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How to be less busy and more productive

11 May 2020 By Abigail Ireland

Abigail Ireland offers tips on working more effectively through better prioritisation, time management and communicating your workload to others

How many times have you used the word ‘busy’ over the last few weeks? Whether you’ve said it or felt it, being busy is something we can all in HR relate to – particularly at the moment. But how many times do you use this word in ‘normal’ times? The danger arises when this state becomes typical for us – when it becomes a badge of honour, and when we start to believe this is just how life is.

As a peak performance specialist, I am disheartened every time I hear someone proudly talk about their multitasking achievements or the fact they are getting more and more things done because of various productivity hacks they’ve discovered. There is a stark contrast between being busy and being productive, and top performers understand this and act on it. 

Time and time again, studies prove that multitasking damages our ability to pay attention, recall information or complete activities to a high standard or as effectively as if we had focused on one thing at a time. In the majority of workplaces, there is an overbearing expectation to be constantly contactable, to be available for every meeting and to squeeze as many projects as possible on to one’s plate. An abundance of technological tools is also taking its toll, with people expected to be available on email, chat, mobile devices and other communication channels both in and out of the workplace. 

Interestingly, a 2018 study at Stanford University found that “heavier media multitaskers exhibit poorer performance in a number of cognitive domains”. They also had lower accuracy and slower responses than those who focused on one thing at a time. On a scarier note, research conducted at the University of Sussex indicated that multitasking actually changed the physical structure of the brain, reducing grey matter density in regions relating to cognitive, nociceptive, sensorimotor, emotional and motivational processes.

The curse of being busy also has an impact on our overall demeanour and physiology. While some may perceive the term in a positive light, it also carries a number of negative connotations. Other words one might associate with busyness include stress, panic, overwhelm, rushing and scattered. Our minds are directly linked to our physiology and behaviour, so you can imagine how our bodies react when sent ‘busy’ signals from our brain. We may swing into fight or flight mode, leading to an increased heart rate, muscle tension, shallow breathing and an injection of stress hormones into our system.

At this point, we need to engage in a self-awareness exercise. We need to stop what we’re doing (as difficult as that may be), reflect and work out what our priorities are. The process of regularly reviewing and resetting our priorities is the key to having better control over our time and, subsequently, our lives.

There are three things that make high performers stand out when it comes to managing their schedules. Top performers:

  • (i) have clarity on what’s important to them and to the cause(s) they serve;
  • (ii) plan in advance and do not get distracted by ‘noise’ that could derail them; and
  • (iii) are not afraid to say no to people or activities, if required, to keep them on track or keep them sane.

So, what can you do to shift from busyness to pure productivity? 

  • Tactic 1: Reflect on your life outside of work. If you start to see your friends and family as things getting in the way of work, it may be time to pause, draw a line and reconsider your priorities.
  • Tactic 2: Decide whether you are busy because you have too much to do or because you are not being productive. Once you determine this, you can develop strategies to improve the situation, one item at a time. For example, you may need to say ‘no’ more often and create tighter boundaries. Or you may simply need to be more disciplined when working through your task list, rather than procrastinating or getting lost on YouTube.
  • Tactic 3: Accept that being busy is not something to be proud of. In fact, it is a flaw as it highlights that we are perhaps occupying ourselves to avoid something or to give the impression that we are adding value. If you use the word ‘busy’ a lot to describe your life, try substituting it with ‘productive.’ Try saying (out loud) ‘I’ve been really productive today’. If the productive angle doesn’t quite feel right, you may need to reconsider what you are spending your time on.

It really is your responsibility to manage your busyness. I will leave you with this quote from 19th century American essayist Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?”

Abigail Ireland is an executive performance and business coach

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