Get up early. Go to bed late. Attack the inbox. Make lists. Relate. Send texts. Keep up with friends. Don’t miss opportunities. Make it to the end. Accomplish. Plan. Go fast. Work it. Shoot for the moon. Don’t be last. Run. Go. Don’t eat that. Lead the meeting. Cover the shift. Go to class. Mish-mash. “Gotta tweet that, share that, digg that.”
Busyness is a modern status symbol, the currency of social capital. We lament this situation and yet still brag about it—even while it overwhelms us. We try to battle back, but the crush of information and activity is always a step ahead of us. We resolve to change and improve, keep our schedules clearer and our free time freer. But we lose again and again.
Our efficiency drops as we scramble to keep the plates spinning. Our health suffers when our sleep is cut short, when our exercise is skipped and when our only food is fast. More alarmingly, our relationships weaken as the tidal wave of activity throws our equilibrium out of whack. We lose our sense of the peace and grace that give a foundation for our lives.
So what to do? It’s not like the world will slow down just because you need to. Here are a few tips for bringing back that oh-so-elusive balance.
Throw away your phone and burn your planner. | How can you stay busy if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing? When you think of something you “should” do, if you have time, go ahead and do it. If not, forget it until you remember it again. You might want to pay your rent a month or two ahead of time when you take this drastic step.
OK, that’s not really going to happen for most of us. But there are some real steps you can make to utilize these tools. Be realistic and specific about each day. Choose and plan the key and urgent items you can and will finish today. This gets you a finish line to hit, at which point you plan the next day, then leave your work space (and that includes your smartphone with that beeping new email alert).
Purge the list. | If you’ve been keeping a list, whether on paper (so 1975), on a computer (so 1985), on your PDA (so 1995), on your phone (so 2005) or online via any number of devices you use now, you’ve probably got stuff scribbled and typed all over—lots of lists with far more tasks and ideas than you could ever finish. You’ve got to cut some of it. Karate lessons, that letter you’ve meant to write all year and your awesome idea for a new blog have all gotta go. And anyway, putting that stuff on your list only slows you down, makes you feel bad and keeps you from getting stuff done and getting on with life. So be very careful with what you put on your current to-do lists. Make sure it’s important and timely. Keep a separate list of “someday” tasks and dreams.
Just do it. | Figure out what you need to do today, and then—this is really very simple—do it. Decide how often you need to get snacks or check email, phone messages and social networks. Stop letting them be your happy escape every 10 minutes when work gets tough (i.e., begins).
Skip school or work—make it a “wellness day.” | Why do you need to wait until you have an ulcer to take a day off to regain or maintain your health? Let’s declare the death of “sick days.” Rather, let us have “wellness days,” which we take whenever it’s all getting to be a bit much. Wellness days are kind of like sick days, but you don’t feel ill. You get plenty of sleep, you eat stuff that’s good for your body, you do some chill stuff you like to do and you also putter around the house getting stuff done that doesn’t happen in the warp and woof of the working world. If you haven’t already thrown away your phone and burned your planner, you may want to do so now. Or at least do some of the stuff in them, so you can feel a bit more balanced and capable. Or even just write “throw away planner” in your planner.
Axe your inbox. | Same deal here—just like the task list, you need to proclaim aloud, “Let’s get real here!” And then get real—fast—on your emails. There’s drivel, forwards and long-term ideas. There’s stuff you’ve saved with plans to reply or check on later. You won’t. So just delete what you can right now, satisfied that you’re no longer a lying liar telling lies to yourself. Then go as quickly as you can through everything that’s come in during the last month, replying to what needs it now, marking what needs to be done later and deleting the rest. That will get you back on top of the recent heap. Finally, go to the oldest messages, scanning for anything truly important, dealing with those few and deleting the rest, working toward the present. You will feel like a superhero when you cut your inbox by a couple hundred messages in a few minutes.
Sleep it off. | Different folks have different clocks in their bodies. You need to use yours to your advantage. You may need to set an alarm to rock through some important stuff at dawn (and have the self-discipline to go to bed at a set hour). Or you might need to push through on key tasks late at night, if that’s when you’re in an alpha state. Either way, make sure you’re getting your basic minimum need, but also not sleeping away your life. And when Sunday comes, take a cue from antiquity and do nothin’ but rest, whatever that means for you. Working to get yourself sufficient rest nightly with the occasional big sleep goes a long way in helping you cope with the Molotov cocktails you’re juggling.
Don’t be a boob. | Shut off the TV. And the interwebs. And your phone (if you didn’t throw it away). Or at least track for a week how much time you’re spending on shows and sites. Then plan for the next week how much time you’ll spend in front of the TV and online, as well as what and when you’ll view them, and stick to it. Be intentional … or end up a couch potato with weird sprouts coming out of your cracks and crevices.
Hold the Psalms in your palms. | Need a kick in the pants? Or perhaps a dose of brain-calming perspective? Crack open a Bible to refresh your attitude. Crank it up with Psalm 119:32—“I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (NIV). Or find wisdom like Psalm 127:2—“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Or read in Psalm 90:17—“Establish the work of our hands for us.” And that’s not even touching the rest of the Good Book.
Look for peace, not time-saving tricks. | Much of what the time-saving-crazed world tells you will make your life less busy actually makes your life less happy and peaceful. Take food, for example. The advertising world tells you the faster you can cram flavor into your mouth, the better your life. But cooking is a perfect way to get a touch of creativity into an otherwise mundane existence, and it forces you to stop and deal with what your body needs for once. So give it what it needs. Try a new recipe like injera or chocolate gravy biscuits, and while you’re at it, invite a friend to join you. Do your best to make eating a soulful activity, an event of beauty and quality. And let that same attitude seep into and through the rest of your daily activity, including your errands, your cleaning and your conversations.
Stop talking about how busy you are. | At the end of the day, know that this is how the world is now, brimming with tasks, ideas, things to read and sort, and ever more relationships. With technological evolution in communications and travel, we’ve begun to reap the whirlwind. We need to acknowledge this, consider it carefully and be disciplined in our approach to it. Let us learn to live well on this journey despite our busyness and even because of it.
The Jeskes have lived lots of amazing days in Nicaragua, China, South Africa, and the U.S. The latest book is This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. @ChristineJeske is getting a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and @AdamJeske leads social media for InterVarsity and the Urbana Student Missions Conference. Connect at Into the Mud and Executing Ideas.