Staying Busy Keeping You Down? 4 Tips To Reclaim Your Day

  • February 25, 2010 by Corbett Barr
  • 16 Comments

Have you noticed how easy it is to burn through several hours online without really accomplishing anything? I could easily (and sometimes do) spend 4+ hours a day just between email, Twitter, Facebook and reading/commenting on blogs.

And that’s a BIG problem. Unless you make an income solely by participating in conversations online, there are probably other things you should be doing.

Just staying busy might feel like you’re accomplishing something, but staying busy is a false success. What really matters is what you’re getting done by staying busy.

This is especially true when you have limited time to work on certain projects. If you’re trying to get a side business off the ground during weekends/evenings, or if you’re traveling and only spend a few hours working per day, staying busy can keep you from getting anything done.

Here are four tips to help you focus on what matters, and to avoid being busy but accomplishing nothing. These tips will help you whether you’re working 4 hours a week or 14 hours a day.

Start each day with a prioritized to-do list

Every so often, Dave Navarro (@RockYourDay on Twitter) sends out one of the most productive tweets I’ve read:

If you only had 2 hours to work today, what would you work on? Ok, do that first.

If you have 8 or more hours to work in a day, it’s easy to assume you’ll get to the important things at some point. But we all know how one distraction leads to the next and how entire workdays can be blown in the blink of an eye.

Before you jump into checking email and running down a million little favors for other people, start the day by jotting down the handful of things you really need to get done. Ask yourself Dave’s question above each day and you’ll start in the right direction.

Time-box social media

Social media, like Twitter, email, Facebook, etc. can be really useful for marketing your website or blog. There’s no doubt about that. But they can also keep you from doing other equally important things, like creating content or building products.

Decide how much time you should be spending on social media each day, and limit yourself to that amount of time. Maybe you’d like to spend an hour each day, or 10 hours a week. Whatever your goal, put it on your calendar or start a stopwatch when you’re engaging in social media. That should keep you from spending entire days on Twitter. You can always readjust the time limit if you don’t have enough.

Keeping Twitter and email open all day long is probably the biggest productivity trap for most people. If you want to check it multiple times a day that’s fine, but close the apps each time your time limit for that session is up.

Be ruthless about unsubscribing from email

As you sign up on more and more lists and newsletters, your inbox can become a giant time-sucking mess. I’ve found that ruthlessly unsubscribing (and using filters in Gmail) from the crap I don’t read (or don’t have time for) can save me hours each week.

If you find yourself skipping/archiving/deleting messages from a particular sender three or more times in a row, it’s time to unsubscribe. Or, if you want to be able to read messages from that sender only once-in-a-while, you can always create a filter that dumps those messages into a special folder. Just be sure to keep them out of your inbox.

Eliminate real-world distractions

If you’re doing any sort of creative work, real-world distractions can really stop your flow and sap your productivity. Cut out real-world distractions and make the most of the time you have. Close your office door, go somewhere quiet where no one knows you, or tell family/friends/coworkers not to bother you during certain hours.

Once you start cutting out distractions and limiting time on social media, you’ll get a lot more done in the areas that really matter. And don’t worry, Twitter will always be there even if you’re not on it all day long.

What other tips do you have to avoid the “staying busy” productivity trap? Let us know in the comments!

photo by mescon

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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JC Hewitt February 25, 2010 at 4:42 am

I avoid reading as much as possible during the middle of my workday. Reading anything unrelated to the projects I’m working on opens up too many thought-loops for me to handle, reducing my productivity.

Opening up e-mail or Twitter once in the middle of a workday can cut how much I produce by 50% or more. That peak productivity state of mind is fragile. Like you suggest in your post, I set aside times for communication.

When I didn’t do that, I found myself spending all day “busy”, leaving me no time to relax.

Corbett February 25, 2010 at 11:32 am

That’s a great way to describe the problem, JC. “Thought loops” are exactly what I get caught in sometimes.

Heather Villa February 25, 2010 at 5:24 am

Distractions! I hate them! My biggest distraction is email. There are just days that it won’t stop. It pulls me in so many different directions.

What I ended up doing was forcing myself NOT to check it all the time. To only log in and check it at certain times during the day. This way I can focus on client work and being productive.

I also had to do the ‘ ruthless unsubscribing from email’ you listed. That definitely helped clear out my inbox some.

Alan February 25, 2010 at 6:21 am

Benjamin Franklin was big on outlining his day each morning. I’m a huge list guy, but even with a list staying on track can sometimes be difficult. I have weekly goals to keep me focused in the short-term, and yearly goals to keep my projects in line in the long-term.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: it’s important to outline your goals before looking at how you can be productive in achieving them. Strategies don’t work without an end in sight!

Jason Fitzgerald February 25, 2010 at 8:01 am

Another huge tip for Outlook users is to shut off that pesky notification box that pops up whenever you have a new email. This enables you to batch and really focus.

Also, set a time limit for an important task. You may think, “This should only take an hour” but how often do you realize it has taken you two or maybe even three? If you squeeze your work into a short time period, even if the constraint is self-imposed, you’ll figure out a way to work less but have the same output.

Tyler Tervooren February 25, 2010 at 9:00 am

Alan,

Goals with different time frames is exactly how I have to operate in order to keep myself from wasting my time away.

I start each day with a daily goal that will help to satisfy a weekly goal that builds on a longer term goal, be it monthly or yearly. It’s really great for staying focused.

My biggest pitfall is keeping up with all the blogs I love. It’s actually not hard to quickly get through my list, but I get sucked into following all the interesting links that my favorite writers point out every day. And that’s a rabbit hole that DOES NOT stop unless I consciously stop it.

Amber February 25, 2010 at 9:06 am

haha I too can spend hours bopping from email, to twitter, to facebook and back again. Such an endless cycle! These are some great tips. I find that clearing out my work area, computer desktop and having a list next to me of the most high priority things to do really help me stay focused. That and a cup of joe brewing :D .

Richard @ No More Compromise February 25, 2010 at 9:46 am

One of my biggest productivity tips isn’t just to make a to-do list, but also to keep a journal a record exactly what I achieve each day. It puts pressure on me to actually *do* something I can record and I feel good if I get a whole lot jotted down. Finally, if I wonder where on earth the week has gone, I can sit down and actually *see* where and make conscious changes for the following week.

Hulbert February 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Great post Corbett. I agree that it doesn’t matter it we think we are staying busy or not; what really matters is what we get done and whether or not what we get done has a sufficient impact towards our progress. I like what Dave suggested by asking what would we get done if we only have 2 hours to work a day? It really limits us to what matters most.

One tip I would suggest is writing down what you normally do in a day (usually we’re on autopilot), and at the end of day select the ones that you think have the biggest impact in progress. Make them the number one priority for the next day and make all the other tasks second or third in priority.

Tim L. February 25, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I agree on the “two hours” thing too. I have one or two key goals each day, things that absolutely need to get done, plus a few others that can slide if necessary. I spend the morning doing the essentials. I’ll respond to a few important e-mails, but let the others slide until the afternoon. Twitter is the biggest distraction ever invented, without much of a return past a certain point—and that certain point is a pretty small and finite amount of time. Like maybe 10-15 minutes a day.

Ben Weston February 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm

I’ve found doing an 80/20 analysis each week helps me significantly cut down on my busy work i.e. commenting on blogs, email, etc. Although commenting on blogs and checking email is useful and will have me feeling productive, there are a select few tasks that actually lead to greater income and content creation. It’s just as helpful knowing what you aren’t going to put in your schedule as it is to know what you will.

Gregor Colnik February 26, 2010 at 10:14 am

Try changing working hours.
You can’t know when you’re most productive if you don’t try. Sometimes i manage to do a whole day of work in barely few hours in late night hours, when everyone is sleeping…

Aslo try to change the working place, if possible.
I have yet to try and do some work on my laptop from the beach :)

Corbett March 3, 2010 at 7:50 am

You can get work done “from” the beach, but “on” the beach I have yet to achieve. Sun, wind, sand and surf are difficult coworkers.

Hugh February 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Yes I too am guilty of wasting hours surfing the net or doing something else. Every time I sit down at my computer, I make a list (mental or written) of just 3-4 things that I want to accomplish in that “computer session”. Having at least a guideline in mind keeps me from wandering aimlessly around the Net. At the end of a day, I know how much I’ve accomplished not necessarily by looking at my to-do list, but by how I feel. I know when I was productive vs. wasting time. It’s really a bad feeling to have been busy all day but have achieved nothing of note.

Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot February 27, 2010 at 12:23 am

Yes, I have noticed how time whizzes by:) I think the Internet will be the makingo of many and the downfall of even more! Trying hard to reduce email checking by keeping gmail firmly shut. I find netvibes useful for maintaining the to do list, checking all the blogs I want to read with the reader and also seeing what’s up on Twitter. It really helps to have a few stock emails for certain situations you can just personalise at the beginning and/or end. And definitelhy remember you don’t have to answer the phone when it rings:)

Keep up the great writing!

Betsy Talbot March 1, 2010 at 10:57 am

It is so easy to stay busy and never get anything done, isn’t it?

My goals are to always exercise before I sit down to the computer, and I am ruthless about the emails I get. If I don’t think a newsletter is important enough to read within 48 hours of getting it, I unsubscribe (and I use the same test for the content in my own newsletter – would I be excited to read it?).

I do pretty good on those two things, but Twitter and Facebook and blog reading can totally throw me off the map. I’ve just downloaded a program for Mac called Freedom – you can input a time period which will prevent you from connecting to your network so you won’t spend too much time surfing instead of writing/working. Step one is to install the program. I have yet to pull the trigger and actually use it.

Baby steps, baby steps.

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