The Difference Between Busy and Productive

John Spencer
6 min readJul 6, 2018


Being busy is not the same as being productive. I spent years saying “yes” to every opportunity and packing my schedule with activities. It was the productivity version of a Michael Bay movie — lots of action but a general lack of meaning and character development and pacing. But then I had a moment when I “broke up with busy” and eventually learned the difference between being busy and being productive. Here’s my story.

Breaking Up with Busy

When I was a new teacher, I believed I had to give 110% in everything I did. I thought that the best teachers were the ones who arrived first and left last. I was a busy teacher, taking on all kinds of committee work and saying yes to every project. But then I had a moment when I decided to “break up with busy.”

About eight years ago, I arrived home from work and my five-year-old son was already holding up a baseball.

“We can play, but I don’t have a lot of time,” I told him.

All I could think about was my to-do list. I had a department meeting to plan, papers to grade, and small projects to finish. However, as I slipped on the baseball glove, something changed. I forgot about my list. We tossed the ball back and forth.

But my son kept asking, “Is there still time?”

Is there still time?

I couldn’t answer it.

So, that night, I met with my wife and talked about my schedule. It was a hard conversation, where we talked about long-term priorities and what kind of a dad, husband, and teacher I wanted to be. I realized something critical: I was chasing perfectionism and trying to make a bunch of people happy and neglecting the people who mattered most.

That’s when I broke up with busy. I quit committees. I limited my projects. I set a curfew for myself at work. I learned when to give 110% and when to give 11 or 12 percent.

See, I was drowning in busy and yet I’d been wearing busy like a badge of honor; like I was winning some imaginary competition. But life isn’t a game. Actually, Life is a board game and I think it’s also a cereal (at least according to Mikey).

But here’s the thing: You don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and more meetings.

All you get is a bigger load of busy. But busy is hurried. Busy is overwhelmed. Busy is fast. Busy is careless. Busy is a hamster wheel that never ends and a sprint up the ladder without ever asking where it leads. There are moments when life gets busy. I get that. But I never want busy to be the new normal. I never want to look back at life and say, “Wow, I was really good at being busy.”

I Became More Productive When I “Broke Up with Busy”

When I made the leap and decided to “break up with busy,” I noticed something happening. I actually became a better teacher. After the difficult conversation with my wife, I remember thinking that I would be making sacrifices as an educator. However, that’s not what happened. I actually had more time, more energy, and more mental bandwidth to create epic projects for students. It turns out that I was more productive when I was able to rest. Here’s what I mean:

  1. I crafted better projects. I finally had the time to prepare project-based learning unit plans and resources because I wasn’t spending insane amounts of time inputting grades or putting together bulletin boards.
  2. I took creative risks. Once I found the root cause of overworking, I began to experiment with student-centered learning and get over the fear of making mistakes as a teacher. I had already been shifting toward project-based learning and design thinking but now I felt the freedom to take it to the next level.
  3. I started transforming my practice. I began to focus on the things that mattered most and giving myself the permission to be less-than-perfect in areas that were not as important. This ultimately helped me to prioritize and focus on transforming instruction in my own classroom.
  4. I became more of a maker in my own life. I began to engage in creative work in my spare time. For example, I started to do a Thursday evening Genius Hour project which ultimately led to things like a novel or sketch videos. I still make time for passion projects each week. For years, my wife and I have both taken one night a week to go work on our own passion projects.
  5. I shifted further toward student agency and empowerment. I had already been asking the question, “What am I doing for my students that they could be doing for themselves?” I was on the journey toward empowering students with voice and choice. However, once I was truly able to “break up with busy,” I took this student ownership to the next level by letting students self-select the scaffolding, engage in their own project management, and assess their own learning.

Being Busy or Being Productive?

There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. Being busy is about working harder while being productive is about working smarter. Being busy is frantic while being productive is focused. Being busy is fueled by perfectionism while being productive is fueled by purpose. Being busy is about being good at everything while being productive is about being great at a few important things.

The following video explores this in-depth:

Nine Changes I Made in the Shift from Busy to Productive

Ultimately, when I broke up with busy, I learned how to be productive. This is what it looked like for me:

  1. Prioritize what was important. As a teacher, this meant spending more time assessing and less time grading, more time developing lessons and less time joining committees.
  2. Learn how to say “no” to the things that don’t matter. There will always be fun projects that people want you to do. However, if it’s not something that connects to your ultimate priorities, it’s okay to say “no.”
  3. Create a schedule and stick with it. I get up at four or five each morning and I’m in bed at nine or ten. I set a curfew for myself to be fully finished by four o’clock.
  4. Create templates and use those. I kept recreating the wheel rather than re-using and re-purposing former lessons, materials, and content.
  5. Engage in deep work. As a teacher, I would arrive an hour early to school and have a period of uninterrupted deep work. As a professor, I now block off specific time for deep work.
  6. Do the dreaded work first. I’m not sure where I heard this productivity hack, but it’s turned out to work well for me. I find that one task that I’m dreading and I do it first. This way, it’s not looming in my mind the entire day. One of the core aspects of being busy was avoiding the dreaded work that I didn’t want to do.
  7. Focus on one project at a time. Multitasking is a myth and a deceptive one at that. What feels like hyper-productivity is actually interrupted productivity. Instead of doing multiple tasks at once, people are switch-tasking and this start-and-stop process prevents you from hitting a state of flow and engaging in deep work.
  8. Schedule rest the way you would schedule an appointment. Teachers often feel guilty about resting but it’s actually vital for productivity. However, I think it helps to treat rest like you would an appointment, meeting, task, or exercise routine.
  9. Understand the emotional elements of being busy. Often, when I am falling into the “busy trap,” it’s because of my mental state. I am overwhelmed by too many tasks so I don’t do any of them well. I am anxious about an event on the horizon and I’m filling the space with activity rather than facing my anxiety. I am frustrated by hitting a creative wall in a particular project or I’m scared that what I am making will bomb when it reaches an audience. In other words, being afraid, anxious, or overwhelmed will ultimately kill my ability to do deep work. Other times, I am afraid to say “no” to activities out of a fear of missing out or a sense that I might disappoint someone. I’m trying to seek validation by doing more and packing my schedule.



John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something new every day. Some days, I make stuff. Other days, I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.