Productive Work vs. Busy Work

“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing” – Peter Drucker

You’ll often see me preaching to “keep busy”, as I truly believe that the busier you stay the better off you will be in the long-run. However, it’s important not to get confused between productive work, which is what I’m talking about, and busy work, which is another way to frame time wasting. It’s quite easy to fall into a habit of filling your time with busy work, and today I want to outline what the differences are and how you can be sure to keep yourself in check.

Busy work is work that keeps you constantly on the go, but never actually gets you anywhere. It’s essentially running on a treadmill all day when your goal is to travel across town. Busy work disguises itself in harmless activities, these are things such as checking social media, watching YouTube, cleaning/organizing out of boredom, or taking food/drink breaks every 15. These are activities that do nothing but hinder productivity, and at the end of a “busy” day, you’ll be left wondering how nothing got done. Busy work is easy work, as it requires very little attention and offers a relief from the otherwise stressful tasks of the day.

Now, this isn’t to say that busy work is bad all the time, as some busy work may actually render valuable results. The key is to realize what needs to get done and draw the line between actually working and following that ACTUAL WORK with busy work.

Productive work on the other hand is work that actually moves you towards an end goal. This is work that creates some sort of value, and although more difficult, it is the work that will offer the best results and satisfaction — it is the work that must be completed if your plan is to succeed. Here are a few tips to stick to your productive work when times get tough.

Sticking to Productive Work:

1. Work Smart

  • The value of working smart is often overlooked by busy people, and the ability to minimize the time/effort required for any given task will be paramount to your success. Working smart means finding easier/more efficient ways to do something, and by simply searching online hacks/creating your own, you’ll be a far more productive (smarter) worker.

2. Be Self Aware

  • Nobody knows your strengths/weaknesses better than yourself, use that to your advantage. If you are aware that you’re the most productive at 5am, make it a point to get up and get to work, regardless of how much you don’t want too. Being able to take your strengths and apply them will allow for huge future success, and you are the only one who can decide to take advantage of it. Additionally, if you catch yourself getting caught in busy-work, make it a point to stop it. Having self-control and self-awareness is easier said than done for most, but at least try your best.

3. Eat the Frog (via Mark Twain)

  • When you have a lot to do in a day, especially a lot of productive work, start by tackling the largest task at hand. It may take longer, but it will make the remaining work seem like a joke in comparison, making it easier to manage and a lot less mentally straining. If you start with the small tasks, you’ll constantly be thinking about the frog that has yet to be eaten, inevitably resulting in frustration/anxiety and a lead-in to busy work.

4. Set a Checklist/GamePlan/Milestone Structure

  • Starting off a series of tasks by writing out a checklist will help to organize your thoughts and minimize the potential for distraction. I recommend you create a list based on importance, ensuring that the most important items will be tended too first regardless of how much you actually get done. While organizing tasks, try and set time milestones for when you want things to get done – these will allow you to stay on track, and if you finish a task early, feel free to take a break before you need to begin the next (or get ahead of the game, your choice).

5. Allow Time for Breaks

  • Loss of focus & interest is inevitable during a day full of tasks, which is why it is important to take intentional breaks and alleviate all desires to get distracted. When you feel yourself wandering off, take a 5-10 minute break to check your social/watch youtube, but be sure to have the self-discipline to get back to work (actual work) when that break comes to an end.

Give at least one or two of these tips a try this week and see the difference they will make in your productivity. The true value doesn’t come in the form of one productive day, but several productive weeks caused by a new way of thinking and working. These productive weeks will lead to productive months, and I’m sure you can assume the rest.

Happy working.

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