Being Busy is Not Productive

One of the most misleading but commonly held beliefs is being “busy” means that you’re being productive and accomplishing a lot. The problem is that the busy work for most people isn’t focused on the things that need to be done. It’s just that, busy work.

Some of us get into a mindset that these things have to be done and there is no other way. Therefore, we get consumed by the same tasks over and over and because they are endless, the day is over and it’s time to check-out. The next day begins a new cycle of business yet non-productivity.

Busy but non-productive tasks include:

  • Checking emails
  • Making/returning phone calls
  • Holding meetings
  • Reading the news & blogs
  • Reading/updating social media

Wait a second. You’re telling me that I can’t check my email? I can’t make phone calls? How will I stay informed without the news? If we don’t hold meetings, we’ll never be on the same page. Social media is the future. I have to stay current or I’ll get left behind.

If you’re still with me, let me explain what I mean by labeling these tasks as non-productive. You’re probably having some of the responses above, so hang in there.

These tasks are non-productive because they are endless and time-consuming. They don’t accomplish anything and are administrative by nature. The problem isn’t in the task itself, but the amount of time dedicated to it.

Let’s take email as an example. If you’re like me, you can probably get through 200+ emails in less than 15 minutes, if you have to. You’ve done it before. You have your pre-defined rules of how you’ll respond and you make quick decisions when you first check-in in the morning or after a long vacation.

Delete. Delete. Archive. Spam folder. Save. Reply. Forward. Delete. Delete. Unsubscribe. Save. Archive. Delete.

You get the point.

So why is it that it takes hours, multiple hours, every day to check half that number of emails? I believe it’s because you’re accepting email as an interruption and stopping something productive to respond. You’re focused on accomplishing something, just about to have a breakthrough, and *ding* (or pop-up). It’s from your boss, colleague, or Grandma. You stop what you’re doing and respond.

Although it just takes you a minute or two, you’ve just broken your concentration and focus. You’ve stopped in the middle of what you were doing and diverted your attention. It now takes you more time to get re-focused and back to where you were. You finally get there and *ding*. I think you see where I’m going.

Although email is the example, it applies to all of the non-productive tasks on the list above.

So what do you do? You have to stay connected with people in order to do your job. This is true. But you can control it and schedule times where it’s appropriate.

Solution: Remove the interruptions and you will be more productive.

I just finished the 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, a masterful book on automating your work so that you can “join the new rich” and “design a great life style”. This is on my recommended reading list. In the book, Timothy Ferriss outlines some great rules to follow. I’ve evolved them slightly but have to give him full credit as this book has taken my view of productivity to an entirely new level.

How to Be Productive Not Busy

Only check emails a few times per day.

That’s right. Close outlook, log off the internet, or turn off the cell phone. Do whatever you have to and stop the “You’ve got mail!” messages. It’s not helping. Tim suggests that you only check your email twice. Once at 10AM (that’s right, not right away in the morning) and once at 4pm. He goes as far as to outsource this process entirely, but you can read the book to learn more about that.

Minimize your time on the phone.

Schedule this one too and limit to a few times per day. Have a voice-mail message that clearly states when you will return phone calls. Be consistent and put off returning calls unless urgent. Have an emergency phone where people can reach you. Be brief and to the point if they call this number. If you only have one primary line, let the calls to go voice-mail and then return them later. The point is not to interrupt what you’re doing. Finish it before going on to your next important thing.

Keep meetings brief or stay out of them completely.

The 4-Hour Workweek suggests that you ask for a meeting agenda before every meeting and decline if you find it irrelevant. Good advice. In my opinion, in order to be more productive you need to separate your “work time”. If you’re in meetings, you’re likely not accomplishing many of your other tasks. Especially if it isn’t your meeting. Keep them to a minimum and certainly don’t make them an hour. If you can accomplish it in 30 minutes, schedule it for that time and make it a “hard-stop”. Extended meetings mess up the rest of your schedule. Another great tip by HBR is to keep everyone standing. No sitting.

Stop “keeping yourself updated” with news and blogs.

Although it’s extremely important to stay up-to-date on the constantly and quickly evolving new economy, don’t get consumed by trying to keep up with it. Your blogs and newspapers aren’t going anywhere and if you don’t read about the latest tip first thing in the morning, you’ll be okay. Limit yourself this guilty pleasure. Don’t spend more than 10 minutes at a time consuming new information. Schedule it and use it as a reward for accomplishing your most important task of the day.

Stay off social media

. I’m a huge advocate for social media. I know it’s here to stay and essential for building relationships with customers and building a business. However, updating your Facebook status and retweeting all of your followers is NOT productive. If you could spend one hour creating something of value or accomplishing something that hasn’t been done at your company before or managing your Twitter account, I’m hoping this article encourages you to choose the former. Like the previous bullet, schedule this and use it as a “reward”. Social media does not count as a most important task of the day. Choose something else.

To summarize, keep yourself focused on what you need and should accomplish. Stop being consumed by the end-less tasks that make you appear busy. If you’re constantly checking email, reading online, or updating social media then chances are you’re going home tired. You’re always going to be busy if you follow this pattern. Break it today and take control of your productivity.

 How about you: Are you busy or productive?


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Cody Ward is a marketing professional, entrepreneur, blogger, and social media advocate. He has a successful track record consulting on complex B2B and B2C digital marketing strategy. In 2001, Cody started an online business selling sporting good products and driving revenue through affiliate programs. He then began working at Allstate Insurance Company on their paid search marketing and search engine optimization campaigns. Later he was also a core member of Zurich Financial Services' groundbreaking online thought leadership marketing program where he led lead generation tactics, CRM & ESP technical setup, and email optimization. In 2012, Cody joined Vision Integrated Graphics to lead an email marketing team, providing custom solutions for core clients.


  1. We can think of a lot of things that need doing instead of the right things. These are great tips to help us by be more productive. I am bad at procrastination.

    • Cody on the 19th June


      Thanks for the comment! All of us fall into the procrastination trap. The biggest problem are the times we don’t know we’re doing it. Sometimes checking email, listening to voicemails, chatting with colleagues, and reading the news makes us feel productive. Then we wonder where our day went and we feel more stressed than ever.

      – Cody

  2. Cody,

    Ernest Hemingway said all of this best in just five words:

    “Never mistake motion for action”


    • Cody on the 19th June


      Great addition! Love it!

      – Cody

  3. Matt john Canty on the 18th June

    Its the 20% 80% rule….20% of what you do gives you 80% of the results you get. You need to focus on what actually makes you money I have been caught in this trap before and after a few months you begin to see the negative effects. Its so easy to waste time when you are working online with so many distractions- email, facebook, twitter all there plus more to suck you in and steal your precious time!

    • Cody on the 19th June


      Completely agree! It’s sometimes not easy to identify the 20% that gives you the greatest return, but we all can certainly see it’s not repetitive mindless tasks!

      – Cody

  4. Paper cup making machines on the 19th June

    it’s a wonderful article, please continue post the interesting writing! thank you.

    • Cody on the 19th June


  5. Ryan on the 19th June

    Although everyone’s unique situation varies as to how thoroughly they can apply these principles, it is excellent advice nonetheless. One person I know also put it this way, “What is urgent is usually not important, what is important is usually not urgent.”

    • Cody on the 19th June


      Great point!

      Stephen Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People identifies 4 quadrants that people tend to spend their time.

      1) Important, Urgent
      2) Important, Not Urgent
      3) Not Important, Urgent
      4) Not Important, Not Urgent

      Many people spend their time in #3 because urgency sometimes tricks us into thinking something is important. If we focus on #1 and most importantly #2, we’ll likely accomplish our goals much faster.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Warren on the 19th June

    I had never realized how much of my time was being spent on activities that didn’t drive the business results I was looking for (Sales, traffic, leads, assets, etc.) until I broke my daily to do lists into sections and assigned them categories such as:
    – Income
    – Content
    – Traffic & SEO
    – Education & Training
    – Community & Engagement
    – Misc. Business

    I found a huge part of my day was being spent on the Misc. Business which while does need to be done, isn’t as crucial as so many of the other areas.

    I redid the entire way I do things and it has helped my productivity rise, while my busyness has gone down! 🙂

    • Cody on the 19th June


      Breaking down your day and making yourself a sample of how you spend your time is a great idea!

      Thank you for sharing your list and commenting.

      – Cody

  7. Tams Laborte on the 19th June

    I love this: ask for a meeting agenda before every meeting and decline if you find it irrelevant. An article about this, or even a whole guideline book is worth every word. People need to learn meeting manners.


    • Cody on the 19th June


      It only takes a few minutes to draft an agenda for an upcoming meeting so it’s surprising how many people jump into one without it. Meetings that have an agenda often accomplish their goal or at least are more efficient. And to your point, you can determine if you’re even required to be there. Thanks for your thoughts!

      – Cody

  8. Vanessa on the 20th June

    I’m the marketing intern, so my job is to check social media, emails, and call people. So how do I differentiate “busy” and “productive”?

    • Cody on the 22nd June


      Checking social media, emails, and calling people are just tasks assigned to you. Think about how you can add value beyond them by showing measurable results.

      If your job is to monitor social media, can you put together a report that shows the top social media profiles that are talking about your brand? Can you help escalate customer problems to the right group? Can you develop a social media action plan? Can you test sharing your company’s thought leadership content and see how many sales you could generate? Can you write up a series of posts and ask for approval to post them? The idea isn’t to peruse social media sites with no goal in mind, that’s unproductive. If you have a goal to accomplish that is related to your company’s business objectives then it’s certainly time not wasted.

      If your job is to check emails and call people then you’re probably in the middle of the information. As an intern you have the unique ability to add value to your boss and the team. Become essential by giving your boss time back in their day, speak up about your thoughts on a better way of doing things, and always ask “What else can I do to add value?” Don’t think about “checking emails” as your entire job as you read this article. Most likely that’s just a means to an end. Everyone has to check emails and communicate with their colleagues. It’s when you’re doing it compulsively by habit when you have other more important tasks to accomplish that it becomes unproductive.

      Thank you for the comment Vanessa! Best of luck to you!
      – Cody

  9. Sian Phillips on the 20th June

    Wow – guess I’m more of the busy and less of the productive then 🙁 Although as part of my job is in Social Media and blog reading I guess that’s not so bad. I wouldn’t have read post otherwise 🙂 I will check that book out and take your suggestions on board. Thanks for sharing on

    • Cody on the 22nd June


      I believe everyone should embrace continual learning. This is often accomplished by getting that information on the internet. Hence, I put effort into reading, writing, learning, tweeting, posting, sharing and developing relationships with people online. It just shouldn’t overwhelm your day.

      Scheduling time to do these things will give you greater gains in the long run. Instead of interrupting my “ToDo” list, I like to have defined things I want to accomplish and determine when and most importantly how long I’ll spend on it. Many people think they are accomplishing a lot by being busy (I’m very guilty of this) but looking back… is what you really care about getting done?

      Thank you for your thoughts and comment!

  10. Mohamed Mohamed on the 5th July

    This a good article, some times I spent huge times sorting my emails and looking for ,ore by pressing F5!!!!
    “Act or Delete” I’m trying to apply strategy now with my emails..
    and the book “The 4-Hour Workweek” I will look for it, it seems interesting book to read

    • Cody on the 12th July

      Thanks Mohamed!

  11. Frontjer on the 9th July

    I agree with author. And it takes so much discipline to keep yourself on right thing and reject noisy stuff. Question – how many REALLY important tasks you complete over a day? A week? This is true measure. If we are responding emails rather than driving task to completion, that does not make much difference. I am fan of GTD principals, and time management, well CONTROL of how I use time is the key. Even well defined task and priority is first step. Keeping focus on it, and rejecting everything else – that what makes a difference.

    • Cody on the 12th July


      Thanks for your comment and your great thoughts on “rejecting noisy stuff”! We often don’t stop to realize what we’re doing and just keep plugging away. A little planning goes a long way.

      – Cody

  12. I. Brucher on the 11th August

    I had a cursory glance at this article and I found it stupid. For one thing, it is too long and thus does exactly the opposite of what it’s preaching. Second, I hate being ordered about. The writer should leave it to the reader to assess whether this is a useful piece of advice or not. The title is the ONLY thing that I agree with – and it is what attracted me to this stupid article. I hope people won’t be too easily impressed by the first “consultant” that barks about silly orders, just to make himself interesting and drive people to his blog… Time management is something totally different. But I have things to do, so… I am not saying goodbye but… farewell, so long! 🙂

    • Cody on the 14th August

      I. Brucher,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      I appreciate your criticism of the article and hope you discover your own solutions in becoming more productive.

      – Cody

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