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

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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 mold 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 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 but following 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 careers, and pursue a 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 cycle of being busy (rather than being productive) will become worse before it becomes better. How accomplished you become depends on your ability to stay productive, not busy. Success here is defined by you of course. 🙂

In this post 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 these steps are needed in the first place. They follow instructions without considering if there can be 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 uses a text scanner to instantly achieve the same output in a fraction of the time.

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, 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 work process, but if 50% of the steps are redundant, you are just wasting time with them.

For many months I tried to write to no avail. Even though I was busy chugging it out in my editor every day, I was not writing anything usable. My words were uninspired and my prose, dry. That’s because I was being drained by the dry, metallic environment in Singapore. So I took a work retreat to Ubud. Not only was I able to write and create freely, but I was so productive that I wrote enough new material to last me for 2 months.

In my work, being busy is when I push myself to write even when I’m in a rut. In this scenario, I can spend weeks writing but not produce anything. Productive is when I consciously alter my environment to be inspired, so that my words flow freely. In this scenario, I can finish article after article 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 hard and working smart? How can you improve your approach to 10X your productivity?

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

(Image: kelp)

Details are important. Many successful people are detail-oriented. Steve Jobs himself was 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 get overly focused with details with no end in mind. They are too concerned about A or B when neither matters as much as just picking 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 especially if you are just starting out. Just pick one and go, and then revise it later when you get more insights. Until you test it, you can’t possibly know what people will 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, even today. 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 in your community. 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.

Silhouette of a man, before a sunrise

What’s the end goal you’re pursuing? (Image: Hernán Piñera)

Some details matter while others don’t. Productive people evaluate details against the big picture before considering whether to perfect them. On the other hand, busy people focus on detail after detail 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, which are big rocks that create a 80% impact. Forgo the 20/80 which are micro details that lead to a 20% effect. You should only perfect micro details when you have the 80/20 in place and when further tweaking is worth the cost.


3. Busy people do not think about their life direction but let 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 they are right for you. Everyone is selling an agenda, especially those 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. It’s not so anymore 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 over 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, teachers, or even religious groups 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 is your vision for your ideal life?

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 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. 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 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

(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 from urgent things to 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 their decisions, especially those that require a fair investment of their time, before saying “yes” or “no.” That’s because 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, I feel the same sometimes. Check out my guides on saying no:

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 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 queuing for hours. The recent “trend” (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 anyone?), 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 done for enjoyment’s sake. But recognize that lifestyle and fashion trends are just market movements, usually put into motion by high-level stakeholders. 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 head first into every fancy thing that hits it big with the masses.

The same applies for 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 an endless number of 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 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 forward your life, your consciousness? These are hard questions to think about.

Read: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds

Just because you are presented with more options and details today doesn’t mean that it’s good. Be aware of 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, 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… when occurring once in a long while. The thing is that busy people never have time. There’s always one reason or another as they keep putting off their goals and life.

Once there was someone who told me that he was very eager to join this particular course I was running. He pulled out at the last minute, saying that he was busy and had something else on. Now that’s fine except that he did this with each live run, always saying that he was very keen to join (my course was related to a crucial problem he was facing), but suddenly backing out and saying he couldn’t make it.

I eventually realized that he was just playing lip service and focused my energy on those who were really interested to join. In contrast, I have West Coast participants from the U.S. who attend every live class even though it starts at 5am their time (they wake up extra early) and Australian participants who stay on till the end even though the classes end at 1am their time. They attend even though they could listen to the recording later on or even purchase the product version of the course 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 “9am,” “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 this noise-filled world today, when we don’t choose, our days will automatically be filled with to-do’s — other people’s 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” to do 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. How about starting work 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 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 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 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 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 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 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?

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