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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Don’t confuse being busy with being productive.

November 28, 2011 5 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

busy bee {image credit :: Lutz-R. Frank}

She sat staring out the window, looking as though she were counting the clouds one by one, seemingly oblivious to the fact that some of us were trying to learn fractions here. What could she be thinking about? What if she misses something? Her apparent distraction distracted me, challenged my firmly held belief that school was a place to learn, not to think! And definitely not to daydream. I saw no place for that.

Fast forward a… bunch… of years, and I sit here staring out the window, watching people walk briskly to the train on the cool fall morning. I’m thinking about this post – what I want to say, how I want to craft it, who might be reading it. And I’m slowly discovering the beauty of stillness when it comes to creation.

This is new for me, and I suspect still foreign to many of us. Whether it’s a genetic thing or an American values thing or something else entirely – our focus on activity and achievement over reflection and leisure has shaped us into what some might consider most productive people in the world. We work, work, work. We build, build, build. We go, go, go. And go. Until we can’t go anymore.

According to CareerBuilder, 77% of American workers say that they are burnt out. That’s not just the humdrum stress of everyday life, but a physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from feeling busy and unsatisfied. I probably don’t have to remind you that stress like this contributes to all sorts of nasty issues – heart disease, poor sleep, relationship problems – that, ironically, create more stress.

So what if we have it all wrong? What if rather than focusing on being busy with our time, we need to focus on being productive with our time? What might that look like?


Being busy is:

Feeling Frenetic

Spending more time organizing than doing

Feeling Overwhelmed

Buzzing around like a bee

Work, work, working and realizing that it feels like nothing’s finished

Feeling addicted to your work and feeling anxious when you stop


Being productive is:

Being still in some moments and active in others

Spending time dreaming and imagining

Creativity in action


Engaging with others when helpful

Opening yourself to the process


If you’ve ever gotten caught up in doing something you truly enjoy – something that took concentration and intensity and passion – and you found yourself lost in the moment to where you didn’t even realize time had passed… you found flow. Flow is a concept developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and it refers to a mental state of being energized, focused, and aligned with the task at hand. Csikszentmihalyi outlines lots of components of flow, but it’s also something that you just kind of know – you realize you’re in the zone and totally productive.

When I was immersed in writing my dissertation some years ago, I would become acutely aware of when I was being productive versus just being busy. When I was productive my head was in the game, I felt light, energetic, and present-focused. I wasn’t fretting about little time I had until my next obligation to get this section written. I wasn’t spending hours making endless lists of to-dos. I wasn’t zipping from one thing to the next.

We’re not always going to be productive, and that’s a good thing. While being engaged in the process of creation is nourishing and invigorating, there are lots of times when we need to be neither busy, nor productive. We just need to be. And that feels good too.

Do you notice the difference between being busy and being productive? How can you tell?


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  1. Emergefit
    4 years ago

    When I’m busy, I most often want it to be done. When I’m productive, I want it to last like good company and deep conversations….


  2. Kellie
    4 years ago

    being busy is not the same as being productive…I agree with this post…Thanks anyway!!
    Kellie recently posted..Health Diet Pills


  3. Julia H. @ The Petite Spiel
    4 years ago

    Oh, I definitely can relate to this post! I’ve had my busiest semester of college yet…and I am burnt out. I’ve found that I never mind (and even enjoy) doing the work for my favorite class, but dread the work for some other classes. And that is just so tiring and stressful!
    Julia H. @ The Petite Spiel recently is a


  4. Nicole | blue bicicletta
    4 years ago

    This is a great post! I especially love your comment that we “focus on activity and achievement over reflection and leisure.” This is something I struggle with all the time. As an artist, I’ve found that my work requires lots of time for reflection and leisure, but I’m often running up against the ideas society has drilled into me that I should be working harder, longer, faster, and doing more.

    I think you’re completely right that so many of us are more busy than productive. I find that a lot of what I do online is about being busy, and I end up wasting so much time jumping around from one place to the next. Earlier this week I had this insight that I really need to be more deliberate in my interaction with the online world—see the internet as a tool and not a must and focus what I do on here. In answer to your question, I know when I’m being busy instead of productive when I start feeling this urgency to get something done, to get on to the next thing, to do more. I know I’m being productive when I feel just how you say–energetic, creative, involved with the work in the present. Thanks for this great post!


  5. Jill
    4 years ago

    Thank you for this. I know it, and yet like many other things I know, I haven’t quite embodied it yet so I can manifest the knowing naturally–the more I can hear this message repeated, the better. I need to memorize it, write it on my breath and my bones so the knowing becomes being.
    Jill recently posted..Full Moon Dreamboard: Full Cold Moon


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