new client she was hoping to land, the new product her company was trying to launch, all those projects were “in progress” but when she took a step back, she realized little progress was being made. Incredulous, she asked, How can I be so busy and accomplish so little?”. In her state of constant activity, she failed to realize that she wasn’t actually moving toward her goals. The tyranny of the urgent was drowning out the important, leading to a constant state of motion, little productivity, and no margin in her life.

This is a common predicament many of my clients find themselves in. They confuse activity for productivity. Activity is to be in a state of motion. Productivity is to be in a state of motion toward a desired goal. No matter where we stand on the corporate hierarchy, from CEO to factory floor, we can all find ourselves in a state of frenzied activity yet not actually getting anywhere. We can all get so caught up in checking the boxes on the items on our list that we fail to see that we aren’t moving forward and working steadily towards our goals.

Why is this such a common predicament today? Many feel that unless they are busy, they aren’t contributing to the team. They have bought the lie that the busier they are, the more important they are. “I’m so busy, therefore I am accomplishing a lot. I am a valuable member of the team because I am working so hard,” is a faulty way of thinking that leads many executives to succumb to burnout, exhaustion and missed expectations.

It’s as if we are in the proverbial hamster wheel, constantly running in place, moving faster and faster but not going anywhere. As leaders, we must be the example of what productivity looks like. We must be able to articulate to our people what productive (rather than active) looks like. It’s our job to differentiate that - and we need to do that both for our people and ourselves. And let’s be honest, it’s MUCH harder to differentiate for ourselves than it is to differentiate for others!

When the confusion between activity and productivity happens at the top, it can trickle down from the C-Suite to front-line employees, causing immeasurable damage to our teams.

The problem with focusing on activity and not productivity is that not only are you exhausting yourself, missing expectations and not moving forward towards your goals, you are leaving untapped potential on the table. When you work on the wrong things, you are missing out on the benefits of working on the right things and you inevitably become dissatisfied with your outcomes.

Stephen Covey, in his bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” put it this way, “Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential.” We each have goals, dreams and potential waiting to be tapped. When we focus our energy on the wrong things, or waste our energy, we shortchange ourselves and our dreams. Don’t get caught up in the trap of busyness! Like I said in my previous post, your dreams are worth the fight! Don’t waste your days focused on the activity that you miss the productivity and forward motion needed to make your dreams a reality.

What could you be accomplishing if you were focused on being productive instead of being busy? Put 15 minutes on your calendar for this week to reflect on where you are trading productivity for activity and decide what you will choose to do differently moving forward.


  • LinkedIn
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