A woman working from home

Stress and burnout: the dangers of mistaking busyness for productivity

Posted by for Mental Health

Being ‘busy’ isn’t the same as being productive – and our obsession with the former could be contributing to rising levels of work-related stress and burnout.

We live in a world where being ‘busy’ reigns supreme – especially when it comes to work.

Think about it: when was the last time you got through a day without attempting to juggle multiple tasks at once? From sending emails and attending meetings to replying to messages and making phone calls, our working days are filled with a million and one different tasks and obligations on top of the actual work.

The problem? While these tasks may be keeping you busy, they’re likely stopping you from being productive – and it’s this difference that is adding to the rising levels of stress and burnout many are currently experiencing. 

“I see a big difference between being ‘crazy busy’ – which is when we’re doing lots of low-level, low-impact tasks, like replying to emails – and being happy productive – which is when we’re actually getting our head down and spending a good two hours of the day in flow, thinking and concentrating and actually doing something,” explains Zena Everett, a leadership coach and author of the new book The Crazy Busy Cure.

“Because when we’re ‘crazy busy’, we’re constantly switching from one thing to another. Our work not only takes longer (because if you’re writing something and then you stop to read an email it takes a while to get your head back to where you were before you were distracted), but because we’re not able to switch off and do one thing at a time, we’re always working with this kind of low-level anxiety,” she says.  

“The whole responding to emails and messages thing requires us to constantly switch our attention all the time, and I think that’s a big reason why people are feeling anxious and burnt out.”

While Everett doesn’t believe that our collective obsession with busyness is anyone’s fault – “it’s just the way work has become” – she does believe we have the power to unplug ourselves from this way of working and make ‘crazy busyness’ a thing of the past, especially now many people are adopting a ‘hybrid’ way of working and gaining more control over their working lives.

“Achieving [a ‘happy productive’ state] means that we’ve got to be a bit ruthless – we’ve got to learn to say no, we’ve got to push back, and we’ve got to say to people ‘I’m not going to be available for a couple of hours’,” she says.  

“I think it’s really important that people think, even if they’re an employee and not self-employed, what do I need to do, when is the best time to do it and where should I be doing that task.”

So, what can you do to rid yourself of the stress of low-impact, low-level tasks and be more ‘happy productive’? We asked Everett to share her top tips for reclaiming productivity in a world obsessed with busyness. Here’s what she had to say. 

1. Know what your job is measured on 

A woman sat at her desk
Knowing what a ‘good job’ looks like for you will help you prioritise the tasks that need to get done.

Instead of running around completing a million and one small jobs without any sense of achievement, Everett recommends taking some time to think about what tasks are central to your job description, and making these your central priority.

“The first thing you need to do is work out what your job is actually measured on – what a ‘good job’ looks like for you,” she says. “That might sound really obvious but sometimes if people have been in a company for a long time, they might have acquired extra bits of responsibility and have several people they report to.

“So, you need to think – at the end of the year when you’ve got a review, what are you going to talk about? Then, you need to have a long hard look at your calendar and think about what you need to concentrate on.” 

2. Schedule tasks in your diary – and make time to plan

It’s all well and good scheduling in meetings and events in your diary, but if you’re not scheduling structured time for your work alongside these, it’s easy to let them take over your calendar.

“We need to block out times in our diaries to do tasks as well as meetings and calls, as well as making time for planning, too,” Everett says.  

“On Monday morning, for example, maybe you can have an hour without interruptions and have some quiet time to just think and plan your week and get on top of things, and have a review time on Friday as well.”

She adds: “Planning is key so you’re not rushing.” 

3. Be realistic about what’s possible 

A woman writing a to-do list
Being realistic about the tasks you can complete will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

While Everett is a big fan of to-do lists, she does believe that our need to ‘tick off’ tasks (no matter how small or insignificant they may be) is fueling our obsession with busyness. To use them properly, she says, start by listing the most important things you need to get done that day.

“When it comes to to-do lists, I think we need to be realistic about what’s possible,” she says. “Every day I ask myself, ‘What is the most important thing I need to do today?’ And then I make sure I’ve allocated time to do it. When people tell me they’re overwhelmed, often they don’t have a to-do list or it’s long and complicated.”

She continues: “I think to-do lists can be a great tool because when you’ve got downtime in between a meeting, rather than thinking, ‘What should I do?’ if you’ve got a list, you can immediately get down to doing things. It’s all about being intentional with your time.” 

The Crazy Busy Cure: A Productivity Book For People With No Time For Productivity Books by Zena Everett (Hachette) is available to buy now

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues while working from home and the stress of relying on technology to struggles with concentration, confidence and setting boundaries, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Stylist’s Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing, whether you’re working from home, adopting a hybrid arrangement or planning on going back to the office full-time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s junior digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.