Circumstance, Meaning, Mind

Busy vs Productive

“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”

Henry David Thoreau, 1857, letter to Harrison Blake

We are a world of busy people.

Professionals work fifty-hour work weeks in order to just stay afloat, while parents and homemakers live on their feet trying to cover the impossible number of daily tasks. Almost everyone believes themselves to be encumbered with obligations and to-do lists, which we frantically try to get through every day. When asked how we are, we reply ‘busy’, as if it’s a state of being. And for some, it can become that.

There’s a certain amount of pride in being busy.

If we’re busy then we can’t be accused of being lazy or passive. People look at us with admiration, staggered at our work-ethic. As well as this, it stops us having any time to consider much else. Are we happy in our jobs? Is our life well balanced; are we accomplished in all the important areas? Keep busy and we need never think too much about it. The problem with just being busy however, is that it doesn’t necessarily lead to a sense of satisfaction. We can fill our days and our to-do lists as much as we like, but we may not actually be achieving a lot, or we may not be achieving anything that is meaningful to us.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

Alexander Graham Bell, 1901, Bell Telephone Talk

The difference between being busy and productive is just about everything.

Busy people are in a frenzy; disorganised and pursuing an inexplicit set of tasks. They are concerned with the immediate, what needs to be done in the short term, without considering what is meaningful or what makes sense in the long term. We will all have ‘busy moments’, where immediate jobs demand our attention because they are urgent. But on a continuous basis, it is unwise to remain busy without considering how productive we are actually being. Productive people are structured, focused and work purposefully. There may be only three things on their list to do today, but they will ensure that those three things are completed wholly. They focus on tasks that will contribute to a well thought out, meaningful and purposeful end. They have a goal, and with each task they move closer to achieving it.

“Time is what we want most, but what, alas! we use worst.”

William Penn, 1682, Fruits of Solitude

Being productive takes consideration. It also takes some courage to leave the rat race and do things differently.

Those who are proud of their ‘being busy’ may look disapprovingly on someone who is achieving as much as them while only working four hours a day. This is because some people put more importance on the continuous grind than on what is actually being achieved. Being productive gives us an opportunity to keep a healthy balance in our lives. Instead of being in a frantic state of disarray, we have the time to look after not only our occupation, but our family, friends, health, hobbies and everything else that contributes to our well-being. Life is not meant to be filled for the sake of it and being busy in itself is nothing to be proud of. We should take time to reflect, and consider that our time and energy are priceless commodities that we should be shrewd in spending.

“This is the beginning of a new day.
God has given me this day to use as I will.
I can waste it or use it for good.
What I do today is important, because
I am exchanging a day of my life for it.
When tomorrow comes,
this day will be gone forever,
leaving in its place something
that I have traded for it.
I want it to be a gain, not a loss;
good not evil; success not failure;
in order that I shall not regret
the price I paid for it.”

Attributed to Heartsill Wilson, 1954, A New Day (originally entitled ‘A Salesman’s Prayer)
Edward Lamson Henry, 1868, The Old Clock on the Stairs
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