There is a big difference between “working hard” and “staying busy.”
Working hard is when you spend your time and energy doing things that help move you toward your goals.
Staying busy, on the other hand, is when you waste your time and energy on an activity that isn’t effective toward reaching any goals. However, it makes you feel like you’re doing something productive.
Staying busy gives us the illusion of working hard. It makes us feel tired and stressed out, but then we look back on our day and we notice we haven’t really gotten anything done. Instead, we are a like a hamster in a wheel – running and running, but not getting anywhere.
Our modern industrialized world has created a culture that says we need to keep ourselves busy, or we are lazy or worthless. So even when we are exhausted and we need to take a break from our work, we still feel like we need to keep doing something or we become anxious, guilty, or depressed.
It’s counterintuitive, but “staying busy” can actually be detrimental to our productivity and goals.
We have a limited amount of physical and mental resources per day. It’s therefore important that we spend these resources wisely – on activities that actually fulfill our values and goals – and not just mindlessly expend these resources so that we “feel like we are getting something done.”
Here are some ways to improve your work ethic, without falling into the trap of “staying busy:”
Identify the most important activities in your work day
Take 5 minutes right now and find what activities are most important in your work day. Consider some of the things you do on a weekly basis, then ask yourself:
- What value does this activity add to my work?
- If I didn’t do this activity, what would happen?
- How much time do I spend doing this on a daily/weekly basis?
- Is the task easy or hard? How much energy do I need to do this task successfully before getting tired?
- Is this something I can get done in one session, or should I break it up into multiple sessions?
- What other activities may be more important than this?
Often the answers to these questions will help you discover what your priorities should be and what activities are most important to focus on.
Get rid of activities that give you the “illusion of work”
Throughout our work day we sometimes get distracted by activities that suck up our time and resources, but don’t accomplish anything related to our goals.
These are activities that often give us the feeling of “working hard” when really they only keep us mindlessly busy.
For example, how many hours a week do you waste on YouTube or Google or checking personal e-mails while at work?
It feels like you’re working 8 hours a day because you are spending 8 hours a day at work, but what percent of that time is actually dedicated to the task at hand? And what percent of that time are you just drifting off, keeping yourself occupied?
Find the activities that you are distracted by, then make a conscious effort to minimize these activities throughout your day. Maybe only allot 10-15 minutes of YouTube during one of your breaks, but for the rest of the day ignore it or block it from your computer.
Make a list right now of some of the activities you’d like to minimize while at work.
Schedule a healthy amount of leisure time
Work and leisure are a balance that every productive person needs to maintain.
As I mentioned earlier, our physical and mental resources are limited. So when we become tired and fatigued, it affects our work in a negative way: we can’t focus, we can’t think clearly, and we are more likely to make mistakes.
Therefore, when we become tired or fatigued, that means it’s time to take a break to rejuvenate ourselves before going back to work.
Make sure you schedule time throughout your day to relax. Pay attention to the times in your day when you are most tired, and schedule a short 10-20 minute break to help refresh your body or mind.
Just a few well-timed breaks throughout your day can sometimes be very effective for increasing your overall stamina.
Use STOP Meditation to be more focused on the present moment
There’s a short meditation called the “STOP Meditation” that you can practice almost anywhere at any time. The goal of the meditation is to take a step back and reflect on what you’re doing, then re-evaluate your actions based on this new information.
It’s incredibly simple:
• STOP whatever it is you’re doing.
• TAKE a few deep breaths, focusing on the sensations of your breathing. This helps reconnect you with the present moment and also creates a buffer between your thoughts and your actions.
• OBSERVE what is happening in the moment. Ask yourself:
- - What am I thinking?
- What am I feeling?
- What am I doing?
- What are my intentions?
• PROCEED with your day based on what you learned from you meditation. If you find there is something you need to adjust in your attitude or actions, then make the appropriate changes. For example, if you find that you’re distracted at work, you can use this moment to re-direct your attention back on what you should be doing. Or, if you find that you’re tired and exhausted, you can decide to take a break and refresh yourself.
This meditation can be very useful for re-adjusting your habits and becoming a more mindful and effective worker. By paying more attention to what you’re doing in the moment, you can find out when you’re actually “working hard” or when you’re just “staying busy.”
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement