If you’re like many small or medium-sized business owners, chances are you rarely have a moment when you don’t feel busy. After all, if you’re not burning the midnight oil to build the bottom line, who else will?
But beware: without a hefty dose of self-discipline, that overwhelming feeling of responsibility can lead you away from the path of true productivity, and up the slippery slope of “busywork.”
If you’re struggling to achieve a decent work/life balance and still meet your business goals for the quarter, then you just might need a crash course in the difference between productivity and busywork. To start, let’s take a look at what busywork entails, and how you can train yourself to separate these endless tasks from the more strategic efforts that garner long-term results.
THE BUSY TRAP
While it often feels as if we’re busier than ever before, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually suggests that Americans have more time than ever for leisure and sleep. So, what gives? Well, part of the problem might be based in our increasing difficulty with separating true urgency from the general information overload that we’re all bombarded with from the moment our smartphones wake us up.
As a BBC article notes, our working life now takes place in what Tony Crabbe, author of “Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much,” calls an “infinite world.” Explains author Oliver Burkeman, “There are always more incoming emails, more meetings, more things to read, more ideas to follow up — and digital mobile technology means you can easily crank through a few more to-do list items at home, or on holiday, or at the gym. The result, inevitably, is feeling overwhelmed.”
The first step in separating real productivity from busywork, then, is getting rid of the notion that a long to-do list means that you’re an incredibly productive person. While an endless list can spur anxiety (which can feel like real urgency), take time to seriously consider if running from task to task is actually furthering your organization’s goals.
Operational efficiency and business strategy expert Russell Raath described the difference between business and true urgency in an interview with Forbes. “When we see people doing what they did last week or last month just because they did it last month and not changing it because they want to get somewhere different, that’s busy,” Raath said. “People think that is urgent, but that’s not…That’s not focused, that’s just perpetuating what’s always been done.”
The takeaway? Stop for a moment to reconsider your notion of what “busy” really means. An endlessly repopulating to-do list with a few shining checkmarks doesn’t mean you’re on top of your game. To the contrary, it might actually suggest that you’ve lost sight of the goal post.
THE PROBLEM WITH BUSY
When you set an expectation in your workplace that “busy” equals “good,” you’re placing pressure on your employees to produce … but produce what? A global survey conducted by Havas Worldwide of 10,000 working adults uncovered that up to “65% of people across multiple generations said they thought other people were pretending to be busier than they actually are.”
In theory, the “I’m So Swamped” game is fueled by a cultural emphasis on staying busy to get ahead in one’s career. Unfortunately, recent data deflates that notion: a CBS News analysis of time-use statistics from the Bureau of Labor showed that people who earn $1,200 or more a week do not in fact track more hours on average than those who pull in $540 a week.
What we’re left with is unfortunately the opposite of a productive organizational environment. Instead, a cultural focus on staying “tasked” runs the real risk of promoting dishonesty and poor job performance. In fact, in the BBC piece noted above, economist Sendhil Mullainathan and behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir described the busywork problem as one that completely impacts “cognitive bandwidth,” noting, “When you’re busy, you’re more likely to make poor time-management choices — taking on commitments you can’t handle, or prioritizing trifling tasks over crucial ones.”
In other words, it’s a vicious cycle: When you load yourself up with busywork, you make poor decisions involving your time. This cycle repeats itself until you’re not only frazzled, you also still haven’t accomplished any substantial work! Sound familiar? Here are some solutions for getting off the crazy train.
FROM MULTITASKING TO REAL PRODUCTIVITY
An endless stream of busywork naturally leads to multitasking, which, though it creates the appearance of being busy, actually drastically reduces our ability to truly get quality work done. As reported in Fast Company, a University of London study found that multitaskers suffered “declines in their IQ scores similar to what they would have experienced if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.”
In contrast, productivity experts often recommend “single-tasking,” or focusing on one objective at a time. And their definition of productive tasks? Simple: work that gets you closer to reaching your strategic goals and objectives.
If you’re trying to break out of a destructive time-management cycle, first take a good look at where you’re currently spending your time. There are a host of excellent time tracking apps that can help you conduct a solid self-assessment. For instance, Rescue Time will run in the background and quietly log your activity during a work day, giving you a clear handle on how much you’re multitasking, and how much time you’re devoting to focused, engaged work.
Once you know how you’re spending your time, you can work to reclaim it. First, think about giving your long to-do list the old heave-ho. Hone your to-dos down to a five-item list, only including a task if it’s firmly connected to your key goals and objectives. FocusList is a powerful app that uses the Pomodoro Technique to help you break down large projects into 25-minute, uninterrupted work sessions.
Not quite ready to lose your megalist? At least invest in a solid multi-use productivity tool. Things, whichWired magazine calls the “prettiest to-do app ever,” allows your list to be as short or long as you like, and offers a clean interface that won’t distract you from the task — or tasks — at hand.
Just remember, being truly productive is not about how many tasks you accomplish or the number of hours you work each day. It’s about the quality of your work. When you make space in your day — and your brain — to slow down, focus, and dig deep, you give yourself the room to evolve as a more confident, grounded leader. Which means better business decisions, and, ultimately, better results.
And who doesn’t have time for that?
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