This Four Letter Word Kills Productivity

January 08, 2015

Let’s face it, there are a lot of things that can kill productivity: meetings, email, urgent matters given by co-workers and bosses. But the biggest killer in productivity is caused by your own bad habits and daily expectations. The four letter word that kills productivity is “busy”.

Being “busy” is a mindset for getting through each day completing as many tasks and meetings as possible. At some point you will realize the email inbox can’t be emptied and there are more action items on your to-do list than the number of hours each day. This sour news leaves you tired and frustrated. So your natural response to someone asking how things are going is “oh, I’m just busy.”

Do you really want to be busy for the rest of your career only to find a light at the end of the tunnel called retirement? Is there a way to get the word “busy” out of your vocabulary and start doing meaningful work everyday that leaves you energized and ready for Monday?

I’m going to show you how to get rid of busy work, focus on the real work and set yourself up for continued success. Let’s get to it!

Define “Busy Work”

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You haven’t been doing busywork your whole life (even though it might feel like it) and there is a way to remove the majority of the busy work that’s getting in the way of your real work.

The truth is responding to email four hours of the day is probably not part of your job description (for some people it might be). The first step to getting rid of busyness is to define what tasks are causing your busy symptoms. Here is a list of common tasks that can turn into busy work:

  • Responding to Email
  • Sorting Paperwork
  • Attending Meetings
  • Making Phone Calls
  • Checking Social Media

Action: Take a few minutes and write down what tasks have turned into busy work for you, include a estimated time per day you spend on those items.

Define “Real Work”

Now that you have a list of tasks that are considered busy work, it’s time to start focusing on the “real work” that fits your job description and makes you feel fulfilled and accomplished.

Defining this work can be a challenge, because most of your productive and fulfilling work has been mixed with the mundane. The 80/20 Rule (also known as the Parento Principle) states that “roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. Meaning 20% of the tasks you do every day make up 80% of your desired outcomes.

In order to figure out your real work, answer the following questions:

  • What is your job description?
  • What tasks get you the biggest results?
  • What do you feel is real work?
  • When do you feel most alive at work? What are you doing during those times?

If your job description has become unclear, it’s important to rethink your daily strategy.  You might need to have a conversation with your boss (even if you are your own boss!). The answer to the questions above should help guide the conversation.

Defining real work will make all the difference. Knowing what you are supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do can transform what happens on a daily basis.

Limit Yourself

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There is only so much you can do in a day, and too often you try and do as much as possible until the work day is over. According to Parkinson’s law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So when you decide your entire to-do list, email inbox, and project list are available for you to try and complete each day, it will be impossible to define what work will get done, and when. Trying to mark everything by priorities and hoping the items with deadlines get noticed today is dangerous territory. If you ever decide to build priorities into your day, pick one priority and work on it.

Otherwise, limiting yourself to a few (2-4) major tasks and projects each day can take you from always trying to play catchup, to staying ahead of schedule.

Get Laser Focused

In order to limit yourself to a handful of projects each day, you have to get laser focused.

Back to Parkinson’s law. I recommend setting aside meaningful time for each of your daily projects. The goal here is to define how long (you think) each project will take so Parkinson’s law can come into effect. If you say this report will take thirty minutes to complete, set a timer for thirty minutes and get to work. Try to avoid distractions and outside interruptions. If you want to learn more about properly using a timer, check out the Pomodoro Technique.

Eat the Frog

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Now that you have defined your real work, limited yourself to a small number of projects each day, and getting laser focused: you have to eat the frog.

“Eat the frog” is a phrase made popular by Bryan Tracy. Think about the most difficult task or project you need to complete today and do it first: eat the frog. No one likes eating the frog, but if you do it first thing in your day, you can overcome procrastination and boost your mental stamina.

Too often the hardest work is held off until Friday afternoon, but doing the hardest work first will leave your day and week feeling fulfilled and gratifying. It’s not easy to “eat the frog”, but it’s worth it.

Building the practice of realizing your “frog” and successfully completing that task as soon as possible every day is a unique skill that will transform your workday.

Build a Routine

Staying in a constant state of being busy comes from blurred lines and lack of consistency in your day. Email is checked periodically throughout the day, reports are sent to your boss sporadically, some days you work through your lunch break, while other days you come home late (or both). The final step in this equation will help bring consistency to your week.

Creating a routine can significantly decrease your busyness and increase your productivity. Setting up a schedule for your day will increase your chances of becoming laser focused, give you the courage to eat the frog and keep yourself in check to do the work that matters most.

Here is a sample of a daily work routine:

  • 08-11: Work on one internal project (eat the frog)
  • 11-12: Email
  • 12-01: Lunch break in the park
  • 01-04: Work on one external project
  • 04-05: Clean up desk, talk with co-workers, decide on projects for tomorrow

A simple routine like this defines what type of work gets done at what time during the day. When you keep a routine like this, you set realistic expectations for the amount of work you can get done in a day. You also let others around you know when you are available to talk, take emails, or just catch up. Building a routine is a great way to bring everything together and get a handle on this label of being busy.

A solid routine helps you work on real work on a consistent basis while helping you avoid the busy work. Creating a routine also helps you get laser focused at different periods throughout the day.


Instead of trying to run a marathon, think of your work in sprints, and set up your schedule accordingly. You can also build the confidence and mental energy to successfully eat your frogs day in and day out with the proper routine. Overall, a routine will help you do your best work on an ongoing basis.

So the next time someone asks “how have you been?”, instead of say “oh, just busy”, you can say “I’ve been so productive!” Instead of letting “busy” be a four letter word that kills productivity, kill  busy and start being productive!


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Josh Medeski

Hello there, I'm Josh. I write, speak, and podcast on productivity and technology. By day I'm an instructor for a coding bootcamp.
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