The Art of Time: Don’t Be Too Busy

I want to give you a fair warning. This post is not going to advise you to simplify, scale down, or pull back on commitments. I certainly am not recommending that you abdicate your responsibilities. Instead, I want to help you grow in your efficiency, entrepreneurial spirit, and effectiveness. In other words, I want to encourage you and exhort you to grow in godliness. I want to save you from the danger and idol of busyness.

Let us begin with a little theology. The Bible commands us to have dominion (Genesis 1:28), work with diligence and foresight like the ant (Proverbs 6:6-11), and to work heartily for the Lord in whatever you do (Colossians 3:23). In fact, the Bible makes clear that God has charted out good works for us to accomplish beforehand: “10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). All of these verses point to the fact that God has filled up our lives with many good things to do. God has made you busy.

Why do some folks juggle their responsibilities like a cool cucumber and others seem to be in a constant state of anxiety? The goal of this post is to answer that question, offer some practical suggestions, and address some potential matters of the heart.

Many of us will find ourselves in a season that is truly busy. Multiple kids, an especially demanding job, or a sick loved one can bring legitimate seasons of unavoidable busyness. These times often provide clarifying moments as we are forced to simplify, focus, and keep the main thing the main thing. Many of us say “we are too busy” when in reality we struggle with focus, priorities, and having the right heart attitudes. If you are reading this, please don’t feel judged or criticized! I am guilty of this on a regular basis. It is a constant subject of prayer, accountability, and learning for me. My heart is to help you learn a few of the things that I have had to learn myself.

Clarifying Words

My mentor and campus pastor, Dwayne Carson, once told me and a group of student leaders: “I haven’t committed a grievous sin because I am too busy.” This man was a model of working hard for the Lord, serving others, and loving his family. His point was simple: when you work hard and embrace your responsibilities, you decrease your opportunities for moral failure. This lesson rooted itself into my soul and consciousness. I want to fill up my life with things that please God to help me avoid sin. I wanted to be be busy for the Lord and busy serving others.

These words had an immediate effect. The next semester, which was my last semester in college, I loaded up. I decided to work 30 hours a week, enrolled in 18 hours of courses, committed to a major landscaping project, and tackled a senior thesis. There were some challenging days, but I was 22, worked hard, and even slept more than I should have. One of the most valuable things I learned was to designate a set amount of time every week to work on a very challenging philosophy paper. Through regular focus, I wrote a paper that received a high grade. In fact, I was the only student in the class who did not have to rewrite their paper! I knew I was not a great writer and I barely understood what my own paper was about. Hard work and focus, not intelligence, allowed me to succeed. It was a clarifying lesson.

Faithful Friends

Ever since then, I have been striving to get a lot done—for the Lord. I make it a regular goal to manage my life, embrace my responsibilities with a trusting attitude, and to avoid saying, “I’m too busy.” Honestly, it still happens. And the Lord continues sanctifying me. The funny irony is that I continue finding myself around men who work more than I do and get more done than I do. My pastor writes a book yearly, preaches 40 or so times a year, works a full-time job, and coaches three of his son’s baseball teams! I interned with someone who read a book almost every day while competently running a $40 million institution and hosting a daily radio show. My friend and neighbor across the street works three jobs and somehow finds time to cook, do house projects, and take his kids for regular bike rides. Every time I think I am just too busy, I end up around someone who has more to do and gets it done with joy and excellence. God has put these men in my life so that I strive to excel.

What have I learned?

Learn the Need for Focus

When Winston Churchill found himself in financial straits, he committed himself to writing at least eight hours a day. He had bills to pay and meeting deadlines paid the bills. Churchill arose at eight am, worked in bed until lunch, spent the afternoon painting and caring for his animals, then worked after dinner until the early hours of the morning. For sure, it was a crippling routine, but Churchill also wrote thousands of words a day.

There is nothing like a dead line, financial straits, or the refusal to fail (whether out of grit or dire necessity) that will teach you the value of focus. Our work is all-too-often hindered by distracted thinking. Our email buzzes, our phone rings, our coworker or neighbor stops by. If you struggle with busyness, choose 1-2 things to focus on every day. Here are a few things great leaders to to focus:

1. Turn off everything. Then, shut the door and let it be known they should not be interrupted. You can find 60-120 minutes to focus every day. In fact, you can probably find multiple blocks of time where you can focus. Find them and take advantage!

2. Prioritize and organize your task list. I’ll write more on this below, but a real threat to focus is scattered thinking. Write down everything, organize it, and then put it aside. Allow your brain to dump your tasks into a planner or other organization system, then focus on one thing.

3. Find a great environment. Where do you work well? It is likely not the most comfortable place. For some, it’s a coffee shop with a pair of headphones. For others, it’s a desk with a closed office door. Yet others find it helpful to take a walk, ride a bike, or do some other physical activity. You must find what works for you. Frankly, any and all of these will probably work at different times. There is a reason many of us frequently say, “I thought of it on my car ride.” We found ourselves in an environment that permitted our minds to think and to think well.

4. Delegate a set amount of time. Obviously, you should be reasonable but most tasks take 45-75 minutes. If the task is too big, choose a piece of that task and focus on that small subtask for that time period.

Here is the goal: Replace busy with focus.

Learn to Prioritize

One of the worst culprits of busyness is finding oneself scattered. Like anvils dropping on Wiley Coyote’s head over and over, the must-be-done-now tasks keep pummeling us in the ground. One of the most helpful things you can do is write down your priorities. We all-too-often write down tasks before we write down priorities and goals. When we set goals and priorities, we find ourselves choosing the right tasks and giving our time to the right things.

I recommend writing priorities according to your various roles in life. For example, my main priority categories include: God-follower, husband, father, church member, worker. As I think about my roles, I’m able to assess whether I’m giving the appropriate time, energy, and focus to each role or not. When we write down and think through our priorities, we will find the things that should get our attention will get our attention. In other words, it will help us make time for what is important. Writing down your priorities will also help your desire problem. We all struggle with “wanting to do it.” When you write down your roles and then align your tasks with them, you discover that your tasks have a purpose. When you find purpose, you find desire.

Learn Structure and Routine

Another great help to defeating the devil of busyness is to develop structures, systems, and routines. In addition to writing down your priorities, you should develop an organization and tasking system. You should keep a calendar and make sure your calendar aligns with those it needs to: your boss, coworkers, your family. In fact, you should even calendar time to get yourself organized. I strive to do this on Monday’s mid-morning. I begin by reviewing my calendar, then my task list, then I meet with my employees. I also close my mail application, put my phone on silent, and close my door.

These structures and routines allow me to focus, not feel scattered, and assess my week. I regularly spend Monday getting 2-3 major projects going. For me, this means meeting with people, tasking my employees, and doing research. In fact, I strive not to have lunch meetings on Monday for this very reason. Here are a few other structures and routines I have that help me get more done.

1. Strive to obey the 90% rule. In other words, I make every attempt to not schedule myself or commit myself above 90%. I try to leave Monday lunches open. This is part of my 90% rule and a larger part of my work structure, yet I still find that two of them are taken every month! On our family calendar, we strive to leave Tuesday and Thursday nights for family time. I also rarely agree to a meeting after 4 pm — I need to go home and I need to wrap up tasks. Protect your time, protect your energy, and most of all, protect your family.

2. Do the hard things first. I have found many projects are easier once you get them rolling. For this reason, all great leaders tell you to do the hard things first. Otherwise, when you get to them, you will have expended energy where you did not need to expend it.

3. Slay the email beast. Have you ever had a nightmare about your email? Has “You’ve Got Mail” from the old days of America Online become a chilling sound byte? I am with you. Email is one of my best tools and worst enemies. All too often, when my phone buzzes, I think, “Something else to do.” Yet, email is a gift if we do not let it master us!

How do you tame this beast? Here a few tips:

  • Do not use your email for tasking, note taking, or event planning. Email is for communication with others. If you need notes, put them in a notepad or in a tool like Evernote. If you need to task yourself, write it down in a planner or on any of the ubiquitous tools available on phones and computers like Wunderlist and Omnifocus.
  • You should also schedule time to work through emails 2-3 times a week. Do your best to get through all of them in sixty minutes. If you can finish a task in 2-3 minutes, do it. Otherwise, archive the email and add the task to your to-do list. If you need to write a large email, archive the original, add it to your to-do list, and do it at a later time.
  • Finally, avoid folders as much as you can. I love filing things away, but email systems today have powerful search features. I encourage you to fall in love with the archive button, archive everything, and archive frequently.

4. Make a personal and family strategic plan. A strategic plan includes a mission statement, core values, a vision statement, and measurable objectives. There is nothing more valuable to help you focus your life, realize your priorities, and rid yourself of the busyness virus than a strategic plan. I use Aubrey Malphurs, Advanced Strategic Planning in my personal and business life to develop strategic plans. For now, here are a few tidbits on each piece:

Write out 4-8 Core Values  — these are your foundational beliefs, convictions, and principles. Make sure they are real and not hypothetical. You can make 1-2 aspirational. These should be pithy, memorable, and broad. For example, I know a family whose core values are R.E.A.L — Relational. Encouraging. Authentic. Loving.

Develop a Mission Statement — this answers the “Where am I going?” question. This should be 45-100 words.

Cast a Five-Year Vision — Write out in several paragraphs your vision for your life. In other words, paint a picture of what the mission should look like when it is carried forth.

Write Out Measurable Objectives — State goals that have measurable values. Ask yourself, how do I want to complete this? When do I want to complete it by? How can I measure its success?

5. Sell your tv! Just kidding. We all know that televisions are huge wastes of time. I own several televisions and thoroughly enjoy them for their entertainment value. However, the TV can trap you. Put together a plan for your television watching and stick to it. For example, my wife and I pay to have a recording device so that we can decide when to watch our favorite shows and not vice versa. My wife and I also have a general commitment—not absolute — to watching shows together. Frankly, this severely limits our options and helps us keep our lives under our feet.

6. Use your car time well. My coworkers and wife will tell you that I will regularly walk through the door with headphones in my ear. I use my car time to keep up with my family and close friends, listen to and memorize Scripture, and work through audiobooks. You will be amazed at how much you can get done in the car. I have been listening to a three-volume, 120+ hour-long biography of Winston Churchill since last May. I don’t listen to it every car ride (in fact, I’m in the middle of five books right now!), but I am getting through it and loving every minute of it. How can you redeem your commute time? How can your commute time help you slay the busyness monster?

The Heart of the Matter

While practical tips on productivity and prioritization will help your problem with busyness, they will not cure it. In the end, we all need God to redeem this area of our lives. Here a few tough heart lessons I have had to learn as I learn to avoid busyness.

The Humility of No

The goal of writing down your roles, priorities, and strategic plan is to help you say yes to the right things and no the wrong things. Saying no is a spiritual discipline and, for too many of us, an act of humility. We all have to realize that the world will keep spinning and the kingdom will keep growing without us. We are all expendable. Don’t try to do everything. On your death bed, if you try to do everything, you will regret that you did not do the right things. Pursue excellence. Choose your family. Prioritize the church and serving others. Worship God.

The Idol of Perfectionism

Your perfectionism will make you terribly busy. This is worth an entire post, but let your strategic plan and priorities help you decide what should get a full day’s attention, what should get an hour’s attention, and what should get five minutes attention. We all spend too much time on the wrong things. By the way, if you don’t have time do it well, perhaps you should just say “no.”

The Pride of Non-Delegation

As you set priorities, spend your time on the most important priorities and let others do the other stuff. If you don’t care about your yard, let someone else mow it or move into a condo. If you have an intern, let them reconcile your business credit card. Every one has different gifts, strengths, and enjoyments. Identify where others can complement your weaknesses, teach them how to do the work, hold them responsible to do it with excellence, and then let them do it. All too often, the statement “I have to do it” is not true. Sometimes, we want the recognition for it. Other times, we don’t want to take the time to train someone else. Many times, trusting someone else is just too risky. I’m not encouraging you to abdicate your responsibility. I am encouraging you to delegate and not let pride get in the way.

The Glory of Godward Dependence

All of these heart-level issues point toward what must be at the center of our heart. We must depend on the Lord, knowing that he is the one who has given us our responsibilities, tasks, and giftings. Too often, we have to work hard and be willing to leave some things undone. The Lord knows and the Lord will ensure his kingdom grows. And by leaving the right things undone, we can ensure the right things—like loving and discipling our families—are done.