How To Be Less Busy And More Productive

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How many times have you found yourself recently saying, “I was so busy all day, but I don’t feel like I accomplished anything of value?”

When I ask that question in a keynote or training program, it's amazing at the number of hands that go up and/or the people who vigorously nod their heads in agreement.

One of the reasons for this lack of productivity is the sheer number of distractions and crises vying for our attention each day. These items keep us moving, but not necessarily in a forward direction. But might there be other circumstances causing us to feel so overwhelmed with all we have to do and underwhelmed at what we are actually getting done?

We Keep Using A Manufacturing Mindset

One reason we struggle with improving our productivity may be that we are using outdated methods to evaluate it. As Leila Hock writes in Our Obsession With Working Hard Is Ruining Our Productivity, “Generally, when people say they’re ‘working hard,’ they mean they’re putting a lot of time in. What they (generally) don’t mean is that they’ve put a lot of thought into that work, or that they know what they’re working on is contributing to something important.”

Hock goes on to say that much of our mindset stems from how productivity was measured during the Industrial Age. More time spent on something usually meant more widgets produced. In a knowledge economy, however, real productivity depends more on quality of thought than quantity of time spent on something.

We Want To Be (And Work) Like The Boss

This drive to be busy can be further fed by the actions of those higher up in our organizations. In the HBR article, If You Multitask During Meetings, Your Team Will Too, the authors highlight how the work habits of the manager have a direct influence on how members of their team will attempt to get work done.

In their research at one company (and confirmed by research at several other organizations) they found that for every hour that people managers spend after-hours translates to 20 minutes of additional direct report time spent after-hours. In other words, if the boss is working, I should be too.

I see this mindset at work with many of my “middle management” coaching clients. They want to regain more time for themselves and their families in the evening but aren’t willing to untether from their smartphone for any length of time because, in their words, “____________ (i.e. their boss)” might send me an email I need to respond to.”

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Blame It On Your Brain

While outdated methods and wanting to please the boss can explain some of our behaviors, there may be a deeper, more scientific reason... we like the simple, quickly done tasks more than the complex and involved assignments. Research completed by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats and reported in Harvard Business Review finds that "Human brains are wired to seek completion and the pleasure it brings." They refer to this as "completion bias." They write, "After you complete a task, being able to literally check a box makes you happier than when you are not given a box to check."

And while lists are the cornerstone for many of us to stay organized, our tendency toward completion bias can have a negative impact on accomplishing our highest priorities. As Jesse Singal writes,  ...completion bias may nudge us unwittingly toward easy-to-complete tasks, since we relish that reward-feeling. It feels good to chip away at the smaller tasks nibbling at your brain, but the time you spend doing so is time you're not spending on bigger, more important projects."

While lists are the cornerstone for many of us to stay organized, our tendency toward completion bias can have a negative impact on accomplishing our highest priorities.

The problem goes deeper. According to Gino and Staats, we need the dopamine released by completing tasks to help us tackle the more difficult and complex items. Higher levels of dopamine improve attention, memory, and motivation.

So what's the solution? How do we develop a “knowledge economy” mindset toward our work, handle the expectations of our boss about how work gets done, and balance the innate desire to get things done (regardless of real value) with the fact that our highest priorities involve complex tasks that won't provide the frequent release of dopamine? Here are seven suggestions:

Question your choice of action.
Asking yourself, “Why am I _________________ (insert any task)?” forces you to determine if the work you are about to do is the most important task to be done, or just filler because you haven’t planned how to best use that time. Will completion of that task move you forward on your goals… or just keep you moving?

Review your goals more often.
It’s easy to move toward tasks that allow you to “check the box” if you don’t stay intimately connected to your goals. Review them at the beginning of the day before you look at your schedule and again before leaving work. A good question to ask yourself to evaluate your day’s activities is, “How did my work today move me (and my team or organization) closer to reaching my/our goals?”

Get clarity about today’s priorities.
If you don't have your top priorities identified and have a clear path outlined so you can measure progress often, your brain will want to focus on tasks where it can get the pleasure it seeks from seeing something completed. One effective tool to help you pare down your daily possibilities is the 1-3-5 Technique.

Create more “become” activities in your schedule.
Take a quick look at your calendar and task list. As you review the appointments and activities listed, do they fall more under the category of “do” or “become.” If you’re like most people, the majority of items are things that just need to get done. It’s how we plan. And then if there’s any space left over, we focus on activities to improve our future selves.

Bill Hybels, in his illuminating book, Simplify, writes, “If you start by plugging in all the time slots on your calendar that determine who you want to become-and then fill in the other stuff around it, you’ll gradually become the kind of person you want to be.” For example, if you are a manager and feel like you are always operating in crisis mode, what could you change in your schedule to be more aware of potential problems before they derail your day and ultimately become a better manager?

Give your brain some mental caffeine.
In one research experiment, Gino and Staats asked over 500 employees to make their task list for the day. A portion of the participants were then instructed to write down two simple tasks to complete first (like responding to an urgent email). These selected participants were found to consistently get the most real work done throughout the day. The higher levels of dopamine gave them what they needed to tackle the tougher items on their list. A similar approach is to “habit stack” first thing each morning, completing a number of small tasks that align with your goals. This gives you the needed mental boost and moves you closer to making your goals a reality. A great read on this strategy is Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott.

Break down the big stuff.
With completion bias, you tend to avoid those tasks that won't give you the quick hit of dopamine. If you break a big task down into smaller, more quickly achievable pieces, you get the release of dopamine more often, and that fuels your future progress. I use Trello to help me divide a major project into more manageable steps.

Alternate tasks in your schedule.
When planning how you will spend your time, schedule a task (or two) that you recognize will bring quick satisfaction and then schedule one that won't provide an immediate hit of dopamine. Try not to have too many of one kind or the other in succession during the day.

Using these strategies won’t guarantee that every day is 100% productive, but at least you’ll have more nights when you can smile as your head hits the pillow knowing you made real progress on what’s most important to you.


Jones Loflin is a global keynote speaker offering innovative strategies for individuals and organizations struggling with too much to do. He is the author of several books, including Always Growing and the award-winning Juggling Elephants. Jones is well-known for his solutions for individuals, groups and businesses on leadership development, work-life satisfaction, and change. To learn more about Jones, go to

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