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

We live in a noisy world today. We see ads everywhere, driving different messages into our brains. The internet is open 24/7, keeping us busy. And we are put into a matrix the minute we are born, forced to fit into society’s molds.

Because of that, many of us are busy but not productive.

  • Facebook has teams of growth-hackers hired to hack into our brains and make us stick around the platform for as long as possible, without considering our priorities/needs. So you may often click from link to link on Facebook, doing nothing but following random updates. Soon you would have spent hours reading posts with nothing to do with your life.
  • YouTube recommends you videos to keep you watching one video after another. But have you thought about whether this is helping you in your life?
  • We are told to earn money, to pursue certain life paths, and to pursue an “American” or [XXX] dream. But what if these are not in line with your life purpose? Wouldn’t you be wasting precious years of your life doing something that doesn’t bring you closer to your highest dreams?

Being busy is not the goal — being productive is. A productive person can work fewer hours and get more done, compared to a busy person who works 12 hours a day but isn’t productive.

In this post, I share 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.

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

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

On the other hand, productive people focus on being effective, then efficient. Efficiency means doing granular steps quickly and accurately. Effectiveness means finding the most resource-optimal way 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 thinks of a smarter way — such as using a text scanner to achieve the same output in seconds.

Text scanner

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. (Image: Gadget Flow)

Effectiveness comes before efficiency. That’s because if your approach is ineffective, you waste precious time and energy even if you are efficient. For example, no matter how efficient you are, when you do high-resource work on a slow computer, you are limited by its slow processing power. Or you can do things very quickly, but if 50% of your tasks are useless, then you are just wasting time.

In my work, being busy is when I push myself to write when I’m in a rut. For many months I tried to write to no avail. Even though I was chugging it out in WordPress every day, none of my material was usable. A part of it was because I was drained by the dry, metallic environment in Singapore. So I took a work retreat to Ubud. Not only could I write freely, but I created enough new material for two months!

Here, being busy is when I chase task after task but get nothing done. Being productive is when I alter my environment to improve my output. The same amount of time spent, but vastly different output. I share more on addressing writer’s block in my podcast: How to Overcome Writer’s Block. More on the role of environment in your goals: Using Your Environment to Achieve Your Goals

To you: Are you working hard and smart? 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 focus on micro details. Productive people focus on macro and micro details.

Man working at his computer

(Image: kelp)

Details are important. Many successful people are detail-oriented. Steve Jobs was details-obsessed. He agonized over the way the title bars at the top of Macintosh windows looked, going through 20 designs with his team before he was happy with the final output. He knew this is something the end user would be seeing every day, and hence needed to be perfect.[1]

But busy people get overly focused on details with no end in mind. They are too concerned about 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, or logo A or B if you are just starting out. Just pick one and go. Revise it later when you get more insights. Until you test it, you can’t know what people would like.

With a blog, it doesn’t matter if your writing is not that great, especially when you’re just starting and barely have any readers. Just write and learn as you go along! There’s no need to wait until your skills are “perfect” as you’ll miss out on all the people you can be helping in the meantime. My work was not perfect when I started and it still isn’t. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing and publishing.

What is your end goal? Ask yourself that. With a book, your end goal may be to spread message X among a certain audience. With a food business, it may be to promote healthy eating. With a software business, it may be to create software that makes a difference. With a podcast, it may be to spread inspirational ideas on living.

Some details matter while others don’t. Productive people assess details against the big picture before considering whether to perfect them. On the other hand, busy people focus on details without regard for the big picture.

Get clear of your end goal first. This way, you’ll know which details are important and which aren’t. Focus on perfecting the 80/20 — big rocks that create an 80% impact. Forgo the 20/80 which are micro details that lead to a small effect. Only perfect micro details when you have the 80/20 in place and when tweaking little details is worth the cost.


3. Busy people let others set their direction. Productive people set their direction and constantly evaluate their progress vs. direction.

Even though society and government sell you certain career/life paths as the “right” choice, this doesn’t mean that they are right for you. Everyone is selling an agenda, especially if they have 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. It’s not so anymore as many marine companies have relocated overseas. The local marine industry is facing severe job cuts. Home-grown shipping line Neptune Orient Lines, which used to be wholly government owned, recently got sold at less than half the share price paid to raise its stake over a decade ago.[2][3][4]

Industries grow and shrink. Some will become obsolete as technologies and market needs evolve.

Your goal isn’t to blindly take what media, newspapers, political groups, teachers, or even religious groups try to sell you as the gospel truth. Your goal is to think about what you want your life.

What is your life direction? What is your vision for your life?

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 the monotony 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. On the other hand, productive people 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 discover your life purpose. Read: How to Find Your Life Purpose (series)

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

Saying No

(Image: Gunnar Pippel)

Saying no may seem simple but it makes a big difference between busyness and productivity. Busy people never say no: they say yes to everything. 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 their decisions, especially those that require a fair investment of their time, before saying “yes” or “no.” 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 small yeses, will eventually lead them to the wrong path.

Saying “no” is about protecting this limited resource called “time” so that they can use it for the things that matter.

Do you say yes to everything? If you have a problem saying no, check out my guides:

5. Busy people jump onto every trend and bandwagon. Productive people consider the value and implication of things before following them.

Rainbow cake

Rainbow cake. Needless to say, it’s chocked full of artificial flavoring and coloring. (Image: Free Large Images)

I live in Singapore where food crazes are a national pastime. Every month there is a 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 queuing for hours. The recent “trend” (in early 2016) is croissant with salted egg yolk or anything with salted egg yolk. Before that, there was froyo with multi-layered toppings (llao llao), 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 with following trends sometimes, especially if you do so for the sake of enjoyment. But recognize that lifestyle and fashion trends are just market movements. They are no more a distraction. Just because people do 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 rather than dive headfirst into every fancy thing that hits it big with the masses.

The same applies to business trends.

  • So every business has a mobile app today: so what? Doesn’t mean you need to have an app. Consider its value in your business before deciding whether to get 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.
  • Everyone has a blog today and claims to make money from blogging. So? How many people really make money from blogging out of those not in the “make money online” space? (Clue: it’s less than 0.01% of the industry.) And how would a blog fit into your career plans and life mission? These are hard questions to ask before jumping in.

On this note, modern-day products and services come with endless add-on 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. What if all these options are actually noise? Are you really improving your life with this app, or are you just ping-ponging around the restricted canvas in this app?

Similarly, you may have a selection of news stories in your local newspaper. 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 those in power? How would reading these news stories forward your life, your consciousness? Think about these hard questions.

Read: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds

Just because you have more options and details 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. This includes blogs with repetitive tips, sites that perpetuate the “make money online” dream, and sites with elaborate sales funnels designed to lock you in their questionable material. Think deeply about value vs. cost before pursuing anything “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 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 Q2 task (even though it’s going to make a huge impact on my life) for now.”

These are legitimate reasons… if they occur once in a long while. The thing is busy people never have time. There’s always one reason or another to put off their long-term goals and life.

Once I met someone who told me he was very eager to join one of my business courses. 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 course, always saying that he was very keen to join, but suddenly backing out and saying he couldn’t make it. This course would solve a huge pain point in his life.

I later realized he was just playing lip service and focused on those who were really interested to join. In contrast, 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 on or purchase the self-paced product version to do in their time.

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

In our noisy world today, when we don’t choose, our days automatically get filled with to-do’s — other people’s to-dos. 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” to do their Q2 goals. They make the time for their Q2 and always bump them up as a priority on their to-do list.

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 on them now so that you can reap maximum rewards sooner than later?


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

Ever since I hired an assistant and a helper, 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 admin to marketing to content creation, at least now I have my assistant to help me with admin and various marketing tasks. On top of that, I consult Ken 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. Even if you work primarily alone like I do, there are many tools that can hugely improve how you work. For example, I recently invested in tools that make it much easier to do my work. With them, I can do advanced segmentation and send customized offerings to my audience. I also get advanced stats to pinpoint what’s working and what’s not so I can improve my methods. In contrast, my previous tools only offered one big blob of data that was practically useless. Even though the new tools cost much more than my previous ones, they are well worth the money with the time I save.

There’s no need to do everything alone. There are tools, people, contractors, and services to help you. If you’re facing a problem, chances are there are people 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 rather than do everything yourself.

To You

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

But I don’t want you to just be 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 hard action and make 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 have 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 your days vs. being busy for busy’s sake?

Check out:


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