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Are You Too Busy to be Productive?

I’m sure you know a few people at work who are always “too busy,” yet never seem to get much done. For many of these people, it’s an excuse to decline new work, impress others, or gain sympathy. For others, it’s a legitimate complaint, indicative of being out of control or not managing their time. If you find yourself in the latter category, you need to adopt techniques to improve your productivity.

Are You Too Busy to be Productive?

On software teams, for example, a detailed study published years ago shows differences as vast as ten to one in productivity among team members. In fact, in my own business experience, I have found that team members who proclaim to be the busiest are often the least productive, producing the fewest results. In business, for me, the only thing that counts is results.

People will tell you quickly about all the external factors lowering productivity, including toxic office environments, motivation, and personal health problems, but I believe there are positive work habits that can more than compensate for these. As I outline key ones in my coaching practice, I notice that many people have never tried them and even find them counter-intuitive:

  1. Stop multitasking and focus on the task at hand. Many people think they can improve productivity by working faster and doing several things concurrently. In fact, constant task switching and rushing yourself kills efficiency and leads to errors, requiring rework. In most cases, you can increase your productivity by slowing down and handling one thing at a time.
  2. Limit the time you can spend on high-priority tasks by focusing on deadlines. This will create a sense of urgency and help you overcome your tendency to procrastinate. If there is no deadline, it pays to impose one on yourself. Your competitive drive for success will cause you to dive in with more energy and not be easily distracted.
  3. Limit your daily “to-do” list to the top three results due soon. Thinking in threes allows you not to be overwhelmed by a long list of activities, keep important activities on top of mind, and better manage your time. If you can check off all three by the end of the day, you will get the satisfaction of list completion, without the frustration of a growing list.
  4. Intentionally classify more of your tasks as non-critical. The natural human tendency is to treat all tasks as equally important, causing that feeling of an overwhelming workload and being “too busy.” In fact, all business tasks are not created equal, and you may find you can ignore some entirely. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to extraneous work requests.
  5. Apply the “minimum viable product” (MVP) strategy to results. Perfection is neither possible nor necessary in most business tasks, so I recommend the same approach that good startups use on products before shipping to customers. This is also called the Pareto Principle, where 80 percent of the value comes from 20 percent of the effort.
  6. Position yourself at least 20 seconds away from distractions. Distractions, such as peer questions, smartphones, and snacks are the enemy of productivity. I recommend the 20-second rule, postulated by psychologist Shawn Achor after he found evidence that only a few seconds of delay or extra distance is enough to keep most people on task.
  7. Pause regularly to rest, renew, and celebrate successes. Let go of total exhaustion as your indicator of productivity. If you pause to relax and meditate for five minutes every hour or so and reserve enough time for sleep at night, your productivity will increase. Take the time to acknowledge feelings, celebrate accomplishments, and gain insight.

If you have people on your team who are always “so busy,” the best thing you can do to improve team productivity is to spend some time coaching them on the habits outlined here to manage their workload and their time better. Don’t forget to take a hard look at your work habits for opportunities to improve. The value of increased productivity to your business is self-evident.

More importantly, the value to your health and your career is paramount. Life is too short to spend every day at work feeling exhausted and stressed by an overwhelming workload, or by exasperation with other team members who are always “too busy” to get their job done.


Marty is Cayenne's Chief Knowledge Officer and the Founder & CEO of Startup Professionals. His passion is nurturing the development of entrepreneurs by providing first-hand mentoring, funding assistance, and business plan development. He has over 30 years of experience in big businesses, as well as startups. View details.

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