Pencils Down: You Have Permission to Quit
As a working member of society, I’m not allowed to quit. Not really. Cadillac’s recent caricature confirms this. Through an overdone and strongly criticized television commercial featuring the 2014 ELR, the ad contains more fact than fiction about how North Americans value the balance between time on and off the clock. Must forge ahead. Must continue this driving pursuit of acquisition and status and security.
Is this why I feel guilty telling neighbors I took the day off? Is it why I make disclaimers if I see a friend while running non-work errands on a Tuesday afternoon? “Hey, Jim! Yeah, just picking up some mulch. I worked in the office all day Saturday so I’m catching up on a few yard tasks today. What’s up with you?”
This week at The High Calling, we’re exploring the topic Pencils Down. It’s a reference that comes from standardized test-taking, but it reaches into so many areas of our lives: work, relationships, identity, self-sufficiency, retirement—really anywhere that involves the need to stop or to set boundaries.
Thinking about why it’s difficult to curb work productivity, I remembered an article from The New York Times called The Island Where People Forget to Die. In his studies on why people live longer in certain parts of the world, Dan Buettner made an interesting observation about why people in other parts live shorter lives. It isn’t lack of exercise. It isn’t a failure to eat healthily. “The problem is,” Buettner writes, “it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same.”
I may believe it’s a good thing to maintain balance between work and play, drive and rest, but when my community and I propagate the belief that rest is more akin to laziness than to honor, we lock ourselves into patterns few of us actually find beneficial. Perhaps this is why a Framingham, Massachusetts, health study revealed that an “individual’s chances of becoming obese shot up by 57 percent if a friend became obese.” We’re products of our environment.
A Conversation about Quitting
To kick off the Pencils Down conversation, Shelly Miller reflected on Psalm 127:2, a convicting bit of advice about our approach to work. The Psalmist says, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” God knows our concerns and invites us to answer counter-intuitive questions. How can I provide for my family if I don’t rise early and stay up late? How can I prove my worth if I just sleep and trust?
Shelly writes, “[R]esiliency is fueled from previous rest periods, of quiet and stillness abiding in His presence. By neglecting Sabbath for work, the result is often a lesson in futility.” She goes on, “When we allow our outside environment to dictate our inner worth, identity becomes lopsided. It’s why the Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion. Abiding in Christ through routine rest is the secret to flourishing….” (Read the rest of Shelly's thoughts here and subscribe to the Daily Reflections.)
Marcus Goodyear adds his own productivity story, a literal pencils down account of when he graded 1000 essays for the College Board. Listen to how he managed this enormous task in Time’s Up: Productivity Lessons from Grading for the College Board: “As an AP reader, I didn’t even need to score 1000 essays. I only needed to score one. And one more. And one more. And one more. Each individual essay was easy, three to five pages long…. If I didn’t lose my focus and take on more than the work of the present moment, I could continue to make small advancements toward the overall goal.” This makes good sense to me.
“All work is the same. We shouldn’t expect epic meaning and purpose from every small task on our to-do lists. There is honor enough in one essay, one well-written email, one kind word. Similarly, we don’t need to be overwhelmed by a lifetime’s worth of goals—or even a whole week of goals. “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus said—as does each hour and each project and each task. Even Jesus focused on one task at a time, healing or eating or teaching before going to bed each night. Our brains can’t handle every task at once, and my brain doesn’t need to.”
This kind of approach allows for the rhythm of starting and stopping; of picking the pencil up and putting the pencil down, something another contributor has done many, many times. Diana Trautwein writes about starting and stopping from the viewpoint of retirement. In Transitions: Looking Back and Leaning Forward in Retirement, she ponders the various jobs she’s held over the years, but seems to have more trouble with leaving one in particular:
“I’m not sure I can find words to describe how difficult it was to make that last transition. Retirement. I loved being a pastor. I had done hard work to become one, and I wasn’t sure what not being a pastor would look like in the community in which we now live. I had only ever been a pastor here; a member of the workforce. No one knew me as a family person, my former primary identity. Who would I be now?"
Speaking of age (and risking belaboring my fascination with Buettner’s story), I wish it were easier to live with more freedom and less fear. More trust. Less self-reliance. Less rat-race and more of what Buettner uncovered during his research:
“Seeking to learn more about the island’s reputation for long-lived residents, I called on Dr. Ilias Leriadis, one of Ikaria’s few physicians, in 2009. On an outdoor patio at his weekend house, he set a table with Kalamata olives, hummus, heavy Ikarian bread and wine. ‘People stay up late here,’ Leriadis said. ‘We wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then.’ He took a sip of his wine. ‘Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. We simply don’t care about the clock here.’”
In Ikaria, perhaps I’d run into Jim and simply ask him to stop over to see how my yard was coming along. No disclaimers. No guilt whatsoever.
Albert Schweitzer said, “A man can only do what he can do. But if he does that each day he can sleep at night and do it again the next day.” Some people, like Peyton Manning on his iPad, don’t want to quit. Some, like diet-junkies and smokers, can hardly find a way to quit. Others, like the unsure and frustrated, need a little push to quit. And still others, like couples in the Wall Street Journal, can’t agree on when to quit.
How about you? Does Cadillac’s caricature hit too close to home? If I were to walk into your office or living room right now and say, “Pencil down. Time’s up,” what activity, or relationship, or belief would be hardest to stop?
Quitting time would be easier if deadlines, insecurity, perfectionism, and expectations disappeared. We could simply lay our pencils down and walk away from the task in peace. Unfortunately, this is not our experience. The urgent trumps the important. The urgent trumps the clock, too. “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for God grants sleep to those he loves.” Conceptually appealing, yet realistically challenging when pressure knocks on the door, the wisdom of the Psalmist often fails to change our ways.
This article is part of a series at The High Calling called Pencils Down. Our hope is that in everything, from to-do lists to identity, we will be encouraged to make small advances toward stopping when it’s time to stop.