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The difference between being productive and busy

“While you will hit all phases if you seriously pursue a skill or goal, you’re likely wasting time if the harder you work, the less money or progress you make. Yes, there are limits to things, but you shouldn’t struggle to make logarithmic gains before making big or linear gains.”

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Productive people produce things.

Busy people only look like they’re producing things.

The busy person may or may not be producing things, but the productive person—by definition—is.

When you’re busy, you’re able to fool almost everyone out there that you’re productive.

When you’re productive, everyone else just assumes you’re busy.

The difference between being busy and being productive is like the difference between moissanite and diamond: to most people, they look the same, but one is worth *significantly* more.

Furthermore, there are only two groups who know the difference between the real diamond and the fake substitute: the ones making the fake and the experts charged with determining their worth. The former knows because they create the illusion, and the latter knows because they have a vested interest in spotting the fake to assign it its proper worth.

Where the analogy breaks down is that the producers of the fake diamonds know that they’re making fakes. However, as the producer of fake output (“busyness”), you often manage to fool yourself.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman

In the online business side of things, being busy is often referred to as “the hustle” or “the grind.”

The grind looks seductive and attractive because of its motion and activity. It even produces results. In fact, not only can you change your life by getting on your grind, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to go from something to nothing.

But the grind is not meant to be a lifestyle any more than busyness. Likewise, being busy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easy to get seduced into the idea that you’re producing when the reality is that you’re hustling in place.

So, how does one tell the difference between being busy and being productive? By asking two questions, one simple and the other subtle.

  1. Am I making progress?
  2. Are my results linear, exponential, or logarithmic?

Am I getting results?

This is the first question, and it’s straightforward and obvious, almost to the point of absurdity. However, it must be asked. Is what you’re doing actually making progress towards your goal?

Let’s take a moment to rule out the ways we can fool ourselves. A first principle here is that it doesn’t matter how you feel about the task at hand. Is it getting you a result closer to what you desire than you’d achieve if you did something else?

Common places you see this are fitness and making money.

The exercise isn’t improving body composition, but a person will stick with it because it looks and feels like it’s working. The method for making money online won’t actually be making them money, but it seems like the thing to do because it keeps them busy and seems like it should make money one day,

If the effort you put in is not returned in a relatively quick fashion, and there are demonstrably better ways to reach the same goal, then you’re just being busy. You are not being productive.

[Note: This is not to imply that the only goals worth pursuing are the ones that happen quickly. This only points out that initially, incremental progress should be made that at least correlates to the level of effort put in.]

Are my results linear, exponential, or logarithmic?

Linear growth: You get out what you put in. If you work for 8 hours, you make 8 hours of progress. Your rate of progress stays the same. For example, if your job pays you $10/hr, you will make $10 no matter how many hours you work.

Exponential growth: Your rate of progress increases with each expenditure of the same effort. In terms of money, this would be similar to the way that compound interest works. You put the same amount of money into your account each time, but your gains grow bigger and bigger.

Logarithmic growth: Your rate of progress decreases even if the amount of effort stays the same. Most things eventually end up this way as you approach a natural limit of skill and progress. Most jobs give pay raises on an (effectively) logarithmic scale. There is a natural limit to how much money you’ll make, and your raises typically (but not always) get smaller and smaller each year.

While you will hit all phases if you seriously pursue a skill or goal, you’re likely wasting time if the harder you work, the less money or progress you make. Yes, there are limits to things, but you shouldn’t struggle to make logarithmic gains before making big or linear gains.

This is why busy people always seem to be working, but they never make progress. They are, in the sense of a word, working backward. That’s because they aren’t focusing on what matters. They’re focusing on what they want to matter.

Some people stay busy to avoid doing the real work that would actually get them closer to their goal and make them less busy.

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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.

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Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

Follow me on Twitter.

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