Learning to Forsake Busyness and Cultivate Margin
I can handle it, I thought. I’ll be fine! I can do this. That was in January. But in April, after the semester was over and my brain and body were fried, I knew I made the same mistake again. I said yes too many times. I thought I could do it all.
“I always get sick after semesters,” I tell people. “It’s like clockwork.”
But maybe the clock was trying to tell me something. Maybe if I keep getting sick at regular intervals, it’s not something to write off, but something to change. I have spent the past month recovering from being on overdrive for eight months. During that time, I took a state of the union on my life.
On the past: How did I get here? What decisions did I make that led to burnout? What mindset did I have?
On the present: What are my commitments right now? What is absolutely essential? What can I stop doing?
On the future: How do I go from here and live a life of margin and rest? How will I resist the temptation to fill up my schedule again?
Here’s some of what I discovered about this recurring problem of busyness (note: this is tailored to my own tendencies and shortcomings; your “roots” and “seeds” may be different).
Roots of Busyness
Much of my busyness was due to not wanting to let others down. I said yes because I was afraid of what they would think of me if I said no. So I said yes to the detriment of my own soul. Kevin DeYoung notes in his book, Crazy Busy, how “hurry is not just a disordered schedule, [but] a disordered heart.” My schedule is a reflection of my heart, and therefore, if my schedule is “off,” then there’s something deeper to investigate. For me, that something deeper was my desire to have everyone be pleased with what I was doing (which, in case you’re wondering, is definitely impossible).
Romanticizing Time (Or, Thinking I Can Handle It)
As humans we have capacity. That means we have limits. And when we don’t give ourselves margin to operate within those limits, instead trying to drive full throttle all the time, we will burn out. DeYoung cites Richard Swenson’s definition of margin: “the space between our load and our limits.” In other words, the space between what I have agreed to do and what I can handle. “Planning for margin,” writes DeYoung, “means…we understand what’s possible for us as finite creatures and then we schedule for less than that” (27). But he describes how he usually would give himself negative margin, planning for everything to go better than anticipated every single week. That’s me. An unrealistic planner who plans for the best and turns a blind eye to all the interruptions and unexpected things of life that can (and always DO) happen. The thing to ask, it seems, when looking at your weekly (and yearly) commitments, is, “Does this provide me with the margin necessary to not be running around, always behind and depending on everything to run smoothly?” Come to think about it, margin is why I’m often late. I don’t leave margin in travel time. So when any little thing goes wrong, I’m late.
Wanting To Do It All
Is anyone interested in just one thing? We probably all have multiple interests: things that we gravitate toward, things that we’re passionate about, things that we want to accomplish with our life. Maybe you’ve got debt you need to pay off, but at the same time you’ve struggled with whether to keep working your high paying job because it’s not quite what you’re passionate about. But you know that life isn’t perfect. You want to be realistic. You really like aspects of your job, and you need it because you want to pay off the loans and set yourself up for the future.
Meanwhile, you also want to develop your skills in _________ (which you’ve been working on during the weekends), but you feel conflicted when you come across free time because you also have made a resolution this year to spend loads more time with God, friends and family. Which one do I choose on Saturday afternoon? You also realize that it’s been awhile since you’ve worked out regularly, so it’s time to get serious and sign up for a race in order to motivate you with a date on the calendar. But wait, you think. This year, I really want to rest more and have a life where I can actually take a Sabbath. So maybe I shouldn’t do any of the above and just quit everything.
What to do?
Making my own decisions instead of praying
When a good opportuntiy comes along, it’s very tempting for me to just say yes without praying and consulting others. Alan Fadling, in his book, An Unhurried Life, spends a whole chapter on this. I wonder how much trouble I could have saved myself by simply putting the current opportunity before Jesus and asking what he thinks about it. Just recently, I was trying to sneak my way in to a side job that I was eager to do. But I had also been feeling nervous about it from the start, because when I wrote it alongside my other commitments for the Fall, it was obvious that it was too much for me. I knew it would push me over the edge in terms of my schedule, and I knew that it would go directly against what I told myself I wouldn’t do: fill up my schedule again.
But even though I felt it was wrong in my gut, I tried to pad it over when talking about the opportunity with my wife. Knowing she would disapprove, I tried to make it seem like it wasn’t a big commitment and that I could handle it. But spouses have a way of getting the truth out of you. Finally, I admitted that it was simply too much for me to do. It shocks me when I look at the things I do to get what I want. If I had only sought God before trying to move forward with this role, I would have saved myself the heartache caused by hiding the truth.
Seeds to Plant for a Life of Margin
Contrary to making decisions in order to please the people in my life, it became apparent that I only had one person to please. His opinion of me is all that matters at the end of my life. But in order to please Him and Him alone, it requires a great amount of trust. Since pleasing God is bound to disappoint others, you need to remove your trust from them and place it on him, believing that his way for you is the best way.
For me, when it comes to trusting God, one of the chief ways the rubber hits the road is in how I spend my time. As an achiever, reducing the amount of classes I was going to take (as well as the work and commitments I do) takes an immense amount of trust. It goes directly against the grain of the kind of life I would set up for myself, and affirms that in Christ, he yokes me to himself and shows me the better way–the way of un-burdening myself as I trust in Him. And that life is far from the kind of life I would set up for myself. This is an ongoing test that God puts in our life. (Do opportunities ever cease to come?) Am I going to trust God with my schedule by consulting him and what he wants for me, or am I going to entrust myself to my own vision or the vision of others for my life? One way is the easy yoke, while the other way is the yoke of the world.
Being a Time Realist
Time is finite, and since we live in time, we are finite beings. Our capacity is limited, like the resource of time. Often, I act like I am God: I live outside of time. This, in turn, denies my humanity while frustrating the people around me. When I am not realistic about time, I end up committing to too much, thinking that I can handle it all. This has a dominoe effect on my stress, on my treatment of others, and on producing sub-par work for many people instead of great work for few.
Being realistic about time frees me up to be limited, which helps me relieve stress, love others better, be more present, and honor God in my humanness. He never asked me to achieve it all and burn out for Him. But so many of us are living that lifestyle!
Focusing on the Essential
In order to escape the madness of trying to do it all, I had to realize that I’m human. The myth of “doing it all” is a road that, if you take it, will only lead to mental, physical and spiritual breakdown. As I’ve said above, humans have capacity. We have to make choices between things. You and I aren’t God, but I’ve been tempted as much as you have to act like I am. A limitless being who can think all things at once, be all things at once, grow into everything at once. Give me a day and I’ll conquer the world! I’m a running, writing, working, resting, husbanding, thinking, producing, money-making machine!
Today, I raise the white flag. I give up on trying to keep up. I glory in my weakness. I proclaim my inability. I run after the freedom of not being crushed by the weight of “doing it all.” Only one thing is necessary. I’m trading in my endless priorities for one: loving God and people.
“Genuine productivity,” writes Fadling, “is not about getting as much done for God as we can manage. It is doing the good work God actually has for us in a given day.”
Waiting on God
Instead of rushing ahead of God and making my own decisions on what will be best for me, and what I should and should not commit to, I need to wait on God in prayer, seeking His will for each opportunity set before me. This is the only way to not succumb to the tyranny of the urgent or the cry of the masses to “help with this” or “manage that” or “just add one more thing to your schedule.” He, in his far-reaching and all-seeing wisdom, will guide your steps to make sure you won’t stumble on your own tendency to over-burden yourself. When we seek His face, He will show us where the good way lies. And usually, I’ve found, it’s in less, not more.
Everyone wants margin in their lives but few have the courage to give themselves such a thing. It takes courage to have space. It takes courage to do less. It takes courage to say no. The secret I am discovering is that this courage only comes from trusting God through a life of prayer. In order to take the leap to not just “become less busy” but to “live a life of margin and rest,” it has required a whole new level of trust in the one who governs all time. And who better to entrust your time to than the one who created it? This is the beginning of margin: a realization that time is not mine. It belongs to someone else.
Who Do You Trust?
The root of my busyness was simply a distrust in God’s goodness toward me. I wanted to please others instead of please (and thereby, trust) Him. I was trusting in my own flawed (romantic) view of time instead of trusting in His proper (realistic) view of time. I wanted to do everything I set my heart on (a.k.a.: trying to achieve godlike productivity) instead of trusting in Him by doing only the few things He’s calling me to (a.k.a.: accepting my humanness and receiving the good work from Him instead of creating the burdensome work for myself). Lastly, when faced with decisions over new opportunities, I tended to rush ahead of God and decide for myself instead of wait on Him, seek His will, and act accordingly. This all comes down to trust. Busyness was not the fault of others. Nor was it God’s fault. It was mine. I am my own culprit. And I am excited to enter into being more human as I trust in Him for our limited time here on earth. I want the easy yoke. I want the unhurried life. I want the unburdened daily experience of life with God.