How to Be Productive, Not Busy

We all have those days that are go-go-go from the moment you wake up. But what happens when, at the end of that long day, you realize you got nothing done? You’ve just done what so many of us do every day: been busy, not productive.

It’s easy to think that having a jam-packed schedule means you’re getting everything finished, but sometimes we can be so caught up in being busy that we aren’t being smart with our time and can actually be setting ourselves up for extra work, longer hours, and feeling pretty miserable. Here are some tips to make sure your time is well spent.


Diagnose the Problem

The first step towards working smart and not just hard is realizing that something needs to change. Maybe you find yourself going to bed too late and getting up too early; maybe your friends and family have started to call you out on never being available. For whatever reason, it’s finally hitting you: you’re burnt out, and working at this pace won’t last long-term.

If you’re someone who struggles with self-awareness when it comes to work, it helps to ask a friend what they think of your work/life balance – just be sure to let them know that you want honesty. 

Figure Out What Matters

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Something that often plagues busy people is the inability to say, “No.” Whether it’s accepting side projects for friends or joining every committee at work, it can feel good to be active and involved, and sometimes being work-busy gets confused for having a social life.

If you’re looking at your day and not sure where the line is drawn, take a step back and make a list of all the things you’re doing, and why you’re doing them. Did you take on this project because you felt bad saying no, or because you’re passionate about it? Is this side job great, but causing you to miss out on family time? 

Everyone has different priorities in life, so don’t feel like you need to have the same schedule as someone else; just be truthful with yourself about your goals, your interests, and your time management.

Focus Your Attention

Most everyone thinks that being able to multitask is a strength, and while balancing everything at once does take talent, it might not be the best way to handle your to-do list, which is why we feel more accomplished after spending two hours straight tackling a tough project.

Uninterrupted, focused work is the key to making sure you’re being productive.

Finding your work style takes time, but once you understand the setting you’re most productive in, focusing on one project at a time will be so much easier. If you need some background noise, maybe you’re the type who can work at a coffee shop; if being on your couch makes you feel like sleeping, working at home is probably not for you. 

Wherever you need to be, get there, and start doing what’s called “deep work” – periods of focused, distraction-free work on one project, where you can give it all of your attention and get it done better and faster.

Schedule Your Downtime

It might seem silly to schedule time to relax, but most of us need to do just that!  Whether it’s finally using those vacation days you’ve been saving for years, or starting small and putting a movie or dinner out on the calendar, having that written reminder that you need to rest goes a long way. 

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The best thing you can do to make sure this time is actually restful?

Hide the electronics.

You may think that scrolling through your work email from your couch at home counts as taking a break, but trust me, having a clear separation between work and home will change your life!

It’s tempting to bring work home, but soon you’ll be working ‘round the clock, with no space for rest. We’re told to treat our brains like a muscle, and give them plenty of exercise. Doesn’t that mean we should give our brains a break, too? Treat that block of downtime on your calendar like you would any other scheduled meeting: start on time and don’t get distracted!


If you’re finding yourself working busy, don’t worry – it can take years of feeling the burnout before we realize that something has to change. And once you do figure that out, turning your hectic schedule into something productive won’t happen overnight.

Like most things in life, learning to use your time wisely takes time, but I hope these tips will get you started on your journey. Just be sure to use newly acquired free time to hang out with your friends, take your kids to a movie, or to treat yourself to something fun – you’ve earned it!


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