Are You Productive, or Just Busy?

Not everything your team does will push your business forward. Here’s how to refocus that time and energy – and get on a path toward long-term success.


4 min read

This story appears in the
September 2020

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Q: I feel like my team is always scrambling, but I have trouble knowing what’s actually working. How can I tell? — Elizabeth, New Orleans

You know the old saying “Practice makes perfect”? It’s a great mindset but also highly flawed. Practice leads to perfection only if you’re focusing on the right things. When it comes to your business, busyness — also known as practice — can be a facade. And this becomes an even bigger problem during tough times, when it can feel impossible to keep a pulse on your business.

But don’t stress. There are a few basic systems that can help turn your business into a highly efficient machine. To change the game, start by keeping score. Sports have clear winners and losers, and those outcomes are often determined long before the game lights go on. The best teams are notorious for tracking everything on the practice field and in the training room. You should do the same within your business.

Related: 10 Must-Have Productivity and Life Hacks for WFH

I recommend three types of measurement: strategy, tactics, and time.

Let’s start with strategy. You need to ask yourself: What’s the highest purpose of my business? If this were football, that purpose would be “to win the Super Bowl.” For your company, the goal might be generating $1 million in revenue this year, acquiring 10 new customers, or any other metric that will determine your success. Once you’ve done that, build some sub-­strategies —­ specific things your business needs to do to achieve that highest purpose. Be clear about why each approach will result in your ideal outcome.

Next, move to the tactical level. Within each of your sub-strategies, outline the three to five things you will do to execute against the strategy, and set specific goals for each tactic. You’ll want some key performance indicators (KPIs) or other ways to track your success along the way — because as the late famed management thinker Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” 

Related: 8 Ways to Work Smarter and Improve Productivity

Notice what we’re building here: It’s a multilayered game plan, with ways to measure success along the way. If you have a primary goal and three sub-strategies with five tactical KPIs each, you just created 15 tactics to measure. Be mindful of how everything works together. Not all 15 things are going to work; you’ll fall short on some goals. But now you have clarity on what’s working and what’s not.

The final piece is time — and it is essential. Businesses often spend time on work that doesn’t align with their primary strategies. That means there’s no way to measure if it’s impacting the bottom line.

To fix this, set up a project management system. You want complete transparency on who is working on each project, when the project starts, when it ends, and how it aligns with each strategy and tactic. (Asana, Monday, and Trello are just a few good tools that can help here.) Then, take a step back and ask: Are my biggest time investments yielding my biggest rewards? 

Related: You Work Better When You’re Being Watched. Here’s How To Monitor Yourself

The answer may be no. In fact, you may discover a ton of wasted effort. That’s a frustrating lesson, sure, but it can also be a best-case scenario: You’re succeeding in spite of inefficiencies! That means your potential growth is very high.

Once you create this type of infrastructure, it’s easy to assess the ways you spend time. You’ll also improve your team’s focus and empower them to course-correct on their own. When that happens, you can have more confidence that your team’s small decisions are aligned with the big results, and you can spend less time worrying and more time planning for future growth. 

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