Busy vs Productive: There is a Difference & How to Make the Shift

Does any of this sound familiar to you? You’re up with the dawn, ready to start another day. You have a huge to-do list with some really important items on it that you have to get done. You rush around all day, barely stopping for a bite of lunch. Then, when your workday is finally over, you realize there are still important items on your list you didn’t finish. But how can that be? You rushed around like crazy all day. You wasted no time. How is it possible the most important things on your list didn’t get done? Feeling tired and defeated, you decide there just aren’t enough hours in a day.

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I know how it feels.


That’s how things felt for me, not too long ago. Home, family, work, and the Paperless Movement keep me going from dawn until dusk.

Things at my day job were particularly busy.

Some of my responsibilities as a team-lead are: troubleshoot, delegate, answer questions, problem solve, answer emails, answer phone calls, and attend meetings. 

All of this busy work comes in a never-ending stream that someone has to attend to. But while I’m busy answering questions and putting out fires, my own task-deadlines continue to draw near. It can be exhausting. 

This is the scenario that inspired me to tackle unproductive busy work by creating a task-tool for my team at work to manage our projects and workflow.

Did it help? It did.

And it got me thinking.


All the time I was running around not getting my important tasks done, I was legitimately busy. Sometimes I felt like I was running my head off. But I still wasn’t completing my most important tasks without a lot of extra time and headache.

So if being “busy” all day wasn’t an indicator of getting things done, what was?


I realized I was mixing up the idea of being busy with being productive.


First, I needed to define the difference between being busy and being productive. I knew that being productive feels good, and being busy doesn’t.


4 thoughts on “Busy vs Productive: There is a Difference & How to Make the Shift”

  1. Your blog, “Busy vs. Productive “.was excellent. Thank you. I hope sometime you’ll go into more detail about better handling of emails. That’s my serious failing.

  2. I have ran after productivity vs being busy/overbooked almost since my university times (years ago man !!). I have been alternatively sucessful and unsuccessful, and that’s not the end of it … Which means that one have to constantly manage its behavior with respect to “time and task Management”. The eleven items developed by Tom are for sure of good practice; the ones that seem the most important to my perspective are 2) Focus on one Project at a time and 7) Learn to say No (may be 8 – but i have never able to comply with this one) 11) is obvious – never or exceptionnaly privilege your work against your personal life (family, sports, culture, …) – this is what will make you happy and finally productive.

    Yes Tom, being paperless with integrated tools is of very good help to avoid losing time in looking for an item or forget an important appointment or even let meeting minutes go away; i have started my pro life with paper organizers, then moved to personnal assistant (may be some of you remember the fantastic Palm Pilot) and then turned to PC / Mac based tools and now the beautiful tablets iPad or other devices (my reMarkable is also a good friend of mine) … Digital tools are nowadays extremely performing, they are of an uncomparable support, but own “discipline” or methodology remains of utmost importance.

    One of your advice is say focus on one project at a time, i would also say that when you have adopted a simple set of tools – try to keep them as long as possible – switching from one to the other takes a lot of effort ! The simplicity of those tools is also an important aspect: currently i am quite convinced of the Apple suite (calendar, Reminder, Notes, Mail) they operate in an integrated way on all your Apple devices ! (unfortunately the industry world is mainly based on PC / Windows).

    Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication (Leonardo da Vinci)

    Stay focussed and have fun always !!

    1. Thank you, Erick, for this very interesting feedback! Happy that we agree on many things here. If Apple suite would be usable on PC, I would go for it to, as it just works very well together and the new reminders app really makes it very useful for GTD too. However, for the multi-device reason, I have to go with the Google Suite, which I am also very happy with, although a proper handwriting note app is still missing.

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