Why Action Doesn’t Always Lead to Progress

A full schedule written on a dashboard productivity pad with bright highlighters

Work doesn’t always mean productivity. 

When you’re busy, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re making progress and doing real work, but in reality, you might just be treading water and not getting very far.

Whether it’s taking on every work assignment that comes your way or saying yes to personal obligations and demands on your time, these busy tasks could be overwhelming your workload instead of supporting your overall development. 

Busy work can take on many different guises. It can come in the form of over-planning or preparing. It can mean saying yes to tasks that don’t advance your career. And it can also involve dwelling on the details instead of the big picture.

Being busy all the time isn’t a good thing. Busy work can hinder your personal and professional growth because it tricks you into thinking that you’re being productive. But busyness is really another form of inertia. You might be working 24/7, but it’s not really helpful if that work isn’t helping you grow or expanding you in some way. 

So why do we take on busy work? 

  • The fear of failure or rejection is holding you back from pursuing substantive work. 
  • The perfectionist trap is causing you to fixate on the small things instead of moving forward and making progress. 
  • You haven’t identified your goals so you’re taking on everything 

Here are strategies and techniques you can use to help you generate momentum and make progress without creating more busy work. 

Write down 3-5 goals you want to reach 

For the sake of your personal and professional development, it’s important to take a step back and make sure that your work aligns with your big picture goals.

But what if you don’t know what your big picture goals are? 

Spend an afternoon to do some journal writing and really think about what you would like to do or actualize in your life.

If it sounds too ambitious or scary, then start small. Ask yourself: what are some new things I’d like to explore or try out this year?

For example, maybe you want to try public speaking or make new friends or learn how to get your manager to invest in you.

Write these goals down. And make sure that you take on relevant work that will help you meet these goals. It might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes less is more when it comes to productivity. You’ll be doing less, but in a more strategic and effective way. 

Make a list of 5 things you can do right now

The antidote to inertia is meaningful action.

Take a look at your goals. What are five things you can do right now to get you closer to your goal? So if your goal is to do more creative work, then set up an artist's workspace for yourself or take 10 minutes to do a sketch or break out your coloring book or journal. 

Make a list of 10 things you can do this week

Now that you’ve generated some momentum for yourself, keep it up by making a list of 10 things you can do this week to help you reach your goal.

How do you know if you’re doing busy work versus something productive? Make sure that these 10 action steps produce a specific outcome. You’re going to generate 1,000 words for your novel. You’re going to the gym for 30 minutes. You’re going to attend a networking conference.

If your action leads to a specific result or a change, then you’ll know that you’re moving in the right direction.  

Take on new challenges 

If you feel like you’ve been treading water in your professional career, take on any new challenges or opportunities that come your way.

When you’re consumed by busy work, you’re not necessarily learning new things or gaining new insights about yourself or your profession. New opportunities, however, will help you grow and make progress.

Make yourself available to new professional opportunities that come your way–especially if it’s a chance to work outside your skill set and meet new people. Does your office need someone to help organize a special event? Do they need someone to facilitate meetings with VIPs? Do they need someone to speak at a conference? If it sounds scary or intimidating, all the more reason to say yes. This means you’ll be stepping out of the familiar, and exploring new territory. 

Add some urgency to your goal 

A smart way to create progress with your goals is to inject it with some urgency. And a firm, non-negotiable deadline will definitely light a fire under you and get you moving. 

So sign up for a 5K or an open mic night or register for that creative writing class. You will be compelled to get moving and take action. 

Create accountability

You’re more likely to do something if you have someone on the other end holding you accountable. 

It’s very easy to keep procrastinating or pushing back on a deadline when it’s just yourself. But if you have to report your progress to someone else, you’ll feel much more pressured–in a good way–to take action and save face.

So get a workout buddy, share your goals with a trusted friend, and find someone who will make sure you meet your deadlines. 

Create meaningful action steps 

If you find yourself feeling stuck with your goals or mindlessly doing busy work, then take a moment to assess your actions. You want to make sure that you’re taking active steps, rather than passive ones. Below are ways to reframe passive action into meaningful action steps. 

Networking goals

Passive action:

  • Liking someone’s social media post
  • Connecting with someone you admire on LinkedIn without any followup

Meaningful action:

  • Creating a post in which you share career tips and advice 
  • Sharing an article that someone wrote or emailing the author about how much you enjoyed their writing
  • Reaching out to someone you admire via DM and inviting them to coffee or lunch

Writing goals

Passive action:

  • Reading instructional books and setting goals but never sitting down to actually write

Meaningful action:

  • Adding deadlines to your calendar
  • Giving yourself a word count to meet everyday
  • Organizing a writer’s group to hold yourself accountable

Fitness goals 

Passive action:

  • Buying new workout clothes without ever wearing them
  • Telling yourself you’re going to work out this week 

Meaningful action:

  • Asking a fitness buddy to join your workouts 
  • Signing up for a 5K to add some urgency to your fitness goal

Did you notice the key difference between passive action and meaningful action?

Passive action keeps you in your comfort zone whereas meaningful action involves a certain degree of risk and putting yourself out there. By taking smart risks every now and then, you’ll be setting yourself up for long term growth and progress. 

Written by JiJi Lee.

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