It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? — Henry David Thoreau

It’s not the hours you put in; it’s what you put in the hours that count. . . . Don’t mistake movement for achievement. . . . Some people are busy all day long doing figure eights. They’re not making much forward progress. — Jim Rohn

How do you measure productivity?

If you’re like me, you probably think in terms of number of tasks completed. I feel productive when I cross a whole bunch of stuff off my list. Don’t you?

Most folks would be thrilled to look at the following to-do list after a long Saturday and see every item checked off:

  • organize the basement
  • change the car’s oil
  • mop the kitchen floor
  • take extra clothes to Goodwill
  • clean out the fridge
  • return books to library
  • mow the lawn
  • vacuum out the van
  • dust the ceiling fans

There’s another factor to consider, though, and we usually overlook it.

Task Importance

The hard truth is, the items on the list above are unimportant. It’s nice to get them done, but if we don’t, nothing bad happens (at least not for a long time). Seeing nine items crossed off a list feels good. But each task’s low importance means it’s not worth much, the productivity equivalent of a rice cake.

On the other hand, spending that same afternoon making a thorough pro/con list for a possible career change is only one task. Not too impressive on a to-do list.

But it’s more important than all the rest put together.

A To-Do List Is Just a Tool

It’s easy to forget that checking things off a list is only a means to an end. The end, the goal, is to do meaningful work.

A to-do list is just a tool. It’s a useful tool, in that it helps us organize and manage our commitments (especially the familiar ones). But when it comes to the new, the scary, and the not-easy-to-put-in-a-spreadsheet, the to-do list often falters.

Instead of slavishly following our to-do lists, let’s pause occasionally and ask ourselves some questions:

  • What does this list add up to? Are these tasks rice cakes, devoid of productivity nutrition?
  • Is everything on this list necessary? If I didn’t do x, what would really happen?
  • Am I using this list to hide from something that’s scaring me?

Don’t just check items off your list. Make sure the items add up to something meaningful.

It might better to spend the afternoon wrestling with a big new idea than to keep your ceiling fans dust-free.