6 things that feel productive, but aren't

Portrait of a tired young business man bored during meeting
iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) I normally work in my home office, but last week I traveled to downtown Philadelphia a few times for events. On the drive home each time, I noticed something. I felt like I'd done an incredible amount...because I'd left the house and gone somewhere. Getting dressed up and sitting in traffic filled the hours and made the day feel productive. But, of course, I'd checked less off my list than I would have staying put.

It made me think of all the ways we mistake being busy for actually getting things done. Here are a few other activities that masquerade as being productive, but aren't:

1. The pursuit of Inbox Zero. Your inbox isn't your to-do list. Obviously, we all have to check it at times, but if you spend time processing and filing all emails -- rather than focusing on the ones that matter, and doing the actual substance of your job -- that represents a big opportunity cost.

2. Meetings called just to share information. Unless something changed in the world, it's not clear what the point really was.

3. Reading articles online. Often, we're doing this because we're taking a break, but looking at the screen makes us feel (or at least look) like we're doing something productive. Go walk around the office, get some water, or get some fresh air instead.

4. Morning cleaning rituals. This is a new one to make my list, because it never occurred to me that normal people would feel compelled to vacuum every morning in that already crazed time between waking up and getting to work. But apparently it happens. Sure, the house eventually needs to be cleaned, but it will just get dirty again, and you'll never get that time back.

5. Pointless perfectionism. A reader wrote me the other day of a colleague who spent a lot of time fiddling with the appearance of slides for internal meetings. Why stay up late adjusting the font when it means you'll be tired for the actual presentation?

6. Failing to acknowledge you're stuck. If you can't solve a problem with the information in front of you, it doesn't help to keep staring at the same information. Go work on something else -- or go home and do something productive like exercise or hang out with your family.