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It’s easy to be busy. It’s easy to look busy. It’s harder to deliver real value. It’s also easier to measure how busy someone is than it is to measure the real value they’re delivering. That’s why many of us get sucked into busy-ness rather than true productivity. Bosses effectively ask employees to look busy, and employees comply by looking busy for fear of losing their jobs. In most cases it’s not intentional. Here’s an example of how I unwittingly did this with my team at MWI.

Look How Busy I Am!

Last year I forwarded an email to the MWI team from Google Apps for Work (which I love and highly recommend) with a report showing who sent and received the most emails in the company. Who shows up on top for both?
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I sent the email because I thought it was interesting. But perhaps in the back of  my mind I was also saying “Hey, look at me! I’m the CEO and I’m so, so busy!” The unintentional message was “I’m looking at how many emails you send, and if you want to impress me, you’ll send and receive more emails.”

Was that the message I really wanted to send? No! I don’t want my team sending emails for the sake of sending emails. And yet that’s the behavior I was unconsciously encouraging.

I didn’t realize this was what I had done until I received this report this month and almost forwarded it again, but caught myself.

Being Busy is an Excuse

I used to work 80-100 weeks, but I came to the realization I was using being busy as an excuse to not do things I didn’t want to do. “Look how busy I am, look how much stuff I need to get done, I can’t possibly do XYZ with you, sorry!” I would tell people.

If you told people “Sorry I can’t come to your party, but I’ve got a lot of movies to watch,” you’d lose respect. But nobody questions you when you say “I’ve got to work late tonight.” You get off the hook with no guilt, because you trick yourself, too.

Are you using being busy as a way to get out of things?

How Are You?

“How are things going?”

It’s a standard greeting. What’s your standard response? If you’re like me, it’s “Whoosh, I’m sooo busy, but it’s good, it’s all good.”

Yesterday I was chatting with Scott Stiles from Fair Employment Agency in Hong Kong, a fascinating social venture that is shaking up an entire industry and helping a lot of disadvantaged people in the process. I asked him how things are going for him and his response was “I’m productive.”

That’s a much better response than “I’m busy.” I decided then and there I’m not going to tell people I’m busy anymore. Telling people you’re busy all the time makes you look like you’re incapable of managing your time effectively, or worse, you could end up looking like George Costanza.


Looking annoyed is one way to look busy, if that’s all you care about, but it goes the other way as well–being busy can also make you look annoyed and frustrated. If people think you’re annoyed or frustrated, this can lead to problems that decrease your power and influence with others.

Busy People Have Less Influence

“Wait, don’t busy people have more influence? After all, isn’t it busy people who get stuff done?”

No. Busy people don’t get stuff done–productive people get stuff done. And you don’t have to be busy to be productive. In fact, being busy can make you much less productive by making you inaccessible to others.

Imagine you walk into your boss’ office to tell him about a great opportunity, but he looks really busy. You might turn around right there and walk out. Maybe you’ll share your idea later, and maybe you won’t. Or you may be aware that your boss is always super busy and working on a ton of things, so instead of emailing him that great idea, you decide to sit on it and wait for the right time, which may or may never come.

You may tell people you have an open door policy, but your actions may say otherwise if you’re too busy to listen to what they have to say. Add annoyance or frustration to your overall busy-ness and you have a recipe for people avoiding you completely. If the people you want to influence are actively avoiding you, how much influence do you have?

What to Do Instead

Here are three easy, practical steps to get you on the road to recovery from a never-ending state of busy-ness. These only work if your true goal is to become productive, rather than merely busy.

1. Eliminate the word “busy” from your responses to “How’s it going?” Replace it with something positive.

2. Unsubscribe from as many emails as you can. Are you subscribed to a lot of Facebook groups where you get a ton of email? Unsubscribe. Yeah, I know, they’re easy to delete quickly, and you like to stay in touch with what’s going on by reading the first line of those emails. Unsubscribe anyway. Here’s how:

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The reason you need to unsubscribe from all these emails you get is because even if you don’t read them, they build a mental picture of busy-ness in your head. “Ugh, I’ve got sooo many emails I get every day, I’m sooo busy,” you think. But remember, your goal is to be productive, not busy. When you wake up to fewer emails in your inbox, you will stop reinforcing the message your inbox sends to you that you’re sooo busy. You’ll lose that excuse, which is exactly what you want if you plan on taking control of your life.

3. Ask for help. I’ve spoken with my business partner and my wife about how I can improve my productivity. Often those close to us can see our faults much better than we can, have simple solutions, and they’re just waiting for the opportunity to tell us how we can become better people. Take advantage of that, it’s a win-win. By involving others you also build a network of support to help you trade being busy for being productive. If you simply start discarding responsibilities at work your partner may think you’re just lazy or having some sort of breakdown, but if you explain that you’re working to become a productivity ninja so you can get more done and set the business up for success, you’ll get full support.

Of course there are hundreds of productivity hacks out there and entire books written on this subject. I highly recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen, which I’m now reading for the second time. This post isn’t designed to give you a full road map to productivity, but help you take the first steps.

And now, I’m asking for your help. How have you successfully transitioned from being busy to being productive? What productivity tips do you have for busy entrepreneurs and influencers? Tell us in the comments below.

Update: It would appear I’m already making progress on decreasing my email volume. Here are the stats for June, 2016 followed by those for July, 2016.

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Note: I started the process of decreasing my inbound email volume mid July, 2016, so this only partially represents the improvement I’ve made. What will be interesting to will be to see how much it drops when I get the August report.