What It Means to Be Busy vs. Productive

UPDATED: April 3, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 27, 2024
Headshot of Amy Somerville

In your continued journey toward your own self-growth, your willingness to grow and learn in new ways never fails to inspire me. Which is why, today, I want to discuss a common misconception that so many of us grapple with regularly: the idea of being busy vs. being productive.

In our fast-paced society, with practically instantaneous communication, the expectation is that we’re always available, and in the general rush of our daily lives, being busy is seen as some sort of badge of honor. We often equate busyness with productivity, thinking that if we’re not constantly doing something, we’re not making progress. 

But is that the case? I don’t think so.

Being busy simply means you’re occupied. It does not necessarily mean you’re being productive. So, what’s the difference between being productive and busy?

Productive vs. busy: What’s the difference?

When we look at what it means to be busy vs. productive, I’m reminded of something my grandmother always said: “If you need something done, give it to the busiest person you know. But if you want something done right, you may just have to do it yourself.”

The more I think about this, the more it rings true. Productivity is about being intentional, proactive and efficient. It’s about achieving results, being effective and doing things that move you closer to your goals. Productivity requires that your actions have meaning and purpose—you are intentional about what you do, both professionally and personally.

Conversely, being busy is a state of reactivity, where you fill your time with busy work (no pun intended) that doesn’t lead to any greater goal or result. Sometimes, the busiest people we know are the least productive because they’re juggling too many tasks in too little time without focusing on what’s truly important.

So, how do you shift from being busy to being productive?

How to shift from being busy to being productive

Shifting your understanding of what it means to be busy versus productive is the first step to leaving the busy work behind and becoming more productive. It starts with setting clear goals and priorities, understanding what you truly want to achieve and focusing your energy on tasks that bring you closer to those goals. Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Audit your to-do list 

To-do lists can quickly become bloated with tasks that aren’t relevant to your personal goals for the day or the work you actually need to complete. You only have so much mental energy in a given day to devote to your to-do list, so auditing it can help you focus on the tasks that need your most immediate attention. By cutting your list down to the most relevant tasks, you can approach your list with more focus and intentionality.

Implement the 1-3-5 rule as you audit your to-do list. Essentially, this rule has you map out one large task, three medium tasks and five smaller tasks you want to complete. This helps keep your to-do list small and manageable. You can easily apply this method to your daily or weekly to-do list. 

2. Create a time management matrix

If you want to ditch a more traditional to-do list, consider creating a time management matrix—a to-do list that puts all your tasks in one place. A time management matrix is broken into four sections, showcasing which of your tasks are important, not important, urgent and not urgent. By visually seeing which tasks fall under each category, you can easily tackle the most important and urgent ones first.

To get the most out of your time management matrix, be sure not to overfill it. You can implement the 1-3-5 rule as you fill out your matrix or set a limited number of tasks you’ll include. Once you complete a task, cross it off the matrix before adding anything new.

3. Let yourself disconnect

I’m not talking about tossing your phone into a lockbox or out the window here. But your phone and computer are the easiest ways for people to contact you both for socialization and to hand off tasks, work and things they need you to do. By disconnecting yourself a bit, you’ll be able to reclaim some of your time and cut back on the busy work that so often finds its way into our daily routine.

Some simple ways to disconnect and put a buffer between you and busy work include:

  • Keep your phone or computer on silent or in do-not-disturb mode. This helps cut down on notifications from applications, websites and your email and gives you the chance to get to them when you’re ready. 
  • Turn off notifications completely. This cuts down on pop-up alerts on your screen at all times, both for work and personal-related apps. 
  • Spend time outside each week by walking, playing a sport or just sitting to read. 

4. Say no to tasks when you need to

Saying no can be hard for anyone, especially if you think you can handle whatever is being asked of you. But this is where a sense of discipline comes in handy, especially as you focus on being productive vs. being busy. Practice productive decision-making by saying no to certain tasks; this will help keep your time yours and will help you stay focused on your goals. 

When you say no, whether it’s to personal or professional asks, be sure to be firm and clear. You can provide a reason if you want to or you can choose not to explain—usually, a simple “My schedule is full” works just fine. Remember: You’re saying no to things that don’t align with your goals. You only have so much time in your day, and saying no is a skill that will help you reclaim time.

With these tips on how to shift from being busy to being productive, I also want you to remember how crucial it is to know when to take a break. Productivity isn’t about constant action but about smart action. Rest and rejuvenation are key elements of sustainable productivity.

I want to leave you with one challenge. Challenge yourself to assess your activities. Are they keeping you busy or making you productive? Are you running on a wheel, or are you moving toward your goals? 

The goal is not to be busy and in constant motion but to be productive and make meaningful progress. So, take care of yourself, stay focused and remember that your worth is not defined by how busy you are but by the progress you make!

Photo by ©Mike D’Avello

Amy Somerville, CEO of SUCCESS® Enterprises, is a mission-driven leader with demonstrated success in developing highly effective teams, delivering dynamic learning strategies, and building engaged communities. She is a passionate community-builder, gathering like-minded, successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople to share best practices for success. She lives her life intentionally and is driven daily by the acronym L.I.V.E.: LEAD, INSPIRE, VALUE, EMPATHIZE. Follow Amy on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.