Being busy is not the same as being productive

Being busy means having a lot to do. This stands in contrast to being productive, which measures effectiveness towards a purpose. Productivity efficiently utilizes time to accomplish set priorities. It requires clarity of purpose and the ability to discern the relative importance of work that needs to be done. It's entirely possible to be busy all the time without being productive. Think of all the times when a meeting left you feeling it was a waste of time. That was being busy without being productive.

While the distinction seems easy on paper, identifying it is challenging in practice. Nevertheless, there are patterns to it that make it easier to recognize.

  1. It's difficult for your team to get the time they need. This is a sign of insufficient delegation or too many competing priorities, turning the individual into a blocker or dependency.
  2. You don't have the time to pay attention to details. Details are essential for technical leaders. The level of detail needed may differ based on your proximity to the team, so knowing how much you need to be effective is important. If you lack or avoid necessary details without delegating responsibility, it's a sign you may have too much on your plate.
  3. All work is high priority all at once. This is a sign of taking on too much. Those susceptible often struggle to say "no", overestimating their capacity, or having difficulty delegating.
  4. The only way to "get things done" is to multi-task. This can lead to unnecessary meetings[1]. Evaluating the impact of your presence in a meeting is crucial; teams with good meeting hygiene make it easier to decide attendance necessity.

While there is no silver bullet to avoiding this trap, there are meaningful steps you can take to improve time spent being productive.

  1. Prioritize the most valuable task and communicate your priorities. Identifying and communicating your priority list can significantly impact your daily life. It provides clarity to those around you about how you plan to allocate your time. This transparency creates a pathway for you to concentrate on what truly matters.
  2. Delegate tasks lower on the priority list. Delegating tasks that you cannot focus on is an excellent method to remove them from your plate while fostering growth opportunities for others. It's an opportunity to provide feedback and train others who would be able to take on similar tasks in the future. It's important to acknowledge they may need more time and may not achieve the same quality at first, but with sufficient growth feedback to enhance their skills, they will improve over time.
  3. Say "no" to things that do not matter. If everything is important, nothing is. Everything has some relative importance and the skill is bringing that importance to the forefront. If you struggle to turn additional tasks down politely, one strategy I've found helpful is to talk about the task's relative priority. For instance, "I'm working on X, with Y and Z lined up. Is this work a higher priority than Y? It will optimistically take a few days to get to it." This approach clarifies your priority list, availability, and opens the task's relative priority for discussion.
  4. Favor quality over quantity. It's important to have a reasonably high standard for quality and allow yourself the time and focus required to meet that standard for quality. More is not always better.

  1. I see this frequently taken to extremes where people take meetings out of their cars. More often than not meetings that they did not need to be in and ultimately did not actively participate in. Apparently, this is enough of a trend that Microsoft Teams is coming to Android Auto. ↩︎

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