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The Empty Promises of Busy

Jul 19, 2016

“How are you doing?” “Busy, man. So busy.”

You’ve had this kind of conversation recently. Maybe you ran into a friend at a coffee shop or at church. Over lunch with a friend, you’re catching up about life and one word pops up again and again.

Busy.

Isn’t it ironic how many of the technological advances which we engage in a given day were originally pitched to us as time-savers, yet we find ourselves pouring more and more time into them at the expense of other important parts of our lives?

Mason Slater wrote an article in 2011, where he explored “The Gospel of Busyness.”

Slater wrote,

“You can see it play out every Monday at the office, and every Sunday in church lobbies around the world. People who have not seen each other in a few days or weeks start to catch up, and the talk quickly turns toward comparing notes on how terribly busy we all are. Volunteer positions, family commitments and work loads are listed, as each of us demonstrates just how much we are trying to juggle. The sad thing is, we are quite proud of it. And not very secretly proud either.

Oh sure, we complain about how we have not had a real day off in weeks, or how much work it all is. But somehow all our complaining sounds rather like bragging. It’s just backhanded bragging, like complaining that you didn’t expect learning Spanish to be so much work after you had such high scores in French, German and fifth-century Latin.

You can hear it in the voices of those recounting their busy schedules, and the guilt with which many of us have learned to speak of having free time. We’ve bought into the gospel of busyness. We’ve accepted the narrative we are constantly sold by our society—that our value rests in what we can produce, that we are loved for what we can accomplish. Full calendars become a badge of honor…Here’s the dirty little secret of the gospel of busyness: It promises us a full and satisfying life, but, in the end, it makes our lives emptier. It uses us for what we can contribute, and in the process we live less, feel less, even love less.”

Do those words describe you or someone you love? I believe many of us believed the marketing about busyness, yet we’re now looking to see if there’s a money-back guarantee or return policy for the life we always wanted. A life we now realize looks far different than what we were told.

In our family’s recent transition to a new town, new home, new job(s), and new friends, I’ve been reflecting on the pace of our lives and the way our pace made us feel. Busy isn’t simply a problem facing those in big cities; it also plagues those in small towns.

Busy is not a product of where we live but rather how we live. 

Busy is a mindset which really comes down to a choice – whether we live from scarcity or abundance.

In her book, The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist addresses the myth of scarcity.

She writes,

“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it.

We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of … We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough wilderness. We don’t have enough weekends. Of course, we don’t have enough money—ever. We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough—ever.

Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack … What begins as a simple expression of the hurried life, or even the challenged life, grows into the great justification for an unfulfilled life.”

Whether we call it the “Gospel of Busyness” or “The Myth of Scarcity”, I believe we have more than enough evidence to determine that this gospel/myth is bogus. What we thought would fulfill us leaves us feeling more empty than before and what seemed like a less desirable life now looks more attractive.

The solution is not to quit our jobs, sell all we own, move to the middle of nowhere and live a life of austerity and inactivity (however appealing that might seem on some days.) The solution is shifting from scarcity to abundance, from constantly busy to balancing work and rest.

3 Steps to Overcoming A Busy Life

If your first thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep,” if you’re overwhelmed, if you’ve bought into the Gospel of busyness, then perhaps one (or all) of these three steps could begin shifting things for you.

1. Plant your feet.

In a recent sermon, I shared a simple practice I engage in most days. This simple act helps me fight the temptation to define myself by my productivity, performance and busyness. You can watch the clip here.

2. Choose a new response.

In the chart below, you can see the differences between living from abundance and living from scarcity. Sometimes, it’s powerful to simply understand a different path is possible. While making the transition from one to the other is often complicated, time-consuming and demands outside help, this chart systematically explores the drastic difference between these two mindsets.

3. Create margin.

According to Richard Swenson, the author of Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, margin is “the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”

As a pastor, I’ve found the most often ignored commandment from the famous 10 Commandments is to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The idea of rest and abstaining from activity seems to be an unpatriotic and unpopular idea in our world. Yet, as one pastor put it, “God calls those who won’t work lazy but those who won’t rest disobedient.” While we embrace that our phones have batteries without unlimited reserves, we often live as if we can push on forever.

Margin could begin with something as simple as blocking off an afternoon each weekend for no commitments, setting an alarm each night which sends you to bed, or making a public commitment to use all of your vacation time this year.

At the top of the “Abundance vs Scarcity” chart, one line contrasts “responsibility” vs. “victim.” We will struggle to live from abundance, not scarcity and busyness, until we embrace the power we have to create the life we want. While our life is not entirely defined by our choices, it is incredible how much power our choices and attitudes do have in shaping our experiences.

You don’t have to live stressed out and overwhelmed anymore. You can make a change.

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