Busy vs. Productive: 7 Tips to be Productive, Not Busy

Busy street

We live in a highly cluttered world today. There are advertisements everywhere, driving different marketing messages into our brains. The internet is available 24/7, keeping us busy every minute of the day. And we are automatically put in a matrix the moment we are born, where we are fitted into society’s mould and inculcated with imposed purposes.

Because of that, I suspect many of us today are busy, but not really productive. YouTube has its recommended videos to keep you watching from one video to the next. But have you thought about whether this actually helps you to be productive? Facebook is designed to be sticky, so if you have no specific plans for the day, you may find yourself clicking from one profile to another, doing nothing except follow people’s updates. Before you know it, you have spent hours surfing pages that have nothing to do with your life! We are told every day to earn money, pursue specific career paths, and pursue a particular middle-class dream. What if these are not in line with your true purpose? Wouldn’t you just be wasting years following something that doesn’t bring you closer to your goals?


As the internet becomes busier than ever, as our world remains in a “more is better” mentality, I believe this busy vs. productive cycle will become worse before it will become better. How accomplished you will be depends on your ability to stay productive, not busy. Success here is defined by you, of course. 🙂

Today, I share 7 differences between busy and productive people. Which group are you in? 🙂

1. Busy people work hard. Productive people work hard and work smart.

Busy people are not lazy people. They work hard. That’s why they’re always so busy — they have a good work ethic.

The problem is they work hard without working smart. They are efficient but don’t think about being effective. For example, they repeat steps but don’t think about whether they are needed in the first place. They follow instructions without considering if there can be a better way to get things done.

On the other hand, productive people focus on being effective, then efficient. Efficiency means getting granular tasks done quickly and accurately. Effectiveness means finding the most resource-optimal approach to do things. An example of an efficient person is someone who types 120 WPM to transfer text from paper to computer, while an effective person is someone who uses a text scanner to instantly achieve the same output in a fraction of the time.

Text scanner

Example of a text scanner at work. You scan over text like a highlighter, and the text will be sent to your device in real time through bluetooth.

Effectiveness comes before efficiency, because if your approach is ineffective, you waste precious time/energy even if you are efficient. For example, no matter how efficient you are, when you do resource intensive work on a slow computer, you will be forever limited by its slow processing power. Or you can rush through a 10-step work process, but if 7 of these steps are redundant, wouldn’t you just be wasting time with these 7 steps? Or you can cut down a bulky process to just 2 steps, but if the whole thing can be automated, isn’t it better to let machines handle it?

For many months I tried to write to no avail. Even though I was busy chugging it out in my WordPress every day, I was not writing anything usable. My words were uninspired and my prose, dry. That’s because I was being drained by my dry, metallic and soulless environment. Even if I were to spend 10 hours writing daily, I would get nothing done. So I took a work retreat in Ubud where I was not only able to write and create freely, but was so productive that I wrote enough new material for the next 2 months.

In my work, busy is when I push myself to write even when I feel heavily uninspired. In this scenario, I can spend weeks writing but not produce an article. Productive is when I consciously alter my environment to put myself in an inspired state, so my words flow freely. In this scenario, I can finish article after article each week, even though I’m working for the same amount of time. I share more on addressing writer’s block in my podcast, PEP008: How to Overcome Writer’s Block. More on the role of environment in your goals: Using Your Environment to Achieve Your Goals

How about you? Are you working smart and hard? Or are you just working hard only? How can you improve the way you work so you can be productive, not just busy?

Read: Achieve More With Less In Life Using 80/20 Principle (series)

2. Busy people focus on micro details only. Productive people focus on macro and micro details.

Man working at his computer


Details are important. Many successful people are detail oriented. Steve Jobs himself was known for being details-obsessed; he agonized over the way the title bars at the top of Macintosh windows looked, even going through 20 designs with his team before he was happy with the final design. That’s because he knew that this is something that the end user will be seeing every day, and hence needs to be perfect.[1]

But busy people can be overly focused with details with no end in mind. I do this sometimes. They are too concerned about A or B when neither matters as much as it’s just about picking one and go. For example, with an online business, it doesn’t matter whether you pick template A or B, or site name A or B, or logo A or B, especially if you are just starting out. Just pick one and go, then revise it later as you get more insights. Until you test it, you can’t possibly know what people will like, can you? With a blog, it doesn’t matter whether your writing is perfect or not, especially when you just started and barely have a readership. Just write and learn as you go along! There’s no need to wait until your skills are “perfect” before you proceed, because then you’ll miss out on all the people you can be helping in the meantime. My work was not perfect when I started, and even today it still isn’t. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing, publishing.

What is your end goal? You need to ask yourself that. With writing a book, your big picture goal may be to spread message X among a certain audience. With a food business, it may be to promote healthy eating in the nation. With a software development business, maybe it’s to create software that makes a difference. With a podcast, it may be to spread inspirational ideas on living.

Silhouette of a man, before a sunrise

What’s the end goal you’re pursuing?

Some details matter while some don’t. Productive people evaluate details against the big picture before considering whether to pursue them. Busy people focus on detail after detail without regard for the big picture. You can’t tweak details endlessly without a clear goal, because then you’ll just be stuck in the mud with no end in sight. Focus on perfecting the 80/20, which are big rocks that create a 80% impact; not the 20/80, which are micro details that lead to a 20% effect. Only when you have the 80/20 in place, and when further tweaking is well worth the cost, should you then look at the 20/80.


3. Busy people do not think about their life direction, instead letting others set their direction. Productive people set their direction and constantly evaluate their progress vs. direction.

Even though societies and government try to sell you certain career paths and even life paths as the “right” choice, this doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. Everyone has their agenda to sell, especially groups with vested interests. What is a lucrative path today may not be so 10 years later, as time has repeatedly shown. For example, the shipping industry was hugely lucrative in Singapore in the 1990s and 2000s, with large bonuses and huge job prospects. Today, not so much as numerous marine and offshore companies have relocated overseas, the local marine industry is facing severe job cuts, and home-grown shipping line NOL, which used to be wholly government owned, recently got sold at only less than half the share price paid to raise its stake about a decade ago.[2][3][4]

Industries grow and shrink. Some will become obsolete as technologies and market needs evolve. Organizations will push for their agendas, sometimes masquerading them as care and concern for you.

Your role here isn’t to blindly take what media, newspapers, political groups, or even school teachers try to sell you as gospel truth. Your role is to consciously think about what you want for your life.

What is your life direction? What do you want to do in your life? What is your ideal life like?

Know that when your ladder is propped up against the wrong wall, you can spend all your time climbing but reach a different place. Busy people go through monotony of routine work each day without thinking about what they want. Because of that, they spend their whole lives rushing, racing, and spinning in their hamster wheels but not get to where they really want. Productive people, on the other hand, are clear about their direction, independent of media conditioning. They subsequently work on achieving it, even if slowly, constantly evaluating if they are on track.

Are you working toward your life direction? If you aren’t, how can you start now? Read: How to Pursue Your Passion (series)

If you don’t know your life purpose yet, don’t worry as most people don’t know their purpose either. I have written a 7-part series to help you discover your life purpose. Read: How to Discover Your Life Purpose (series)

4. Busy people say yes to everything. Productive people say yes/no strategically.

Saying No


Saying no may seem simple but it differentiates between busyness and productivity. Busy people never say no: they say yes to everything without evaluation. Urgent things, inconsequential events, minutiae. As a result, they fill their schedules with endless things that keep them busy, but don’t change their life.

Productive people, on the other hand, say yes choicefully. They deeply evaluate decisions, especially those that require a mid-to-long term investment of their time, before saying “yes” or “no.” That’s because they know that each “yes” conveyed now will take up their time later on. They also know that many yeses to the wrong things, even if small, will eventually lead them onto the wrong path. Saying “no” is to protect this limited resource called “time” so they can use it for the things that matter and make the greatest impact in their life.

Do you say yes to everything? If you have a problem saying no, I feel the same sometimes. Check out my guides on how to say no:

5. Busy people jump on every trend, bandwagon. Productive people consider the value and implications before going into anything.

Rainbow cake

Rainbow cake. Needless to say, it has mass amounts of artificial flavoring and coloring.

I live in a country where lifestyle gimmicks and food crazes are a national pastime. Every few weeks there is some new food item in town, after which countless food outlets replicate this item while people from all walks of life go out of the way to try it, sometimes even spending hours queuing for it. The recent “trend” (as of early 2016) is croissant with salted egg yolk (or anything with salted egg yolk really), and before that there was froyo with multi-layered toppings, bingsu (a Korean dessert), anything Hello Kitty, rainbow cakes, charcoal toast, over-the-top cake shakes, and fried ice cream rolls.

There’s nothing wrong in following trends sometimes, especially if done for enjoyment’s sake. But know that lifestyle (including fashion) trends are just a market movement, usually put into motion by high-level stakeholders. They are no more a distraction and an inconsequential blip in the market. Just because people are doing X doesn’t mean you need to do X. Just because Y is popular doesn’t mean you need to try Y. You need to consider its place and value in your life, rather than diving head first into every fancy thing that hits it big with people.

The same applies for trends in every industry really. So every business has a mobile app today: so what? Doesn’t mean you need to have an app. Consider the value of an app in your business before deciding whether to have one. So Kindle Store and iBooks Store are big ebook distribution channels: doesn’t mean you need to sell your ebooks there. There are other considerations like whether they are a fit with your book pricing strategy, the costs of making your ebook compatible with those devices, and administrative overhead of dealing with another distribution channel. So everyone has a blog today and claims to make money from blogging. So? How many people really make money from blogging anyway, out of those not in the “make money online” space? And how would a blog fit into your career plans and life mission? These are hard questions you should be asking yourself before jumping into everything.

On this note, modern-day products and services come with an endless number of add-on features as part of showcasing their “value added.” But consider their value in the big scheme of things. This article by an ex-Google employee echoes what I feel regarding the illusion of choice today. You may have endless options in an app. But what if all these options are crap? Do you then improve your life by using this app, or are you just ping-ponging around the restricted canvas in that app that’s meant to create stickiness for that app, within that business? You may have a nice selection of news stories at a local news site. But what if these stories are nothing but carefully curated news and opinion pieces meant to condition you of a skewed national ideal, orchestrated by a selected few in power? How would reading these news then forward your life, your consciousness? These are hard questions to think about.

Link: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds

Just because you are presented with more options and details today doesn’t mean it’s good. Be aware of such mind traps. Majority of stuff today is noise and does not help further your life. This includes blog sites with repetitive tips; sites that perpetuate the “make money online” dream; sites with elaborate sales funnels designed to lock you in their questionable material. Think deeply about value vs. cost before pursuing anything that looks “trendy.”

Read: Regarding Distractions

6. Busy people always have excuses not to work on their Q2. Productive people make time for them.

Busy people do not have time for their Q2 tasks. When asked why, they say: “I’m busy.” “I don’t have time.” “I have this other urgent thing, so I’m going to put off this [Q2 task that’s going to make a huge impact on my life] for the time being.”

These are legitimate reasons… when occurring on a one-off basis. The thing is busy people never have time. It’s always one reason or another as they keep putting off their goals and life. Once there was someone who told me he was very eager to join this particular course X I was running. He pulled out at the last minute, saying he was busy and had something else on. Now that’s fine except that he did this with each live run, always saying he was very keen to join (my course was related to a crucial problem he was facing), but suddenly saying that he was busy and couldn’t make it. I eventually realized that he was just playing lip service and focused my energy on people who were really interested in joining and making a difference. In contrast, I have US West Coast participants who attend every live class even though it starts at 5am their time (so they have to wake up extra early for the course) and Australian participants who stay on till the end even though the classes end at 1am their time. They attend even though they can listen to the recording later or even get the self-administered version of the course to do at their time.

To the perpetually busy folks, consider this: What is time? It’s a construct to help us organize our life. Terms like “9am,” “January,” “Monday,” “2016” are created to make it easy to communicate with each other and collaborate. What fills up our time is then a direct consequence of what we let into our days.

In this noise-filled world today, when we don’t choose, our days will automatically be filled with to-do’s — others’ to-do’s. Even when you rigorously clear the stuff on your plate, there will always be new stuff that comes in later. Productive people understand this and that’s why they never wait until they are “free” for their Q2 goals. They make the time for their Q2 and always bump them up as priority on their to-do list.

You will never have time for your Q2 if you wait to have free time. Make time for it. Q2 goals are goals that will make the greatest impact in your life. So, shouldn’t you start work on them now, to reap the maximum benefits later?


7. Busy people try to do everything themselves. Productive people find the best tools, services, and people to help them.

Meeting with a client

Ever since I hired a personal assistant, I have been able to focus my energy on the bigger rocks of my business. While before I would be weighed down with everything from administration to marketing to content creation, at least now I have my assistant to help me with admin and various digital marketing tasks. On top of that I have Ken to consult on technical matters, my web host’s tech team for server-related matters, and I’m continually looking for ways to delegate, outsource.

It’s not just about getting help from people, too. Even if you work primarily alone, which I do, there are many tools and product-based services that can hugely improve how you work. For example, I recently invested in tools that make it so much easier to do marketing online. With these tools, I can do advanced segmentation and send customized offerings to different groups of people. I also get advanced stats to pinpoint what’s working well and what’s not, so that I can improve my methods. In contrast, my previous tools only had one big blob of aggregated data that’s practically useless. Even though the new tools cost much more than the previous ones, they are investments well worth the money, compared to the time I save and what I can do with them.

There’s no need to do everything alone. There are tools, people, contractors, and services out there that can help you. If you’re facing a problem, chances are there are people out there who have faced this too. Research and look for solutions to your problem. Talk to co-workers to understand how they solve similar problems. Consult people with the right expertise. Read online reviews and recommendations (but beware of biased affiliate reviews that promote services for money, rather than because it’s really the best service for you). Ask friends for ideas. Find ways to leverage, meaning to strategically use resources to increase what you can do, rather than get stuck doing everything by yourself.

Read: Your Guide To Outsourcing

End Note

Being busy can be a comfortable trap. When you’re busy, you don’t need to think. You just need to do. Sometimes, your head can be burrowed so deep in your work that years can pass before you realize the time that has passed you by.

But I don’t want you to be just busy. I want you to be productive too. I want you to make the best out of your life and shine brightly as you. Doing so requires you to take on some hard action and make some hard decisions, but that’s part and parcel of living your true path.

Think about the past 3, 6, 9 months of your life. Have you been busy or productive? If you’re just been busy, how can you apply the tips above to turn your days into productive ones? 🙂 How can you make the best out of days vs. being busy for busy’s sake?

Also check out:

Images: Busy street, Text scanner, Man working at his computer, Silhouette of a man, Saying No, Rainbow cake, Meeting with a client

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