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

Busy vs. Productive

Are you often busy, but you look back after a month and wonder where all the time has gone?

In our busy world today, many of us are good at being busy but not productive. Busy is a lazy way of living because all you do is bury yourself in tasks. Productivity requires you to think consciously about your actions to achieve more in life. Here are 7 differences between busy people and productive people. Which group are you in?

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

It is important to have a good work ethic. Busy people have great work ethics which is why they are always busy. The problem is not that they don’t work hard. It’s that they don’t work smart. They work linearly without considering better ways to do things.

Productive people focus on being effective first, then efficient. They keep looking for better ways to achieve the same outcome and put their time to better use.

  • Effectiveness = Finding the most resource-optimal way to do things
  • Efficiency = Doing granular steps quickly

When you’re efficient without being effective, your upstream inefficiencies ripple downstream. Even if you are efficient, you will still be unproductive. For example, when you edit videos on a slow computer, you are limited by its processing power. Even if you can edit fast, you are limited by your computer speed. Rather than optimize your editing or try to work faster, invest in a new PC. Or better yet, hire someone so you don’t have to be involved in the editing at all.

Or say you run an online coaching business. Part of your daily to-dos involves coordinating with clients on their timezones and appointment times. This creates a lot of back and forth because you need to check on their availability, confirm timezones, re-check your calendar when they reschedule, etc. While you can do productivity hacks like checking your mail once a day, these are roundabout ways of avoiding the work. Effectiveness is using an automated booking service like Calendly or Acuity Scheduling where your clients can schedule appointments themselves. 

3 questions for you:

  1. What tasks are you working on? Are these tasks necessary?
  2. Can you find a better way to do things?
  3. How can you improve your approach to 10X your productivity?

Read: How to Achieve More With Less Using The 80/20 Principle (series)

2. Busy people get drowned in the details. Productive people keep their eyes on the macro and micro.

Man working at his computer

(Image: kelp)

Busy people often get drowned in the details. They are too concerned about detail A or B when it’s more important to pick one and go. For example

  • In an online business, it doesn’t matter whether you pick template A or B if you are just starting out. Just pick one and go. Revise later when you get more insights. Until you test it, you can’t know what people would like.
  • Same for writing your first blog articles — it doesn’t matter if your writing is not that great. Just write and learn as you go along! My work was not perfect when I started and it still isn’t! But that hasn’t stopped me from writing and publishing.

Of course, details are important. Steve Jobs was details-obsessed. He agonized over the way Macintosh windows title bars looked, going through 20 designs with his team before he was happy with the final output. He recognized that this is something the user would see every day, which was why he wanted it to be perfect.[1]

The key is to focus on details that will dramatically affect your end outcome. Perfect the things that will make a big difference to your end goal. For the rest of the tasks, delegate, outsource, get the 80/20 in place, or get rid of them. You don’t need to do everything right. You just need to do the right things right.


3. Busy people let other people set their direction. Productive people set their direction and evaluate their progress against this direction.

Even though society may try to sell you certain career paths as the “right” choice, this doesn’t mean that they are right for you. Industries grow and shrink. Some industries become obsolete as technologies and markets evolve.

For example, the shipping industry used to be a hugely lucrative and a highly regarded career path in Singapore in the 1990s and 2000s. People often spoke about the huge bonuses and job prospects in this field. Now, it has become a mere shadow of its former self as the local marine industry is facing severe job cuts and many marine companies have relocated overseas. Home-grown shipping line Neptune Orient Lines, which used to be wholly government owned (in Singapore, being “government-backed” or “government-owned” has the connotation of being unshakeable), got sold in 2015 at only S$1.30 a share, significantly lower than the S$2.80 paid to raise its stake in 2004.[2][3][4]

Instead of buying into what others try to sell you as the gospel truth, think about what you want for yourself. What is your passion? What is your vision? Even if you can’t do it right away, you can work towards it. It’s more important to work towards what you want, even if slowly, rather than do something you hate for the rest of your life.

If you don’t know your life purpose yet, I have a 7-part series to discover your life purpose. Check out my passion series as well: How to Pursue Your Passion (series)

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

Saying No

(Image: Gunnar Pippel)

Saying no makes a big difference between busyness and productivity. Busy people never say no: they say yes to everything. Hence they fill their schedules with things that keep them busy but don’t change their life.

Productive people say yes very choicefully. Why?

  • They know that each “yes” today will take up their time later on.
  • They also know that many yeses to the wrong things, even if they are small, will eventually lead them to the wrong path.

Saying “no” is about protecting this limited resource called “time” so that you can use it for the things that matter. Do you say yes to everything? If you have a problem saying no, check out my “Say No” guides:

5. Busy people jump onto every trend. Productive people evaluate the pros/cons before doing something.

In Singapore, food crazes are a national pastime. Every few months there is a new food in town, after which people go out of the way to try it, often queuing for hours.

Rainbow cake

Rainbow cake, one of the past food fads in Singapore, along with salted egg yolk croissant, froyo, bingsu, rainbow cakes, charcoal toast, and fried ice cream rolls. (Image: Free Large Images)

There’s nothing wrong with following trends if you enjoy them. But recognize that societal trends are largely market movements. When one trend is over, another will take its place. It never ends. Just because everyone is doing X doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. Consider its value rather than diving headfirst into every trend.

The same applies to business trends.

  • So every business has a mobile app today — so what? This doesn’t mean that you need to have an app. Consider its value in your business before deciding whether to get one.
  • So Kindle Store is now a big ebook distribution channel: doesn’t mean you need to sell your ebooks there. There are other considerations like whether it is a fit with your pricing strategy, the costs of making your ebook compatible with those devices, and administrative overhead of dealing with another distribution channel.
  • Everyone has a blog today and claims to make money from blogging. But so what? Out of the people who claim to make money blogging, how many are not in the “make money online” space? (Clue: it’s less than 0.01% of the industry.) How many people really succeed with a blog? How would a blog fit into your career plans and life mission? These are hard questions to think about before jumping into a totally new field.

Modern-day products and services come with endless features. 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 noise? Are you really improving your life with this app, or are you just locked in the restricted space in this app?

Similarly, you may have a variety of news stories in your local newspaper. But what if these stories are nothing but carefully curated news stories and opinion pieces to convince you of a skewed ideology, orchestrated by those in power? How would reading these news forward your life? This is something to think about.

Read: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds

Just because you have more options today doesn’t mean that it’s good. Be aware of mind traps. Many things today are distractions and do not help further our lives. Think about the value of what you do before you jump into it.

Read: How Social Media Creates a Fear of Missing Out (And What To Do About It)

6. Busy people always have excuses not to work on their Quadrant 2 goals. Productive people make time for them.

Busy people do not have time for their Quadrant 2 goals. 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 task now (even though it’s going to make a huge impact on my life).” These are legitimate reasons if they happen once in a while.

But busy people never have time. They always have a reason to put off their Q2 goals, which is why they are always busy — they are not able to rise above their “busyness” to become productive.

Once I met someone who was very eager to join my business course. 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 two other live runs of the same course, always saying that he was very keen to join, but suddenly backing out and saying he couldn’t make it. This was after I had already allocated a seat for him. This course would solve a huge pain point in his business.

I later realized that he was paying lip service, so I stopped paying attention to him and focused on those who were really serious in the course. In comparison, I have participants from the U.S. who attend every live class even though it starts at 5 am their time (they wake up extra early) and Australian participants who stay on till the end even though the classes end at 1 am their time. They attend even though they could listen to the recording later or buy the self-paced version of the course

To the perpetually busy folks, consider this: What is time? It’s a construct to organize our life. Terms like “9 am,” “12pm,” “Monday,” and “Tuesday” are meant for us to easily communicate and collaborate with others. What fills up our time is a result of what we let into our days.

When we don’t choose, our days automatically get filled with to-do’s — other people’s to-dos. Even if you rigorously clear the stuff on your plate, there will always be new stuff that comes in later. Productive people understand this, which is why they never wait until they are “free” to work on their Q2 goals. They make the time for their Q2 no matter how busy they are.

You will never have time for your Q2 goals if you wait until you are free. Make time for them. Q2 goals are goals that will make the greatest impact in your life. How about starting them now so that you can reap your rewards?


7. Busy people try to do everything themselves. Productive people use the rights tools and resources to help them.

I used to do everything myself. This was a nightmare as my business grew bigger and running an online business became extremely complex. I was busy every day while not getting much done. When you’re done with a zillion little tasks, you are mentally drained with no mental space to work on the high-level stuff.

At one point, you need to hire. Otherwise, you will reach an upper limit in your business growth. Hiring has its issues because you can get bad hires — people who can’t listen to instructions or people who keep messing up and you spend more time cleaning the mess than if you did it yourself in the first place. Your staff can just drop and go after you have taught them all the ropes. These issues have happened to me before and it’s the reality of life. This doesn’t change the fact that we need to delegate, while being choiceful about who we hire, because we can’t do everything ourselves.

My approach towards hiring is this — if a task is not the best use of my time as the business owner and it has a high recurrence rate, I’ll hire someone to take care of it. Some work I’ve outsourced before are graphic design, admin work, and podcast editing. My favorite is Fiverr as you can hire someone very quickly at a good cost. Upwork and People Per Hour are suitable for more complex work.

Getting help isn’t restricted to hiring. Getting the right tools and services is important too. Over the past few years, I have switched to premium third-party payment carts, page builders, and course platforms instead of building everything in-house. I used to build everything in-house and it was a painful mess as running an online business became extremely complicated. Using third-party tools have saved me so much time because I no longer need to worry about maintenance, things breaking, etc. — I can just leave it to the specialists. I see this as delegating a part of my business to an external team for a recurring fee. What I save in time and mental space is invaluable.

We only have a limited amount of time a day. If a task is taking too much time, and it’s not the most crucial part of your business, get others to do it. Research to learn how others have solved this problem. Talk to your work peers to understand how they solved similar problems. Consult people with the right expertise. Hire, delegate, outsource, or use a product/service that can complete it faster (and better) than you can. Don’t do everything yourself as two heads are better than one. Humans work better as a collective, not alone. Humans achieve more when working together, not in silos.

To You

Being busy is a nice escape sometimes because you don’t need to think. You can simply shut off your mind and just go through the motions.

But to do so is to live an unconscious life. Think about the past 3 months of your life. Have you been busy or productive? How can you use the tips above to increase your productivity?

Read as well:


Love, Celes

Share this post:

You May Also Like

Get My Free Tips on Personal Growth

Like what you see? Sign up for free updates, course announcements, and special offers that I send only to my subscribers. Only great stuff, promise.

I respect your privacy. Unsubscribe whenever you want. Read our Privacy Policy.