What's wrong with being busy? How to work less and accomplish more

Published: Mar 13, 2018

busy man

What’s wrong with being busy? According to career experts, psychologists and other healthcare providers, and industry leaders, a whole a lot. A simple google search on the effects of busyness will turn up hundreds of diatribes against this productivity-killer. Just consider the words used to describe the state of being “busy”: an epedmic; a sickness; a disease. The antidote to productivity, being “busy” can have some seriously negative effects on your professional and personal life.  

So how do you know if you’re truly productive or if you’re just a busy person? If you say yes to more than two or three of these questions, you’re likely more “busy” than “productive,” and you should to re-evaluate how you’re prioritizing your tasks and whether or not you’re accomplishing those higher-stakes goals that really matter to you.

1. Are you a multitasker?

Successful multitasking is a myth, a misnomer, a logical fallacy. Researchers agree that multitasking does not in fact lead to any real, quantifiable increase in productivity but only creates the “illusion” of productivity. Our brains simply are not wired to multitask, and no matter how efficient we think we’re being by taking on multiple tasks at one time, our productivity levels, stress levels, and, yes, even our physical and mental health are likely taking a big hit.

2. Do you always say “yes” to new projects and opportunities?

This is a hallmark of a busy person. Being quick to say yes or always saying yes to things can feel like a positive step in the right direction to achieving great things (you’re embracing opportunity, open to everything that comes your way, saying yes to life, and so on and so forth). But even Jim Carrey knew better.

In your career, always saying yes can be a productivity killer. Good leaders and good professionals are discerning. They know when and how to say no so in such a way that it advances their careers and helps them accomplish their most important goals. In other words, they are strategic about saying “yes” or “no” to a project, which also requires some thought and time. So, if you’re too quick to say yes, you’re likely not taking a strategic approach.

3. In the last week, have you said the words “I’m so busy”... more than once?

Busy people like to talk about how busy they are. They see busyness as a kind of “badge of honor” that they misguidedly associate with productivity and success. Busy people want others to know how busy they are, and they want other people to be busy too.  

4. Do you check your email more than 5 times a day (and are you quick to respond to emails)?

This is a tough one. While there is no magic number of times to check one’s email in a day that will set you up for optimal productivity, there’s no question that email can be a powerful distraction and a busy person’s best friend.

One of the most serious problems busy people have is being distracted from important tasks, which is why they’re always doing things but never seem to be making any headway on the big stuff. Email (and I’d even lump in other inter-office messaging systems here, not to mention social media and the internet in general) is the great professional distractor. While you know that checking Facebook or shopping Amazon are productivity no-nos, email is sneaky because it is, after all, a crucial part of your professional life, therefore it can fool you into thinking you’re actually working and accomplishing things.

Busy people check their emails multiple times a day and are very quick to answer, feeling as if waiting too long to reply to a message is a sign that they’re not really working or that they’re lazy. It’s also a quick hit of instant gratification – a micro-task that you can mark off your to-list list in an instant that makes you feel like you’ve just accomplished something.

But, the problem is, when you do this constantly throughout the day, your higher-priority work, the work that really moves the needle for your career, suffers. Productive people, on the other hand, set aside a handful of pre-designated times in one day to devote only to reading and answering messages. They don’t allow themselves to be tempted away from the larger, more important tasks by emails or messages that can wait a few hours.

5. Do you frequently procrastinate and miss deadlines?

If busy people are always saying “yes” to things, they’re likely over-committed, which leads to missed deadlines and procrastination. Busy people often feel “overwhelmed” with all the work they have (and for good reason, they’re probably taking on too much!), and this can lead to resentments about one’s workload and the inability to stay on top of it all.

People tend to procrastinate on tasks that they dread or resent having to do, or they may simply not have enough time to get it all done. Busy people are always, as the old saying goes, “looking up to see the bottom.”

6. Do you feel like there’s never enough time in the day?

Again, this goes back to over-committing and always saying yes. If you frequently end your day wondering where all that time went and why you still have so much that’s left undone, you may have just been too “busy” to accomplish anything.

Remember, busy does not equal productivity. If you’re chasing the daylight and still feel behind in most of your tasks, you’re probably just busy.

7. Can you list off your most important priorities in 5 seconds or less?

Busy people may have a long list of goals they’re working towards (and likely not reaching), but productive people have priorities. They know exactly what their top 3 or top 5 priorities are (at work and in their personal lives) and how their daily tasks advance these priorities. If you can’t immediately name your top 3 priorities off the top of your head, then you need to re-evaluate what you’re actually working towards.

8. Do you feel like you’re always saying “I’m sorry?”

Taking on more than you can handle and always saying yes inevitably leads to tasks unfulfilled, deadlines missed, and a constant string of “I’m sorry”s to your co-workers, boss, family, and friends. If you feel like a broken record and you’ve got “I’m sorry” running on a loop, you’ve likely made yourself too busy and not productive enough. It’s probably time to give some thought to those tasks and habits that are zapping your productivity levels but keeping you running at full speed.

If your career isn’t a big enough motivator for you to make some changes to become more productive, consider the toll that this lifestyle might be taking on your family, your children, or your close friends. Being constantly too busy rather than productive can have lasting negative effects on your personal relationships if you’re stretched way too thin and always stressed out because you’re running ragged but not actually accomplishing any of your higher-level goals. This kind of frantic pace can’t help but seep into your personal life...

9. Are you worried about what other people think of you?

Busy people take on too much too often because they fear appearing unproductive or unsuccessful or that they don’t care about their jobs by their bosses, coworkers, or friends. Perception is important for them, the “illusion” of productivity.

And, it’s not always our fault. This kind of professional insecurity is often encouraged in office environments where co-workers are praised in one way or another for their busy ways. They may develop a real anxiety around appearing un-busy, for fear their boss will view them as unproductive. If this describes your work environment or leadership, you may want to consider making a job change to a company culture that understands and values true productivity, efficiency, and work/life balance and not just busyness or the appearance of productivity.   

10. Do you regularly eat lunch at your desk?

Productive people know and prioritize the true value of their time, and this includes making time to step away from the desk, whether it’s to take a walk, eat lunch, visit the gym, or just have some much-needed downtime. Periods of recharging or rest can actually help you to be more productive, even though you’re stepping away from work for a time.

Busy people can’t seem to drag themselves away, always making excuses for why they need to stay tied to their desk or glued to the computer screen. Busy people often even associate taking breaks with laziness or a lack of productivity, but truly productive people know that pushing pause for a little while each day can energize and help them to accomplish more in the long run.

Still not sure if you're truly productive or just busy? This short animation from After Skool breaks it down: 

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