Busy vs. Productive: Which One Are You?

Have you fallen into the busy trap? In this post, we’re going to be making the case for why being busy isn’t always a good thing. 

How often do you hear the following conversation play out: 

“How are you?”

“Busy, and you?” or, I’m so busy at the moment”, or “It’s been a really busy day.”

It’s likely a conversation you hear around you on an almost daily basis. Rather than seeing anything wrong with this response, a lot of us probably consider it a badge of honour and that’s a reflection of the culture we live and work in. But this way of thinking can become problematic when we look at the difference between the words busy and productive. 

Let’s challenge the need to feel busy to get ahead, and instead ask yourself: “Why am I describing myself as busy and what does it say about my current emotional state?” Think about your body language and your tonality at the moment you respond with the word “busy”, and consider the emotional elements involved and your current mental state. 

The word “busy” can certainly have positive connotations; perhaps you say it with a smile on your face and the enthusiasm and buzz you feel about your work is clear in your tone of voice. But very commonly—and critically—if you do not fall into this first camp, then are you truly happy about the fact you are busy? Or are you too quick to use the word “busy” because you are feeling overwhelmed by too many tasks? Are you feeling anxious about an upcoming deadline and therefore filling the space with activity rather than facing your anxiety? 

To turn this state of being around, let’s now look at the word “productive”. It’s a simple step, but let’s dive into what happens when you swap out the word “busy” with “productive” instead. 

The Three Benefits of Using “Productive” Over “Busy”

One: Alleviate stress

By consciously choosing the word productive over busy, you  actively alleviate stress. You start to feel different simply due to the word associations that come with it. Think about what productive means: you’re not just getting a lot of things done, more importantly, you’re getting the right things done. There is focus, direction and a clear sense of priorities, all of which gives you clear measures of success. When that happens, you’ll start feeling more excited and enthusiastic about what you’re doing rather than having that feeling of anxiety and“busy-ness” that you can be feeling when you default to the word busy.

Two: Shift in focus and priorities

Changing your response then has the effect of shifting your focus, by helping you check in with yourself. It encourages you to start holding yourself accountable: “Am I really being productive or am I just doing busy work for busy’s sake? Is the work I’m doing right now actually contributing to the bigger picture? Am I benefiting myself, other people, my customers? Am I doing the right thing at the right time?”

Three: Invite others in

It gives you an opportunity to engage with others and invite people in. The simple response of “I’ve been feeling really productive” is one that comes from a place of positivity and has the immediate effect of encouraging the person you’re talking to to further the conversation. It is a contagious state of being that inspires and engages others. Their interest is piqued, they’re keen to hear about what you’re doing and more often than not, their response to you will be, “How can I help?”

Contrast this to the reaction you likely feel when you ask after a colleague and they tell you “I’m busy.” Whether it is intended or not, that answer easily comes across as a shutdown, or you might take that as your cue to back away as you don’t want to bother this person. 

These are just a few of many good reasons to make the shift from busy to productive, and we invite you to take three minutes to listen to our Culture and Leadership Partner, Dan Czura discuss this topic in the video below. 

So the next time you have the chance to respond to the question: “How are you?”, take a moment and reflect: are you choosing to be busy or productive? 


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