Some days I end the day exhausted, but I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say when asked what I did that day. “I was busy” is all I can muster. You’ve also heard people brag by saying: “I worked 100 hours last week – I get by on four hours of sleep!”. Just thinking about that as a reality makes me want to cry. You want to know the sad story that happens in my house more often than I’d like to admit? I start the day early, full of energy and marvelous french pressed love. I go through my morning routine, welcome the kids to the day as they wake up, then I get ready and everyone has breakfast. I leave the house for the day and will be gone for most of the working hours and when I get back I’ve got my beautiful family charging down the hallway screaming “daddy, daddy daddy!!!” and they are just begging for play time and they want to show me projects they’ve done. They want my attention. And I give them the scraps of energy I’ve got left, the tired remainders of myself that are left over. It saddens me at the end of the day. I tell them I’m tired, so I brush them off by choosing a cartoon to watch instead of playing catch or a board game with them. My interaction with them is not productive in the sense that a cartoon cannot possibly improve our relationship. This isn’t right, mainly because the things I’ve been busy with are less important than they are. This trend of “hyper-busyness” has somehow become something we think is admirable. But it’s not. We’ve gotta fix it! I constantly struggle with this. Hopefully, I can share some tricks that keep me on track to actually producing and improving, instead of just spinning my wheels with tasks that make me feel productive. This post is not about productivity hacks or time management (fortunately those are positive byproducts), it’s about the mentality that allows you to take a breath and think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Let’s get to it.
Busy vs. Productive – the difference.
These two words get used interchangeably far too often. I’ll give you my definitions. Busyness is the art of doing tasks that (generally) need to happen. These tasks are usually urgent, but not important. Examples include checking e-mail, running an errand, keeping up-to-date on the news, or cleaning your home. All of them need to happen, so we feel accomplished when we busy ourselves with them. This differs from productivity in that being productive, to me, means that I’m moving the needle and improving something, building something, or achieving the next goal. These tasks are important, but not urgent. Examples include exercise, budgeting, learning the Bible, spending quality time with your spouse and/or children. These tasks take back-seat to the important and urgent tasks, leaving no room for the non-urgent.
While both kinds of tasks are important, we stay busy with the urgent. This causes life to stall in maintenance mode. Things just hover along for years. Busy years. Here’s a little self-check: make a quick mental checklist of the status of your life two years ago and compare it to your state now. Is anything significantly different? Any achievements, life changes, or experiences worth talking about? Why, or why not? Why haven’t you started that business you’ve been dreaming about, gotten that degree that you never finished, sailed the Atlantic, or started that life group you know you need? Most of us list reasons like this: work kept me busy – I’ve been waiting on that promotion – I didn’t have enough time – I’ll do it once X, Y, or Z happens.
Do those sound familiar? We default to these excuses by nature. In fact, doing mindless tasks like checking your email passively for the 50th time that day is a copout way to avoid work that matters. That’s called sloth. We’re so good at it that it’s become part of work culture in just about every industry I’ve worked in. I’ve seen people literally sitting at work waiting for an email to come in so that they would have something to do. I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of wasted and underutilized time. Using the email checking as the example – imagine how many sales calls you could make, widgets you could produce, or people you could help if you weren’t sitting at your desk waiting for the next email to come in. The same goes for your social life – how many REAL friendships could you make and maintain if you weren’t “busy” making friends on Facebook? I’m not bashing social media, but it is absolutely NOT a valid substitute for real-life interactions. How do we fix it?
1- figure out what you do that doesn’t result in productive improvement
Proverbs 12:11 says “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense”. This means that if you work on things that matter, then you will move forward. If you just hover and maintain the status quo, you will eventually go from hovering to circling the drain on the “average train”. We see this same concept told over and over in the Bible. Look at Colossians 3:23, and Proverbs 12:24 “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor”. Being productive is not something new, this is ancient wisdom that we have access to.
It might sound daunting, but it’s not. With pen and paper in hand (go ahead and grab it, I’ll still be here when you get back), think about the things that you do on a daily basis from the beginning of the day to the end, and write them down. I mean EVERYTHING! Getting the mail, watching TV, reading the latest research on the top 30 reasons having a dog makes you smarter.
Now go down the list and mark one of the following labels next to each item: Urgent, Not Urgent, or Unimportant. Examples in my life are: exercise (Not Urgent), changing a poopy diaper (Urgent), checking email (Not Urgent), and catching up on my Facebook feed (Unimportant). While exercise or reading my Bible are not urgent, meaning nothing bad happens that day if I don’t do them, they are still important because in the long run I will be a better person because I’ve done them. Here’s how Dave Ramsey talks about the important but not urgent in your life: “Examples of what falls into this area are exercise, strategic planning, goal setting, reading nonfiction leadership/business books, taking a class or three, relationship building, prayer, date night with your spouse, a day off devoted to brainstorming, doing your will/estate plan, saving money, and having the oil changed in your car. We can all agree that things that aren’t urgent but are important may be the most important activities we engage in as we look back at our life. The problem is we live in a society where the urge to be in motion, frenetic motion, at all times seems to be the spirit of the age. There is something about a quad II (important, non-urgent) activity that causes you to pause and let a breath out, sigh, then engage in it. Activities like the ones mentioned above are the building blocks of a high-quality life and business, and yet because they are not urgent they seem to be some of the things we avoid the most.” (Dave Ramsey, read more HERE).
2- Eliminate, prioritize, and schedule.
This will freak some people out: I don’t watch the news. EVER.
Why? Because I have more important things to do with the few brain cells I have at my disposal each day. 99% of things reported on the news are out of my sphere of influence (I can’t do squat about them), and it’s almost all tainted for the sake of good ratings. I’ve seen current events happening in Afghanistan first hand, just to watch the final butchered up news version that night… ok, ok… different rant. The point is that I identified that news was an unproductive task. I also identified journaling prayer requests as important, yet not urgent. So I deleted the news and now journal. Don’t overthink this. Put the important things FIRST in your life so that the marginal energy left can be used on the urgent/mindless tasks like diaper changing. I structure my mornings so that before my kids wake up I’ve done the productive things I needed to do that day: pray, exercise, read, and check finances.
Schedule things that need time set aside. I have a reminder in my phone that goes off twice a week reminding me to spend an hour playing soccer with my son. This might seem dumb to you, but if I don’t schedule it (and actually follow through) then the urgent always seems to get in the way of one of the most important jobs I have in life: to be a father to my children. It’s productive because my relationship with them is built on the time we spend together.
For things that are important and urgent (dishes, work phone calls, etc…) try batching them together. Do them ONCE during the day. People you work with will figure out really quickly that if it’s urgent they should call or text you. Facebook can wait (gulp!). And you can catch up on all the news you want by scanning headlines online in 10 minutes or less AFTER the important things in your life have been taken care of for the day. You will be up on current events AND you will be one step closer to your goals.
3- Pay attention to what you spend time on
This is a permanent mindset that I want you to work on developing. Simply pay attention to what you are doing as you go through your day. Does that activity get you closer to, or further away from becoming who you should be? Would you be proud of how you spent your day if you were expected to give account for your time?
End average by disrupting busyness for busyness sake. Focus on doing more things that matter.
Let’s End Average together.