Because I was raised with an extremely high work ethic, I equated high performance with large amounts of time spent on work. I was willing to put in 40, or 50, or even 60+ hours in a week to demonstrate that I was a high performer. While it was true that I was often seen as a high performer, over time this approach became unsustainable. I began to understand what was meant when I was told that ‘I needed to work smarter, not harder’.
Finally, as I started a family, putting in the long hours at work was no longer an option. I found myself less willing to put in the large amount of hours but still wanting to produce high quality work. I was forced to make sacrifices and set some boundaries at work; however, that didn’t get rid of the stress, in fact it increased my stress, because I still wanted to get it all done, just with the additional pressure of less time.
It wasn’t until I learned how to focus my efforts on what was really important that I learned how to eliminate “the noise”. The noise in my workload, yes, but also the noise in my head – the incessant drive to accomplish it all. I started to distinguish between productive action and passive action.
I define ‘productive action’ as those actions that directly produce a result, like publishing an article, whereas ‘passive action’ are those actions that feel productive and may be necessary in limited amounts, but don’t directly produce a result by themselves, such as doing research for an article. Passive actions can be in service of productive actions.
- Reading a cookbook (passive action). Making a meal (productive action).
- Buying running shoes (passive action). Going for a run (productive action).
- Sorting through my email (passive action). Responding to a request for information (productive action).
- Learning (passive action). Applying the skill learned (productive action).
- Making a To Do List (passive action). Doing the items that you scheduled for yourself in your calendar (productive action).
It is when we indulge in passive action at the expense of productive action, that we find ourselves busy, but not productive, aka the “Busy Syndrome”.
Why do we indulge in passive action? Well, sometimes passive action IS necessary. It can be necessary to find the recipe before we start to cook the meal. It’s when we find ourselves sorting our cookbooks into alphabetical order while looking for the recipe, that’s when we know we are indulging in passive action.
Why do we make passive action a habit? Busy can be a false sense of accomplishment because we still get to complete something, and tick it off the To Do List, even though it isn’t actually producing results. And that feeling of accomplishment might feel a whole lot better than doing the productive action that we had originally set out to do. For example, we might find ourselves sorting through our email as a way of avoiding the more in-depth attention required to produce the report, fulfill the request, or generate a new customer lead. This is because there is very little risk in checking our email or sorting our files.
Productive action involves risk of judgment. You are actually putting yourself (or your work) out there, which invites judgment from yourself and others. Passive action feels safe. It is much more comfortable to research your proposal than it is to stand up in front of the Board of Directors and pitch your idea, and risk rejection.
When passive action becomes a habit is when it becomes a problem. A habit of passive action can turn into a negative spiral whereby we are hesitant to take productive action without additional passive action (“I’m just going to clean out my email inbox first” or “I’m just going to read one more article before I start writing”). That’s when we start to feel like we are running on a treadmill at full speed and going nowhere.
If you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day, with a longer To Do List than when you started, the following 3 tools will help you bust through the Busy Syndrome.
The busy syndrome is the unintentional side-effect of the absence of a plan. In not identifying what is most important, everything becomes important. Creating a plan gives you the ability to focus on productive action and limit passive action.
It is very important to shift items from your To Do List (I often call it the ‘Wish List’) into your calendar. Once it is in your calendar, it has now been prioritized for you; you don’t need to wonder ‘what’s next?’. For those items that require passive action, such as project planning, learning, research, and acquiring supplies, you can schedule these items in your calendar, but also pick a date at which you will shift from passive action to productive action. A hard deadline will be your cue to make the transition and make it less likely for you to indulge in passive action indefinitely.
Know that when the item pops up in your calendar, you are not going to feel like it. Sometimes we like to put things off until we feel like it, or until we have more information, or until we feel inspired. Expecting that you aren’t going to ‘feel like it’ removes that as a possible excuse. I like to acknowledge the feeling (like it’s an old friend), congratulate myself for knowing myself so well, and then go ahead and do it anyway.
In the beginning, the habit of honoring your commitments to yourself is much more important than what you are actually doing, so start small. Even spending 5 minutes on a productive action when you said you would can start to form those new neural pathways in your brain, which is the key to starting a new habit.
Becoming more intentional with your time and creating new habits takes time and practice. This is where a coach can make all of the difference. Click here to connect with your Productivity Coach today.
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