Busy people—we all know them. They’re the ones who are constantly moving, frazzled, sighing, worrying about something, or breaking out in a light jog around the office. The people who seem to have a hand in every project, whom you always see furiously crossing things off their to-do lists, who are constantly saying things like, “I can’t deal with this right now.” How often do you get an email about one of those people for launching an innovation that will save the company thousand—or spearheading a new branch of the business? Sometimes, maybe. But personally, I have not found those two types of people to overlap.
Even if you’re the kind of person who gets a lot done very done quickly—theoretically, a dream employee, a workhorse—you may be shortchanging yourself out of true productivity. It’s the old saying about working hard versus working smart, and we’ve all experienced it. Instead of tackling a huge looming project, we put it off by ticking minute chores off our to-do lists. But we shouldn’t let that philosophy seep into our career at large. Here are some of the differences between being busy and being truly productive.
1. Productive people view productivity differently.
Get rid of that checklist mentality, stat. “Busy people concentrate on the task completion aspect of duties and responsibilities—maintaining a ‘checklist’ focus—while others embrace a broader perspective of contributions that measurably contribute to the higher strategic objectives of the organization, says Donn LeVie, Jr., a career strategist and former Fortune 500 hiring manager. “Workaholics ask: ‘What’s next on the list?’ while high performers ask: ‘What’s going to provide the biggest bang for the buck for the organization?’”
2. Productive people understand which tasks actually matter.
The tasks that feel urgent are not always the most important. Productive people understand that the point of any job is to deliver value. “It’s vital to understand which behaviors and actions are getting results and which are not,” says Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders. “And then, you need to have the courage to stop wasting time on the behaviors that get no ROI [return on investment]. The biggest time-suckers are conference calls and unproductive meetings. Truly productive people don’t sit on conference calls that don’t add value. If you find you can multi-task through an entire call, that’s not an indicator that you’re productive, it’s a sign that you shouldn’t be on that call. Speak up and change the approach.”
3. Productive people prioritize effectively.
Once you have that understanding, it’s time to prioritize…and actually stick to it. “Busy people whip through low-hanging fruit, finishing tasks that are low value for the company or for their lives,” says Helene Segura, a productivity consultant and author of R.O.A.D.M.A.P. to Get Organized. “To move to a level of high performance, take 10 minutes at the end of each day to map out your road for the next day. Initially, you’ll start with urgent priorities—those tasks that need to be finished so you won’t get fired. Soon, you’ll look at priorities for the next day—those tasks that will keep you or your career at the status quo. Eventually, you’ll plan for your proactive priorities—tasks that will get you ahead of the game.”
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4. Productive people pay attention to detail.
This is one I didn’t even think of, but is absolutely crucial in distinguishing between someone who gets lots of things done quickly and someone who does the *important* things right. “Fast workers tend to miss a lot of details in the process—details that can be quite important,” says Yasmina Yousfi, chief business development officer at Cloudswave. “People who are constantly busy most likely work on various projects at a time, which can result in a lack of focus. On the other hand, productive workers tend to be more rigorous, spending more time looking through every aspect of their work before finalizing it, thus getting ‘less’ work done but more efficiently.”
5. Productive people know when to say NO.
I’ve written about over-scheduling before, and learning how to say no is absolutely key. “Think for a moment before responding to any non-urgent or non-essential query or request,” says Rashelle Isip of The Order Expert. “Must you attend a meeting that has nothing to do with you or your department? Is there someone else who is better suited to complete the task? Will you be able to complete your own work if you take on this task? Don’t feel guilty about saying ‘No.’ You need to protect your time and energy, so you can get things done.”
6. Productive people do not let email dictate their day.
“Watching emails arrive is one of the greatest productivity destroyers of the modern age,” says Shani Harmon, co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This. But we all know how easy it is to get bogged down in it. “Remember, email is a tool; it’s not the be-all-end-all of your job,” adds Isip. “Forgo checking your email until you’ve decided what you want or need to accomplish that day.” Maura Thomas, founder of Regain Your Time and author of Personal Productivity Secrets, recommends actually shutting off the automatic email download, turn off notifications, and start fetching them at only specific times of day.
7. Productive people know how to delegate.
Attention micromanagers and perfectionists of the world—this one’s for you. “If you need assistance, don’t be an island,” says Alison Kero, owner of ACK Organizing. “Delegate any task that someone else can do better or for less money. Allow others to help you shine by putting in their best work and you’ll find you have a lot more time to focus on other tasks.”
8. Productive people eschew chaos.
Productive people don’t care about “logging hours” or seeming busy—unlike those hyper-busy people I wrote about at the beginning. “The more paperwork, books, and other reading materials you have surrounding you, the more information you have floating around in your brain,” Kero says. “It makes it difficult to work or concentrate. Too much clutter also means wasted time looking repeatedly for items you swear you ‘just put down for a second.’ You’re stressed about all the things you ‘should be doing’ and it takes away from focusing on your projects.”
9. Productive people allocate time for planning, reflection, and self-development.
And because of that, “they can easily articulate the link between their day-to-day activities and their overall mission,” says productivity psychologist Melissa Gratias, Ph.D. “Productive people schedule their time beforehand, and stick to that schedule,” says Cecilia Bratt of The Conscious Careerist. “They don’t live in reaction mode to other people’s agendas or emails—quite common among ‘busy’ people.” I have never heard this put so clearly and all I have to say is PREACH. Do not live in reaction mode my friends. Don’t do it.
10. Productive people look at the big picture.
Diane K. Danielson, chief operating officer of Sperry Van Ness, says that her most productive employees are the ones who understand how each individual project fits into the overall goals of the company. “When tackling a project, they can think ahead and often respond to me with bigger picture concerns and solutions,” she says. “They can tell when a process is slowing things down or when it makes more sense to stop what they’re doing and reorganize, cleanup, or change the process to save time and/or money in the long run, even if it slows things down in the short term.”
11. Productive people take the time to evaluate the most efficient way to do things.
“My best tip comes from the English proverb, ‘Measure twice, cut once,’” says Oleg Korneitchouk, director of marketing at SmartSites. “It’s not enough to just do something quickly. You need to take a step back and examine what’s being accomplished and if it can be achieved in a more efficient or effective manner. I’ve gotten into the zone and spent hours doing work that I realized I could have spent less time or energy using a different tool or technique that I hadn’t realized.” Figure out if there is a tool you can use to do something faster—it will absolutely be worth it in the end.
Photo: Maskot / Getty Images