Are you busy — Or productive?

One of the most important pieces of coaching rests in illuminating distinctions.  I have several favorites that come up in the course of a great many coaching engagements: reaction vs. response, hearing vs. listening, assertion vs. assessment, interesting vs. purposeful, and so on.  One distinction is particularly relevant to effective action: busy vs. productive.  My favorite definition of busy is “full of or characterized by activity.”  Another definition of busy (often used as in a pattern or design, but still relevant here) is “cluttered with detail to the point of being distracting.”  Hmmmmmm.  Productive is, of course, derived from the verb to produce, and my favorite definitions of to produce are “to create by physical or mental effort” and “to bring into existence; give rise to; cause.”

As I’ve written before, I think we live in a culture that embraces busyness and has made it a virtue to be busy.  And yet, I’m taken by the idea that being busy can mean being “cluttered with detail.”  I’ve certainly found myself there: researching something that’s of tangential relevance to what I’m doing, so that at the end of the day I’ve worked hard all day long and accomplished… Well… Not much.  But it’s an easy trap to slip into, because it feels good to be busy.

I once had a conversation with a colleague about billing.  He said that he’d spent an entire hour staring out of his office window and thinking about a case, and he came up with an approach and strategy that simplified a difficult issue, one that substantially increased the client’s chances of success.  His conundrum?  How to bill for time spent staring and thinking — as well as how to find more of that time and how to protect it since he didn’t appear to be “busy” but he was in fact very productive.

The law actually recognizes this distinction in billing rates.  A 1st or 2nd year associate is billed at a lower rate than a more senior associate or partner because (among other reasons) experience teaches a lawyer how to use her time most productively; the work accomplished in an hour by a senior associate is almost certainly more useful (i.e. more productive) than that accomplished in the same hour by a new associate.  And yet, both may appear to be equally busy.

When someone describes working a lot without getting the results he wants, I often suggest he ask, “Am I busy, or am I productive?”  The question is an adjunct of the Quadrant II time/priority management system that Stephen Covey teaches, and it takes that system to the next level because the question makes manifest the danger of working on an important task without being productive.

This question is particularly appropriate for practice/career management issues.  For example, in the course of a job search, is it busy or productive to spend hours reading ads on a job board?  The answer likely depends on the board and on whether there’s follow-up to an ad of interest.  It’s also appropriate in substantive practice at times, to question whether certain activities are productive or whether they’re just generating work.

So, consider devoting a few minutes today to checking over your task list, or to reflecting on how you spent your time last week, and ask… “Am I busy, or am I productive?”

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