Changing our Language Around Busyness and Productivity

Busy and productive are two different states of being that often fight for our mental energy. When we’re busy, we often feel too frazzled and frenetic to be productive and, when we’re productive, we often feel that we’re limited in our abilities to multitask. One is about chaos and hyperactivity, while the other is about focus and slow intentionality. One is about constant damage control, while the other is about forward progress. One is about herding cats, while the other is about realizing that you’re actually a dog lover.

If I could go back to my undergraduate education and study a subject purely for pleasure, I’d consider devoting my time to linguistics and the evolution of language. Contrary to the opinions of many, I don’t believe that language has either deteriorated or improved over the years. It’s simply changed. While I’d be perfectly happy if the word “hella” left the English language forever, I also understand that it serves an important cultural role in today’s world.

Tom Ashbrook's On Point has a great podcast about the evolution of language you can find here.

No, I’m not saying that the word “hella” is the cornerstone of the modern English language, nor that words such as these should be celebrated in the same parade as Shakespeare. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that language is a vital part of modern self-expression. As such, we use language to verbalize our identities and, vice versa, language plays a hand in shaping who we view ourselves to be.

For example, let’s say that I identify as vegan. While the term vegan can be dated back to 500 BCE, it wasn’t officially coined until 1944, after which it grew in popularity and became the identity we know it to be today. Had I lived in the early 1900’s, I bet I would have been hard pressed to adopt a way of life for which I had yet even a name or means of describing. Had I been more creative, maybe I would have thought to live a vegan lifestyle of my own volition, but it’s much easier for me to have notions of being a vegan if the vegan identity already exists and is commonplace in society.

One simple word, “vegan,” links us to a community and gives us parameters for lifestyle basics regarding diet, shopping habits, cooking preferences, and the like. While every vegan has their own unique way of expressing this identity, when someone says they’re vegan, I at least have a baseline understanding of what that means in our cultural context.

The issue with my assumptions around being vegan is that anyone who identifies as vegan, yet doesn’t abide by the expected cultural norms surrounding the term, has to help me understand the nuances of their unique expression of the word. They have to run down the laundry list of ways in which they do and do not conform to society’s understanding of the vegan identity. At times, it would simply be easier to invent a new word. So, we do. This is how we’ve ended up with vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, meat eaters, those that avoid gluten or dairy, and any other number of diet related identities.

Although new identities are cropping up all of the time, history tells us that it takes time. For goodness sake, vegans were around in 500 BCE, yet weren’t given a name until the mid 1900’s. Given the slow evolution of language, we often spend a lot of time obeying the rules of an identity before changing it and making it our own. If I decide tomorrow that I’m going to be vegan, I’ll probably ditch my cheese, ice cream, eggs, and bacon. The rules of the already established identity are playing a role in shaping how I view myself and the way I live my life. No matter how mindful I am about staying true to my desires and values, the names I give to my identities put a mark on who I am and the choices I make. It’s not until I’ve spent some time playing by the rules of the vegan identity that I begin to think of how I can change them.

Want more from BTA? Check out this post on how to increase your motivation to achieve your goals.

Words are powerful. They influence how we behave, how we interact with others, and how we see the world.

This is why it’s so important that we name our identities appropriately.

Now that I’ve exhausted the point that language matters, let’s loop back around to the importance of two very specific words: busyness and productivity.

Let’s start by defining our terms. To keep the territory neutral, let’s defer to our trusty friend, Merriam Webster. Should you have issues with these definitions, feel free to send your beautiful calligraphy hate mail my way.

Busy: engaged in action; full of activity

Productive: effective in bringing about; yielding results, benefits, or profits

The difference between these words is subtle, but it’s critical. While “productive” speaks to one’s output and end result, “busy” stops before reaching a conclusion. It’s the difference between a train reaching the station and a train that makes a lot of stops, but doesn’t have a clear idea of where it’s going.

It’s no surprise we’d all prefer to be productive instead of busy. Naturally, we’d like to have results at the end of a stressful and chaotic string of events, as opposed to a to-do list that looks like it went through the washing machine (and maybe it did). I have a full chapter on this in Your Focus Formula if you’d like to dive deeper into this topic.

Even if we have desires to be productive, as opposed to busy, our language says otherwise. Let’s say you have a long list of tasks to accomplish when your friend asks you to go to the movies. I imagine your natural response is: “Nah, I’m busy” I bet you’ve never once said, “Nah, I’m productive.”

Your Focus Formula

But, didn’t we just conclude that we’d rather be productive than busy? Why tell your friend you’re busy when you’re actually productive? And, if you ARE busy, why don’t you stop all of that busyness and start being productive for goodness sake?

You may be thinking that this is a silly game of semantics. Well, you’re right. This is a game of semantics; but the outcome is far more important than you may realize.

Let’s return to the idea of identities. As we’ve established, giving your identity a name, such as vegan, gives you a rule book and a loose road map to follow as far as your thoughts and behaviors are concerned. This is both conscious and subconscious. While you may be conscious of avoiding the meat section at the grocery store, you may not notice that, subconsciously, your friend circle is starting to change, your exercise habits are adapting, and that your general views of the world are beginning to shift. Adopting the identity of a vegan has impacted you in ways both intentional and unintentional. Remember, words are powerful.

Yeah, productive doesn't always mean "clean"

Now, you may be saying, “Wait, I call myself a vegan, but I don’t call myself a busy person. It isn’t the same.” Oh, but it is. How many times a day do you say, “I’m busy?” Unless you suffered some unfortunate mishap at the hospital on the day you were born, I imagine my response shouldn’t be “Hey, busy, nice to meet you!” Does that joke ever get old? Yes, it was old the first time it was ever said.

When your schedule is packed and you say, “I’m busy,” you’re self-identifying as a busy person, whether you like it or not. By default, you’re imposing Merriam Webster’s rules of being full of activity without any specific end result. You’re a train that has no foresight on the intended destination.

Let’s be clear that this is happening as long as the word “busy” remains in your vocabulary. Using this word gives you an excuse to be chaotic, disorganized, and frenetic. It soon becomes an expected norm in the same way that not eating animal products is a norm for vegans. When you start replacing “busy” with “productive,” you also start replacing your mindset, behaviors, and attitudes around your daily work load.

Do you want some tools to help you be productive instead of busy? Grab these free calendars to help you stay on track. 

So, if you want to stop being busy and start being productive, change your language. Stop saying you’re busy. Toss that word out of your vocabulary to make room for all of the iterations of productive you could adopt. Prolific, creative, useful, inventive, effective, worthwhile, helpful to name a few.

The great thing about this concept is that it requires very little action to create a big payoff. Moving forward, be intentional about your use of the word “busy.” Whenever you feel yourself about to say it or think it, replace it with “productive.” Even if, in fact, you are being busy as opposed to productive in that moment, you want to get your brain used to the language shift.

Over time, you’ll notice your habits begin to change. Slowly, you’ll find yourself being productive in the moments when you’d have otherwise been busy. In addition, you’ll be more aware of the purpose behind your activities and more mindful of ensuring the language of your identity matches its actions.

Choose your words carefully. What you tell yourself about who you are has a dramatic impact on how you live your life and behave in the world. Start telling yourself you’re productive, not busy, and see how your life changes.


Leave a Reply