Are You Productive—Or Are You Just Busy?
By Chuck Cusumano
Every single one of us has been there.
We feel pulled in too many directions. We feel stretched too thin. Our to-do lists are endless (and only seem to be getting longer with every task we cross off).
We prioritize as much as we can, but at what cost? Is it not true that the only way to get everything we want actually done is to tackle as many things at the same time as humanly possible?
That sounds correct, yes? Besides—we have all carefully perfected the skill of multitasking, right?
With today’s technology, we can check and respond to our emails, finish binge-watching the latest Netflix show, and (if we are true time-management champions), we can make it all happen while tackling our now-mandatory Zoom meetings with our cohorts.
Do me a favor: name a time all of that actually worked out seamlessly. As much as we would like to think we are infinitely capable of completing several tasks at once and perfectly multi-tasking our lives away, the reality of the situation is that when we do this, we mostly fall flat.
That sounds about right, yes?
Even if we are able to complete and accomplish all of our tasks in this way, were we actually locked in? Did we really do the job justice? Did we truly give it our attention and tackle it with our best effort?
Many of us often find ourselves repeatedly frustrated, rolling our eyes, and muttering to ourselves as we scan our ever-unfinished to-do lists. If only we had more hours in the day, we often sigh out loud, irritated and feeling overwhelmed.
Multitasking & Prioritization—Rethinking These Definitions
Twenty-four hours. That is all we get in a day. That is all each of us has.
No more, no less (check out our past blog on this specific topic to understand a little bit better what we mean by this).
Sure, there are things that make us feel like we have found a cheat code or a loophole—we can wake up earlier and stay up later and pretend we have found more time, but that 24-hour continuum is constant and cannot be tricked.
At some point, our ability to be “busier” simply maxes out. So, what can we do? How can we ever get everything done we need to with these restrictions and limitations?
One word: Prioritize.
When we focus on organizing our tasks by priority, we are automatically taking the first step toward better time management.
The word priority was first introduced to the English language as a verb in the late 14th century. By definition, it means being first—it is used to determine what matters the most.
However, as big business and corporate culture continued to accelerate and grow in the mid-1900s during the industrial revolution, the term priority changed. Suddenly, in its place was an impactful iteration—priorities.
By pluralizing the term, people acknowledged their belief that they could have more than one, single “first” on their list of items to focus on and accomplish.
But this change—this new use of the term priority—pointed to a developing problem.
In the 1960s, IBM published the first use of the term multitask to best describe the numerous synchronous tasks that a computer could execute.
Just over 20 years later, multitasking was being used as a verb that applied to human beings and how they executed tasks. Suddenly, people were splitting their attention between dozens of tasks at the same time.
Instead of working or focusing on one thing at a time, we all began to believe we could focus on several things, all at one time. Bit by bit, we diluted our energy and focus across multiple activities—making room for the cliché “a mile wide and an inch deep” to apply more than ever.
Here is what is important to remember about multitasking—computers might have the capacity to complete concurrent tasks, but human beings only have one CPU.
Yes, you might be able to physically accomplish more than one thing at a time, but research suggests that people are not truly capable of effectively and efficiently focusing on more than one task in a given moment.
What is actually happening in these multitasking moments is that we are focusing most of our attention on one thing while keeping track of the other thing. We are switching our focus back and forth rapidly.
As we do that—as we swap our focus over and over—it might feel like we are doing concurrent tasks, but in reality, we are just switching from one thing to another, then back again. We do this over and over until the tasks are complete, but the act of switching costs us time, energy, and likely some of our focus, too.
Often, if we had just focused on one thing at a time, then moved onto another task after completing one, we would likely be much more focused and productive.
We are not computers. Multitasking is not all it is cracked up to be.
In our modern society, the term priorities is often used to outline an agenda for our workday. It is used as a synonym, instead, for our to-do lists. It categorizes tasks so people know what they have to get done. Each of our hours and each of our days is dictated by our priorities.
But it is time to face the irony.
Looking back at the root of the definition, it is simply impossible to have more than one #1 priority. Think about it—the moment you assign priority to more than one thing, do you really have any priority at all?
Busyness Does Not Equal Productivity
We live in a world where we equate being busy with being important; where we have decided that the busier we are, the more successful we are.
We are constantly pushing for more productivity—both at work and at a home. But why, exactly? And, further, what is the result?
Priority. We took a word that quite literally meant one thing and we changed it to mean several one things.
Imagine if we did not use our busyness to measure our success. Imagine if we measured our success by our quality—not by the quantity of work we can push out. Imagine what the increase in productivity and innovation might look like if we changed this. Imagine, if you can, the increase of feelings like accomplishment and pride that this change could nurture if we stopped attempting to do the impossible—something we were never meant to do in the first place.
Think about the momentum we would create as we focused on one thing, completed it with our full attention and effort, and then used that accomplishment to roll into the next one thing.
There is a phenomenal book on this very topic, The One Thing, by Gary Keller. In my opinion, it reminds me of the same state an athlete describes as “being in the zone.” They are completely focused on one thing, they are productive, and they are trying to succeed—they are not trying to simply be busy.
If you find yourself feeling like you are not getting anything done or you are frustrated by the lack of progress you have made, I strongly encourage you to go back to the origin of the word we love to use so often—priority.
Take a good hard look at your priorities and refocus on your most important, #1 priority. This is your must-do, the task that tops your list.
Put all of your energy, focus, and effort into that one thing and watch out!
I guarantee you will absolutely crush that goal—then you can set another. Try it this way and I can promise that the never-ending to-do list of yours will get done faster and more effectively. Why? Because you are not dividing your attention among several things, giving it half-effort and only a sliver of energy. You are tackling each task one by one and doing it well.
If you take just one thing from this post, let it be this—forget about being busy.
Do not bother with busy, be productive. Why? Because productivity equals profits! If you are in a leadership position, it is your job to set the priority for your team or company! Without this focus the team will drift.
Slow down, decrease your distractions, and increase your focus—the results will speak for themselves!