Let’s just cut to the chase: being busy is not the same as being productive. In an age where we wear our busyness like a badge of honor, it’s time to step back and get real about the true value (or lack thereof) of the chaotic overload we’ve deemed a mark of success.

On the surface, being busy and being productive can look similar. In both instances there’s a lot of “doing” underway. There are check marks placed next to items on our to-do list. There’s progress, of some sort or another. That doesn’t mean busy and productive are synonyms. You can, after all, be busy without being very productive at all. 

Meandering vs. Plotted Paths

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Do you have a destination? Are you working toward a goal or are you meandering? Busy people are often on a frenetic mission to complete “stuff” for the sake of completing stuff. There’s no big picture other than getting a lot of random tasks done that feel important to get done for some reason or another. Productive people have a targeted outcome in mind and they complete tasks that move them closer to that goal. Which path are you on? 

Important vs. Urgent

Not every important task is an urgent task. That’s not a riddle. That’s a truth that guides productive people to prioritize their to-do list, as well as adapt their daily efforts to accommodate curve balls as they come. Busy people don’t necessarily make that distinction and often find themselves overwhelmed with the stress of putting out multiple important sparks as if they were all urgent wildfires. 

Yes vs. Not This Time

There’s a saying: “You need something done, ask a busy person.” That adage doesn’t exist because busy people have some sort of magic power to multi-task or add more hours to their day. It’s because busy people tend to say yes even if they’ve already got a full plate.

Productive people, however, recognize that time is a limited resource and they ought to allocate it wisely. They tend to evaluate projects using a variety of criteria such as: Does this task require my specific skill set? Can someone else complete this task? Do I currently have the bandwidth to take this task on? Will this task benefit from my expertise? Will I be enriched by this task?

Whether they take the task on or not depends on how they weigh the answers to those questions. Long term, that’s better for both the productive person and the individual or organization they’re working for. 

Reactive vs. Proactive

Busy people are, well, busy. They are focused on keeping all of the tasks they’ve taken on up in the air. Juggling like that tends to create a pattern of reactivity. Busy folk respond to circumstances and work on tight deadlines focused on getting “stuff” done.

Productive people, on the other hand, are often more proactive. They’ve taken on tasks that are meaningful and goal-orientated. The work they do tends to be planned, measured, and focused on desired outcomes. They build in the time to establish goals and a road map to reach the finish line. Sure, they can still take on the last minute emergency project; they have space to react to small (and not-so-small) fires as they pop up because they’ve created a workflow that can be adaptive without derailing progress. 

DIY vs. Delegation

Busy people can be independent to a fault. They are going to take on the workload and see it through to completion. Their perceived strength is an ability to do it all. Productive people embrace delegation.

Just because a small business owner can handle payroll on her own, as an example, doesn’t mean she needs to. Her core strength may be in marketing and cultivating client and partner relationships. That’s where her focus should be. Outsourcing payroll to a team member or an outside consultant can free up her time to more effectively focus on her strengths, as well as maintain space for personal growth and renewal. Ultimately, this is the better route. 

Rolling Up Your Sleeves vs. Pause and Review

Busy people have a lot going on. Give them a new task and they’ll jump in with both feet ready to tackle the latest addition to their to-do list. Productive people want to test the waters first. They want to understand the full scope of the project they’re about to take on, evaluate the options available to complete it, bring in support where it benefits the project (and themselves!), and then proceed with a plan. 

Tell vs. Show

You know a busy person is busy because they’re busy telling you about it. A busy person will spend a half-hour telling you why they are too busy to take a half-hour to meet up for coffee. You know a productive person has a lot going on because you see the fruit of their labor. Productive folks are also apt to prioritize what holds value whether it’s professional value or personal. In other words, they make time for what matters. 

Busy is Not All Bad

Even productive people get busy. Sometimes the to-do list gets overwhelming even when you’ve said no to some tasks and delegated others. Sometimes all the important projects are also urgent projects and you’re plowing through the full plate you’ve got, head down, focused, pushing through without much time for anything else.

Whether you’re an accountant at tax time or an entrepreneur days before launch, you’re going to have days where you’re feeling more busy than productive — and that’s okay. The distinction is more about big picture, long-term focus vs. short-term bursts to get the job done.