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Profitably Productive or Just Crazy Busy? 10 Tips to Impactful Work

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Woman overloaded with stuff at work

This is a guest post by Salma El-Shurafa. Salma is an experienced Executive Coach and founder of The Pathway Project. She is a Professional Certified Coach by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach from The Coaches Training Institute (CTI) and a graduate of CTI’s Co-Active Leadership program.


When was the last time you started your working day and didn’t feel at least a little overwhelmed by all that needed to be accomplished that day?

Why is it that some days you feel you can conquer the world and you do just that, yet other days end with you feeling dejected, useless and way behind?

Perhaps you sometimes feel you expend so much energy on your working day that you have nothing left for your partner, family or even yourself.

If you regularly have thoughts like these, it’s worth paying real attention to whether you are being truly productive, or whether you are just crazy busy. You see, these two things are absolutely not the same thing. You can be busy all day, yet achieve very little of worth. On the other hand, you can be super productive, yet not feel overwhelmed.

So, how does productivity differ from just plain busy?

I believe the key is to decide whether the tasks you are prioritizing and completing are truly important to you. Are they meaningful or meaningless? Think about your goals and  how to overcome obstacles in life and, for every aspect of your life where you feel you are being pulled in too many directions, ask yourself questions like these: What do you want to achieve in your career this year? How would you like your home and family life to work out? What would you like to accomplish purely for yourself over the next few months?

Now think about the last 24 hours or so. What did you spend your time doing? Did these tasks match up to the goals that you identified and did they help you head in the right direction to achieving them?

If you’ve noticed that a significant proportion of what you’ve been occupied with in the last day or so will have made little or even no difference to planning goals or achieving them, then you’re too close to the busy end of the spectrum and too far from the productive end, unfortunately. For many, this will contribute to feelings of resentment, frustration, guilt and exhaustion, to name a few. You probably aren’t going to be feeling very positive.

The good news is that “busy” and “productive” aren’t so far apart that you can’t get from one to the other pretty quickly. It’s actually really straightforward if you put your mind to it. Here are 10 shortcuts that can get you there:

1. Take some “me time” at the beginning of the day

Businessman drinking coffee and working on laptop at office

Taking some time for yourself at the beginning of the day might not be instinctive, especially if part of the struggle is meeting the demands of other people. I’m not just talking about colleagues and clients; many of us start the day needing to care for children and family, provide their breakfasts, make their lunches, etc. It can be really difficult for many to find a little time to concentrate on themselves early in the morning.

In some ways, the quiet 10 minutes that the most productive people choose to grab at the beginning of the day is the most crucial to their productivity. This time slot is the first step you need to introduce. For many, it’s over their first coffee, perhaps getting up slightly earlier before the rest of the house wakes, perhaps on the commute into the office. It really doesn’t matter how you choose to do it, but wherever, whenever you grab it, it’s essential to make it count. It only needs a few minutes; in fact, it absolutely should only take a few minutes. It’s about having some breathing space and clearing your head for the rest of the day.

First, take some time to look over your schedule to double-check what commitments you have already made for your day to other people, meetings, etc, and to work out what else you wish to accomplish alongside these. Make a simple, minimal and completely achievable list, and then promise to stick to it. This is what you want to get out of your day, the bare minimum.

Remember, it doesn’t just have to be job-related tasks on this list. If you feel you are struggling to juggle family life with work, or you feel you have little time to look after yourself properly, absolutely make sure there is at least one thing on the list every single day that will help readdress this balance, like take the kids to the park, phone mom for a chat, or cook a healthy dinner for yourself.

2. Learn how to prioritize

There are certain tasks you can tick off your list that will help you feel a whole lot better and more productive by the end of the day. The next essential is to learn how to prioritize these.

Firstly, I would definitely recommend starting your working day with the thing you are least looking forward to. This might not seem like the most motivating way of getting going, but think of it as a raincloud. That cloud will hang over your whole day if you let it and contribute to feeling gloomy and negative. You will possibly even procrastinate in other tasks in order to avoid it. Hardly the most inspiring feeling, yet you’ll feel like you’re walking on air once you’ve got it out the way. Move that cloud and let the sunshine in!

Next, choose your tasks for the day in order of importance. Most people are more focused earlier on in the day, so apply your best brain power to the things that matter most, the kind of tasks that are going to move you forward toward your goals fastest. Save tasks that are essential but require less concentration for times of the day when you’re generally on worse form, such as the post-lunch lull or perhaps toward the end of the working day when you are getting tired and hungry.

3. Strictly no multi-tasking

Multitask business woman with many hands.

This may be a surprise to hear, but I don’t believe multitasking is a good use of your time. It’s pretty common to hear the “ability” to multitask championed over and over by those who claim it’s the secret to their success. I would argue otherwise.

When your brain is asked to focus on more than one thing at a time and is constantly switching between tasks, that’s pretty exhausting. Each time you switch, your brain has to refresh where it got to with that task previously, wasting valuable time and energy which could add up to a lot over a day.

Conversely, if it is allowed to focus on one thing at a time, you can concentrate on getting that task done swiftly, and most importantly, properly. You’ve almost certainly heard the age old adage, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.” When you get things right the first time because you’ve given them your all, that is going to save lots of time in the long run on going back and fixing errors later.

It’s good to apply this rule to your home life, too. Time invested properly will pay dividends here as well. Your family will thank you if you’re not checking every email and taking calls during dinner, and you’ll enjoy your time at home more, too, if your brain isn’t flitting between work and family.

4. Time block

This tip is championed by many, many productivity experts and it’s really worth listening to what they have learned: Lots of productive people find having a lot of structure to their day really useful.

It will certainly be really worthwhile to spend some time dividing your day or even week into distinct blocks of time dedicated to only one task at a time. Once you’ve committed to this arrangement, stick to the designated task and do not allow it to be interrupted in any form. Do not allow last minute meetings, the distraction of a phone call, etc. This way, you know by the end of the day/week you will have got somewhere toward achieving one of your goals.

Begin by looking at the items on your to-do list and working out how long they should take if you’re focused. Slot them appropriately into windows in your day or week when you will not be distracted from the task in hand. Before you begin, make sure you’ve minimized distractions by disabling things like social media notifications and email alerts. Stay committed to the task for the whole time planned because if you allow your attention to wane, not only will you not complete the task, but you will also feel guilt and disappointment.

5. Consider radically changing how you use email

Email revolutionized written communication when it offered the chance to instantly reach anyone, anywhere, pretty much instantly. Desktop notifications and smartphones have meant that we are constantly bombarded with information and requests, most of them unsolicited. Although it has undoubtedly made many working practices easier, it is not conducive to productivity to have email freely arriving or to hit reply instantly.

One way to immediately make your day more productive is to turn off email and social media notifications from your phone and desktop. There is no need to be instantly reachable, and all emails can wait for a few hours, if necessary. Timetable a couple of times into your day when you will read and write emails, and make these times no longer than is truly essential.

I would recommend you begin your working day with a really brief email session and have some strict rules about which you respond to at this time. Think of it as email ER: Only deal with those that are absolutely necessary at that moment, since you have the most productive part of your day immediately ahead and you need to save your best self for this.

Schedule in another session for later in the day where you can deal with less pressing concerns, but always remember that not every email needs a reply.

Finally, consider some even more radical rules to transform your email style. Different rules will work for different people, so research some incredible ideas and find one or two that will dramatically save time every single day. Some ideas to consider are limiting the length of every single email you send, or keeping your response shorter than the original.

6. Talk less

In the same vein as revolutionizing your email, take a dramatic look at your phone and video communication and look at where you can cut time.

Whilst I know that it can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling to have a really long chat sometimes, doing it too often can be really time-consuming and draining, too. There are a few tricks you can employ to save time spent on calls.

For incoming calls, never feel like you have to take every call. Silence your phone if you have time blocked for an important task, and hide it away. Voicemail is actually an incredible tool for productivity. If you take the last voicemail you got and consider the length of it (probably less than a min) and then how long you would have getting to the important points if you had taken the call, you’ll notice a difference.

Of course, I don’t advocate you never take another call again; on the contrary, the need for conversation is vital is so many ways. But if you’re short on time, taking a few less calls can really make a difference.

For outgoing calls, consider the timing of these, too. Choosing to call at the end of the day, or before lunch, means the recipient of your call isn’t going to feel like a long chat either. Occasionally, if you are really rushed but feel obligated to make a call, pick a time when you know you will need to leave a voicemail.

7. You don’t need to be at work to work

Man working on a laptop in a lawn

The most productive place to work isn’t always at the office. While being present is absolutely vital for collaborative working, if you have a task ahead that needs to be done entirely independently, consider tackling it elsewhere. Working from home, assuming it is quiet and peaceful, can have some fantastic benefits. Consider the lack of time spent commuting, the shorter lunch break, the lack of colleagues coming for advice or opinions, and you can see why it can be a great place to work to put a challenging task behind you.

8. Say “yes” less, say “no” more

Nearly all of us are guilty of taking on too much in some aspect of our life, more than we need or should. It is human nature to desire to be liked and to not disappoint others, and this leads us to saying “yes” a little too often. The most productive people have learned that despite this instinct, it absolutely necessary to say “no” sometimes. Whenever we take on another task for somebody else, we lose a little more time to focus on the things that matter, the tasks that will help us reach our goals.

Whenever somebody approaches you with a request, ask yourself a few vital questions before agreeing to take it on. Am I the best suited to doing this? Could it be completed by somebody else? Is it important to me, too? Do I realistically have time? If the answer is “no” to any of these, politely decline, giving your reason. Remember that saying “no” sometimes will also mean that people will become a little more selective about what they ask you to do in the future, too.

9. Take regular breaks

This is common sense and you will have heard it many, many times already. You’ve probably even said it yourself to a tired, overloaded friend or colleague. However, it is often advice that we choose to ignore ourselves, and the busier we are, the less time we feel we have to spare for a few minutes of rest or relaxation. This is counterproductive since the more tired and overworked we are, the less productive we are.

Take several breaks over the day. Have a drink and maybe a snack, get some fresh air, take a short walk, call a friend, anything that will help you switch off from work for a few minutes.

10. Take care of yourself

Finally, another piece of common sense advice that is also so very often overlooked: Taking better care of your body and mind is probably the ultimate thing you can do to increase your productivity. It is very tempting to take shortcuts when we feel overloaded and busy; choosing microwave meals or fast food, cutting out the planned swim or the run to get something done instead, taking lots of caffeinated drinks to supposedly boost concentration levels, etc. However, any benefits are short-lived.

Thinking long-term, it is easy to see that a healthier, fitter you is going to be better able to achieve your goals. So, starting now, eat well, drink lots of water, get lots of fresh air and take some exercise.


This is a guest post by Salma El-Shurafa. Salma is an experienced Executive Coach and founder of The Pathway Project. She is a Professional Certified Coach by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach from The Coaches Training Institute (CTI) and a graduate of CTI’s Co-Active Leadership program.

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2 Comments

Posted by Norbu  | May 17, 2017 at 12:27PM | Reply

Hi there,
I also believe being balanced is crucial to stay productive. I therefore believe, next to creating things, getting enough “regeneration time” is important. Thus, I definitely like point 9 :-)

In addition, whenever we feel really stressed and overwelmed, let’s try this simple practice:
1) stop whatever you do or think in this moment;
2) Take a first deep breath. Inhale for at least 3 seconds.
3) Keep your breath for another 3 seconds.
4) Then exhale slowly for another 3 seconds. 5) Keep your breath again for at least 3 seconds.

Repeat this 5 times and you will experience an immediate feeling of relaxation and relief. Keep in mind to focus only on the breathing and everything you sense in this moment which is connected to it. Forget about your fear and worries.
That takes us only a few second but has a huge impact.

Posted by sveta  | May 16, 2017 at 3:25AM | Reply

Thanks for these good advices.
You can try MixNote. MixNote Take note with text, picture, to-do and voice. Hide private notes. Shake phone to record voice during a call. It Will Make You More Productive.
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.domobile.mixnote

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