The Difference Between Being Busy and Being Productive

I recently wrote about the power of rest to increase productivity and creative thinking. For that reason, I also want to share a phenomenal resource from my friend, Angela Watson, that empowers teachers to make this a reality. She also has a summer planning guide you might want to check out.

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Breaking Up with Busy

When I was a new teacher, I believed I had to give 110% in everything I did. I thought that the best teachers were the ones who arrived first and left last. I was a busy teacher, taking on all kinds of committee work and saying yes to every project. But then I had a moment when I decided to “break up with busy.”

About eight years ago, I arrived home from work and my five-year-old son was already holding up a baseball.

“We can play, but I don’t have a lot of time,” I told him.

All I could think about was my to-do list. I had a department meeting to plan, papers to grade, and small projects to finish. However, as I slipped on the baseball glove, something changed. I forgot about my list. We tossed the ball back and forth.

But my son kept asking, “Is there still time?”

Is there still time?

I couldn’t answer it.

So, that night, I met with my wife and talked about my schedule. It was a hard conversation, where we talked about long-term priorities and what kind of a dad, husband, and teacher I wanted to be. I realized something critical: I was chasing perfectionism and trying to make a bunch of people happy and neglecting the people who mattered most.

That’s when I broke up with busy. I quit committees. I limited my projects. I set a curfew for myself at work. I learned when to give 110% and when to give 11 or 12 percent.

See, I was drowning in busy and yet I’d been wearing busy like a badge of honor; like I was winning some imaginary competition. But life isn’t a game. Actually, Life is a board game and I think it’s also a cereal (at least according to Mikey).

But here’s the thing: You don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and more meetings.

All you get is a bigger load of busy. But busy is hurried. Busy is overwhelmed. Busy is fast. Busy is careless. Busy is a hamster wheel that never ends and a sprint up the ladder without ever asking where it leads. There are moments when life gets busy. I get that. But I never want busy to be the new normal. I never want to look back at life and say, “Wow, I was really good at being busy.”

 

I Became More Productive When I “Broke Up with Busy”

When I made the leap and decided to “break up with busy,” I noticed something happening. I actually became a better teacher. After the difficult conversation with my wife, I remember thinking that I would be making sacrifices as an educator. However, that’s not what happened. I actually had more time, more energy, and more mental bandwidth to create epic projects for students. It turns out that I was more productive when I was able to rest. Here’s what I mean:

  1. I crafted better projects. I finally had the time to prepare project-based learning unit plans and resources because I wasn’t spending insane amounts of time inputting grades or putting together bulletin boards.
  2. I took creative risks. Once I found the root cause of overworking, I began to experiment with student-centered learning and get over the fear of making mistakes as a teacher. I had already been shifting toward project-based learning and design thinking but now I felt the freedom to take it to the next level.
  3. I started transforming my practice. I began to focus on the things that mattered most and giving myself the permission to be less-than-perfect in areas that were not as important. This ultimately helped me to prioritize and focus on transforming instruction in my own classroom.
  4. I became more of a maker in my own life. I began to engage in creative work in my spare time. For example, I started to do a Thursday evening Genius Hour project which ultimately led to things like a novel or sketch videos. I still make time for passion projects each week. For years, my wife and I have both taken one night a week to go work on our own passion projects.
  5. I shifted further toward student agency and empowerment. I had already been asking the question, “What am I doing for my students that they could be doing for themselves?” I was on the journey toward empowering students with voice and choice. However, once I was truly able to “break up with busy,” I took this student ownership to the next level by letting students self-select the scaffolding, engage in their own project management, and assess their own learning.

 

Being Busy or Being Productive?

There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. Being busy is about working harder while being productive is about working smarter. Being busy is frantic while being productive is focused. Being busy is fueled by perfectionism while being productive is fueled by purpose. Being busy is about being good at everything while being productive is about being great at a few important things.

The following video explores this in-depth:

As I shifted away from busy, I found myself asking the following question:

“How do I make time for the things that matter?”

We’ve all asked ourselves that at some point, and I bet these statements sound familiar, too:

  • I’m completely overwhelmed.
  • I’m struggling to differentiate between the urgent and the important.
  • I want to engage in my own creative projects but I can’t find the time.
  • I want to do creative and innovative projects with my students but I’m feeling tired, overwhelmed, and stressed out.
  • Being a teacher has consumed every spare minute of my life and honestly, I’m not enjoying it as much anymore.
  • I work on school stuff constantly and yet I’m never done . . . and I still feel like I’m not doing enough.
  • Something has to change.

I often meet teachers who want to innovate in their own practice but they are tired and overwhelmed. However, this requires a break away from the busy and toward the productive. Sometimes that can feel overwhelming.

 

The Need for a Roadmap

Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re to blame or just need to manage your time better. There’s nothing wrong with YOU. The problem is the overwhelming demands of the job and the culture of perfectionism in education. When you’re overwhelmed, you don’t have the time, energy, or mental bandwidth to figure out HOW to change, and you’re too exhausted to follow through, anyway. You move into survival mode and grow risk-averse. In other words, your productivity plummets as your busy-ness increases.

You need an actual plan. It’s not enough to say, “I’m just going to break up with busy.” You ultimately have to tackle the root cause of the stress and overwhelm (in my case it was perfectionism). It also helps to create your own boundaries and find practical strategies for spending your time differently. But it also requires a different way of thinking about time.

It’s possible to figure this out on your own but you may want a coach and community to help you along the way. For me, it’s like the difference between going for a run or joining a gym and getting a personal trainer.  This is one of the reasons I love the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s a teacher-tested system that’s guaranteed to work, and ongoing support so you don’t have to figure everything out on your own. There is no one in the world better at helping teachers solve this problem than Angela Watson. When I first chose to “break up with busy,” Angela had specific ideas and frameworks that I could use as I moved forward on this journey of time and stress management. She gave me concrete action steps that I could implement from day one.

The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club has already helped teachers around the world shave hours off their workweek, and become purposeful with their time. I am excited about partnering with her as an affiliate of this club. She provides necessary resources along with a trusted community that helps you to do “fewer things better.”

Angela Watson continues to inspire me in my own practice of prioritizing and making time for what matters. It’s not about working 40 hours a week, it is about finding the number of hours per week you should/could/can be working and make those hours productive and meaningful so you can thrive as a creative teacher. It’s about shifting the focus toward student ownership and empowerment so that you can innovate in your own practice.

 

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

8 responses

  1. YES! Thank you for sharing this and for helping me to rethink being busy.

  2. Exactly!!

  3. I've been thinking about this for a couple of days now. I am busy (although I rarely talk about that ever since Shareski got me thinking about that word). There are frequent points when I think I'm too busy and I need to change something. But I can't figure out what I would change. I'm doing the things I really want to do. That's not just about my job, but also my family, my friends, my book club, my music, and more. I think busy is my new normal, but I also think I love it.

    1. I wonder if there's a distinction to be made between being busy and being active.

    2. That's intriguing, busy vs. active. This has really got me thinking.

  4. Life does get busy and that sometimes can be an issue. As John stated, “But here’s the thing: You don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and more meetings.” This instantly made me think of the classroom and planning out curriculum. Too often teachers feel the need to stick to the schedule and not move off the beaten path. Daily, teachers are trying to cram in everything they have planned for the day. This should not be the case! Teachers should be making sure that students are receiving the full lesson and understandings of what is being taught rather than moving onto the next thing on the schedule.

    Time is precious and I have always said that there is just not enough time throughout any given school day to get in everything that is planned. There are times when I have to move something to the following day because I want to make sure the students have enough time to finish a task at hand. Students should be given the time they need to complete a task proficiently and not just mediocre. Adjusting the schedule is something a teacher should be able to judge and apply on the spot. As John stated, “I learned when to give 110% and when to give 11 or 12 percent.” We, as educators, should be teaching our students that it is important to give 110% when they are working because giving 11 or 12 percent will not produce proficient results.

  5. I am not a great multi-tasker. I always felt inadequate next to those who a had a thousand and one things going at once. I felt like a slacker. I couldn't help it. I have always had to focus on one thing or else it wouldn't get done, and definitely wouldn't get done right. It's a relief to hear others say that its okay that you don't drown yourself in your work. Be invested, but not immersed.

  6. I'm a nightmare prioritizer. Your comments on giving 11 or 12 percent to something really struck a chord with me; I think it works, at least in my own cluttered existence, because whatever I choose to give that 11 or 12 percent to is technically not being ignored. I'm a teacher. That means, I'm home first. I pick up both my 2 and 4 year old girls, get dinner ready, love and entertain them (clearly), all the while I'm thinking about what else I SHOULD be doing while I'm doing whatever else. So in reality, I'm not really present with whatever I'm doing. I can't tell you how often I feel guilt loading a dishwasher when my kids want to go outside before dark. When I do, I'm thinking about what else needs to be done inside. Now though, I can't wait to choose what gets my 11 to 12. Sounds really empowering.

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