The Difference Between Being Productive and Being Busy

The Difference Between Being Productive and Being Busy

Have you ever worked with someone who seemed ridiculously overworked and constantly busy?

On the other hand, perhaps you’ve worked with someone who has a similar length to-do list yet always appears calm, capable and ready for a quick chat.

It may be that you’ve found two people who embody the differences between the terms ‘busy’ and ‘productive’.

You may think that the two words are synonymous but, in reality, they can mean two completely different things when it comes to the world of work.

For example, you can have a constantly busy, hardworking employee who struggles to adhere to deadlines or have time for meetings. Yet, at the same time, another worker could work just as hard but have lots of free time to sit back and relax.

So, what does it mean to be busy, and how does this differ from being productive?

Let’s take a look.

What Does It Mean to Be Productive?

Being productive is about working smarter. It’s about finding that perfect blend between working hard, working effectively and working quickly.

If working productively was a Venn diagram, it would look something like this:

Venn diagram showing the overlap of working hard, working effectively and working quickly, and the sweet spot of productivity in the center
Venn Diagram of Productivity

Productive working is about knowing what your goals are and taking steps towards achieving them.

It could mean that you are ticking off every single item on your to-do list. You can relax at the end of the week, knowing that all pressing tasks have been completed.

Or it could be about working towards strategic goals so that you can fulfill your overall career goals.

How do you know if you are a productive person or not? Well, those who work productively often have similar character traits.

Productive workers are good at prioritizing their workload. They know what needs to be done, and they are organized enough to ensure that they meet their deadlines with minimal fuss.

The most productive workers can identify which tasks need to be completed right away – not which ones are quick and easy to tick off the list. If you’re working as part of a team, productive working is knowing which tasks you need to complete so you can enable another team member to do their workload.

Productive workers can be categorized as planners. They may use their timescales to establish what they want to achieve by the end of the day and help them on their way. They break up tasks into smaller components to show that they are making progress (this is a strategy that can help you stop procrastinating).

Productive workers are also great problem solvers. If something derails them from their task, they can easily create a solution that resolves the issue.

Simply put, they do not allow themselves to get distracted from what they are trying to achieve.

What Does It Mean to Be Busy?

There is no doubt that those who are busy are often hard workers. But often, those who are busy rather than productive tend to take much longer to complete a task that may be required.

Busy people are those who have a long to-do list packed full of priorities. They may thrive on the pressure and welcome hard work and long hours, but they can potentially cause as many problems as they solve.

A busy person often packs their schedule with a long list of tasks, despite knowing that many of them are simply unmanageable.

The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang famously said, “The busy man is never wise, and the wise man is never busy”. This is undeniably true. A busy person will spend a significant amount of time writing to-do lists and thinking of how they plan to tackle their workload but fail to reduce it significantly.

They may spend hours creating plans and strategies, but it may be wasted time if it doesn’t lead to any actual work taking place.

Do you think you could be someone who is busy rather than productive?

A busy person often says yes to lots of tasks without thinking of how they will get the work done.

They may give the impression of working hard, but they focus on ticking off the fun and easy tasks rather than thinking strategically about their priorities.

They may be good at multitasking and quick to respond to emails and phone calls, but when working in a team, they may inadvertently hold up other team members because they haven’t got round to doing the work ready to pass on to the next person.

This could lead to work becoming ‘bottlenecked’ and jammed up.

What Are the Benefits of Being Productive vs Busy?

In a working scenario, there are tremendous benefits of working productively rather than busily.

You may get the work completed much quicker. You’ll be better able to identify your priorities rather than your ‘niceties’. This means you can focus your attention on the more significant projects that need your expertise, and you can delegate minor tasks to other colleagues.

What’s more, if you work productively, you’ll have longer to spend on individual tasks. You may have more time to think more holistically about what you are doing.

Workers who take the time to consider the impact of their work can identify strengths and discover previously unknown weaknesses. Therefore, they have the time to make improvements to what they are doing.

Beyond that, you may find that you’ll get a lot more done by working more effectively.

Depending on your business sector, this could directly impact your business growth and generate additional revenue. And once you’ve gained a reputation for being good at what you do, you’ll start to notice that promotional opportunities may arise, allowing you to climb the career ladder.

Another benefit of working productively is that it can reduce your working hours. For many people, the overall dream is to earn more money while working fewer hours.

For productive workers, this dream can become a reality. You won’t need to spend hours each week working overtime (often unpaid) because productive workers are more able to complete their tasks during their set working hours.

What Can Limit Your Productivity?

Learning to work productively is a skill. It’s something that is learned rather than intrinsically known.

You may want to take notice of how productive other people are. If someone in your team is particularly productive, why not ask for their advice or guidance?

If you are working with a mentor, part of your mentorship could be about helping you devise new ways of working that are more productive. As we mentioned, it could result in you earning more and working less.

But now that you are aware of the difference between being productive and being busy, what could prevent you from working productively?


Firstly, productive workers limit their distractions. They are confident to set their phone on silent or switch on an out-of-office response, so they can focus entirely on the task at hand.

They understand that a job done is the ultimate goal, so they are less bothered by office chatter and zone out background noise.


They also focus on one task at a time. Those who are busy are often those who multitask. And while it can be a good thing, multitasking doesn’t always mean the same as completing multiple projects.

That’s why some productive workers choose to focus their full attention on one particular task, knowing that they can achieve it entirely. They can then move on to something new.

If you’re working in a team, and other colleagues need to work on your project simultaneously, it can be far more productive to get your priorities completed first so that others are not left waiting for you.

Not Knowing Your Limits

Productive workers know their limits. Because they are adept at prioritizing tasks, they know what they need to do and what is trivial.

As a result, they feel confident to say no to people who ask them to do unimportant jobs, and they know how to delegate to ensure that all pressing matters are completed.

The Difference Between Being Productive and Being Busy
The Difference Between Being Productive and Being Busy

Changing Your Mindset

Sometimes, it’s about changing your mindset. It’s about recognizing the difference between being busy and being productive, and making changes to the way you work to see tangible improvements.

It’s about looking at your time-management skills, thinking of how you write your to-do list and knowing how to identify your priorities.

In short, it’s about thinking of how you can create a better way of working.

How Can You Avoid Falling Into the ‘Busy’ Mentality?

Busy people often don’t have a distinct purpose or goal. They have lots to do, but they aren’t necessarily going anywhere.

Busy-ness is often just a way of hiding the fact that you’re only focusing on the shallow tasks rather than looking at your clear priorities.

To help you manage the transition from busy to productive, you need to have a clear look at how you are working.

You may want to clear your diary and try to start from scratch. Do you need to have that 9 a.m. team meeting? Or could a simple email suffice? Can you use project-management tools to keep you and your team up to date with the latest activities?

If your inbox traps you, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Your to-do list may get bigger by the day, and you are stuck in an endless cycle of work that never gets completed.

To move away from this, you need to think carefully about what needs doing. Look closely at your workload and decide what your priorities are that only you can handle.

Can you find things that can be delegated or moved to a later date? Can you look at what is important to you or your team and what is essential to the overall business strategy?

Are there any tasks on your list that you can simply stop doing entirely? You may have fallen into the habit of completing minor tasks that provide no tangible value, and your time could be better spent elsewhere.

When people come to you with new ideas or ask you to complete specific tasks, don’t be afraid to say no. Your busy-ness relies on your saying yes to everything.

But your productivity depends on knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s a tricky mindset to change, because we’re conditioned to think that those who constantly help others are those who get ahead in the workplace.

Five Tips to Help You Be Productive Instead of Busy

Here is some helpful advice and practical suggestions to help facilitate the transition from busy to productive.

1. Prioritize Your Tasks Carefully

It’s not just about what you need to do by the end of the week. It’s about learning how your work can impact others in your team. And knowing which tasks are crucial to the broader business goals.

If you need help prioritizing, ask your line manager or a trusted colleague to help you think clearly. If several small tasks need completing, don’t be afraid to delegate or ask others for help.

You may find that the Pomodoro Technique can help you to improve your productivity.

2. Focus On the Bigger Tasks First

Busy people tick off the frivolous functions because they think it makes them look productive.

However, productive workers know that they need to focus on the bigger tasks because they are usually more significant priorities.

They also know that by completing more complex tasks first, they can cross them off and spend the remaining time working on fun jobs.

And when you’ve crossed the tough tasks off your list, your stress levels will naturally decrease, and you will be able to reduce any overtime.

You may find that writing a comprehensive action plan could help you to identify what you should be working on.

3. Consider Your Time-Management Skills

When looking at your work plan, try to visualize how much time each task will take. Those that are labor-intensive should occur at the start of the week when you have more time and feel refreshed.

Don’t be afraid to schedule time in your diary for specific tasks. By adding time to your calendar to work on a project, you can avoid being called into an unnecessary meeting or getting distracted by others.

You may find that setting self-imposed deadlines could make it far easier for you to work productively rather than busily.

4. Break Your To-do List into Attainable Goals

Productive workers are those who are actively taking steps towards achieving their goals. First, think carefully about what you want to do and why.

From there, you can break your workload into smaller, more manageable chunks. As you start to tick off these smaller items from your list, you’ll be able to see your progression towards the end goal more clearly.

Psychologically speaking, it may provide you with additional motivation to see your progress, which can help you to stay on track. It is this single-minded focus on completing an entire project that distinguishes busy people from productive people.

5. Surround Yourself With Productive Workers

Think carefully about the people who sit next to you. Are they busy, or are they productive?

We all take inspiration from our co-workers, so if you can see one colleague is hugely productive, why not ask them for advice? You could copy some of their strategies for effective working and see if it improves your workload.

And being around others with a positive influence may make you less likely to fall back into the trap of busy-ness.

Final Thoughts

As workers are under more pressure than ever before, it can be easy to fall into bad habits and think that being busy is the same as being productive.

But by carefully looking at your workload, understanding what your employer needs you to do, and thinking about how you can get your work done quickly, you should be able to transform your working style.

Productive workers experience more benefits than busy workers. They can get the same amount of work completed in less time. This means that they can enjoy a better work-life balance, reducing their stress levels and giving them more time with family and friends.

And beyond that, productive workers will be noticed by their employers. They may find that they have gained a reputation as someone who gets the job done.

This could lead to new promotional opportunities and a chance to earn more money and achieve your career goals.

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