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How to Be Productive but Not Busy

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

“Hey, how are you?”


Ever had that conversation? Yeah, me too.

Some of us wear “busy” like a badge of honor, but this stems from misguided priorities. We think that being “busy” means we’re getting things done, living up to our potential, and on our way to success. This isn’t true. Your aim isn’t to be busy. Your aim is to be productive.

There’s a difference between busy and productive. We’ve all met people who are constantly busy but at the end of the week, they haven’t really accomplished much of anything.

On the other hand, when you focus on productivity over busyness, you’ll find yourself both accomplishing more of your goals and having time to take breaks.

How to be productive but not busy

Productivity is a balancing act. It’s not something that you figure out once and then you’re done. It’s something you have to consciously consider every day. How do I make today a productive day, without feeling too busy or overwhelmed? Each productive day will look different, but here are some strategies that you can use to help make your days more productive and less busy.

Plan ahead

One key difference between busy and productive is that productivity is thoughtful and organized, while busy is chaotic. Taking a moment to plan out your day helps you to make sure that you’re using your time in an efficient manner rather than bouncing around to whatever item pops up next.

If you’re busy, you probably have a to do list. That’s great. Now take it one step farther. Move your to do list onto a calendar. If you don’t yet have a calendar system, I highly recommend checking out calendar blocking.

Each night before bed, I take tomorrow’s to do list and translate it into calendar form. This serves me in several ways.

First, having a schedule helps me to get started on time. When you don’t have a set start time—at work or on days off—it’s easy to waste an impressive amount of time getting settled in. You go get coffee, chat with coworkers, run out to your car to grab something you forgot, top up the coffee again, and before you know it, it’s already 10:30 and you haven’t accomplished anything.

When you have your day scheduled out and you know you have to start working at 9:15 in order to finish on time, you’re less likely to waste time in the morning.

Second, moving your to do list to a calendar gives you a set of mini deadlines to hit throughout the day. Ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? It’s the idea that work expands to fill the time available to complete it. If you have two hours to write your paper, it will be done in two hours. If you have two weeks to write the same paper, it will take two weeks.

Scheduling your day limits the time each task has available for completion. If you’ve only given yourself half an hour to write the weekly report, you’ll likely finish it in half an hour, rather than letting it drag on all day. Having a schedule keeps you moving forward.

Third, and this ties into the previous point, having a schedule prepared helps you to stay focused on one thing at a time. If you’ve scheduled the next two hours to work on homework and then you know you have a half-hour YouTube break, you’ll have an easier time staying focused on homework because you know that break is coming soon.

Similar to the “a place for everything and everything in its place” principle for keeping your space clean, calendar blocking gives you a specific time to do each activity. You know when to do each thing on your list, preventing you from worrying about when everything will be done. It’s already planned, you just have to execute.

Speaking of staying focused, this brings me to my next point:

Stay focused

This is a biggie. Most of the “busy” people that I know are incredibly unfocused. They may claim that they’re writing a paper, but a two hour writing session includes fifteen minutes of writing, twenty minutes of YouTube, two coffee runs, a snack break, thirty phone checks, and another twenty minutes spent talking to a friend.

Now, small breaks to give your brain a chance to wander are often great for productivity. I’m not saying that you need to stay 100% focused for two hours, but rather that scheduling small breaks (using the Pomodoro method for example) will help you stay focused when it’s time to focus.

And when it’s time to focus, get focused. Find a way to remove distractions. When I’m feeling more distractible than usual, I turn on *Freedom to block distracting websites and put my phone in another room or give it to my boyfriend. Then, even if I don’t really want to, my only option is to work.

By staying focused when it’s time to be focused, you get your work done more quickly and with better quality. Then you’ll actually have time to relax when it’s time to relax. Wouldn’t you rather have your relaxation time all in one solid two hour chunk instead of scattered throughout the day in little thirty second phone checks?

Say “No”

There is only so much time in a day. You don’t have time to do everything. Saying “yes” to too many commitments is probably the easiest and most annoying way to pack your calendar way too full. You don’t have to do everything everyone asks you to do. You can say “No.”

There are the obvious “No”s: that vacation to the lake you don’t even like with your sister and her four screaming children, that movie that you don’t really care about, or that night out with your coworkers that you’re already tired of seeing. You don’t want to do these things and nothing bad will happen if you don’t do them. Say no.

But sometimes, it’s harder to say no, even when it’s the right decision. Sometimes we have to say no to things we want to do: your best friend inviting you to the usual Saturday night festivities, the pick-up soccer game your siblings are trying to play, or the spa day with your aunt. If it doesn’t fit in your schedule and is lower in priority than the things already on your schedule, it’s okay to say no.

Often, the most difficult person to say no to is ourselves. You want to ignore the laundry that needs to be done and instead take a nap. You want to spend three hours reading, but you really need to deal with your emails. In these instances, saying no may not be the attractive choice, but it’s the right one.

By learning to say no when it’s appropriate, you keep yourself on track and on schedule. You align your actions with your priorities so that your life looks the way that you want it to. (This isn’t to say that you should never have fun, just be thoughtful in what you say yes to.)

Work ahead

This is my productivity secret.

This is the thing that kept me sane, productive, and on schedule while juggling a full course load, five jobs, a relationship, and an assortment of extracurriculars.

You never know when you’re going to need a day off. You never know when something is going to fall on your lap at the last minute.

Your goal in being productive isn’t just to get on track; your goal is to stay two steps ahead of everyone else so that you have the freedom to do what works best for you. It’s not the easiest thing to accomplish and requires commitment and self-discipline, but if you can get there, it makes life so much easier.

That said, working ahead isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds. Think of it as befriending your future self. You don’t have to work into next year, but when you find yourself with a free afternoon, spend an hour or two working on something for the future. Buy a gift for someone’s upcoming birthday, start on next week’s homework, or create a meal plan for the rest of the month.

I know that some people reading this think I’m out of my mind (especially the students who do not want to work on next week’s homework) but this shift has brought me more peace of mind that any other change I’ve made in my life. Stop screwing over your future self and instead work with them because you’ll be that future self very soon.

When you have the discipline to work just a little bit ahead, you give yourself so much freedom. You give yourself the ability to take a day off to have fun or if you aren’t feeling well, and you no longer have to cram to get things done at the last minute. Rather than borrowing time from the future, you give your future self more time and flexibility.

Productive Vs. Busy

If you aren’t used to the shift from busy to productive or don’t understand what I mean by this, here are a few examples of busy vs. productive.


Panic cleaning twenty minutes before your mom shows up to your apartment and hoping that she doesn’t open any closets.


Creating a schedule for chores so that you only do a little bit each day, but things stay clean. For example, my boyfriend and I do the dishes every other day and take turns doing them, so we each have to do the dishes once every 4 days. We vacuum every Monday and Friday, and laundry is done every Sunday. Because we have a system, our apartment stays pretty clean most of the time.


Snoozing the alarm six times, flying out the door without the lunch that you made last night, and grabbing a $4 coffee on the way to work.


Creating a thoughtful morning routine that takes you through all of the things that you need to do in an efficient manner. Because the routine is preplanned, you don’t miss any steps and you morning is peaceful.


Receiving a new project or assignment and thinking, “I’ll handle that later,” then forgetting about it and freaking out trying to finish the whole thing in two days.


Taking ten minutes to plan out when you’ll work on the project shortly after receiving it. By planning it out and getting it on the calendar, you can work on it in small increments over time and have it done early.


Being “on” from sunrise to sunset and constantly jumping from task to task to feel like you’re getting things done. You’re setting yourself up for burnout, and you’ll actually be more productive if you take time to take care of yourself and practice self care.


Scheduling and using your time efficiently so that you have time to take breaks when you need them. You don’t have to be working constantly to get things done. Focus not on the quantity of time that you spend working but the quality of your work and the results that come from it. Make sure you aren’t unknowingly wasting time.


Running to an emergency vet appointment that throws off your whole schedule. Now you’ll be up until 2 a.m. to finish that project and have to eat lunch at your desk tomorrow to finish all of your work on time.


You’ve been working ahead, so that emergency vet appointment doesn’t throw you off. You finished your project earlier this week, so tomorrow’s deadline is a non-issue, and you’ve already started on your work for tomorrow so you’ll still have time for a leisurely lunch. By working ahead a bit, you created a time buffer that comes in handy when something unexpected arises.

Recommended Reading:

Calendar Blocking: the System That Helps Me Get It All Done Without Feeling Overwhelmed

How to Stay Focused

Life Advice that You Didn't Know You Needed to Hear

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