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Busy Work

David Allen's Getting Things Done, a bestseller in the US, primes readers on the author's views of productivity, and how to achieve it. Allen's approach emphasizes time management and focus.

For the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute's Jeff Barrett, regaining control over his work and life schedules has been a bit of a struggle. "Many of the core GTD principles have been incubating in my mind, and I'm trying to incorporate them into my day-to-day life," Barrett writes at his group's blog. One such principle, he says, is redefining productivity, such that it is not confused with being busy.

"I've come to the view that 'productivity' is anything which increases the awesomeness in the world," he says. "In science, this encompasses sitting around thinking about a new idea, writing some code, doing an experiment in the lab, staring at some new data, or writing a paper."

To Barrett's mind, one can be busy, yet unproductive. For example, while "dealing with administrative paperwork, responding to banal emails, or sitting in meetings with ill-defined agendas," he says. "We have to do these things to a certain extent — they are part of how the world functions — but they're not satisfying or fulfilling. Nobody smiles while filling in their EU grant-reporting paperwork."

Overall, he says, "the problem is that busy-ness is so much easier than productivity."