Being Productive vs. Getting Things Done: The Difference, and Which One You Really Want

by Annie

in brain hacks, ruthless productivity

Hand of drowning man above blue waterIf you are wholly concerned with how many items you can scratch off a list of tasks, you’re almost certainly gonna feel like you’re drowning at some point during this running-your-own-business adventure.

Now, let me state this up front: I mean no disrespect to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, one of the seminal works on “time management” of the last 30 years.

I’ve read GTD. I’ve read it a few times, actually, and I’ve tried implementing that method on several occasions over the years. I don’t slavishly follow the whole method as some kind of paradigm, but I do continue to use a few of its recommended tools and practices, because they work. 

But as I’ve gotten older and transitioned from W-2 employment into running my own business, I have come to conclude that GTD, as massively helpful as it undoubtedly has been to a great many people, isn’t the be-all/end-all of productivity that I once thought it was, and that true productivity requires something much deeper, much more personal than just getting organized or checking “things” off a list.

Busy Work vs. Productivity

The hiccup in GTD and most “time management” programs is this: when we put our focus into checking off “things” from some massive list, no matter how well-crafted or positively intentioned that list might be, we slide out of the world of being productive and into the world of getting things done.

And that slide moves us away from purpose.

With a focus on “doing things” — “getting things done” — comes the risk of forgetting why we’re doing those things in the first place. True, GTD and other resources on productivity do stress the importance of setting intentions, crafting workable goals, and letting vision have a place in your day-planning process.

But almost inevitably, that stuff gets shoved aside eventually to listen to the siren call of numbers.

“Look at me, I got 20 things done today!”

Never mind that of those twenty things, not one really advances a cherished dream or goal. And if your daily actions aren’t advancing your dream, then what are they?

You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “busy work.” It’s what teachers give 2nd graders so they can go grab a cup of coffee and take a break. It’s what harried moms give the kids to keep them out of their hair for a few freaking minutes of peace in the damn bathroom, already. It’s what office drones are given to boost managers’ statistics and justify that budget they fought so hard for last year.

And it will kill your business.

The Lure of the Checklist

I love checklists. I use Circus Ponies’ Notebook app (sadly for you PCs, it’s only available in Mac form). One of the many features of Notebook is the ability to add status checkboxes to items in a Notebook. I use that feature in my main “Planner” Notebook for my main tasks list. I admit, I get a little thrill from clicking those boxes. You might get the same thrill from striking through an item on a paper list.

And there is nothing wrong with that feeling. Nothing at all. A little psychological boost that makes you feel better about yourself and keeps you going through a tough project or day? Hell yeah, I’m all for that.

But the problem with the checklist approach is that it’s all too easy to forget the purpose behind all those tasks and to-do’s.

I know I’ve been there myself, many times. I find myself feeling rushed and exhausted, but never feeling like I really accomplished anything to justify that exhaustion. Confused, I run over the last 24 hours in my mind, and think about all the STUFF I did. So if I got all that stuff done, why do I feel unproductive?

Because true productivity produces something.  Busy work produces nothing but more busy work.

What Are You Producing?

Goals are great things. When they’re well-crafted, specific, measurable, actionable, etc., and born out of a deep desire, they keep us moving forward, they keep us engaged in those actions we’re so busy checking off the list.

When they’re just goals-for-the-sake-of-having-goals, they’re slave masters, cracking cruel whips over our backs and never giving anything in exchange for all that doing.

If you’re feeling like the guy in that image up there, stop and breathe for a moment. (Assuming you’re not actually under water.) Stop worrying about tasks, or even goals. Start with vision. Start with purpose.

Getting yourself back on track — moving away from the busy work and into true productivity — is neither simple nor easy. But the payoffs are worth the effort, I promise you.

This is especially true for couch warriors and home-based business owners, because almost 100% of you guys — I should say “of US” — come into entrepreneurship and self-employment burdened by the heavy knowledge that we need more than just a paycheck to live fully. We need to create something.

We need to make something, or make something better. We need to serve — our clients, a higher purpose, our art … whatever that thing we’re in service of might be, it’s our purpose, and if we want to transcend feeling productive to become truly productive, we need to get really super-clear on that purpose first and foremost.

What are you producing? What vision have you crafted as your business’s essence? What goals did  you set, and do those goals continue to advance your vision? What’s your purpose?

We can start becoming truly productive by achieving absolute clarity on that question.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tea Silvestre October 10, 2011 at 1:32 am

Right on! As you know, I’m one of those to whom you alluded in your post yesterday (trying to figure out how the F$@! to get it all done). And you’re correct in pointing out how easy it is to slide down the slippery slope of focusing on tasks vs purpose. I’ve done it more than once in my life and ended up in parts unknown 6 to 8 months down the road from where I began. One of the ways I’ve found to stay on track with my vision is to create (wait for it…) a VISUAL reminder. Something that I’ve made that is big and in my face about what I dreamt up and want to focus on. It hangs just above my desk and I find myself staring at it often. Keeps me happily treading water.
Tea Silvestre recently posted..Finding and Working with Your Ideal Customers: 11 Perspectives


Annie October 10, 2011 at 4:20 pm

EXACTLY, Tea. And that visual reminder you’ve got going is one of the single best ways I’ve found to stay connected to the vision. Whether you call them vision boards, treasure maps, or just wish-lists, visual reminders of our desired macro-level outcomes help us maintain “the big Mo” (mo-mentum, baby) and renew our commitment. Plus? PRETTY. (And I’d be willing to bet what feels like water-treading is actually a sturdy, strong crawl-stroke towards the other side of the metaphorical Channel…)


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