She was sitting across the conference room table about to take on another task and then finally sat back, looked up, and let out an exasperated sigh.

The only words she could seem to muster were, “why do I feel busy, and still seems like I get nothing done?”

In other words, why do I feel busy, but not productive?

It is a frustrating reality for many owners and key leaders.

Owners feel it when they are slow to delegate or sit with the quiet sentiment of “it’s just easier to do it myself.”

Key leaders feel it when they are inundated with abdicated tasks, and sit with the quiet sentiment of “why can’t we just get more help to handle all of this work!”

Busy has become a badge of honor, suffering, and importance.

What if you struck the word busy from your response when asked how you are doing?  We say it all of the time.

“How have you been?”  Your response, “busy”.

Looking back on the use of busy in written history, Google NGram Viewer shows that the word has seen two spikes.  The first was around the 1920s and seems to be in response to the Industrial Revolution and the incessant work life of the factory laborer. 

The second spike in the word “busy” started back in the 1980s as the efficiency-laden personal computer technology revolution began in widespread earnest.  The use of the word continues to rise.  

To be busy is to simply have a lot to do.  Busy says nothing of effective, impact, positive, negative, helpful, or hurtful.  Busy is not good and it is not bad…it’s just busy.

It is entirely possible, dare I say the norm, to be busy and yet to not be effective.  To be busy and to not be valuable.  To be busy and to not be productive.

Much of our busy-ness is an exercise in simply in busy-ness, and not in activity that is leading us towards a defined vision.

Lead Well.

If you’re looking for more resources to work ON your business, we have them. 

So why do we feel busy, but not productive?

Three reasons.

First, you do not know that ultimate vision behind the work you are doing.

This one is easy to overlook.  We all assume that we are all headed in the same direction.  Without a constant reminder of the endgame, the finish line, the vision, then we fill the vision void with our own, competing personal visions.


A business without a written, and oft reviewed vision is a business that is filled with as many visions as there are people.

Imagine a misaligned military where each member is left to choose their own mission.  

Ask yourself, and ask your team, “do you know where we are headed?”  If they do, then keep repeating it.  If they do not, then write it down, share it, then keep repeating it.

Second, you feel busy but not productive because you have little to no boundaries.

I recently heard Lance Golinghorst articulate that we all have access to three major scarce resources: time, energy, and attention.

Attention is indivisible.  It is well researched that multitasking doesn’t work.  As I am writing and reading this, I should not be brushing my teeth or checking my bank balance.

Energy is renewable (I can generate more energy), and transferable (I can give you energy and you can give me energy).

The real wake-up call is in regard to our time.  Time is non-renewable (we cannot make more of it), and it is not transferable (you cannot give yours to me).

You go into each week with a defined, finite allotment of time.  Either you put boundaries throughout your day roping off all of the tasks and responsibilities, or we will do it for you.  

If you do it, it allows you to maximize your scarce resources of time, energy, and attention.  If we do it for you, then we will devour your time, energy, and attention.

You can make excuses as to why it won’t work in the specific role you are in.  We love you, but your role is not a special unicorn or snowflake.  Own your role by owning the boundaries for your role and then share those boundaries with us so we can support you.

The third reason you feel busy but not productive is because you have yet to disappoint the unrealistic expectations of others.

You think that we expect you to drop everything to pay attention (one of your scarce resources) to us.  There is one thing that you can do to allow us to extend an unlimited amount of patience around your boundaries.


Communicate your boundaries.  Communicate your delays.  Communicate your completions.  Communicate your expectations.

We have unrealistic expectations of you because we assume you are at our beck and call.  Instead, communicate with us that in fact, you are at our beck and call…

“…between 2 pm and 5 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.”

Then, on those days and times, communicate with us.

Do not focus on the rare exceptions to this truth like the time a customer called you in a panic at 11 pm because they had to know the answer now.  Does that always happen?  No.

Know where you are going, why you are going there, create boundaries with your weekly schedule, and communicate.

Soon you will begin to feel productive, but not busy.

Scott Beebe is the founder of Business On Purpose, author of Let Your Business Burn: Stop Putting Out Fires, Discover Purpose, And Build A Business That Matters.  Scott also hosts The Business On Purpose Podcast and can be found at