Being Busy is Not Being 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.

People get into a mindset that these things have to be done and there is no other way. Therefore, they 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 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, then 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 get 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 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.

Follow these Rules:

  • 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 Ferriss 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 in his book.
  • 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 that 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 1 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.

Success Tip: Spend Your Time Effectively

Originally developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, promoted by Stephen Covey’s top-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, and echoed in Dave Ramsey’s book Entreleadership, are four areas on which people spend their time.

The answers can be determined by asking two questions about a particular task.

1) Is it important?

2) Is it urgent?

This concept can also be diagrammed into a four quadrant square focusing on the factors importance and urgency.



Most people spend their time focused on the two right quadrants URGENT & IMPORTANT and URGENT & NOT IMPORTANT. The reason being that the urgency grabs our attention even if the task at hand is known to be unimportant. We logically wouldn’t waste time on a task that we deem not worth our time, but because of Parkinson’s Law the fact that it is urgent increases (in appearance) its importance.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important - President Dwight D. Eisenhower

I’d like to focus on one quadrant in particular. The often neglected but most useful of the four quadrants is the NOT URGENT & IMPORTANT. These items are the things we haven’t checked off on our To Do lists in the last 12 months, yet we keep putting them on there. These items are the core discussion of our team meetings, yet action is never taken. We know they need to get done but often we are so busy that they keep getting pushed below all of our fire drills. The NOT URGENT & IMPORTANT quadrant is essential because it’s what we know will be good for our organization or team in the long run.

This quadrant will move the needle.

This quadrant will improve you product.

This quadrant will make you a star.

Make Time for the Not Urgent

1) Schedule it.

Carve out 1 hour out of your week to focus on the NOT URGENT & IMPORTANT. Don’t let anyone interrupt this time. Go offline if need be. Use this time to turn off the water hose on all those fire drills. Ask yourself, “What have I been neglecting that I know needs to get done?” Make a priority list and take action on some of those items.

2) Take time from the URGENT & NOT IMPORTANT quadrant.

By asking if your spending your time in the best way you’ll start to identify those tasks that come up with intensity but aren’t accomplishing anything. These are the fire drills that keep coming up with no long term solution. These are the tasks that occur because of lack of planning. These are the opposite of thoughtful and carefully constructed ideas. Identify them and divert your focus onto something more important.

3) Pick up the slack and get your hands dirty.

The NOT URGENT & IMPORTANT tasks/projects are often the things that nobody else wants to do because of their complexity, time consumption, or difficulty. Step up and accomplish something your colleagues aren’t willing to do and you’ll instantly shine. Differentiate yourself as someone who goes the extra mile and always asks “Why are we doing this?”

Success Tip: Don’t Multitask [Infographic]

If you’re looking to be more productive then it’s helpful to understand exactly how multitasking affects your brain. According to a recent infographic by, your brain “wasn’t designed to handle the amount information it is currently processing.”

In an age where 695,000 Facebook status updates, 1,500 blog posts, and 168 million emails are sent every 60 seconds, it remains difficult to focus and keep from multitasking. It pays however to limit your tasks to a maximum two at a time. According to the infographic:

When the brain is faced with two tasks, the medial prefrontal cortex divides into so that each half can focus on one task. The anterior-most part of the frontal lobes enables the switch between two goals. When a third task comes into play, it’s too much for the brain to handle at once. Consequently, accuracy drops considerable.

Some more interesting stats from the infographic:

  • 50% of Firefox Users have 2.38 tabs open on average.
  • 25% of Firefox Users have 3.59 tabs open on average.
  • People with email opened switched tabs 37 times over those without email, who opened at 18 times.
  • The average computer user checks 40 websites a day.
  • The average computer user switches programs 36 times an hour, or every two minutes!
  • Media consumed in the year 1960 per person was 5 hours. That number has jumped to 12 hours per day.

Here are some tips from the infographic that can help you combat stress and digital information overload:

  • Set only a few times per day to check email. Send messages in batches
  • Schedule time to check your social networking sites.
  • Subscribe to RSS feeds so you can read your blogs all at once and in one place.
  • Turn off the tech when with  family and friends.
  • Take a break from technology after hours.

Measure your time on a task to minimize your multitasking and reduce your stress:

This “Digital Stress and Your Brain” infographic, combined with the more scary side-effect of sitting down all day, caused me to think deeply about breaks. I’m often so involved in what I want to accomplish that day that I spend too much time hammering through tasks without getting up. I know I need to stand up, drink water, and recharge but often forget.

A small Jquery tool I created that anyone is free to try, take, or modify is a countdown timer in the browser. The timer counts down from 30 minutes and then pops up an alert window saying “times up!” The idea is to stand up, drink some water, and take a short break. You can modify the time to anything you want by changing the query string.


Click the image below to open the countdown timer.

View the infographic below:


Success Tips: Ideas on Leadership and Growth

All marketers, or entrepreneurs for that matter, obtain unique experiences and perspectives that drive them forward in their careers. Some focus on performance, others leadership, others networking, or an infinite combination of strategies to better themselves in the workplace and set up for the success of future initiatives.

In the interest of camaraderie, sharing among a common profession, or just the belief that learning together will make us all better, I’ve put together my top 15 list of actions to take to become successful. Many of these ideas have come from personal experiences, work colleagues ideas, mentors’ advice, and distinguished authors. Hopefully you will find value in some of them and adopt them into your own career.

  1. Embrace life-long learning. Read.
  2. Do the grunt-work for long enough and well enough that you can teach it to others. By understanding it at ground-level, you’ll be able to lead them to where you want them to go.
  3. Develop mentors or at least a circle of people advocating for you and giving you advice. Consult them on all major decisions and develop a relationship that encourages them to challenge your decisions. Read Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi for his ideas on networking.
  4. Never let your own lack of planning/execution turn into another person’s “fire drill”.
  5. Be aware of your communication style, your body language, and how you’re presenting yourself. Use the power of 3 (organize your ideas into 3 points at a time) to communicate your message effectively when speaking or presenting.
  6. Spend 70% of your time on tasks/projects that are important but haven’t been assigned to you yet. Read the The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss on ideas on personal automation and productivity.
  7. Become a generalist. Don’t be afraid to be dangerous on a wide variety of topics. The world needs people who piece things together at a high level.
  8. Never look back and wonder “what if?”
  9. Never ask a question you can’t answer yourself with a bit of a research or trial and error.
  10. Learn to tell stories of both successes and failures. Read Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath for how to organize your ideas in a simple framework.
  11. Keep focused on the best you can possibly do, recognize when opportunities arise, and have the courage to take chances. Maximize positive opportunities and minimize random events (Black Swans) by reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
  12. Demonstrate your passion outside of your work and school time.
  13. Lead by asking questions. Get others to arrive at the destination instead of forcing them to agree with you. Your ideas will be much better received if the group comes up with it together.
  14. Invest your time, energy, and resources into the things that matter most in your life first, and then to others that show results. Read Clayton M. Christensen’s Harvard Business Review article “How Will You Measure Your Life?
  15. Challenge the status quo and always go back to “Why are we doing it this way?”

Bonus tip: Turn yourself into a thought leader in your field. You don’t have to become the expert know-it-all, you just need to be part of the conversation. Emulating the successful in marketing today, I created a blog and have used it as a platform to launch my ideas and experience. I also use it as a medium to give back, to say thank you to those who’ve made a difference in my life, and to meet more outstanding people in the future. I encourage every young professional to start writing; sharing thoughts and giving 10x more than you expect to receive.

Success Tip - Learn to Say No

At any given time, you can choose from an infinite amount of ways to spend your time and marketing dollars. Marketers, and people in general, get caught up in always trying to accomplish more and more. What they end up doing in most cases is spreading themselves too thin.

Multitasking isn’t productive when you split your focus between goals or objectives. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but take the time to optimize. Whether it’s traditional marketing, digital marketing, viral marketing, guerrilla marketing, or social marketing, concentrate on only the top performing channels and remove the rest.

It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important. - Steve Jobs

I’ve seen many cases where companies will keep themselves busy launching campaign after campaign. It amazes me sometimes that they don’t take the time to stop, say “no” to new ones, and rework what’s already there.

Sometimes your best results can be right under your nose.

Success Tip - Time Management: Do What’s Not Asked of You

Leaders have the ability and the marketing know-how to put all of the pieces together and solve any objective.

You have many choices of how you can spend your time during the day. You can keep yourself busy with email, you can jump into new projects, you can finish the existing ones, or you can actively pursue the infinite other activities until the day is over.

One concept that a former mentor taught me relates to how to spend your time and most importantly how to build a great reputation. A quick note, if you are in a position where you are your own boss, you can think of your “boss” as your customers.

The concept goes like this…

spend 70% of your time on projects/tasks that are important to your boss but haven’t been asked of you yet.

The exact percentages are insignificant as long as you get the point that the majority of your time should be spend on thinking, innovation, and getting things done. Not only getting things done, but getting things done that in some cases no one has even thought of yet.

Many employees spend their day going through the regular motions completing X then Y then Z, and then clocking out. The true innovators and leaders continually ask themselves… “How can I do this better?” “What if I tried doing this a different way?” “What is the real reason we are doing this?” Asking those questions can give you great insight into where to begin.

The 30% of time should be focused on things you need to get done. Don’t subscribe to the concept and then let your required work to fall off. Get that done first and then think “What else can I do to add value?”

This was a game changing concept that if you accept into your work habits, pretty soon people will start seeing you as a leader and you can choose the directions to go.

How do you prioritize your time?