June 2019

Be Productive, Not Busy teaser image
Would you describe yourself as busy or productive?

You have probably heard someone say, “I am so busy!” This phrase is very common, especially among graduate students. Yet, how often have you heard someone say, “I am being so productive!”

In this digital age, there so many things are vying for our attention. Whether education, work, or even social media, there is no shortage of tasks or distractions ready to grab our attention. It is easy to be busy, but why does being productive sometimes seem like an unattainable goal. By browsing the App Store and searching for productivity apps, you can see a social trend. As a society, we esteem productivity. However, there is an interesting anomaly that surrounds the idea of being busy versus productive. It is possible to be busy, but not productive. Yes, you read that correctly. You may have the longest to-do-lists or most assignments to complete but you may not be accomplishing anything.

Now you might be thinking “What is the big deal with these two words?” They are just words after all. Still, when we look at the definitional level and study each one we can learn something important. So, I searched the dictionary to determine a way to distinguish between busy and productive. Busy is defined as “engaged in action, full of activity.” Productive is defined as “having the power of producing; generative; producing readily.” 

I am not a linguist, but I noticed a subtle difference between these two definitions. Did you pick it up as well? The definition of busy only encompasses an action. It could almost be thought of as a continual state of doing something. Productive involves both the action and the outcome. You see the fruition of the entire action come to a conclusion. 

Another way of thinking of what these two words mean is considering the expression “Work smarter, not harder.” Busy people are really great at working harder. And while working hard can be a good thing, the way busy people do it is inefficient. They work so hard that they work themselves into a frenzy of checklists and projects. They may appear organized by being able to handle so many tasks, but they are actually overwhelmed.

If we all have 24 hours in a day, how do productive people…well…be so productive?
Productive people know when to say no. Busy people tend to say yes to new projects to do on top of what they are already doing. They accept more work and are unable to prioritize what they need to do. Productive people first regard what they are working on currently, prioritize it with respect to other tasks, and then decide whether to increase their workload.

Productive people focus on a specific task instead of multitasking. Multitasking tends to result in several tasks that are half-done. By beginning various projects and switching between them, you can inadvertently decrease your ultimate productivity.  To combat this, there are several time management methods, such as the Pomodoro technique, where each task is allotted a certain amount of time to be completed before starting the next one.

As graduate students, we should aim to be productive not busy. Life can be hectic and graduate school is a time full of busyness; however, being able to prioritize and focus on a task can make you more productive and less busy.

---Kalifa Stringfield
Kalifa Stringfield is a Masters student in the College of Engineering

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