Chapter 9: Mind Your Own Busyness

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There is more to life than increasing its speed. (Mahatma Gandhi)

You may not be a workaholic. (Then again, living in the 21st century, you just might be!) But one thing is almost a given – you go through long periods when your life is far too hectic and busy. It seems that 99.9% of the population knows all about stress and nervous tension. Too many things to do, too many people to see. “Stop the world now – I want to get off!”

There is a tragic irony to the situation most of us find ourselves in. Our culture has never been more materially rich. We have all the gadgets and toys one could imagine. Yet as Robert Banks notes, we find ourselves caught in a new poverty – a lack of time.[1]

Why are we so busy?

Why have we allowed the treadmill of life to speed up? Why do we have to live faster and faster? Why do our lives seem to be spent just trying to keep up?

Pace of life

Thirty years ago, Alvin Toffler predicted it. And it’s just as he said. Over the past generation the pace of life has increased dramatically. We see it most acutely in the way technology, communications and transport have changed.

But hang on. Shouldn’t the advent of cars, new motorways, faster aeroplanes, computers, mobile phones, fax machines and the internet make it much easier to do our work, and free up much more time? Those new appliances: the microwaves and the automatic washing machines and all the rest – aren’t they “labour-saving devices”?

The answer to that is yes – and no. Yes, they do save a lot of time and effort. No, they don’t slow life down. It turns out that for some perverse reason the benefits have been well and truly overwhelmed by a whole series of unexpected pitfalls. Thanks to mobile phones we can be swiftly in touch with our loved ones – but we also find ourselves at the mercy of every caller, however trivial the enquiry or inconvenient the time. Thanks to the modern motor car we can get quickly to other places – but we get caught in traffic jams on the way. (If you live in an area where you are blessed with clear roads, then don’t get smug. It’s a safe bet you squeeze far more destinations into your schedule than your grandparents ever did when they walked or caught a tram.)

And the final insult is that we actually have to work longer … in order to earn the dollars … in order to pay for those microwaves and washing machines. And then to have them repaired … or updated. (Think of the domestic crisis when the washing machine breaks down. Or the stove. Or that greatest of all domestic disasters, when there’s a power failure…)

The writers of Affluenza put it precisely. “Swelling expectations lead to a constant effort to keep up with the latest products, to compete in the consumption arena. That, in turn, forces us to work more, so we can afford the stuff. With so many things to use, and the need to work harder to obtain them, our lives grow more harried and pressured.” [2]

Where did our extra free time go? Where did all those other demands come from?

Productivity Has Become a God

We are a culture fixated on Productivity – leading to Progress and Growth. The gods of the 21st century are not wooden, stone, or bronze. They are economic.

Our whole system is built on the belief that for our society to be a great place to live, this year we must produce (and therefore consume) more than we did last year. Apparently this is real progress! The measuring stick is the increase in GNP (Gross National Product).

It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out where this leads. Enough is never enough. New levels of productivity must be achieved this year – and next year – and the year after. Only by literally working harder or faster, or by employing ever-newer technology, can this be achieved. In a cruel twist, the record sales figures produced by committed and hard-working staff last year become the starting point for increasing this year’s goals. The reward for the poor staff caught in this tightening vice is increased consumption … which, of course, they must pay for by increased earnings.

Unreasonable expectations from the workplace

Amidst such a pervasive ethos, it’s hardly surprising that many of us struggle with increased demands from our jobs. Longer hours, more productivity, less staff to do more and more, expectations of taking work home or coming in to the office in the weekend, and so on.

The demands on employees have dramatically increased over the past fifteen years. In fact, according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor, Americans are now working 160 hours more per year (on average) than they did in 1969. That’s nearly a whole month of extra 40-hour weeks! [3]

We don’t have too much choice. If we don’t meet the expectations will we get the chop and be replaced by others who are prepared to sell their soul for the company?

“Home-maker” parents are caught in the same bind. It’s no surprise to find that studies report mothers (and the occasional home-staying father) spending more time shopping and ferrying children than their parents did.

We gladly recognise that there are employers who aim to create a work-life balance in their companies. We suspect, however, that far more often employers relate to their staff as if they own them – as if there is nothing else in life nearly as important as the job. In recent years the situation has been made even worse by “contract work” – where the worker is simply contracted to do a specific job. This can mean fewer and fewer companies that have a long term commitment to their employees, and feel responsible for their wider well-being.

Breaking out of this is not easy. Unscrupulous managers and employers will push staff as far as their employees are prepared to be pushed. And, perversely, even where an employer creates a positive work environment, many of us still drive ourselves to earn more, using credit or extra part-time jobs, or both. Our whole culture is based on the premise that we need more and more things.

Stages of life

Certain periods in life are more demanding than others, and this accentuates the pressures and demands. For example, the writers of this book fulfil numerous roles in a week. We are parents, marriage partners, home owners, neighbours, board members and friends. Alistair is a pastor and teacher, Annette a postgrad student, Wayne a businessman and writer. And in our spare time we all run a taxi service and volunteer support crew for our children and their many and varied activities.

Parents among our readers will be well familiar with the syndrome. We all happen to be at that stage in life where the number of roles we carry is probably the greatest it will ever be, and those roles stretch us to the limit.

Furthermore, certain parenting stages are extraordinarily demanding even without multiple roles. For example, if you have two or more pre-schoolers you will feel you have precious little discretionary time. (And any scraps you do have are constantly rendered useless because you have so little energy left. You repeatedly find yourself collapsing in desperately needed sleep, or flopping in a vegetable-like state in front of the TV!)

For many parents the stress of raising children is accentuated by the lack of close-at-hand family support, separated as we so often are from parents and siblings. And it can be made worse if the employed partner faces unrealistic demands at work, so that two-parent families are in reality, one-parent families for large chunks of the week.

Busyness is now a virtue

There’s another crucial reason why many of us are so harried. Busyness has become a virtue, not a vice. In our society – and indeed in our churches – you could be forgiven for thinking that “busyness is next to godliness”. Mention how hard-at-it you are and you are likely to be highly affirmed.

So why do we want people to know that we are so industrious? Because busyness is equated with importance, significance and success. We desire to be esteemed and wanted. We are affirmed and valued when we are always on the go. So we become skilled players of the “I’m just so incredibly busy” game.

“How’s your week been, Wayne?” “Oh, so busy, Gary. I had to go to Sydney on Monday for a business meeting; Tuesday I was due to meet with a visiting CEO from the US; Wednesday I had a home group meeting in the evening; Thursday it was off to Auckland to see some clients for two days. And now my business partners have told me I need to fly to London on Monday week to sort out a problem over there. I tried talking them out of it but they said I’m the only one who can do it. I feel exhausted.”

Gary is impressed. “Wow, you have been busy, Wayne. You need a break.” And inside Gary’s head a little tape is running: This guy must be really important; he’s run off his feet. When he asks me how my week has been, how can I embellish it so it sounds like I’m really busy too – and therefore important?

We don’t want to be considered lazy

Perhaps a further cause of busyness, at least among Christians, is the desire to avoid being labelled “lazy” – for this is one of the worst of evangelical sins. We work hard to “pull our weight”, and often end up overcompensating. It’s easy to soon become driven.

Is busyness a bad thing?

So far in this chapter we’ve made an underlying assumption that being busy is wrong. At first glance this may seem to go against what we have been taught about the Christian life.

After all, aren’t we called to “give our lives for the cause”, to expend ourselves on behalf of others? And wasn’t it the Puritans and early evangelicals who taught us to view time as a precious resource which should not be wasted?

The answer to this is, of course, yes. We are called to be meaningfully employed in God’s kingdom. In that sense, busyness may not be totally negative. And certainly there are times in our lives when we must urgently complete a task. Nehemiah was in just such a bind as he raced to finish the walls of Jerusalem before his enemies could exploit the weak points. Farmers can’t afford to lose a minute when the time is right for bringing in the harvest.

However, when in this chapter we refer to busyness we mean the overwhelming and persistent feeling that there are just too many things to do, too many people to see … and too little time to get it all done.

All of us go through busy patches. But when busyness becomes a way of life – a regular habit – it turns destructive.

Busyness will often divert our energy away from the most important issues of life, and undermine what we were made for. Our homes can become railway stations or B&B’s; our stress levels go through the ceiling; there is little or no time for growing relationships; we often have the feeling we are busy with so many things, but really not doing any of them justice; time for nurturing spiritual disciplines is sacrificed; reflection, prayer and relationship with God are squeezed out.

These are just some of the results of being habitually busy. Such a lifestyle also puts pressure on other resources, like money. Our frantic state may lead us to take shortcuts for meals – eating out frequently, buying more takeaways and pre-prepared meals, options which cost a lot more and put pressure on our finances.

The pace of life we set for ourselves can cause us a lot of damage. But is there anything we can do about it?

How Do We Counter a Breathless Pace of Life and Move Towards Balance?

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There are several ways to get our busy lives in better balance.

Be focused on what is most important for your life

Discovering your SoulPurpose allows you to work out what your priorities should be.

Frequently we take on roles and tasks that don’t fit who we are. This might be through a sense of obligation or of supposed importance. More likely it’s because we simply haven’t worked out where we fit in God’s scheme of things. Discovering who we are and who we’re not, and being content in that, will help us to build a grid which sifts the stuff we should be doing from the stuff we shouldn’t. You might call it strategic living.

There’s another angle on getting our priorities back in line. It’s learning the value God places on relationships. This is a lesson Martha had to learn – the hard way, as Luke recalls:

As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”

The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” (Luke 10: 40-41, The Message).

Martha was anxious to produce a welcoming meal. Is that important? Absolutely. Luke tells us about this incident not so that we should rate the spiritual level of different activities. He’s not saying it is more spiritual or important to sit down and spend time with Jesus than it is to do the dishes. The point Jesus was making was that activism shouldn’t rule our lives. There are strategic times when relationships need to take priority. At those times “productivity” should take a back seat. Knowing when to be active and when to relate, reflect, and pray is a critical act of discernment.

Many of us can identify with Martha. There’s a lot to be said for getting things done and out of the way. But Mary and Martha had all too few opportunities for sitting down and talking with Jesus. On this occasion Martha was wasting a rare opportunity. It’s important to discern the appropriate thing to do in each situation. We need to live strategically…

Learn how to say “NO”

Saying no is one of the most important skills you can learn. It can become easier when you understand how you were made and what you are called to be involved in. (The activities of the previous chapters will have helped you identify this more clearly.) What is it that God is calling you to make the primary involvement of your life? That’s what you should focus on. When people are laying on you the expectation that you should deal with a particular problem (or you are laying that expectation on yourself), ask these questions.

  • Am I the right person to do this?

  • Is it something I am equipped to deal with?

  • Are there others who could do it as well or better?

  • What other priorities do I have at this time?

  • Should I really be putting them aside in order to deal with this?

It’s true that there can be times when we sense God asking us to do things which don’t “fit” well who we are. But that should be a conscious decision we make, rather than simply responding to the needs of the moment.

Remember, there will always be more opportunities and needs out there than any one of us can deal with. Learning to sense which ones God wants us to be involved in, and to feel okay about saying no to others, is critical if we want to make a difference. Time is a gift from God – but it’s a limited gift.

Which leads to the next point…

Realise you can’t do everything

None of us is called to save the whole world. That’s God’s job! When we accept internally that we are simply junior partners with God in his work, it substantially alters our perspective. The air of indispensability is gone.

Sometimes we simply have too high a view of what we are doing. That can distort our priorities so that we end up worshiping our work.

Build habits and routines that assist in the rhythms of life

Life is not meant to be all about activity. Genesis is clear on this. The example of God’s work in creating the Cosmos should act as a template for us in our activity. What did God do after six days?

God took a break.

Through the Bible we discover that God has established natural rhythms for healthy living – and in one case (the 24-hour day) he even assisted us by turning off the lamp! So we have day and night; and we have working week and Sabbath. It doesn’t end there. Israel’s calendar also included regular “religious festivals” (some lasting several days), the sabbatical year (every seventh year when the land was rested) and the year of Jubilee (the 50th year – after seven sets of seven years).

With all of these God intended to structure into the normal schedule of work a balancing rhythm of rest. How we do this in our modern and largely urban context is a personal challenge we all must face. But rest we must – not only because our weary minds and bodies need a “breather”, but also because for our own health we need to constantly realign ourselves with our Creator and his Creation.

Jesus is our ultimate example. As Os Guinness says, for Jesus “…spirituality is plainly not a life of contemplation divorced from a life of action…There is only the rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, work and rest, dispensing and recharging, crowds and solitude, in the midst of one of the shortest, busiest public lives ever lived.”[1]

Strikingly, one of the features of NZ society in the past fifteen years is that Sunday has become like every other day of the week. On what used to be the day of rest, shops are now open and sporting events held. This means that we have to be much more intentional about building the weekly rhythm of rest into our lives.

For example, an acquaintance who has very busy weekends tells us that ten years ago God spoke to him quite specifically about taking every Wednesday off. Though it has been hard at times he has held to this commitment, and reckons that he has actually been more productive as a result.

Simplify your lifestyle

Our lives are generally too cluttered – with things, desires, and activities which are not helping us to live faithful lives of discipleship. We need to think seriously about simplifying our lifestyle and lowering our expectations. Richard Foster comments that:

“(Christian simplicity) allows us to see material things for what they are – goods to enhance life, not to oppress life. People once again become more important than possessions. Simplicity enables us to live lives of integrity in the face of the terrible realities of our global village.”[2]

The call to simplicity is not a call to do away with material possessions. Neither is it some kind of mystical extraction from our culture – a total rejection of all that modern life offers. Rather it is an approach that enables us to see the wood from the trees. What is really important about this life comes clearly into focus, while the clutter is sifted out. In such a state, our real priorities are able to be lived out.

Many of us actually have a standard of living well beyond what we need. Tragically we don’t realise it. For most of us really do think that we are “just getting by”. However, when we dig below the surface of our expenditure we can soon discover that we have chosen or bought into a particular standard of living. Our choice of home (size, geographical location, features, material it’s built of), our living situation, transport, furniture and furnishings, entertainment, eating habits, holiday options, etc., all dictate the standard of living we choose to maintain. As we stated in our book Where’s God on Monday? :

Many of us can actually live on substantially less with very little pain. Buying a house in a cheaper area of town and then resisting the desire to “upgrade”; buying a second-hand vehicle that has already depreciated substantially but still has good life in it; settling for mainly second-hand furniture; eating out only occasionally; keeping one’s wardrobe to a minimum and wearing clothes till they are well-worn; choosing cheaper forms of entertainment and holidays – all these are some of the practices we’ve pursued over the years. And they have reduced the cost of living substantially. During the years of greatest expense (teenage children!), simplifying our standard of living has meant much less financial pressure on us than on many of our friends. We are content to live on a lower income and therefore have more time and energy to give to other matters – including rest.

Recognise overchoice

A simpler lifestyle affects our role as consumers in modern society. Writing over thirty years ago, Alvin Toffler noted the huge complexities developing for people through what he described as “overchoice” – “the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualisation are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.”[3]

We are faced by too many choices on too many products. Having to decide between a dozen different cereals at the supermarket is challenge enough. But then just down the aisle is another choice – and another – and another.

The skills required to negotiate through such a gridlock of choice are increasingly important. Savvy consumers read a lot and investigate the pros and cons of particular brands and models. But with each new invention we complicate our lives still further – rather than simplifying things. This is hardly helpful for our spirituality, and it frequently makes our lives even more hectic.

There are no easy answers to the state of overchoice we find ourselves in. It will help if we can keep “essential” requirements to a minimum, and if we can regularly remind ourselves and each other of the problem. As with so many matters of healthy living, this is a dilemma which is easier to face when we do it with like-minded people. Talking these things over with alert and supportive friends can keep us sensitive to the issue.

Create “holy spaces” and build spiritual disciplines

Learning to shut the office door for a few minutes of relative solitude; pulling to the side of the road and turning the truck engine off; putting on a video for our preschool children while we take a coffee into our bedroom for half an hour’s peace – these habits are necessary in order to nurture our spirituality (to say nothing of our sanity!).

This type of slowing down is, in reality, a spiritual discipline. However, as Os Guinness points out:

“Neither of the two terms in ‘spiritual discipline’ comes easily to us as modern people – we are by nature neither spiritual nor disciplined.”[4]

So we have to work at it! Till it becomes as natural to us as breathing.

The call to “full” living

When we provide these suggestions for dealing with our incessant busyness, we are not trying to construct a neat “10 steps” programme. What causes our overly hectic lifestyles is a complex mass of demands that won’t be dismissed easily or simplistically. Our circumstances and responsibilities differ, and as a result the challenges are greater for some of us than for others.

Nevertheless, we hope that this chapter will be a catalyst. We hope that it will help you, and us, to aim for more consistency between what we really believe in and have been “made for” … and the reality of our day-to-day living.

Busyness is a bit like passive smoking! None of us can avoid the effects totally – unless we cloister ourselves away. But that means either being a closed sect removed from the culture; or, by opting out of the “rat race”, selfishly protecting our time and resources for our own indulgence. The latter is definitely not an option for a Christian, (and even if it was, we suspect busyness is so much in our blood we would soon get bored!).

The purpose of working against the downsides of busyness is not so we can indulge ourselves more. Far from it. It is exactly the opposite. It’s so we can be more effective, focused and productive partners with God.

A friend draws a distinction between a busy life and a full life. One could easily dismiss this as just playing with words, but he has a point. It might be a busy day if we rush around vacuuming, cleaning windows, weeding the garden and trimming the edges. It would be a day used to the full if we leave the hedge unclipped and instead spend an hour under the shade of a tree with a favourite book. It might be a busy week if we work late each night getting that recommendation paper finished on time for the boss. It would be a week used to the full if at one point we drop what we’re doing and visit friends who have had a disaster. It might be a busy year if we work long hours getting our new business up and running. It would be a year used to the full if we down tools when we see the signals that a client is having a bad time and needs someone to talk to, or a shoulder to lean on.

A full life is one that values balance and integration. A full life calls for sensitivity – to what God is doing, to the needs of others, and to our own needs. And it’s the kind of life that is free enough to be wonderfully spontaneous at times – dropping what we’re doing to help someone else or to play a game with a child, to throw a party or to send someone a gift. When we allocate our time we reveal subtle yet critical values.

We suspect this is something of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.” (John 10:10, CEV).

Erma Bombeck’s little prose If I had my life to live over, picks up some of the sentiments of living a full rather than a busy life. It’s worth reflecting on:

If I had my life to live over…

I would have talked less and listened more.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.

I would have eaten popcorn in the “good” living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.

I would never have insisted that the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.

I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.

I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about the grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life.

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren’t there for the day.

When my kids kissed me impetuously I would never had said, “Later, now go get washed for dinner.”

There would have been more “I love you”, more “I’m sorry…”

But mostly given another shot at life, I would seize every minute look at it and really see it… live it… and never give it back.

I would tell all my friends that I need them and love them and that my life would be empty without them!

For personal reflection

  1. Of the reasons given for busyness, which ones especially affect you?

  1. If unrealistic expectations from your employer is one reason you can identify, write down as specifically as you can what you think are reasonable expectations. Schedule a meeting with him/her to discuss these expectations, and to see if you can agree on a common list of solutions that are fair both to you and to your employer.

  2. Think about the pressures you find yourself under at present. Which of these are external (for example, the demands or expectations that others place on you) and which ones are internal (inner compulsions or “voices from the past” such as a need to please, to be a perfectionist, to live at a certain standard or to achieve certain goals)? Are there any ways in which you feel you are a “driven” person? What steps can you take to change this? What help do you need to change?

  3. Think about how you take time out or do things just for yourself. Which of these activities cause you to slow down and “unbusy” yourself? Which ones just reinforce the hectic pace of life you experience the rest of the week? Which of these activities are genuine energy gainers (i.e. recharge your batteries) and which ones are actually energy drainers (sucking more of your energy)?

  4. Take time to meditate on the following words of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message)…. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Feedback from friends: discussion topics for small groups

  1. What are some examples of overchoice in your local shopping centre at the moment?

  1. What are some other possible reasons for life being constantly busy?

  1. Tom Wright comments: “Only in a society that has its priorities drastically wrong could a football pools advertisement shout, ‘You’ll never work again!’ and mean it as a promise, rather than a threat.” How do we help each other to see that the purpose of “unbusying” ourselves is not so we can live even more self-indulgent lives – taking it easy and “enjoying life” – but so that we can concentrate on living holy lives of obedience?

4. Discuss some of the following quotes:

“All junior executives should know that if they work hard ten hours a day, every day, they could be promoted to senior executives so that they can work hard for fourteen hours a day.” John Capozzi

“Although people will pay to fix their stress, they are not about to change the lifestyle that is causing it.” David C. McCasland

“If the most conscientious physician were to attempt to keep up with the literature by reading two articles per day, in one year this individual would be more than eight hundred years behind.” Octo Barnett M.D.

“Work expands to fill the time available.” Parkinson’s Law