Full Screen

The Difference Between Being Busy and Being Productive

More Free Lessons in

Digital Management and Leadership View All →

Get cutting-edge digital marketing skills, know-how and strategy

This micro lesson is from one of our globally recognized digital marketing courses.

Start a FREE Course Preview Start a FREE Course Preview
Global Authority

The Global Authority

12 years delivering excellence


245,000+ Members

Join a global community


Associate Certification

Globally recognised


Membership Included

Toolkits, content & more

Digital Marketing - Study Notes:

Being busy

In our modern ‘always-on’ world, there is a constant demand to be always busy, and to be seen to be busy, and responding to everything immediately, and getting tasks done straight away. It can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed.

The economist Cyril Northcote Parkinson, once wrote that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Or, to put it another way: workers will increase their efficiencies, if they feel there is less time to complete their task.

John Spencer, the editor of Pop Culture and Society, has four rules for understanding the difference between being busy and being productive:

  • Being busy is frantic, while being productive is focused.
  • Being busy is fueled by perfectionism while being productive is fueled by purpose.
  • Being busy is about working harder while being productive is about working smarter.
  • Being busy is about being good at everything while being productive is about being great at a few important things.

Solutions to be being busy

What does it actually mean to be ‘busy’ anyway? It means having a great deal to do. When you are constantly busy, you may feel like you have a lot going on. However, in reality, you are probably accomplishing very little! By overloading yourself – because you think you have to, or possibly because of your work culture – you are affecting your ability to complete tasks in the long term and within your role. An added danger is that your personal credibility will suffer as your task and project failure rate increases.

So what’s the solution? You need to rest your brain, take stock, step back, pause in the moment, and be brutally honest about what you can and cannot get done. First, you should develop a new understanding of the dangers of being busy and ‘always on’. And then you can move to a new understanding of the difference between what is urgent and what is important. And ultimately you achieve a better work balance.

The Decision Matrix

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general and former president of the United States, devised the ‘Eisenhower Decision Matrix’. He said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Most people fall into the trap of believing that all urgent activities are also important. This probably comes from conditioning in pre-historic times. Back then, short-term concerns of food, safety, and shelter outshone any longer-term strategy. As a result, we fall into silos of stress, fatigue, and breakdown. And then we are unable to accurately see and assess our priorities.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey refined Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix into four quadrants.

Quadrant 1

Quadrant 1 contains tasks that are both urgent and important. These tasks require our immediate attention and go towards our long-term goals.

Examples of items in Quadrant 1 include feeling obliged to respond within 24 hours to an email received or tasks not completed due to issues outside your control. Paying your rent or mortgage if you have missed the payment date would be a Quadrant 1 task.

With careful planning, you can reduce the sense of urgency. For example, you could work on your Annual Report for a short maximum time period every day, instead of leaving it until the week before publication to begin. This helps you move some Quadrant 1 tasks into Quadrant 2.

Quadrant 2

Quadrant 2 contains urgent but important tasks. These are tasks without a deadline that help you achieve your goals. These tasks center around relationship building (in work and at home), planning for the future (medium to long-term), and personal recreation (hobbies or studying).

As recommended by Covey, Quadrant 2 is where we should aim to spend the majority of our lives. To operate effectively in Quadrant 2, you comprehend that ‘there is never a right time’ and that we must live and plan our lives to succeed.

Quadrant 3

Quadrant 3 contains urgent and not important tasks. These are the tasks that require action now, but that are not actually critical to the achievement of our goals. Quadrant 3 items and tasks are usually the result of the actions of others as they prioritize their own work over yours.

Examples of Quadrant 3 tasks include making and taking phone calls, responding to social media, and dealing with colleagues approaching your desk. Emails can also fall into this quadrant, if you find it hard to distinguish between the urgent and the important.

According to Covey, people spend most of their time focused on Quadrant 3 tasks while holding the mindset that they are actually working in Quadrant 1.

In Quadrant 3, while you may be responding to the needs of others, you feel good about your involvement in these tasks. But this does not mean that you are getting stuff done. You may be feeling good marking items off your list, but you also realize that you are not making any progress in your own long-term goals. Quadrant 3 can be personally frustrating.

Quadrant 4

Quadrant 4 consists of tasks that are neither urgent nor important. These tasks do not assist you in achieving your short or long-term goals. Examples include surfing the web or browsing TV and social media. Obviously, your professional career and work-life-balance would suffer if you spent all of your time, energy, and focus in Quadrant 4. However, this quadrant is of some value, as it allows you work on tasks that help you relax and decompress.

You need to learn to objectively filter what is urgent versus what important for you, and which tasks are actioned in which quadrant. However, this requires constant discipline and honesty.

Being productive

You aim is to be productive, not just busy. You can follow a number of guidelines to achieve this. First, focus on getting important tasks done. And understand the who, what, why, and where that allows you to be productive and position yourself in that zone. Next, aim to be more efficient in less time. In other words, use your time more efficiently. This leads nicely into the next guideline. If you efficiently manage your time, you’ll have ‘spare’ time to be good to yourself and allow yourself a respite from the workplace. Resist being ‘always on.’ Next, practice assertiveness. Don’t automatically agree to every task. Being assertive means learning to discuss, argue, and negotiate. And finally, make sure you have an accurate and up to date big-picture viewpoint.

Productivity in action

Consider this example. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based company, recently completed an eight-week trial of giving their 200-plus employees a full extra day off per week, while retaining salaries and their conditions of employment. Interestingly, despite the reduction in working hours, their employees were found by Jarrod Haar, Professor of Human Resource Management at Auckland University of Technology, to be a measurable 20 percent more productive. And they claimed to be happier, and role and life satisfaction increased across the company!

Back to Top
Kevin J Reid

CEO of Personal Skills Training, Senior Coach at Kevin J Reid Coaching, Co-founder and Communications Director of The Counsel.ie, and Lead Collaborator of LeitrimMade.com

  • A consummate and skillful international communications trainer, facilitator, and coach
  • Has over 15 years of learning development experience with individuals, teams, and entire organizations
  • Has facilitated communications workshops and training across numerous sectors in Ireland, the UK, Europe, America, and Africa

The following pieces of content from the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library have been chosen to offer additional material that you might find interesting or insightful.

You can find more information and content like this on the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library

You will not be assessed on this content.


    Personal Skills
    Kevin J Reid
    Skills Expert

    When it comes to improving your personal skills in the workplace, four essential skills stand out: the ability to be more productive at work; the ability to adapt to a changing work environment; the ability to manage your time effectively; and the ability to deal with setbacks. This module focuses on enhancing your skills in these four critical areas.

    When it comes to productivity, you will learn about the difference between being busy and being productive, and techniques you can use to increase your output and to deal with unwelcome distractions and interruptions.

    The lesson on adaptability focuses on how to cultivate an adaptable mind-set at work, and how to find alternative – and innovative – solutions to problems by using tactics like brainstorming and mind-mapping.

    The time-management lesson explains how to prioritize tasks and set goals, how to save and create time, and how to eliminate personal time stealers such as excessively viewing email or attending too many meetings.

    The module concludes with a lesson on how to respond to setbacks in the workplace. You will discover the importance of demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity, and how to turn setbacks into valuable learning opportunities.