A Word to the Busy

Have you noticed that every time you ask people how they’re doing, they answer “I’m busy”?  Or maybe, “I’m fine; keeping busy.”

I think of the book I’m reading about the first settlers at Plymouth.  Then I think about how hard Pa and Ma had to work to keep the blackbirds and grasshoppers out of the corn crop, and about women who used to work all day long in textile mills, and about moms who raised eighteen children before there was such a thing as PBS Kids, and I suspect that we are not actually busier than people have been for all of human history.  But we certainly seem to be defining ourselves by our busyness more and more.

The busyness itself isn’t really what concerns me.  But the way we think about our busyness does.  For my part, I’ve resolved to stop thinking and talking about myself as a “busy” person in an attempt to avoid the following pitfalls:

1.  We equate busyness with importance. Maybe the constant stream of calls and emails makes you feel needed an indispensable.  Maybe the fact that your kids’ schedules are crammed with activities makes you feel like you’re giving them every possible advantage.  Maybe you say yes every time someone asks for your help because you don’t think anyone else can do it right.

Conversations about schedules often become games of one-uppance as each person tries to out-do the other, as if the busier person gets the last place on the proverbial lifeboat.  What’s overlooked are two very important details that a) our value rests in Christ’s work, not our own, and b) busyness is not the same as fruitfulness, or even productivity.  (See #4)

2.  We alienate others with our busyness.  Aside from the perpetual competition that busyness can foster in a community, lots of busy talk is simply unfriendly.  If I invite you over and you respond with a run-down of this month’s calendar obligations before you offer me a spot three weeks from next Tuesday, I’m probably never going to ask again.  Or I say, “How are you?” and you tell me that you’re soooo busy, I probably won’t ask in the first place.

Unless you are actually trying to alienate someone by discussing your schedule, consider how you can be more hospitable in your conversation.  For example, if someone says, “Can we get together soon?”  don’t lead with a list of all the things you have on the calendar for the next few weeks.  Just say, “How about a week from Wednesday?” or even, “I’d love to.  Let me check the calendar and get back with you on some dates.”

3.  We use busyness as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for how we spend our time.  How many times do you use your busy schedule as an excuse for not doing something you should?  We talk about our schedules as if they are tyrants driving us with whips every minute of the day.  But this has been a news flash to me: My schedule is what I have made it.  There are certainly extenuating circumstances (someone does have to go to work, usually, or maybe you’re a full-time caregiver for a special needs child or ailing parent, and all your waking hours truly are at someone else’s disposal), but most of us do have more flexibility and control than we let ourselves believe.  Maybe it means fewer activities for the kids, or participating in fewer committees, or taking longer to finish grad school.  But if your weekly schedule does not leave you with time for things that you know are important in the long run, maybe it’s time for a heart-to-heart with your date book.

4.  We confuse busyness and fruitfulness.  Yes, you’ve been on the go since you woke up this morning.  But that does not necessarily mean you’re having a fruitful day.  Sometimes I feel like I’m busy when really I’m just easily distracted, so little tasks take a long time.

The big question is, Am I spending my time on purpose?  As much as I am able, am I investing myself things that are important to me, or on things that will matter ten years from now?  Sometimes I have to take the very long-range view on fruitfulness (three days in a row playing camping, anyone?), but I want to know that I’m putting my efforts into something that will last.

5.  Constant busyness dulls the effectiveness of both our work and our rest.  There are all kinds of studies to back this up, but it seems pretty obvious: We spend all of our time moving from task to task, constantly inundated with message alerts, status updates, breaking news, and background noise.  The end result is that we’re never fully in one place at a time.  Our work is not productive; our rest is not refreshing.

So, how are you?  Are you having fun with your kids?  Learning something interesting?  Working hard at your job?  Investing in your community?  Tell me more!  But let’s don’t talk about our busyness.  Who has time for that?


9 responses to “A Word to the Busy

  1. Amen!

    I do work hard to make sure we are not too busy. This fall is shaping up to be a bit busier than the summer, or last spring, but I don’t think too busy.

    Little Man has begun making comments and asking about the moon, the calendar, the days of the week, why its dark at night and such things. We talk about them, but I’m thinking its time to get a globe, and maybe some books from the library. I want to make sure we have time to talk about these things, and let little man ask his slow and halting questions (the words come fast, the thoughts come slow…). I think I have a blog post brewing….

    • When I talked about our busyness alienating others, I wasn’t even thinking of the people in our own homes…but you are exactly right, so often those are the relationships that suffer first.

  2. such a good reminder.

  3. Oh Lindsey, I’m so sorry! I just don’t have time to read this… I have places to go and things to do. I know you understand. We’ll get together later. Oh, just remembered, I’m still too busy… Kidding aside, great article!

  4. Just last night I was thinking when in the world can I add in a workout and more cleaning/organizing in the house. I loathe being busy, but when are you not with a 6 week old. I feel like telling everyone when I get a shower because I’m so proud!

    Really, I don’t spend my time well. It is no one’s fault but my own. I’m passing this entry along! Thanks!

    • I think with a six week old in the house, you fall into the special-cases category where you really do have someone else calling the shots every hour of your day!

      Good luck as you work out your new routines with your THREE little ones!

  5. I like it. I feel like my plate is as full as it has ever been…with all good and non-optional things. But your words are convicting when I think of the ways I use “I’m good — busy!” as a way to deflect real conversation and connection with others. Yikes! In the last couple of years, I think this was how I answered the question, “how are you?” in a way that was honest…without giving anymore more information than they thought they would be getting. {Unfortunately, I’m in the boat that thinks “how are you” is too often another way of saying “hello”! Do you really want to know? Or not so much?}

    • I think that the “busy” mentality is much less about how much you’re doing and more about how you perceive yourself. Also, is your busyness a means to an end that you actually mean to achieve? Or are you just reacting to everything that seems urgent?

      I totally agree with your second point: getting to the bottom of our problematic small talk habits is a much larger post. One that I’m not ambitious enough to tackle. 🙂

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