Don’t mistake busyness for productivity

In our fast-paced world, people feel overwhelmed by expectations they put on themselves but by looking at our use of time we stand a better chance of having a good day

We must know what a good day looks like before we can actually  have one

We must know what a good day looks like before we can actually have one


People take pride in being busy. Caught up in our helter-skelter world, we mistake busyness for productivity. In a survey we conducted recently, the number-one obstacle to personal change was time, or specifically “not enough time”.

Time is the same for all of us. How we use it is all that matters. There are three things we can control. First, what we choose to do with our time, what we prioritise. Second, the energy we have to perform that activity. Thirdly, in the moment, the attention we give it, often called “being in the zone”.

The fact is, in today’s fast-paced world, most people feel overwhelmed by expectations they put on themselves. Or worse still, by avoiding decisions, they allow others to set those expectations. Social media platforms proliferate this pressure – to do more, to achieve more, to be more. To be someone who is not us. We compare our lowlights with others’ highlights.

I’m not interested in productivity as an end in itself. It interests me as an enabler to experience happiness in one of two ways:

– Pleasure: The more effectively I use time, the more fun I can have.

– Purpose: Producing high value usually helps others, and this contribution I can be proud of.

The past few weeks we’ve kickstarted with clarity, confidence and commitment. We then navigated through realising your purpose and sustaining action by having a system like a Magical week. Now, let’s examine energy.

Like explorers, we should use our energy wisely. It’s the oxygen that sustains performance and wellbeing. To give due attention to any activity, to reach the zone, what we’re doing must align to our energy.

There are four types of energy – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Physical energy comes from eating and exercise, treating our body with respect. Mental energy is our ability to focus on the task at hand. Emotional energy is how comfortable (in our heart) we are with the environment around us. Spiritual energy is how aligned we are with our values, whether we feel we’re doing the right thing.

Circadian Rhythms

We all have natural rhythms that influence the energy we have during the day, our body clock. Circadian rhythms are those which occur once every 24 hours. For example, melatonin secretion starts around 9pm to encourage sleep. Although we’re all different, a typical adult is most alert around 10am. The best time for making love? 8am. Apologies, busy parents.

Understanding and observing your energy allows you to design your day to align the type of work with the right energy. This is what my ideal day looks like as an example.

I rise about 5am. Not quite ready for deep thinking, I like to get a win under my belt. I meditate, make coffee and write or do some easy work. It’s nice to start by finishing something. Keeping a promise builds great momentum.

Then I exercise. Though difficult, I act on the outcome not the feeling. Afterward, physically tired but mentally sharp, I can focus easily. So I tackle difficult or thinking work.

I’ve about three hours of “deep work” in me before I flag. I try to avoid email until lunch. When I do, I want to process, not check, an important distinction. Processing moves emails to “done” and archiving. Checking leaves your inbox, and your mind, more cluttered than before.

A perfect lunchtime goes like this. I meditate before eating. I even fall asleep sometimes. If it happens, it’s a message from my body. It’s important to recover so I go outside to whatever sun there is. I may go barefoot. Apparently, earthing grounds the body of built-up charge. I just find it calming. I ditch my phone and switch off. After lunch, I grab headphones, stroll and listen to something inspirational. If home, it’s an ocean dip. It’s an ideal scenario I don’t always manage but some is better than none.

I used to fool myself and eat at my desk, far too busy and thinking that way was more productive. Having tried both, I can safely say recovery super-charges performance. Multi-tasking is a myth.

After lunch, our brain tires. You’ve probably been sitting awhile. It’s a great time for two things. First, “non-thinking” work like admin, phone calls, emails and meetings. If invited to a morning meeting, I gently suggest the afternoon. Secondly, standing or moving. We’re not designed to sit – it’s the new smoking.

It would be remiss not to mention Ultradian rhythms. During any two-hour cycle, energy fluctuates. The Pomodoro technique describes how we can set a timer to, say, 30 minutes, focus then “take five”. Repeat three or four times before a longer break. Use distraction as your trigger to move.

I get a little energy-spike during late afternoon, relative to the post-food slump! Our brains’ neural pathways are less strong, thus open to new thought patterns. This encourages creativity and ideas. I move somewhere nice and sketch a plan for something I’ve procrastinated on or I brainstorm. I love seeking the sun or changing environment.

Finally, before finishing, I close the day, process emails, review what’s done, pat myself on the back and note what’s important for tomorrow. My mind can be calm for the evening.

Cycling or walking home allows me to relax further. Once home, a little sticker reminds me I’m “home now”. The phone goes into a “phone box” and I try to be present for dinner and family. My evening routine is about winding-down and preparing for sleep. No devices after 9pm is a simple – yet difficult – rule, but it has cured my racing mind.

So I view my day as a series of mini-days, each suited to my energy. Nobody wants one long day so why not have several short great ones?

It’s not every day we can say “Yes! I had a great day” – but it happens more often once you define what one looks like.

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