Being busy and being productive can be two very different things. If you’re super busy but can’t manage to get anything done, you’re not alone.
“It’s very easy to succumb to the temptation of staying busy even when it is counterproductive: It is the way our brains are wired,” write Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and University of North Carolina Business School professor Bradley Staats in Harvard Business Review.
Gino and Staats say that they have a solution you can use to “translate that predisposition into productivity.” According to research, the reasons people feel busy, but are not productive, are self-imposed.
“People have an aversion to idleness,” Gino and Staats write. “We have friends who will, by choice, drive miles out of their way to avoid waiting for a few minutes at traffic lights, even if the detour means their journey takes more time. Research suggests that the same applies to work, where many of the things we choose to do are merely justifications to keep ourselves busy.”
The second reason for constant busyness is an inherent “bias toward action,” Gino and Staats write. “When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to do something, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.”
Below, find out more about these two self-imposed habits and how to stop crippling your own productivity.
Don’t jump to action.
“The action bias is usually an emotional reaction to the sense that you should do something, even if you don’t know what to do,” Gino and Staats write. By contrast, hanging back, observing, and exploring a situation is often the better choice.”
In one study, the authors found that people feel more productive when they are completing tasks rather than planning them. When under a deadline, subjects “perceived planning as a waste of time–even if it actually leads to better performance than jumping into the task head-first,” the duo writes.
You need to keep in mind is that it’s your choice whether to be busy or to be productive. It’s easier to choose to be busy, but you must remind yourself to be productive and take time to reflect and plan before descending into busy mode.
Take your time to plan.
In another study, Gino and Staats went to the tech support call center at Wipro, an outsourcing company based in India, to see if thinking and planning help productivity. They asked one group of employees-in-training to take 15 minutes out of their day to write and reflect on the things they had learned throughout the day. The other group of employees-in-training just continued working until it was time to go home. The researchers found that after one month, the “reflection group” increased its performance on the final training test by an average of 22.8 percent more than the group who used the 15 minutes to get more work done.
“Reflection has such beneficial effects on performance because it makes us more aware of where we are, gives us information about our progress, and lends us the confidence we need to accomplish tasks and goals,” Gino and Staats write.
Act like a goalie.
Gino and Staats say now you have to put these two elements together–being OK with remaining idle and taking time to plan and reflect. The duo cite a study of professional soccer goalies and the best strategies to stop the opponent from scoring on a penalty kick. Many goalies decide to jump to the right or the left without waiting and watching where the opponent is kicking the ball. “As it turns out, staying in the center is best,” they write. According to the study, goalkeepers who dive to the right only stop the ball 12.6 percent of the time, while those who dive to the left only stop it 14.2 percent of the time. The most successful goalies stay in the center–they stop the ball at a 33.3 percent rate.”
Learning to stay in the center, as goalkeepers should, involves stepping back, allocating time to just think, and only then taking action,” Gino and Staats write. “Through reflection, we can better understand the actions we are considering and ensure they are the ones that will make us productive.”