Hectic. Busy. Overwhelmed. Slammed. Swamped. Tied up. My dance card is full. I have a lot on my plate. I have a lot of plates spinning. Underwater. Blocked. Have you ever noticed how many ways we can say that we have more to do than we have time for?
This week we have been talking about dealing with change. In Battle Cry I talked about the 4 questions you should ask yourself regularly to decide how to deal with change. In The Word With Friends we talked about preparing for good changes. But today I want to talk about a specific kind of change. The really, really frustrating kind.
Dare To Be Stupid
I have a confession to give: I am a busy person. I constantly have lists in my head of the things I want to do and the things I need to do, and I make the classic blunder of trying to work them in parallel, so I never have any time. As a result, if you ask me to do something that isn’t my primary job or passion I will either decline it (if I’m smart) or, more likely, accept it and stress myself to the breaking point trying to get it done at the last possible second.
This happens — this state of consummate busyness — for two main reasons: the first is that I am atrocious at estimating the time it takes to do something, and the the second is that I do not guard my priorities. Believe it or not, the first thing is primarily due to the second. I know a lot of people like me, and I suspect there are a great deal more like me than you can see from the surface, so let’s talk about what causes that inability to guard our priorities.
In computers there are serial (one-at-a-time) processes and there are parallel (many-at-once) processes. For serial processes, like when your printer is printing a page, there are times that you need to stop what is going on to process something else — like if you hit the cancel button on your printer. This kind of interjection is called an interrupt: a signal that interrupts something that was already going on and asks to be processed more immediately. In some systems those interrupts happen more frequently than the core job the system is supposed to handle, and we call that an interrupt-driven system.
It so happens that most of us, most human beings, are wired to be interrupt-driven systems. We sit down to write a blog and — oh, hey, I have a new email: let’s read that. So we switch to email and — wait, the dog is whining to go outside. So we take the dog out and — is that a wild mushroom? I better go pull — wait, is that a blue jay? Where’s my camera?! By the time you get back to your blog post you’ve mowed the lawn, bathed the dog, watched a half hour of YouTube videos on writing tips and 3 hours of videos on alien conspiracy theories and are thoroughly convinced LeBron James is in the Illuminati. Sound familiar?
This happens because all of us experience interrupts near-constantly and we rationalize that since our last task wasn’t engaging us and we are already interrupted we should go ahead and deal with the interruption so we can get back to work. But that, brothers and sisters, is the critical fallacy.
You never catch up. You never finish. The interrupts never stop.
The clear key, then, is to reject all interrupts, right? If you sit down to write that blog you don’t get up until you’re done. You don’t look at any incoming notifications, you shut your ears and eyes off to anything but that post. You ignore bodily needs like going to pee because this is WORK time, right? Well, no.
The interrupts are always there because we don’t live in a serial world; the dogs need to go out when they need to go out and that can’t be calibrated to specific times. The car will break down, kids will get sick, someone will call in sick… the barrage of unpredictability means that sometimes you have to break what you’re doing to shift focus.
The solution is not to swing the valve fully open or fully shut, but to situate yourself in a constant state of priority analysis: each interrupt that comes in has to be checked against what you’re doing to determine if it rates a higher importance or a larger urgency and if those rate a priority that needs to preempt what you’re doing. Wait, huh? What’s the difference between priority, importance, and urgency, you ask?
In 1954 President Eisenhower, while speaking at a university, quoted an unknown former university president who gave us the phrase “what’s important is seldom urgent and what’s urgent is seldom important.” This went on to quickly become the Eisenhower Matrix and one of the most transformational business tools of the 20th century:
This can be hard to read if you don’t come to a common understanding of the ideas involved.
Urgent means a task that is time-sensitive and which has some sort of consequence, usually negative, attached to success or failure: responding to a job offer, turning in a class project, giving your neighbor CPR… these are things that have to get done by a deadline and have dire consequences if you don’t.
Important means a task that has a very big consequence, either negative or positive, that has the potential to move you ahead or set you back. Publishing a book, getting gas in the car, or scheduling that colonoscopy fall into this realm.
In that light you can easily break down most things: giving your drowned neighbor CPR is urgent so the guy doesn’t die, but it’s also important because his life hangs in the balance, so that becomes priority numero uno. But some things aren’t so clear…
Take, for example, doing your kids’ laundry. Urgent? Well, that depends if they have clothes left to wear. Important? Well, that depends how dirty the dirty clothes are, doesn’t it? And there’s the thing: the dividing lines here are often subjective, so they aren’t so clear cut. And they can change depending on your specific situation and the specific time the interrupt comes in. All your son’s clothes are dirty on Friday night? Who cares? Sunday night? Problem.
And to the trick to this, as I said, is in constantly evaluating. As the Eisenhower chart suggests, you should always do the things that are both urgent and important (high priority) and you should ignore the things that are not urgent and not important (low priority). The rest can either be planned later or delegated to someone else.
So you’re really just sorting into 3 buckets: “do it now,” “don’t do it now,” and “don’t do it ever.” You have to make that call on what things qualify for which bucket, but the key I have found is that if the bucket isn’t immediately clear then toss it in the “don’t do it now” bucket. Then pick up your “do it now” bucket and go to town. But how does that solve our busyness problem?
Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way
It’s always the day of your major customer presentation that your car gets a flat, traffic is slow, you spill coffee on your shirt, and your computer locks up. Always. The prince of this world, the little lion, the whispering sorcerer Satan has learned over the past few thousand years that throwing big things at you — a death in the family, a job loss, a divorce — more often than not actually triggers our spiritual defenses: we lean into God due to the massive nature of these impacts. They often don’t pull you way from God, but push you to Him, and because Satan cannot predict which will happen he tends to focus on the other side: the innocuous annoyance.
Look to Job. It was not the death of his family that broke him. His kids were killed, his wealth — his flock — was destroyed, he was stricken with disease, and his wife leaves him. In all of this he praises God, but as his condition fails to improve and things continue to become more frustrating than painful — when his friends sit down to scold him for pessimism — he throws his hands up. It wasn’t the severity; it was the totality that broke him, and that same thing afflicts us all: we can weather with patience some hardships, but when the stupid little minutiae of life blow up in our face it drives us to cursing and rage.
And it is those things that cause our busyness! Of the million things on my lists of things to do the vast majority are aggravating “have-to-do”s brought on by some stupid thing or another. Put air in the tire that’s slowly leaking. Take the car to the tire shop to get the slow leak fixed. Hire a trapper to get the squirrel out of the attic… you know, whatever little thing that crops up and can’t be put off indefinitely. How can prioritization possibly help there?
Instruments of Destruction
Well, firstly it eliminates about half the things he throws at you because while they appear incredibly urgent, they are often unimportant and can go in the “don’t do it now” bucket. But secondly, it allows you to force yourself to take a breath before reacting, and in that breath you can pray for strength. In that breath you can recenter yourself. In that breath your spiritual defenses can come up. You give yourself a conscious pause to process, and in that pause you can stop he knee-jerk reaction and maintain control in the face of the temptation.
In 1 Corinthians 10:13 the apostle Paul tells us
“When you are tempted, God will show you a way out so that you can endure”
This breath, this beat to process, that is your way out. That is your time to stake your claim on your life, your time to stand your ground and resist. And as James writes to us in 4:7 of his epistle:
“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
It sounds hokey, but it’s true: if you can get yourself into the habit of stopping those interrupts as they pop up and taking one beat to sort it into the right bucket you will find yourself strengthened and you will find your productivity increases by an order of magnitude. You will literally destroy the efforts of the little lion and force him out of the sphere of influence over you!
I know this is more practical than my usual deep Biblical dives, but it’s because I think this is a place where the rubber of our faith meets the road of our lives. When we lose ourselves to the minor dramas of life we are just blowing in the breeze, subjects to whatever death wants to lead us through. Getting traction here and owning your days is a part of living in your purpose, so it’s critical to get this embedded in our hearts and our minds!
Father, I need this message more than anyone on earth; I am so prone to overreacting to these stupid little things, to getting angry and angst-ridden and overwhelmed. Help me take this in deeply and apply it. And for any reader who suffers the same thing please help them as well! I pray this in the name of Your mighty Son, Your Word, Your chosen Christ and my brother, my King, my Savior, and my Teacher Jesus. Amen!