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How Being Busy Kills Productivity

We’ve all done it—you run into a friend who asks how works has been and you let out a big sigh and breathe out “Busy…

Busy with what? Making lots of money or contributing to your work and life goals? Hopefully that’s the case, but more than likely, it’s probably something like putting out fires at work, reading and responding to emails, and generally struggling with the upkeep of tasks at work.

When you ask a top performer the same question, there’s almost never a sense of exasperation with her explanation of how busy she’s been. Her sentence is more likely to begin with phrases like:

  • “We recently launched…”
  • “I helped grow…”
  • “We just completed…”

This is because top performers aren’t busy; they’re productive. They are aware of how their actions (and their time) contributed toward tangible business goals, so that’s why they describe their day-to-day activities in the context of accomplishments. Some workers are more inclined to think and act this way individually, but the organization can also play a major role in moving their employees from busy to productive.

In this blog post, we’ll examine the finer points of the busy vs. productive mindset, how rest and other counterintuitive methodologies can boost productivity, and some ideas for implementing systems at work to get more work done that matters.

The difference between “busy” and “productive”

Which is better—getting 14 things done in a day, or getting one thing done? If you’re thinking that it depends on the quality or scope of those items, you’re on the right track.

Productivity doesn’t rely on outputs, which is a common misconception. Ticking an item off your to-do list gives you a shot of dopamine, but the need to constantly move from one task to the next can tunnel your vision, like a swimmer with his head down who lost track of the buoy (your goal) he was swimming toward.

In that sense, it’s possible to be extremely busy without producing anything of substance—writing reports that nobody reads, chasing leads that don’t align with your ideal customer, and burning the midnight oil to hit arbitrary deadlines are all examples of being busy with no underlying purpose. Yes, that’s right—requiring staff to work late can actually be counterproductive!

Business leaders (well, the good ones!) don’t want their employees to be busy, but the act of reducing busywork may not be what you think.

How doing less can help you be more productive

A mind cluttered with busywork and excessive to-do lists has little room for creativity. And to be clear, “creativity” in this sense does not mean writing a novel or painting a landscape with watercolor—creativity brought into the the business world generally stands for critical thinking, problem solving, and strategy.

But for most, the capacity for making strategic decisions is greatly hindered by being busy. Mental processes like strategy development require some downtime for the brain to relax, become inspired, and ideate.

Take this example of writer's block from Mad Men:

While it’s a little vague, you can see that as a manager, Don has created a process for allowing his staff to have enough downtime to allow for maximum creativity. There are plenty of things you can do to help your staff or coworkers increase their productivity, too!

Tips for increasing productivity at work

Declutter your busy schedule and start doing the work the really matters. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Focus on a single strategy

In this example from HBR, a consultant was able to increase company-wide performance by reducing its strategic plan from 15 strategies to one. Instead of planning for how to keep all the employees occupied at all times, the new strategic plan focused on how to meet market demand in a more efficient manner.

Focus on results; not time

Time tracking is unavoidable in some instances, but rather than the rule by which companies operate, it should be used as a secondary metric to the results they achieve. Rather than give an employee a 2-hour window to do a job, have her do it right the first time (bonus points for documenting the process), then review and adjust your future plans based on time tracking data.

Improve systems

As we’ve written about before, nobody wants to be a paper pusher. Not only does an overly bureaucratic system gum up the works of your organization, it can also drain employee morale and create disengagement.

Luckily, there are plenty of options for streamlining processes and workflows.

For instance, electronic signatures can quickly replace the need to print, sign, scan, and email a signed document. Making things easier for your employees is great, but saving money for the organization is even better— check out how this law firm reduced administrative costs by 30-50% by switching to electronic signatures.

Improving systems helps remove busywork from an employee’s day, but it also makes things easier for the customer. See how digital workflows fueled the rapid growth of Instacart in this case study.

Whether you’re getting a lot of satisfaction from being busy or just feeling exasperated, don’t forget to occasionally stop and ask yourself: Is this the best use of time?

Cut busy from your business

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