Look at your to-do list. Chances are that you have one. Now I want you to take a few moments to think about which tasks amount to nothing more than busy work. Sure, getting those things done might make you feel good, but chances are you won’t feel productive. If you want to be productive, you need to be less busy.
We know, we know, that sounds crazy! But we’re in the productivity business around here and we’ve learned a thing or two. In fact, our entire business centers on our knowledge activation tool, TextExpander, that helps you be less busy. Typing the same words repeatedly keeps you busy. Using Snippets to help you get more done in a shorter period makes you productive.
But before diving into how TextExpander specifically can help you become more productive, we need to look at how we ended up so busy in the first place.
Why Are We So Busy?
Way back in 1899, in a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen said that leisure time was the mark of success. Somehow, this perspective has changed. We now see people worshiping at the altar of the hustle culture, heralding 100-hour work weeks and unused vacation days.
Busy has become a status symbol. Columbia Business School professor of marketing Silvia Bellezza explains, in a 2017 paper, that people like to make themselves feel like a scarce resource. Being busy makes it seem like they are in demand, and so the scarcity of their “human capital” makes them more valuable.
While it might be tempting to say that this “busy culture” is nothing more than inflated egos, that ignores the underlying causes. As technology has improved efficiency, demands have increased on people. We are all expected to do more with less time and fewer resources. As a symptom of societal pressures and peer expectations, we keep embracing busy and often forego productivity.
What Does Science Say?
The real danger of our addiction to busyness comes from multitasking. As much as we might think we’re capable of it, our brains and science say otherwise. A 2007 study from Microsoft shows that you lose up to 25 minutes every time that you stop what you’re doing to check an email. The University of Michigan published a study showing that when you switched to a new task, it increased the time to complete both tasks by 25 percent.
In short? Science says that you should focus on one thing at a time.
If we want to focus, we need to do so with intention. We often think that we’re good at focusing, but instead we’re putting on blinders to the bigger picture and focusing on busy work rather than being productive. How do we overcome this? Read on, friends. It’s time to make science work for us.
Turning Busy into Productive
We’re fortunate that the same studies that show us where things are going wrong also give us insight into how to do things well. The hard part is that putting this into action requires us to work against ideas that have been ingrained in our heads. Say yes, do it yourself, be responsive… These phrases are supposed to be the keys to success, but they’re often the things that are dragging us down.
In short, we need some new ways of thinking, and some of them are antithetical to what we’ve always known. They revolve around getting more rest, taking care of ourselves, working on our own, and delegating more than we do.
There’s a lot to cover on this topic, so it warrants an entire section to itself. There is an old saying that tells us we shouldn’t try to change user behavior if we want to find success. The problem with this idea is that it settles for the status quo even when it causes a problem. So the first thing that we need to do is understand that there are issues we need to address.
Our office cultures have shifted toward collaboration. While that can be beneficial, in some instances it means that we spend up to 80 percent of our day focusing on things that aren’t our critical work. We’re “too busy” to get things done during our normal work hours, so we try to cram things in or take them home with us. That leads to overwork and burnout. Our first step is to make sure that we’re prioritizing the time that we have during the day on what’s truly critical rather than what is merely urgent.
You can choose any method that you like, but one that we’re partial to is known as timeboxing. The idea behind timeboxing is like that of the pomodoro method. You schedule out periods of time during your day to work on distinct tasks and you refuse to let yourself be distracted by anything else during that time.
Learning to say no to unnecessary meetings or non-critical tasks is a key difference between being busy and being productive. Saying yes is a focus on action rather than on productivity. It’s a behavior that we fall into because of that desire for others to see us as valuable human capital, when the true value comes from the results that we produce.
Don’t expect an overnight shift, especially if you have other people who need to collaborate with you or those who can delegate your calendar. But as you make your own changes, so too will the people around you.
Relaxing Toward Productivity
With your day-to-day operation in check, now it’s time to look at your sleep schedule. Sadly, there is a sleep-work paradox that exists where a lack of sleep causes lower productivity. This can lead to work overload, which then causes people to lose sleep.
So how much sleep is enough? According to the experts, that answer depends on whether you feel sleepy. Almost every study agrees that sleep quality matters more than quantity, but you should aim for six to eight hours.
For those of us who are knowledge workers, sleep is even more critical. We only have about six hours in a day to be productive, and even one lost hour of sleep can be more detrimental than if we worked in physical jobs:
U.S. military research has shown that losing just one hour of sleep a night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a 0.10 blood alcohol level.
Speaking of rest, sleep is only part of the solution. You also need to know when to stop. While “run until you’re done” might seem like the logical solution, it can lead to faster burnout. In fact, having a bit of leftover energy seems to let your subconscious mind tackle problems before you get back to work. This suggests that leaving a task unfinished and stopping before you’re exhausted can lead to greater overall productivity.
Finally, we need to talk about vacation. Those unused PTO days are a big problem. A 2017 study by Project: Time Off showed that, contrary to what we busy folks believe, unused days are hurting our careers:
These work martyrs are 23 to 27 percent less likely to receive a promotion, and 78 to 84 percent less likely to receive a raise or bonus compared to those who do take their deserved time away.
We’ve known for decades that working over 40 hours in a week is bad for productivity. Even those of us who rather enjoy our jobs need time away from them to appreciate the fruits of our labor. Plus, seeing someone else take their vacation days can often help another person feel more comfortable taking their own. When this happens, it can raise the productivity bar for an entire team, office, or organization.
While the ideas we’ve presented here might run counter to what has become common, they’re all backed by research. When we take time for ourselves, we can be better for our work. So the next time that you’re tempted to burn the midnight oil, consider that you might not only be hurting your own productivity. It’s possible that you’re putting undue pressure on your coworkers as well.
Aside from using TextExpander (because it’s free to get started, so why wouldn’t you?), what other ways have you found to focus on being productive versus staying busy?