5 Ways to Stop Busyness from Getting the Best of You

I lost count on Sunday morning how many times I heard the word “busy.”

I lost count of how many times I used it.

We did our best to listen to each other for 15 seconds as we each recited the list of things that have kept us out of touch. We nodded in understanding as we shared the scheduling tyranny.

But we fell so short of the life-giving connections we sought.

We accepted the response because we’ve accepted that “busyness” is a universal human affliction.

We were one weary person politely facing another.

We fell so short of offering each other any balm on the actual universal human affliction—that of loneliness.

And our problem isn’t time management. 

Henri Nouwen reminds us that the path away from this loneliness means, “In the midst of a turbulent, often chaotic, life we are called to reach out, with courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to our God.” (Reaching Out)

If we want the abundant life—one of intimacy, joy, and adventure—we have to make time for it. With our frenetic pace, these are huge tasks that seem impossible.

I don’t believe any of us deliberately chooses to have a harried, tiring life. I don’t believe any of us breaks connections on purpose.

But I do believe that finding life in our days means we have to make a few changes:

  1. Stop believing you’re a victim of your busyness.

If we want to get control of our schedules, we need to change the way we talk about them. We need to recognize that everything that fills our days is the result of a fundamental choice we made—and continue to make—along the way. “I chose my job.” “I chose to provide lessons to my kids (for whatever).” “I chose this workout routine.” “I chose this summer project which has weekly preparation meetings.” Your schedule is filled with choices you made, and most of them were made out of love. This means we don’t get to be afflicted by the time cost of our choices. If the price of what we love is meetings, then life comes when we remember what we love in the first place. If the price is too high, then we can make a different choice and pay the price in different consequences.  We’re not victims; we’re people choosing to pay a price for what we love, and herein lies our freedom.

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  1. Stop wearing busyness as a badge of honor.

When I say, “I’m busy”, and you nod with approval, I’m golden. I’ve met the standard of having something to show for myself, and this approval is addicting.

On Saturdays, growing up, my parents would leave the house for the day and leave behind a chores list for my sisters and me. For silly and a few legitimate reasons, we never got the list done. When they got home, they would always (as my memory goes) ask, “What did you do while we were gone?!?” Already in trouble for the unfinished chores, woe to the kid who didn’t have enough to show for herself.

As an adult, I still live by this question. My sense of well-being depends on whether I have enough to show for myself. If I’m “busy”, it’s indisputable, right?

The Prodigal Son found his way home by taking on the role of a hired hand, unable to believe he never had to. How often do we do that? How often do we think we have to earn our way back Home?

How much of what I’ve added to my schedule is from wanting something to show for myself? Because I want the approval and respect from certain people? Because I am afraid of disappointing someone? Chances are, this is the very stuff that’s exhausting. If we want out from under an oppressive calendar, we need to examine our commitments and see what we’ve done to appease the god of approval.

  1. Stop using busyness as a way to numb out.

If I’m busy, I don’t have to be courageously “honest with my innermost self.” I don’t have to look at the things in my life where I’m hurting or afraid. I don’t have to attend to strained relationships; I don’t have to do the chores I don’t want to. Fueled by coffee and a powerful enthusiasm, if I keep going, no one else will even suspect I’m struggling. Serpentine! I am a pro at outrunning the darkness. No one can get close enough to see what I’m doing.

It’s easy to feel smug when we aren’t numbing out with something like drugs or booze. But busyness is its own addiction. It’s only a matter of time until whatever I’m running from with the events, coffee dates, classes, work, trips, meetings, church—all of it—catches up to me.

For many of us, “I’m busy” is a way of saying “I’m running.”

But then things fall apart. We get sick. We lose our role in the thing we were running to. We fall out of touch with people. We have to stop.There’s Mercy in this, but you don’t want it. You’re more ready to face the dark if you chose to than if it’s by force of failure.

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  1. Start living small.

Sometimes our busyness is simply life on the edge of our limits. When we say “I’m busy,” we’re saying, “I’m feeling the pain of my own weakness.” There are things we simply cannot do because that is not the portion we were given today.

My sister, mother of toddlers, talked about how isolating it was for her kids’ needs to control her time. She felt unable to reach out to friends; as a working mom, she couldn’t join groups to find people. I know a lot of women like her who long for understanding here.

I have a friend who signed on to be a part-time pastor and got more than he bargained for. He gets to spend a lot of time with people, but it’s counseling through grief, putting out community fires—his appointments are saying the hard things. He wishes more people saw the big picture and for more nights at home with his kids and wife.

I am working three jobs right now to make ends meet. In this case, the poverty I feel is both material and relational. One of those jobs is nights and weekends, so I’m precluded from most gatherings where I could connect and reconnect. It’s isolating, and I feel very poor.

For us, “I’m busy” means “I’m struggling”.

Often, we are allowed to feel our own poverty. We don’t have all that we want; we can’t do enough to fix it. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not God’s fault. It is our portion for today.

The surprising thing about life in Christ is that poverty is no obstacle to joy. Living small means accepting our poverty without resentment. The busyness that comes from working in today’s limits brings life as we let go of what we expected and go looking for the life God does have for us. He always shows up.

Life comes when the struggle to make it through today uniquely reveals Grace and the presence of God. When we can embrace the limits of our small lives, the burden of the busyness gets a little lighter.

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  1. Start with gratitude.

Sometimes, when people say “I’m busy” and look for sympathy, I can’t give it. Your life isn’t busy, it’s full.

Gratitude is what will bring you relief from the burden of busyness, not fewer appointments.

It might be a lot of time consuming work to plan a wedding—but you’re getting married. And you’re throwing the biggest party of your life for all your favorite people. You would never give that up for more lunch dates with friends.

You have test after paper after project after test, and you’re fried by the stress of deadlines. If you’d like to let my friend who couldn’t afford schooling take your place, let me know.

It’s baseball season—it’s swim season—so you spend all your time at the park for games and practice with your kids. You have healthy kids who can compete in athletics. You’d never trade places with someone who spent afternoons in the hospital wondering if it’ll be ok. Each game is a celebration of health and life.

You’re mired in the chores of holding together a household for a husband and kids, but you wouldn’t want all your single freedom back if it meant living alone as I do.

I have to work all the time, but I know my friend who is looking for a job to care for his family would trade places with me in a heartbeat.

Instead of saying “I’m busy”, we can say “I’m thankful.” I’m thankful for all that asks for my time, because it is a gift. I am thankful I have choices to make in how to spend it. I’m thankful for the way God provides His presence and His help as I go through my day.

It’s heartbreaking when our unexamined attitudes toward our schedule separate us from each other and the Joy that we’re promised in our days.

When you say, “I’m busy”, what is it you’re really saying?

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