Am I Still Crazy Busy?
As I’ve done interviews, engaged in conversations, and read a few reviews about Crazy Busy, one on the recurring questions is whether I am actually any less crazy busy after writing the book?
It’s a fair question.
The book doesn’t end with a dramatic “that was then, but this is now!” chapter. In part, that was a deliberate choice. There is place for personal books that end with clear success–the dieting book where the author loses 50 pounds, the financial planning book where the author gets out of debt and saves a million dollars, the book on conflict where the writer applies his principles to his real life problems.
There is also a place for personal books that finish by focusing on something other than the author’s personal transformation. I don’t think the only way to write a marriage book is for the couple to be having the time of its life by the end of the story, or for a book on prayer to wrap up with a testimony about how many hours the author now spends on his knees. I chose to have the book end with an exhortation to sit at the fit of Jesus in the midst of our busy lives, rather than with a snapshot of how much my life had changed.
But to be fair, the choice was only partly deliberate. It was also a choice made out of necessity. I really did write the book to learn and grow, and at the end of the writing process–which was when the manuscript was due–there were still plenty of things I was learning and lessons I was trying to incorporate into my life. There wasn’t an opportunity to look back and evaluate the big picture of my busyness.
Perhaps now is a good time. It is certainly legitimate to wonder if the author of Crazy Busy is a little more sanely busy almost a year after writing the book. So here’s a picture of the work in progress.
The most helpful aspect of working on the book for me was better understanding why I so often feel the way I feel and why I have gotten myself into such predictably busy patterns. I didn’t set out to write a “how to” book as much as a “how come” book. I wanted to find an answer to the question, “Why are we the way we are and why do we feel so overwhelmed?” Diagnosis is often more than half the cure.
In particular, I see how pride subtly influences ministry decisions and pushes me to be busy with things I could leave alone. I’ve gotten better about planning for others to preach at least one of our services when I know my week is going to be full. I’ve gotten better at letting other pastors or elders care for members of the body without feeling like I need to be present in every difficult circumstance. I think I’ve also improved when it comes to the “terror of total obligation,” realizing that there is no reason to feel guilty for simply doing what I can where I am.
The insight that we are, in a way, made to be busy has also been helpful for me. Instead of descending into a cycle of distress, discouragement, and self-pity when the busyness dam breaks on a given day (or week or month or season), I try to remember that God said there will be days like this. While God has made no promise to bail us out of every stupid mess we get ourselves into, I’m learning to trust that when life is overwhelming and there is nothing I can do about it, that his grace will be sufficient for today and his mercies really will be new every morning.
Last week at our monthly prayer meeting for area pastors, I spoke for a few minutes about busyness. The men shared where they are prone to feel overwhelmed and make poor decisions. For me, my worst habits have to do with technology, rest, and rhythm. For better or worse (probably a lot of the latter and a little of the former), I am a compulsive email checker. I check dozens of time every day–in the morning, at night, at home, at work, in lines, during commercials, walking to work, before I got to bed, when I get up, pretty much all the time. That means my inbox is usually remarkable empty. I don’t leave emails sitting around. I feel under compulsion to take care of them immediately or very soon after I get them. I respond as promptly to personal emails as anyone I know (don’t tell Justin Taylor!). The price for this fastidiousness is the debilitating sense (addiction?) that I can’t stay away for long. What if a really cool message comes in? What if they all pile up on my day off? What if I miss something I need to know right now?
I was talking to a friend at church on Sunday who had an emergency in the family and had to miss the better part of three weeks at work. He was lamenting how many emails he had when he got back. But then had made the comment I suspected he might: “You know what, by the time I got back, most of those emails were old news and had been taken care of without me.” That’s a lesson I need to learn. I’ve always considered it wise counsel to set aside certain hours to take care of email, and then to shut it down the rest of the day, but living by this good advice has proven harder than giving it.
If there is one simple, yet increasing difficult thing, I could do to feel less busy it would be distance myself from the screen more consistently and for longer stretches. This would help tremendously with the rhythms of work and leisure, with a more restful Sabbath, and with the gnawing sense that there is some new task or new fulfillment waiting for me in the palm of my hand.
So in the midst of this internal reflection and self-diagnosis, what practical steps have I taken to be less crazy busy? Have things actually gotten better? Several things come to mind, in no particular order.
1. No more tweeting at the dinner table. That’s not a mistake I was going to make twice.
2. I will spend a little money if it saves a lot of time. Twenty bucks for the high school kid to mow the lawn every other week is money very well spent.
3. My elders put me on a “no blurbing” diet. Most of us have a hard time saying no to certain requests. My elders saw my struggle and made it simple: you can’t do this for the foreseeable future.
4. We have a wonderful babysitter lined up for every other Tuesday so my wife and I can go out on a date.
5. It hasn’t been my initiative, but we are getting better as church about canceling meetings when the agenda can wait or when the few items can be taken care of over the phone.
6. I find it helpful to do my sermon prep and the rest of my work in different locations. You’ve probably been going to the coffee shop for years. I don’t drink coffee, but even finding another room in the church–away from my computer and my phone–has been hugely beneficial.
7. I try to put my evenings at home into different categories. If I don’t plan ahead, I can feel guilty that I’m not getting work done once the kids are in bed. It’s helped to think this night is for bills, this is for catching up on housework, this is for watching HGTV with my wife, this is for reading PhD books. It doesn’t always fall into such neat patterns, but establishing the categories has made the productive nights more productive and the ones that are supposes to be fun more fun.
8. We just established an extremely important committee at church. All along I assumed I would be on it (and likely do most of the work). In the end, we didn’t put any of our pastors on the committee. Several elders and deacons volunteered and are eager to get to work. They will do a fantastic job. I’m grateful not to be on the committee and wonder how many other committees I didn’t have to be on!
9. I try to come home for lunch more often. I eat better. I get to see the kids. Once in awhile I even take a short nap.
I still have some of the struggles with busyness. I can’t help but think of Ruth Graham’s tombstone “Under Construction: Thank you for your patience.” I’m not there yet, and I won’t get there until I’m Up There. But by God’s grace, I think there’s been progress in the last year.
What about you? What practical suggestions do you have for making your crazy busyness a little more sane?