The Lie of Busy (and the Truth of Productivity)

Why are cooking shows, home improvement shows, and computer games so addicting?

Because they provide a false sense of accomplishment. You feel like you’ve done something significant—baked an awesome cake, retiled the bathroom, or gained level 90.

The Lie of Busy

This is the lie of busy. Our minds deceive us into believing that just because we’re busy, we’re also productive. That just isn’t so.

Learning how to bake that cake is great, but it’s not anything until you actually bake the thing, frost it, and serve it up (and maybe eat a piece yourself!). Same for the bathroom. It will still throw that 1970s vibe until you pull out the avocado green tile and put in some nice travertine.

And Level 90 or some other electronic accomplishment? I don’t have a problem if this is for your entertainment. But when it substitutes for actual, purposeful, fruitful work? I’ve been there myself, and for a while the accomplishments seem real enough, and they give you that good feeling—particularly when you hear that “ding!” and see some achievement pop up.

These little messages are the crack cocaine of productivity. They feel great that instant, but soon enough the feeling fades… and you’re back on the hunt for that next fix. And the next. And the next…

Real, Truthful Productivity = Producing, Not Consuming

Why do we feel that way? Because even though we’re accomplishing something, we’re not really producing. We’re still consuming the product of others, just like we do when we watch television or surf the Internet.

We don’t really feel productive, then, until we’ve created something of value for someone else. Then you feel like you’ve really done something, after your work is completed and delivered to the world. After you’ve produced. Or as Seth Godin would say, “after you’ve shipped.”

Isn’t that the point of productivity? Even the root of the word tells you: productivity-productive-product-produce… ah, produce. So productivity is not just the effort, then, but the result. It’s not just being busy; it’s actually making, creating, contributing, serving.

The Lie of Busy at Work

And it’s not just at home where we fall into this lie of busy. Our work lives suffer from it, too.

Think about the time you spend at work: reading and sorting email for an hour or two each day, attending meetings six, seven, eight hours daily. Busy—but not productive. You feel like you “did” something, and you’re damn tired after it’s done (even though you’ve sat on your butt all day…) but yet you don’t feel like you accomplished what you intended, and you don’t have anything tangible to show for all that effort.

It’s a lot like running on a treadmill—you run awfully hard, but don’t seem to get anywhere.

“Having a full schedule means you’re important” is another lie of busy. The truth is, having a full schedule means you’re not good about making decisions about your important vs. unimportant tasks. You don’t protect your time appropriately, and you don’t concentrate on those things that will get you, your business, your company, your family ahead.

I was that person for longer than I care to admit. There were periods in my corporate life where I went through the motions, attending meetings and dealing with stupid stuff via email, instead of working on important, necessary projects. Projects that are at the heart of why I’m doing the work. That’s where all of us should be spending our precious—and finite—time.

Productivity at Work: A Few Strategies

The first hurdle in prioritizing your work to focus on the productive is figuring out what your core responsibilities are. Whether you work for a company or for yourself, how many of us really know what we’re here to do? You need to know what your role is—the central essence of why you’re at that company, doing that work. You need to understand it from the company’s perspective (based on their Why), and from your own as well (what skills are you learning? what are you producing or accomplishing that furthers your personal brand?).  If you don’t know these things, you’re going to have a hard time prioritizing your work to be more productive.

The big challenge comes when your company, your boss, and even you don’t know what your role is really supposed to be. In those instances, you need to figure it out for yourself, and quick. Do some research on your company, your department. Talk to your boss. Spend some time really thinking about the things you are doing in your work that fulfill a specific company need that supports their underlying Why. And get that role documented (and approved by your boss, if you can—it’ll help with discussions about performance, workload, compensation, working from home, advancement…).

Once you have that role defined, your long- and short-term goals should be a logical outgrowth of that work. And your role and those goals are the compass to guide you on how you should spend your time.

It’ll also provide a lens through which you can laser-focus on your email, sorting it into virtual “piles” to 1) act on, 2) archive, or 3) discard.

This lens will help with meetings as well. For my own meetings/conference calls/events, I go through this series of questions when I get an invitation:

  1. What’s the purpose of the meeting? Is it clearly articulated? If it’s not clear or not present, I ask the organizer what the purpose of the meeting is. If I don’t get a clear answer, I decline the meeting.
  2. Is this purpose aligned to my role, objectives, or goals? If my answer is no, I decline the meeting.
  3. Is the meeting purpose important enough to pull me away from other work that is aligned to my goals and objectives (is it a higher priority)? If my answer is no, I decline the meeting.
  4. Is this a meeting I need to attend myself, or is it something I could (or should) delegate? I choose one or the other here, either accepting the meeting for myself, or forwarding to an associate.
  5. Is this a meeting I need to attend in person, or could I be just as informed by reading the notes of the meeting after the fact? Is the meeting intended as a discussion, or just a series of status updates I would rather have in a document to review at my leisure. This question will determine how I will spend my time (or how I will encourage my associate to spend their time.)

That’s it. Once we’ve asked these questions, it’s much easier to narrow down the number of meetings, and make some room in the day to do some real work (instead of having to take it home all the time). If you’re spending more than three or four hours a day in meetings, I encourage you to try the above steps. I think they’ll really help you purge your calendar and focus your time.

What if a meeting’s mandatory? Good question. Ideally, you work in an organization where there are no mandatory meetings—that every meeting is optional, and you only attend those ones that are the right fit for you. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Just think of how much you’d get done during the work day. Most of us don’t work in that kind of environment, though, so talking with your leadership about how to control meeting creep would be a first step in addressing the problem.

Productivity at Home: Rhythms

And if you find yourself losing time at home to TV and magazines and games, you can apply similar questions to those at-home activities. The key question is: what’s the purpose of this activity? And does that purpose further one of the goals I have for myself? Once you define the activity’s purpose (learning something new, entertaining myself, supporting my family, creating something meaningful, helping others, and so on), that second question will tell you immediately if the time is well spent or not.

I’m not saying that every waking moment has to be approached with the intention of achieving some higher purpose. Sometimes we just do things because we have to; they’re a necessary part of living. Other times we do things because they’re fun or relaxing. I have no problem with that—I think the times we spend recharging our batteries help us be more productive when we strive to do great work and achieve our life’s purpose.

There’s a saying that comes to mind here: “Everything in moderation.” That certainly applies both to purposeful, productive work, and to relaxing, recharging fun.

And sometimes, when I’m in particular need of an intense working day, or for a day at home curled up with a good book or immersed in a new video game or marathoning a whole season of White Collar, or Leverage, or Battlestar Galactica, I take the saying one step further: “Everything in moderation. Including moderation.”

These phases are all part of the rhythms of our lives, the ebb and flow of work and rest, connection and separation, consumption and productivity… It’s up to us to identify, understand, and accept these rhythms in ourselves, and work with them so that we can produce something meaningful and true and valuable for the world.


I hope you find a few of these strategies helpful. What other strategies have you found for transforming your lies of busy into productive truths for yourself? I’d love to hear them.

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