Busy Is Not Productive

Busy Is Not Productive

Being busy is not the same as being productive.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to think that the busier we are, the better we are doing.

We hear all the time from people who are stressed about not filling up every single box in their Ink + Volt planners. They worry that not having every box filled in means they aren’t using their time effectively, or that they don’t have enough goals.

But in most cases, the exact opposite is true.

Success is about quality, not quantity. Just because your schedule isn’t crammed from morning until night does not mean that you aren’t working hard.

It actually usually means that you are working smart. It means you are focused. It means you are saying no to things that don’t matter, and making adequate time for the things that do matter.

So how are you spending your time? Are you doing work that matters, or are you focusing on the less important job of simply filling every hour of your day?

It’s time to stop planning hour-by-hour

Another question we get asked from time to time is why our planner blocks off time in such large chunks. For daily planning, we offer boxes for scheduling out your morning, afternoon, and night.

People are so used to seeing hourly planning that for many, it feels a little bit scary not to micro-organize their day.

But getting so granular in your planning, we believe, doesn’t help you be more productive. In fact, it can actually make you less productive.

First of all, an hour-by-hour plan is incredibly easy to throw off. One person is late for one meeting and boom — your full day’s schedule gets pushed off balance and you spend the rest of your hours trying to catch up and make everything fit.

But more importantly, an hour-by-hour plan prioritizes the wrong things too often.

In a given day, you may have 20 different things you could or “should” be working on. But not all work is created equal. Some of those projects will move the needle forward, and other ones won’t.

If you hop from task to task too quickly, it is really hard to make significant progress on any of them. This is fine for smaller tasks, sprinkled throughout your day, but for work that really matters, you simply need TIME.

The best work happens when you are in a state of flow, which often takes hours to truly achieve and get real value from.

Here is another point to consider, especially if you take your success and your career seriously: when you commit to doing everything, you are often putting yourself on someone else’s schedule and supporting their priorities — their meetings, their phone calls, their deadlines — instead of giving time and energy to the things that will make YOU more successful.

Finally, you stop being productive after too many busy hours. Sure, maybe your body can keep showing up in meetings, but when you’ve overscheduled yourself, your brain literally reaches a point where it can’t effectively take in any more new information.

If you consistently overschedule yourself, then you are consistently underperforming.

Busy people need quiet time in order to restore their brains and bodies to full capacity. It is better to do a few things extremely well than to do everything just “okay”.

You deserve to focus on quality, not quantity

You might think: but aren’t the people who are most successful usually also the same ones who put in long hours and work really hard?

Sure, the best work often takes time and the people who spend time preparing, studying, and honing their skills will usually rise to the top — but the truly successful people are the ones who make time investments that move them towards their goals.

Investing time isn’t what matters; investing time in the things that move you forward is what counts. People who know this are the only ones who are really getting value from the extra hours they put in.

Everyone else is just busy, not more successful.

Don’t measure your value in the hours you spend, but in how meaningful the hours you spend are.

Ask yourself:

  • When do I do my best work during the day?
  • When do I struggle to focus?
  • What tasks are currently on my plate that don’t *have* to be done by me?
  • Where do my skills make the biggest impact?

Instead of trying simply to do as much as possible, try to be strategic.

Don’t forget that most days include many (many, many) interruptions. Having a flexible plan — one where you are focused on accomplishing a few really significant things, as opposed to simply doing as much as possible — allows you to be interrupted without your day falling apart. 

How to plan your daily time more effectively

If you’re not used to blocking off bigger chunks of time for work, it can be hard to do at first. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll do better work and you’ll be better at estimating your time.

Here are some suggestions for how to manage your day in bigger time blocks.

When you look at your days, block off hours for deep work every day. This might be designing your slide deck for a big presentation or digging deep into code on a new product.

These hours should be sacred — share them on any digital calendar your co-workers have access to so that they know you are not free during this time. You should also schedule them for the time of day where you work best — for many people, this is mid-morning.

Deep work is tiring, so don’t over-commit yourself. I usually get one really good chunk of deep work in a day, or maybe two if I take a break in between. This might not sound like much, but when you make the most of that time, it really adds up.

Block off a section of your day, like the “Morning” block in your Ink+Volt planner, to commit a few hours to really focused, deep work on one thing.

With the rest of your day, look at how you can make progress in a meaningful way during your less “high focus” times. Schedule time for meetings, phone calls, catching up on email, organizing spreadsheets, etc for times when you have less mental energy.

On the Ink+Volt planner, if you’ve set aside a few admin tasks like these for the afternoon, you can simply make a bullet point list of smaller tasks you want to get done inside the “Afternoon” time block and cross each one off as you accomplish them.

One more benefit to time blocking…

When you overschedule yourself, you will almost always fail to accomplish everything on your list — when you’re too tightly booked, tasks often get pushed to later to accommodate every day’s unexpected changes.

And even if you do get it all done, you’ll be run ragged at the end of the day and exhausted to start all over again tomorrow.

When you time-block, on the other hand, sometimes you’ll surprise yourself and get everything done that you planned for the day. (Sometimes getting in the flow means awesome, productive work just happens!)

When that happens, keep a list of small tasks to accomplish with your free time. (I like to record these on the Weekly Outlook or journaling pages in my planner every week!) When you end up having a spare few minutes, this list will help you keep your time productive instead of leaving you to wonder what you should do next.

Don’t fill your time just to fill up your time — spend it doing things that will make you more amazing

When you look at how you will spend your time this week, don’t focus on filling up spaces; instead, ask yourself where you can make the most significant progress on the most important work you have to do.

How will you make this week your most amazing one yet?

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