Serving the Lord; Maintaining Balance
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of FOCUS
Busyness, in and of itself, is a not a bad thing. We’re called to be fruitful, to expend our energy loving God and loving our neighbours, “not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom 12:11). John Wesley’s admonition is a good one: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”
But the needs are great—seemingly endless. And coupled with our fallen nature, our call to fruitfulness can lead to imbalances. Struggling to balance our calling in work and our calling in family life is a perennial problem, and physicians and dentists certainly fall prey to this challenge.
In this discussion, I will briefly explore some practical strategies that my family and I have been trying (though inconsistently and imperfectly) to help maintain the balance. In writing as a rural family physician with three young children, some of the discussion and strategies will be irrelevant or not applicable for all readers. But hopefully some of the principles will be transferrable to your situation and will perhaps spur your thinking as you seek to honor Christ in your unique situation.
RESPECTING OUR LIMITATIONS AND VALUING THE DIVISION OF LABOUR
When we moved into our house, the lot was completely undeveloped, and for some reason (perhaps it was a guy thing, or a Saskatchewan do- it-yourself thing, or a frugality thing), I thought that I should do the landscaping. Though I had never driven a Bobcat, I felt an inexplicable need to spread the countless yards of topsoil myself. While it provided fabulous entertainment to the neighbours watching me fumble with the Bobcat, it was an otherwise entirely unsatisfying enterprise. After spending 8 frustrating hours with very mediocre results, I decided to hire someone to come and do the “finishing touches” (i.e. correct my horrible initial attempt). It was breathtaking to watch someone who actually knew what he was doing swiftly and effortlessly create a beautiful grade of topsoil in less than an hour. I’ve since learned my lesson: It’s better to spend time doing things I can do best and hire others to do things they can do best. Now, even if you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should. Perhaps you should hire a housekeeper or someone to do the renos, so that you can spend the limited free time you have with your family or serving in ways that only you can.
There are only so many hours in a day, and all too often many of the important things in our lives get pushed to the margins or neglected altogether because of lack of time. The psychological literature is incontrovertibly clear that a person cannot truly multitask. That is, you cannot engage in two cognitively demanding activities simultaneously. you may think that you can, but you’re just flattering yourself. You are merely switching back and forth between the two tasks (and probably being less efficient at both). While you can’t truly multitask, you can walk and chew gum. That is, you can pair a cognitively demanding activity with a non-cognitively demanding activity. This idea of combination has proven useful as we try to make space for the many demands on our lives.
The grass needs to be cut, and I need to fulfill continuing medical education requirements. Why not listen to educational podcasts or lectures while cutting the grass? We drive from our small town to Saskatoon at least once per week, and I have to read dozens of ECGs per week, so why not combine the two? Don’t worry—I don’t read and drive. I let my wife drive, while I read ECGs, which is probably the better decision anyway because she’s the better driver.
IF YOU DON’T SChEDULE IT, IT PROBABLY WON’T GET DONE
Quality relationships take time and intentional cultivation if they are to flourish. When it comes to spending time with one’s spouses, it’s easy to say, “We should go on a date” and then just watch the weeks slip by without it actually happening. One strategy to avoid this is to get season tickets to something. It essentially schedules your date nights for you, and you know them well in advance, so you can plan accordingly. For us, it’s a series of concerts at our town’s community arts centre.
Similarly, we must be intentional about spending quality time with our children instead of leaving them the mere scraps and leftovers of our schedule. One way to nudge me in this direction has been to take a day off on all my children’s birthdays. I can spend the full day with them, giving them my undivided attention.
Our relationship with God is no exception to this principle. If I am not intentional about carving space into my morning for Scripture reading, meditation, and prayer, the onslaught of the day’s responsibilities and tasks will overwhelm even my best intentions. I try to start my day by going through the daily offices in the Book of Common Prayer before I check my email, before I plan for that meeting, or before anything else. Nurturing our relationship with God requires not only making time for active communion with Him, but also making time for sleep. D.A. Carson says, “Doubt may be fostered by sleep deprivation. If you keep burning the candle at both ends, sooner or later you will indulge in more and more mean cynicism— and the line between cynicism and doubt is a very thin one. … If you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need.” (D.A. Carson, Scandalous (Crossway, 2010) Philosopher Alain de Botton is not a theist, but it’s no less true when he concedes, “It isn’t disrespectful to the complexity of existence to point out that despair is, often, just low blood sugar and exhaustion.”
LETTING GOOD ENOUGH BE GOOD ENOUGH
Psychologists talk about two broad decision-making strategies— maximizing and satisficing. Maximizers are meticulous, doing exhaustive research prior to making decisions. If it’s time to buy a camera, the maximizer reads countless reviews and online forums, carefully tabulates the minute differences between cameras, and price-compares dozens of stores before making the purchase. The satisficer, on the other hand, sets basic criteria and is willing to accept the first “good enough” option. I recognize that I’m probably missing out on a fractionally better option, but as I’ve become more of a satisficer, I’ve felt more at ease and have avoided the opportunity costs of being a maximizer.
LESS IS MORE
In an effort to raise the most well-rounded, holistic children imaginable, it can be tempting to get kids involved in everything. But we’ve found that keeping them in just one or two extra-curricular activities at a time (and ideally the same ones at the same time, so their schedules coincide) allows them to stay kids and allow us to stay sane.
USE TECHNOLOGY BUT DON’T LET IT USE YOU
Technology has unquestionably been a remarkable mechanism for alleviating busyness. Countless gadgets, tools, and appliances have increased efficiency, diminished human effort, or altogether offloaded tasks that previously occupied much of humanity’s time. Whereas in 1920 doing laundry required an astonishing 11.5 hours per week, in 2014 that number had fallen to a mere 1.5 hours per week. (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, Viking, 2018) And yet, for all its time-saving benefits, technology has, in other ways, only enhanced our busyness by constructing a culture of constant connectedness, tethering us to devices that provide a ceaseless flow of new information, new demands, and new interruptions. This age of distraction fosters a fractured mind—a harried, frazzled, disquieted disposition that only magnifies our feelings of busyness.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famously described the concept of “flow”—that mental state of complete absorption, intense focus, and total captivation in the task at hand—what we often refer to as “being in the zone.” This experience is profoundly shaped by our environment. Whether we’re interpreting a CT scan, writing a research proposal, working out that tricky passage in the Bach unaccompanied cello suite, or playing Lego with our seven-year-old son, being wholly engaged requires freedom from distractions.
One simple way to minimize technology’s distraction, to nurture the positive experience of energized focus, and thus to diminish the perception of busyness, is to turn off all push notifications on your electronic devices. Whether it’s email, Facebook, or text messages, these unbidden and unending interruptions completely preclude you from being fully engaged in what you’re doing—whether it’s work, family time, or hobbies—and leave you feeling fragmented and hollow.
Technology must be the servant and not the master. Technology is powerful and shapes us in profound and often subconscious ways. A morning routine of immediately picking up our smartphone to “check in” frames our day and subconsciously forms our disposition. Instead of starting the day absorbed in a medium that embodies speed, distraction, frenzied jumping from point to disconnected point, perhaps we would do well to imprint our day with prayer and quiet contemplation, reminding ourselves of who we are and whose we are.
Properly framing the day is important, but we also need to punctuate our day with similar pauses and moments of quiet reflection and celebration of the goodness of God. Our culture has habituated us to immediately turn to technology if there is any lull in the day. Are you in line at the bank? Then pull out your smartphone and check Facebook. Has road construction has brought traffic to a halt? Then whip out your phone and check email. Andrew Sullivan has described our generation as a “sea of craned necks and dead eyes.” As a culture, “we have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.”(Andrew Sullivan, My Distraction Sickness and Yours, New York Magazine, Sep 2016)
These default habits need to be challenged. Perhaps that lull in the day is an opportunity to breathe a prayer of thanks, to engage in a conversation with the person ahead of you in line, or just to look around in wonder at the world around us. We would do well to heed some of Clyde Kilby’s resolutions for mental health and staying alive to God:
At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.
I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are.
Amidst these cautions of technology’s pitfalls, let’s not neglect its potential for helping maintain balance and diffuse our busyness.
We have found it remarkably helpful to have a shared online family calendar. The calendar can be updated by any of the family members and is colour coded for different family members’ activities and events. It is synced across all our devices, allowing us all to be aware of any changes.
Part of my subjective experience of busyness is created by having to mentally juggle the various humdrum aspects of life—paying bills, changing furnace filters, taking vehicles for maintenance. It has been extremely helpful to offload these tasks or the stress of remembering when to do these tasks onto technology. Setting up bills to be automatically paid and using to-do-list applications that automatically remind me when a recurring task like changing the furnace filter is due displaces small, but cumulatively sizeable stresses, from my mind. I simply don’t have to think about them, allowing me to spend more time and mental energy engaged in my work and with my family.
God has called us to a life of active, fruitful enterprise, and he offers us wisdom and means of grace to better love Him, our families, and our neighbours. Let’s be on the look out for more ways to make this a reality.