The Illusion of Productivity – Procrastinating through Work

I’ve been having interesting conversations with people lately about “how busy we are.” Busyness is an incredible modern affliction. We can fill our days with activity and, in the end, look back and wonder what we’ve accomplished. But, in work and life, if we labour without clear priorities, we often labour in vain.

What do procrastination and busyness have to do with each other? How can you procrastinate if you’re doing work? Marcus Aurelius put it this way in Meditations – “Ask yourself at every moment – is this necessary?”. I recently spoke with a coaching client who told me he sometimes loses entire mornings “researching” things for his business. He goes on ChatGPT binges or designs a logo using Dall-E. Later, he realises he hasn’t done the one crucial thing for the day. Tim Urban refers to this as the dark playground – doing things we enjoy but not being able to truly enjoy them because we’re not doing what we should be doing at that time.

It’s easy to become busy. In the corporate world, especially in middle management and above, we can become driven by our calendars, which are often not entirely in our control. A day spent in meetings will feel busy (and cognitively challenging) but is often not very productive.

If we follow our calendars blindly, we can lose entire weeks where all we do is attend meetings and not get any real work done. If we don’t understand our priority (yes, singular) for the day or the week, it will not be attended to. So we have to start with the priority for the day and do that work first. We have to avoid “the tyranny of the urgent.” Instead, mimicking Eisenhower’s matrix, we must understand the benefits of focusing our efforts on things that matter.

Doing the easier things first is a form of procrastination. Reading emails at the start of the day, instead of tackling the one big task that needs to be done, can give the impression of progress. In reality, it is just using time that could be better deployed on the more challenging problems. It invariably also impacts our ability to think clearly and focus. Email is generally just a collection of other people’s priorities delivered to us without prioritisation. Clearing out our mailbox will feel like we’re being productive, but it’s not moving our goals forward.

We must clearly understand our goals to avoid having our days consumed with other people’s priorities. This is the basis of coaching – helping people articulate what it is they want to achieve and then helping them get there. Once we’re clear on what we want to achieve, making those few items the focus of our time is much easier. We put the big rocks in the bottom of the jar before we try to add the pebbles and sand.

Understanding that we decide how we prioritise our time, even if we don’t dictate our schedule or our deliverables, can give us a sense of freedom. Being focused on what matters and making progress on those things over time reduces the sense of overwhelm, of being constantly “busy”. And replacing the list of “priorities” with the priority – “what’s important now (WIN)” for each period in the day can give us clarity on how to proceed.

Don’t be busy. Be productive.

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