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Nov 12, 2013

Don’t confuse activity with achievement.” — John Wooden, American college basketball coach

All my career, I’ve personal fought my tendency to “stay busy,” as if by doing so, I’ll inevitably be more productive … as if constantly getting things done, one after another, were somehow enough to ensure success.

Intellectually, it takes very little effort to refute this tendency, though the proof never seems to get through to the people who need it most — from the $100-an-hour executive micromanaging his $10-an-hour assistant, to the teams who spend 15 hours a week in meetings and spin off report after report, trying to figure out why they aren’t more profitable.

“Stressing output is the key…”

Hard work is necessary to succeed in any job, but you have to work on the right things. As former Intel CEO Andrew Grove once noted, “Stressing output is the key to improving productivity, while looking to increase activity can result in just the opposite.

Grove offers a unique perspective on work and productivity. Born András Gróf in a Hungarian Jewish family in 1936, he and his mother barely escaped the Nazi occupation of their country during World War II, when Hitler’s troops rounded up 500,000 Jews and deported them to slave labor camps. His father wasn’t so lucky.

After the war, Gróf and his family faced Soviet-inspired fascism and 1956?s Hungarian Revolution, a popular uprising brutally quashed by the Communist government. During the confusion, Gróf escaped to the West, changed his name, and entered college with little more than a passion for learning.

By 1963 he’d earned a B.S. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. His success as a researcher in the semiconductor industry eventually propelled him into management, where he excelled. By the mid-1990s, he was widely regarded as one of the best businessmen in America.

Points to ponder

If you’re having trouble determining whether your team is productive or just busy, assume the latter. Productivity should be glaringly obvious. But if any doubts linger, consider these points:

  1. How measurable are your goals? Everything you do should be aimed toward accomplishing something profitable. Clarify your goals with your team if they are confused about the current priorities. If you can’t tell how a team member’s daily activity moves you toward your goal in some way, it’s suspect. Always track the results of your efforts to reach your goals with easily readable metrics.
  2. What can you triage? Examine every task your team undertakes. Is it really necessary? If not, is it still productive or profitable? If it fails that test, it’s subject to elimination or severe streamlining. For 10 years, I created a monthly newsletter that took me a full day to write and compile. I never bothered to ask my customers if they found value in it; I simply assumed the massive subscription list was obvious. But when I really started asking questions, I discovered most people found it too long and overwhelming. Now I write a short, weekly article that many more people actually read.
  3. How’s your Return on Investment? Does your team’s output consistently earn the organization more than it pays all of you? If not, start honing your Personal ROI (PROI). Outsource tasks that people outside your team can do more effectively and less expensively, stop doing tasks below your pay-grades, and as a leader, don’t micromanage. Always look for a more productive or profitable alternative to every task. I don’t know how to fix the copy machine in my office. I could figure it out, but it’s not worth my time, versus a trained technician who can breeze in and out in five minutes.
  4. Check your meeting meter. As you rise in leadership, you’ll be spending more time in meetings, because they represent your “work,” where decisions are being made. But they can definitely steal your time if you’re not careful. If a meeting doesn’t come with a purpose, an agenda, and decisions to be made, skip it. Leave at the promised end time. Encourage others to be brief and to the point with their concerns and comments.
  5. Is your social media helping or hurting? Maybe social media represents the wave of the future, but it can be a huge time waster. Is it even something that your team directly profits from using? Is it necessary for doing your job, such as marketing, PR, or HR? If not, skip it at work. Not everyone needs to be using Facebook pages and Twitter at work. Appoint someone to deal with it using the latest tools to maximize time use, or outsource it if you can do so less expensively.
  6. Are you proactive or reactive? Do you and your team leap into action only when prodded, or do you review your strategy on a regular advance basis, so you constantly greet change with enthusiasm and aplomb? Use your meeting time for setting strategy and triggering execution, not deciding the color scheme for the company’s 50th anniversary party. Leave such trivial details to others.


As my friend Randy Pennington says with his book title, “RESULTS RULE.” It all boils down to this: productive teams produce results. Busy teams produce more busy work. Unless you work for an organization where results aren’t always immediately apparent, like an international charity, it shouldn’t take you more than five minutes to determine whether or not your team is productive.

What other points would you add to these six to guarantee productivity over busy work with your team? If you have some tips, tricks, or secrets to share, let us know below!

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.