Am I Productive or Just Busy?

Since I’m new to medical libraries / academic medical centers this year, my summer takes a slightly different shape from what I’m used to. We get waves of new users starting at the end of June when the new residents show up, then a new group (nursing, PAs, etc.) every few weeks or so until we also get new undergrad students when the rest of the university does. So we still get the cycle of, “Summer is here; I can finally get everything done; wait, where did the summer go?” but it’s condensed. Late July feels like summer outside but like September in the library!

So I was thinking about how college librarians tend to think of summer as this magical time when we “won’t be busy” and can “get things done.”

I started thinking about this several years ago, when I was just starting to pick up bigger projects, earn more responsibility, present at conferences, etc. Everyone was always talking about how busy they were, and how tiring and stressful it could be, and that they couldn’t get anything done because they were so busy.

Wait… if you’re busy, shouldn’t that mean that you’re getting things done?

Well, no. This may seem obvious, but for confirmation, let’s turn to our good friend, the OED:

  • Busy, adj. “Occupied with or concentrating on a particular activity; actively engaged; doing something that engrosses the attention.”
  • Productive, adj. “Having the quality of producing something, typically through effort or work; that produces, esp. some significant amount or result; creative, generative”

So being busy (without being productive) really is a problem. Playing Sudoku or binge-watching “Stranger Things” counts as “busy.” But to be “productive,” I need to actually be getting things done… with the added caveat that they should be things that need to get done, like research, writing, answering reference questions, teaching classes, etc.

Whenever I catch myself about to say, “I’m so busy!” or “What a busy day I had today,” I stop and ask myself, am I busy or am I actually productive? Ideally, I’ll be able to say “productive” more often than not, and it feels so much more satisfying than saying I’m just busy. Everyone has days where they keep spinning their wheels and nothing gets done. Maybe the internet goes out and prevents you from getting anything done, or there are a lot of little fires to put out. And that’s okay. The goal is to have more actually-productive days than just-busy days.

How you go about making that a reality is, ultimately, up to you. There are as many systems for organization and task/time management as there are people. I, for example, combine the forces of Google calendar, Outlook, and bullet journalling to create a monstrosity of planning that intimidates most who see it. However, when I have too much on my plate, or can’t focus for one reason or another, or have had too many “just-busy” days and not enough “actually-productive” days lately, I condense everything into one Post-It note with five things I really need to buckle down and get done that day. (It’s worth mentioning that I usually combine work and home tasks on Post-It days… for example, one day this week I had this Post-It: “Outline conference proposal; edit ACRLog post; meeting; clean cat litter; mail rent check.”) But this won’t work for everyone, so if you don’t already have a way to keep yourself productive, there are a ton of systems for you to try.

I also use other strategies, like the dedicated Spotify playlist I listen to if I’m writing or editing, getting up and taking a walk, and occasionally when I really need to get something written, Write or Die, which I found thanks to NaNoWriMo a few years ago… you set your own parameters (amount of time, how much needs to be written, and the consequences (like annoying sounds) or rewards (like photos of cute puppies)).

Better bloggers than myself have touched on this topic before right here at ACRLog, so I recommend checking out When Busy Leads to Block; Self-Care: Focusing on You; to consider the difference between busy and productive in the context of meetings, A World with No Meetings?!; and one of the posts that got me thinking about this topic several years ago with the sentence, “Busy-ness is just another social competition,” Lost Time Is Never Found.

What techniques work for you? What have you tried and found wasn’t a good fit for you?

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