Don’t be busy. Get things done. There’s a difference.

“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway

How many times in my life have I found myself hurrying and scurrying to “DO ALL THE THINGS!” when in fact all I’ve really managed to do is whip myself into a frenzy of stress and confusion? Or how about the times where all my primary responsibilities have been dealt with, but here comes the boss so it’s time to “look busy.”

The trap is an easy one to slip into. More activity must = more output, right? Well, maybe…

The truth of the matter is that without a plan, we can spin in circles all day long without ever producing the progress we’re so desperately chasing. It’s an easy thing to fall into; I struggle with it myself. Doing a little bit of everything leaves us with a whole lot of nothing, including time and satisfaction.

My typical work week at the moment consists of planning and implementing social media, writing (hopefully) compelling marketing material, blogging, going to networking events, following up with contacts, staying up to date with the latest market trends, reading for leisure and development, and leaving enough time for the unexpected when someone reaches out to start a conversation or I land a client and have actual onsite consulting to attend to. So I come in to my lovely little co-working office each day and start doing everything I possibly can to keep all those plates spinning like an acrobat in the Chinese circus. Five minutes here researching keywords and hashtags, then a few minutes there hacking out a couple paragraphs for a new article, then checking email, then back to research, then “oh yeah, I have to email that woman from the business luncheon the other day!” and then… wait. What was I just doing?

The outcome? I feel frantic and busy nearly all the time, I’m constantly worried that I’m overlooking something, and I can’t measure or predict the results of my actions. Sounds great, right?

When I was 20, I packed my bags and headed off to film school. I was enrolled and ready to go, couldn’t wait to show up and grab a camera and start making my dreams come true while saving the world from a never-ending stream of lousy, boring movies. The big surprise came when class started. We were told that we wouldn’t even turn a camera on for at least three months. The first half of the project would be spent in pre-production, as if it were a real film. As we went on, I learned that the pre-production process takes up more time than actually shooting a film, and is far more detailed than I ever imagined. It’s not just about deciding on the story and shouting “lights, camera, action!” Every aspect of the shoot is planned in advance, so that by the time the cameras start rolling it’s mostly about execution. The crew doesn’t just show up on Monday and say “ok, let’s make a movie!” They show up on Monday to shoot the scenes that were planned for Monday. Then on Tuesday, they do the work of Tuesday, and so on. Everything is planned in advance and drawn out, every action has been thought through and refined to make the best use of time and resources

So when it comes to work habits, why not take the Hollywood approach? Would I rather have a poorly-planned, slapped together B-movie or a well crafted blockbuster? Do I want to go straight to video or break records in the box office?

The hardest discipline to develop is often that of sitting still and planning our actions before we take flight. When I take the time to plan my week, or even my day, in advance, I find that I get more done and I feel better doing it. I do Monday’s tasks on Monday, and leave the rest for its own time. I’m able to take the time I need to plan and implement each aspect of my business without the mental gridlock of everything needing to happen all at once. And I gain more of a sense of accomplishment as each task is completed and I’m able to move on.

That may be an overly simplified analogy, but the fundamental truth is the same – to be truly productive, the answer lies in planning, priorities and strategy. If I work for myself, I need a strategy to keep things organized and consistent. If I work for someone else it can be a bit trickier depending on the requirements of my job but I can still use a strategic approach to structure my time in the most effective and rewarding way. And if I get everything done and the boss walks up to my desk to find me without an active project? Maybe my strategic system is so good that I can show them how it works and score some points for workplace innovation in the meantime.

Also published on Medium.