Productive or Busy? How to Tell the Difference


Being busy can make you feel productive, but being productive doesn’t have to feel busy. Do you find yourself filling up your schedule to make your day feel busy so you can feel productive? Are you guilty of having a busy day but feeling like you have nothing accomplished?

These are very common productivity problems because time is the most valuable thing we have, and no one wants it to be wasted. Everyone wants to feel like they had a very productive day efficiently using their time wisely. So how do you know if you are actually being productive?

To measure how productive someone is, the goal must be measurable. There should be a plan in place, priorities set, and time must be distributed correctly for the most important and impactful task that contributes towards a goal.

Measurable Success

At the end of the article, you’ll be able to tell if you’ve been busy or productive, plus additional tips on how to stay productive.

How Do You Know If You’re Being Productive Enough?

Productive or Busy

The measure of productivity is the outcome, the results that you get from contributing your time to the task are the focus area. Whether you are working for a company or individually, the tasks you set for the day should contribute to the company goal, your job title, or your individual goal.

Here are three ways to know you had a productive day:

Your task contributes to the goal.

When you are working on something, it must have value to it and be impactful and purposeful. What is the reason you are working on the task, is it contributing to something important? Quality over quantity in this case. You waste time when you are working on irrelevant tasks that don’t help you in any way.

Set smaller goals to achieve and smaller milestones to reach that all add up to the bigger goals so you know you’re focused on the important things.

You completed what you planned.

A productive person always has a plan, and that plan includes prioritizing monthly, weekly, and daily tasks. This means at the start of the day, the productive person already knows what they need to work on. They have already reviewed the big picture and made plans to work towards it with the daily tasks, and at the end of the day, those important tasks get done.

Read here to know how many tasks you should do in a day for maximum efficiency.

How you feel at the end of the day.

The truth is, you know when you have been productive. At the end of the day, if you’ve been productive then you get the accomplished feeling, but if you weren’t then you get the disappointed feeling. If you’ve done everything right then you will feel good about yourself and your achievements for the day, if you don’t get that experience then you know you need to improve for the next day.

Questions to Stay Productive

Achieve your goals

Being aware of your actions throughout the day is how you keep yourself on track. Keep a list of these questions near you, either memorize them or write them down on sticky notes to remind you, but continuously ask yourself these questions multiple times a day.

Is what I’m working on helping me reach my goals?

These high-value tasks that help us reach our goals should be our number one priority. These tasks need to be scheduled to be the first thing we do every day. What we put our focus on is what we choose to make important, so make sure your tasks are important, valuable, and impactful and that they are helping you reach your goal.

Am I working on this because it’s important or am I avoiding something else?

Sometimes we know what our important task is, but we purposefully delay or avoid it because we know how difficult or time-consuming it will be. This is our brain protecting us from danger and keeping us in our comfort zone, so we end up working on something that feels “easier”.

The best way to handle this is to schedule hard tasks early in the day and do it first thing to get it over with. Do it while you have fresh brain power and do it first, because if you delay, you’ll talk yourself out of doing it, distractions will come up and the task will keep getting pushed back.

Am I only working on this because it’s easy?

Filling up your day with tasks just to check everything off the list does not make you productive, don’t fall for productive procrastination.. Checklist completion gives our brain that dopamine kick, but if the tasks are low value and you purposefully do them just for the sake of using a checklist, then it’s just busy work.

Is this the best use of my time right now?

The main reason for learning to stay productive is to prevent wasting time. No one wants to waste time, everyone wants to feel important and valuable. Being aware of where all your time is spent is a great way to analyze your productivity.

Use a schedule with time slots to track your day for a few weeks or so to get a better understanding of where all your time is spent. Take note of how long it takes you do to certain tasks. Over time it will help you improve your planning and help you allocate your time efficiently.

Read here about signs of poor time management and why we struggle.

Tips to Stay Productive

It’s hard to be productive, here are some tips to consider the next time you feel like you are getting off track.

Time tracking
  • Keep track of time – Use a time-blocking system to keep track of your tasks, appointments, meetings, calls, etc. throughout the day and keep track of how long it takes you to do certain tasks.
    • Check out the ALPEN Method for task prioritization that includes the time-blocking technique
  • Limit distractions – Come up with strategies to limit distractions, such as putting your phone on silent, or putting it in another room. If you work in an office then create a sign to let people know you are busy, or set your online status to busy. Limit the amount of time you can get on social media. Instead, use them to your advantage as a reward system.
  • Don’t multitask – Focus on one task and one task only until it gets done. Your productivity levels decrease when you shift your focus back and forth.
  • Plan and Prioritize – Always plan ahead and always have a plan ready for the day. Plan ahead the day before, the night before, or even at the beginning of the week.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist – Dwelling on details or delaying working on something because you want it to be perfect is one way to waste time. Don’t over think it, be an action taker.
  • Set smaller goals – One way to know if your task is important is if it’s contributing to your goals. Set smaller milestones to reach so you know you’re on the right track and you’re focusing on the right things.
  • Quality over quantity – One important task will be better than ten unimportant tasks. Focus on the quality of the tasks rather than creating checklists for fun.

Read next: how to fix lack of productivity and get more done.

Hong Singer

I'm the creator of Ambition Forward. I keep things simple by focusing on the goal and being consistent in my actions to get the results I want, and I'm here to help you do the same. I encourage you to look for the things that bring you joy and go for it!

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