A woman immigrated to the United States and began the arduous task of learning English. Part of learning a language conversationally, of course, involves reflecting back what one hears others say. So when people would greet the woman and ask how she was doing, she would not say, “Fine, thank you.” She would say what she heard others around her say: “Busy, very busy.”
Whether the story is true or apocryphal, it holds up a mirror to so many of our lives. How many times do I answer “How are you?” with “Busy,” or the turbo-bonus-answer, “Crazy-busy?” And is there another way to be? This is the question that compels me as a pastor, mother of three and writer about the spiritual life. Can we savor our time rather than be consumed by it? Here are some places to start.
1. Take a Sabbath.
The rhythm of work and rest is built into the created order. It is a hallmark of God’s beloved community. Sabbath is also good for us physically, emotionally and spiritually. Find a way to stop working, striving and producing for at least one period of time each week. If a day isn’t possible, take three hours. Take an evening, or a weekend morning. And don’t agree to Sabbath only when you’ve gotten everything else done and can afford to take the time. You haven’t, and you can’t. Do it anyway.
2. Answer yesterday’s e-mail today, and today’s e-mail tomorrow.
E-mail is the behemoth that threatens to crush us all. Some folks find a way to tame the beast by only checking e-mail once a day. I’ve never been able to succeed at this discipline. Instead, I let messages accumulate throughout the day, then answer them in one fell swoop the following morning. There’s something about taking them as a batch that allows me to get into a thoughtful frame of mind as I formulate responses. (Of course, urgent matters are handled when they come in. But few e-mails are truly urgent.)
3. Do it now.
How much of our psyche gets overloaded with dread over the unpleasant tasks we need to do? Whether it’s hiding out from a friend whose birthday we forgot or scheduling a dental appointment to get that hurty place looked at, most of the time the anticipation of the unpleasant or difficult task is worse than the task itself. Just say no to “fret and regret” in 2013.
4. Do one thing at a time — most of the time.
For those of us who pride ourselves on juggling many balls at once, study after study reveals the sad truth: multitasking is an illusion. What we call multitasking is actually switching very quickly between tasks. It’s also a practice that yields mistakes, shallow thinking and poor memory retention. Some things can be multitasked: dishes and radio podcast, perhaps, or laundry and reruns of Big Bang Theory. But some things should not be multitasked, namely people and creative work.
5. Develop tech-free zones and times.
Sherry Turkle writes in her book Alone Together about sacred spaces — places that are best kept free of smartphones, computers, tablets and e-readers. The dinner table is one. The carpool line at the kids’ school is another. Christians have just finished celebrating the incarnation of God in the world. What better way to keep that incarnational spirit alive than by tending to the relationships and tasks in your immediate physical space?
6. Train your vision.
As a pastor, writer, and mother, I often despair over the many tasks — some of them important — that are never done…that will never be done. I’ve tried to look at them differently, to see those unfinished items as signs of something I did do. So when I peer into the clutter under my kitchen sink and wonder if I’ll ever tame it, I try to see something I did instead, something that was life-giving. I may never make it to the Container Store for those cute shelves and bins, but I taught my daughters how to knit, or built crazy Lego vehicles with my son. This shift in what I choose to see provides clarity and perspective.
7. Do a “delight audit” on your life.
When I speak to groups about Sabbath, I remind them of Isaiah’s call to keep the Sabbath as a delight. I often ask people to recall an activity that delights them, then to think about how long it’s been since they pursued that activity. What would your answer be? How can 2013 provide more space for that delight?
8. Seek novelty.
Along the same lines as #7: studies have shown that pursuing an unfamiliar or non-routine task can increase satisfaction. Gretchen Rubin writes in her book The Happiness Project that novelty is one of the keys to happiness. Breaking out of the humdrum of the everyday actually produces physiological changes in the body, which stimulate the pleasure centers in the brain. If life feels like something you’re trudging through rather than savoring, you might need a little more novelty.
9. Seek routine.
Or you might need a little more routine. A recent article about President Obama’s work habits revealed that he offloads most minor decisions, e.g. what he eats and what he wears. He wants to save his mental energy for more important matters that impact the country. Routines and habits serve a valuable purpose: they allow us to save our mental bandwidth for the things that matter. Whether it’s leftover night every Friday or worship and brunch with friends each Sunday, routines provide stability, familiarity, comfort and even quiet joy.
10. Let one thing go each day.
I am an unrepentant list-maker, but sometimes my list of to-do’s can trick me into thinking I can get it all done if only I try hard enough. To counteract this, on many a morning I will choose something from my list that I had planned to do and I say no to it. I let it go, preemptively and intentionally. You’ve probably heard the old thing about the “Persian flaw,” which is the practice of rugmakers to include an intentional mistake in their rugs. Only God is perfect, you see; the Persian flaw is as an act of devotion and humility. Leaving something undone helps me find a little breathing space, but it is also my Persian flaw. Letting one thing (or many things) go is a way of acknowledging a perfection, a coherence that will always be beyond me. And there is something freeing in that.