When you want to be productive: 7 tips to move away from “busy” to getting things done

I don’t know about you but I feel busier than ever. In my last blog I talked about taking care of yourself and finding balance to stay sane. But, as we are so busy these days, I have been asking myself: is busy the same as being productive?

We may have moved into a society where “busy” is some kind of status symbol. “Oh, I can’t possibly get to that, I have so much on my plate.” My calendar has no room for at least 3 weeks.” “I just don’t have any time before my vacation.” “I am just super slammed coming off of vacation.” Hmmm…should we take vacations? 🙂

These are all direct quotes I have heard from others and myself in the last month. Why are we this busy? Are we really making progress or are we spreading ourselves too thin?

I was always told that if you need something done, find the busiest person on the team; they are the most productive. Is this fair? Shouldn’t we find the person who may be bored and want another challenge instead? Why is Jane always the busiest? Maybe she doesn’t manage her time well. Maybe she can’t say no. Maybe she is focused on 10 things when really she would make more of an impact focusing on three.

“Busy” does not necessarily equal being productive. I don’t see us spending the time on prioritizing efforts anymore. More is more when, sometimes, less is really more. Less can have more of an impact. Kate Northrop wrote an entire book on this subject: Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time and Energy Management for Busy Moms. Trust me. You don’t have to be a mom to get something out of this.

I relish a day where truly doing less is worn as a badge of honor instead of how packed one’s Outlook calendar is. We lose a few valuable skills when we pack our schedules, like having time to think. Remember thinking? Where you are not in a meeting or on a deadline or rushing to day care but you can sit undisturbed with a blank sheet of paper, an open computer screen or a freshly erased whiteboard to capture your thoughts about a problem or future idea. I feel this has been sacrificed to the Greek God of Busy. We will call him Stressodomus.

Other skills we have lost include staying calm, learning when to let things go, problem solving and prioritization.

To battle the power of Stressodomus, I have 7 tricks to help me make an impact and not be overly scheduled. These work most of the time. Unfortunately, sometimes things do come up that are unplanned. That is life, and all we can do is shift things around when those events happen.

  1. Prioritize. This is my favorite one and I have written about it before. Every week…I know even that sounds impossible…but every week pick the top 3 things you want to get done and ensure you have scheduled time to do that. I will admit that I have gotten away from doing this myself. I now spend a little time on Sundays jotting down these items to help me plan my week.
  2. Check alignment. Connected to prioritization, review with your manager what you are working on. Is this the best use of your time? What are the expectations? Are these expectations feasible? Is what you are doing aligned to the group’s or organization’s strategy? This can be difficult but push on whether lots of projects are helpful or if you focused on less, would we make more of an impact. I once was told by a leader that if I fixed one problem instead of working on all the other programs I had on my plate, I would be noticed and regarded in a positive light. Ask questions to find out where the biggest pain is and focus there.
  3. Automate or eliminate. Sometimes, there is just lots of busywork. Ask yourself and others if this has to be done. I can’t tell you how many companies I have gone into and asked why something was being done or done in a certain way only to hear back: “Well, we’ve just always done it that way.” When asked why, no one can provide a real business reason. This is the perfect situation to make a proposal to stop something or automate it with technology, if that is an option.
  4. Say no. Oh boy…for us people pleasers, this one also seems daunting. I can’t possibly say no. That will hurt my promotion chances or Bob, our COO, will never ask me again, or Leslie will never ask me to go lunch if I turn her down. Wrong. Practice with me: “I can’t take that on right now but I could help next month.” Or, “I can’t take that on right now but I could review your thoughts next week if that would help you.” Or, “I can’t go to lunch this week but can we pick another date?” If you feel you need to explain why then explain why. I have a huge deadline to get “x” out the door. Believe me, good leaders and bosses will understand. Good friends will also understand.
  5. Limit meetings. This one is also hard. I suffer from the condition where if I have an open slot in Outlook, I accept the meeting. As adults, we have a right to determine the importance of meeting requests in relation to our work and when we can and cannot accept them. Be critical. Can you really be in meetings from 7 am – 12 pm without a break? I have done it. In fact, I did this two weeks ago. The reality is…no. Don’t do that to yourself. Block even 15-minute slots to give yourself a break.
  6. Shorten meetings. I am moving toward a new rule for myself — to make 30 minutes my default meeting length instead of one hour. If something needs more than 30 minutes, then it can be extended with an agenda and a good reason. Most updates and check-ins can be kept to 30 minutes.
  7. Get a white space. Whatever works for you…a whiteboard, a notepad, Evernote, Notes app on your phone, chalkboard…use an open space to capture your top 3 things of the week and doodle or draft points that will help you achieve that. With most of us being outplaced from an actual office, this may be tough. Some of us have an office at home where we can have this tool hanging on a wall. If not, grab a physical or electronic notepad.

Busy is not what we should strive for all the time. We should trade in our busy badges for productivity and impact badges. Doing less allows us to earn these badges. Figure out your three things. Write them down. If you don’t they will be lost to Stressodomus and you will get pulled into the vortex of “busy”. Do everything you can to not let that happen.

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