How to Stop Being Busy and Actually Get Stuff Done

June 23, 2018

We all know them. The busy people. The ones who can’t stop talking about how busy they are and always start the day with a giant cup of coffee because they’re oh so tired after all the stuff they had to do yesterday – and the day before and every damned day of for the rest of their lives. On their way to get the next cup of coffee, they make sure to tell everyone how much they’re doing and how there are not enough hours in the day for them to get everything done. Oh, the busy people.

They make the rest of us feel like shit. Like we’re supposed to do more. Like we’re slacking because we allow ourselves a break once in a while. Or maybe even take the night off. But do you want to know a secret? The busy people are rarely the most productive people. We need to stop being busy and actually get stuff done!


9-5 thinking

In many ways, the 9-5 thinking is doing more harm than good. We’ve been taught to work for 9 hours every day. Nine hours. That’s a lot. But it’s not the only way to plan your work day.

If your goal is to work 9 hours a day on your business (or schoolwork or whatever you do), you’re going about it all wrong. Tell me, when do you think you’re most productive? When you know you have nine hours of work ahead of you, or when you know you’re done as soon as you get through your list?

The work that didn’t work

When I first started uni, I told myself that I had to work on my exam paper for at least 5 hours a day, and do you know what happened? I ended up handing in the paper minutes before the deadline, and I was beat. I didn’t get any sleep the night before the deadline because I had to stay up all night writing. So, for the next paper, I told myself I had to work on it for at least 6 hours every day. And then the same thing happened again! I knew I was doing something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. I’ve always been a fast worker. I set my mind on something, I focus and I get the job done. So why did I always finish my papers just minutes before the deadline?

The trick that changed my life

A few months later, I had to write yet another paper. I started writing the 10-page paper 10 days before the deadline. 10 days was the same amount of time I had the last time I wrote a paper, but I knew I had to change my methods. Instead of telling myself to work for so-and-so many hours each day, I told myself to write one page a day. Just one page.

On the first day, I was done after only one hour. The same thing happened the day after and the day after that and after ten days and a little more than ten hours, my paper was due – and done. And do you know what? Those ten days had been some of the most relaxing days I’d ever had.

I’m not claiming that a one-hour workday is the shiz! That’s silly – and something only toddlers or Tim Ferriss types can get away with for extended periods of time. But changing my way of thinking saved me hours and hours of work. I went from being a stressed out writing zombie to actually getting stuff done and having all the time in the world.

Getting through the day

So why did I manage to write a paper in 10 hours when I wasn’t able to write one in 10 6-hour days? It’s easy.

When I knew I had to work for 6 hours, instead of concentrating on my work, I focused on getting through those hours as smoothly as possible. I made myself a cup of coffee. I changed the settings on my computer. I googled my topic and opened a couple of pages. I checked Facebook “because you’re allowed a break”. I wrote a title and changed it. I had to pee. I had a snack and a cup of tea. I wrote a few lines, and then I checked Facebook again to see how the others were doing. In their status updates they told everyone they were working hard. And then I went back to my empty document. By the end of the day, I had written one or two paragraphs. I was tired after working for 6 hours straight, and I was stressed out because I knew I still had almost 10 pages left to write.

Work goals, not time goals

I started implementing my newfound technique to other aspects of my study life. I never told myself that I had to study for a certain number of hours each day or week. Instead, I set myself smaller goals I wanted to achieve. Today I have to read 4 chapters and come up with a thesis statement for my next paper. Today I’m going to create a powerpoint presentation. Today I’m going to read this book.

I work a lot better when I don’t have to “fill out” a certain number of hours. If I’m done with my work after only a couple of hours, I can relax – or I can start on tomorrow’s project and free the day.

It’s not a magical technique. Some days, the goals I set for myself are ridiculous, and I end up working for 14 hours before I surrender and go to bed. But those 14 hours aren’t that bad. If I knew when I woke up that I had to work 14 hours, I wouldn’t be able to get anything done, but when I’m in the zone – I’m on a mission that I want to finish.

The busy people

I noticed this girl in the university library. She was there all day every day. She sat there for hours on end. And when I first started noticing her, I couldn’t stop. There she was getting coffee. There she was talking to her friend. There she was texting. I passed by her a couple of times. She was checking her mail. Updating facebook. Eating her carrots. Never really working. But I’ll bet you my bottom dollar that she believed she was.

Because I know her. Not her, specifically – but I’ve studied with at least a handful of people who were exactly like her. One of them told me – three weeks before an exam deadline – that she had already been working on her paper for a month. When I told her I hadn’t even begun, she looked positively shocked and told me to get on it n-o-w because I was facing at least 6 weeks’ work. I wrote one and a half pages a day for 10 days, and I was never busy. When she saw me doing that, her reaction was that I had to be a genius. Which I’m not. At all.

One thing at a time

But when I work, I work. If I space out and have to take a break, I do that. And when I take a break – I take a break. Sometimes for only 15 minutes, sometimes for 44 minutes which is how long it takes me to watch an episode of Criminal Minds and clear my head. A walk would probably be better.

It’s not a competition. The busy people may spend 10 hours at uni – but we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the busy people. We shouldn’t let their stress become our own.

I have to admit: When I heard that my classmate had been working on her paper for a month before I even knew what I wanted to write about – I felt a little anxious. For a moment, I doubted my way of doing things and then I panicked.

My paper turned out great – a lot better than hers actually – which she found to be very unfair. And I get it. If I had been working on something for six or seven weeks straight and then found out that someone who worked a mere 15 or 20 hours did better than me – I would’ve cursed something. Or someone.

Showing up or doing the work

It’s not because she’s stupid and I’m bright. It’s because she’s a nine-to-fiver to the bone and I’m not. The thing is – you’re not doing the job by showing up for nine hours every day.
Long hours are not necessarily good hours. Your time is no good if you’re only waiting for your work day to be over.

I’m not saying that I don’t procrastinate because I do. A lot. But when I sit down to do the work, I get it done. And because I know that my work day is over when I’m done with my list, I’d rather work on getting those things done than mindlessly scrolling through my facebook feed waiting for the day to end. My time is more valuable than that, and the best hours are those where I know I’m all done for the day.

Wasting time

That’s why I hate study group meetings. When the others start chatting about their day or going on 20-minute coffee runs – I panick. Once, I actually timed one of our meetings (yes, I’m slightly OCD that way) and found that in 5 hours we only worked for about 2. One group member showed up unprepared. That didn’t bother me all that much. What bothered me was that she suggested we let her catch up before we started and that everyone else found that to be a great idea. And then she started reading and continued reading for more than an hour. And we waited. This is a true story.

I can’t handle wasting my time like that, but the others didn’t seem to care a bit. They were expecting a long meeting, and (therefore) they got it. That’s the main takeaway from today’s post. The more time you plan on spending, the more time you’ll spend. That’s human nature.

Look at all the busy people – busy being busy. A lot of them aren’t getting that much work done because there’s a big difference between showing up and actually doing the work!

Hard work / Smart work

Almost anyone who’s anyone are where they are because of hard work. And I really do believe in hard work but over the past few years, I’ve learned that working a lot and working hard are two very different things. Long hours aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Think about that the next time you run into one of them busy ones.

Don’t feel bad about not putting in the hours if you’re putting in the work! When you work for yourself, you have the opportunity of working smarter and getting a higher ROI on your time investment. Time is not only money – it’s life. Make the most of it.

What do you do to get the most out of your time?

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