Busy Sickness

busy sickness

If you’re struggling with being too busy, you are not alone. I had to learn the hard way that my ambitious, active life was a sign of my vanity. My addiction to being busy all the time was having a negative affect on my health, my friendships, and my relationship with God.

I was excited to begin my junior year of college. I wanted to build up my resume before interviewing for jobs the following fall, so I was deciding what additional activities I wanted to be a part of. There is always room for one or two more responsibilities, right? So I applied to work with the university’s Student Alumni Association, thinking it might open up opportunities for my future. Besides, a number of my friends were involved there. One portion of the application asked for my current commitments and how many hours a week were required. I thought my many responsibilities looked really great on my application:

  • Chi Omega President, 10-15 hours per week
  • Fitness Instructor, three-four hours per week
  • Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity, three hours per week
  • House Bible study leader, three plus hours per week
  • Greek InterVarsity member, three hours per week
  • Two different churches, four hours per week

These responsibilities totaled more than 30 hours per week in extra-curricular activities alone! This didn’t include my 15 hours of classes, plus study time. Also, I had a boyfriend and friends I wanted to spend more time with. It didn’t even dawn on me that this was an extremely wide load. I thought I was ambitious, active and respectable. I liked my busy, sociable life.

I got a wake-up call soon after that when I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Then I found out I didn’t even make it to the second round of selection for SAA due to my excessive commitments. I began to realize that maybe I was a little too busy. At the same time my roommates were complaining that they never saw me, and my boyfriend pointed out that I had given an evening of the week to every activity in my life, but not to him. I hated to see that my busyness was hurting the very people I cared about.

These events helped me take a closer look at everything I was doing, asking myself why I was doing it and whether I should be spending that time elsewhere. I suffered from a “must-be-active-all-the-time” mindset. Now I call it “busy sickness,” and I struggled with this all through my college years. And I know I’m not alone.

A compulsive culture

Why is our culture so obsessed with being busy? We see it everywhere, including many of the everyday pleasantries we use. Take these common phrases, for example:

“What are you doing?” “I’m busy right now.”
“What have you been up to?” “Oh, you know, keeping busy.”
“How are you? What’s new?” “Busy, busy, busy as always.”

We often say we’re busy, but what does this term mean? We just say it without thinking because it’s an easy response and it sounds good. It sounds better to say that we’ve been keeping busy than to say we’re doing nothing, right? This is a message we receive from our culture—“laziness is bad, and you will never get anywhere by doing nothing. You’d better build up that resume with extra-curricular activities, but also keep those grades up!” That’s a lot of pressure to put on ourselves.

Beneath this cultural pressure lies a more poignant and sobering truth: busyness is a sign of vanity. We find our worth through our busyness. If I am busy it must mean that I am important, that I am significant. And the busier I am, the more important I am. At the other extreme, if I am not busy with many things, I begin to feel that my life is empty and worthless. I don’t like feeling worthless, so I stay busy. It’s a compulsive circle, and our culture affirms it.

Important to the Father

No matter what we do, we are special and significant in the eyes of our heavenly Father. He does not care that we are busy with all of these activities. But he does care about his relationship with each of us and how our busyness is affecting that. When I was out-of-control busy, I was not spending much time with God. It apparently didn’t seem important enough, and it didn’t make it into my schedule. Or maybe it was because spending time alone with God wasn’t seen and praised by others. I cared about being a growing Christian, but I also cared about being seen as important and significant in the eyes of my peers. Too often I cared more about what they thought of me than what God thought of me. I also secretly convinced myself that God thought it was good that I was doing all of these activities, especially “the good Christian ones.”

I had another wake-up call when I saw that my overly-busy life wasn’t helping my witness as a Christian. During that crazy first semester of my junior year, my best Christian friend and I were living in a sorority house together but in separate rooms. We were both very busy, briefly stopping at home before scooting off to another meeting. We both lived with non-Christians. One day my friend’s roommate made a very disturbing observation. She said, “You and Lauren are really busy people. Is that what it means to be a Christian?” Ouch! That was a slap in the face. Of course that is not what it means to be a Christian, but she wouldn’t know that from the way we lived. We would have been much better witnesses to our friends if we weren’t on the go all the time and actually took some time to listen and talk to people. I was involved in our house Bible study but was never around to introduce my friends to Christ outside of our weekly meeting.

Glorify God with your schedule

Jesus tells a story about a master who left his servants with money (“talents”) to invest while he was gone on a trip. In this parable, Jesus is referring to his followers as the servants and to God as the master who gives the talents to invest on his behalf. It’s clear from this story that everything we have is a gift from God and belongs to him. He created us to be who we are. He specifically gave us the talents and abilities we possess—for his glory. We are called to be co-workers with God. He has placed us in a particular life situation with a set of particular gifts and talents for a reason. But we often lose sight of God’s plan. We take those gifts and either hide them, like the third servant in the parable, or else use them for our own glory, getting rich on what God has given us.

That’s what I was doing, using my gifts and talents for my own glory. Are you using your gifts from God to build up his kingdom? Does your schedule glorify the Lord or glorify yourself? Like me, you may need to look hard at your schedule and discover how you are investing your talents. God rewards those who are faithful to him, just as he did in the parable. It may be hard to redirect your energy, but in the long run you will be better off, not worse.

So what does it look like to glorify God with our schedules? First, let’s get over the Messiah complex that tells us we need to do it all. You alone are not the answer to all of the world’s problems! There are thousands of very noble activities to be a part of, but they are not the issue here. What talents did God give you to invest? Where and in what activities can you invest those talents to bring the most glory to God?

Start pruning

In order for crops to flourish and grow, a gardener must prune the branches that are not blooming but instead are taking resources away from the other healthy branches. We need to evaluate our lives honestly, discover where we should invest (that number of places should be a few) and then begin pruning away everything else. Sometimes we must prune away activities that seem noble and important. It doesn’t mean the pruned activities are any less important than the ones we invest in, but they might not be ours to do. We only have so much time and energy to give, and when we spread ourselves too thin, we don’t do anything well. Instead we just do many things poorly.

If we prune away excess things in our lives, we will have more energy for the commitments we choose to keep in our schedule, along with more satisfaction and effectiveness. Activity is not the same as productivity. If we are very busy, but without a purpose, what is the point? God has created each of us for a purpose, and we will be happier living out that purpose than trying to do our own thing in order to look good as leaders.

After all of these wake-up calls, I realized that I needed to prune some things out of my schedule. I enjoyed all of the activities I was doing but I didn’t have the time or energy to do them all well. One choice I made was to end my job as a fitness instructor. I don’t like to quit anything, but my supervisor appreciated my honesty in knowing my limits. She wanted to find another employee who could give the job her all, rather than have an over-committed employee who had only leftover energy to give.

I was also involved with two Christian fellowships, splitting my energy between the two. I sensed where God wanted me to be. The Lord had placed me in a particular sorority house, living with girls I knew and loved. I wanted my friends to know Christ. God was asking me to be his co-worker in my sorority house. He had plenty of co-workers in the other fellowship, but there was no one else to be his co-worker in my specific sorority. How about you? You may currently be God’s only co-worker in your dorm, house, or department. Will you prune away your other activities so you have time and energy to give to your neighbors and classmates? God will bless you for your faithfulness! He certainly blessed me. Think about the kind of impact God wants you to have during your time on campus and choose an area of ministry to focus on.

Time to just “be”

In order to serve the Lord in ministry, we must have time to be with the people we love. We often plan and book every hour of our day, but then we are never at home, available for a spiritual conversation. God may want to work through us spontaneously and unexpectedly, but we can’t respond to him if we try to control everything that happens at every moment each day. Prune your activities so you have some unscheduled time at home when you are not running off to your next activity.

We also need time to be alone with God. I am reminded of the contrast between Mary and Martha in the gospels. Martha was always busy doing things for Jesus, such as preparing meals, whereas Mary just wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet and be with him. Martha got angry with Mary for what appeared to be laziness, but Jesus praised Mary for her faithfulness in spending time with him. We often fill our schedules with so many things to do that we run out of time to just sit with Jesus and spend time in the Bible and in prayer. How can you be more like Mary and make time to simply sit at Jesus’ feet instead of merely busying yourself doing his work?

My wake-up calls and the questions I’ve tried to ask myself have challenged me to evaluate how I am spending my time. Are you at a point where it’s time to stop and make changes in your life to align yourself more with God’s purposes? If you’re thinking, I’m too busy to think about it! then take some time to consider what you need to do to be a more balanced follower of Jesus.

In her song “Legacy,” Nicole Nordeman sings the words, “I want to leave a legacy / How will they remember me? …” These lyrics help me think about how I want to be remembered, not as a person who was busy all the time and never around, but as one who chose to love. I continue to let God prune away, trusting him to treat my “busy sickness.” He will also come alongside others infected by this ailment to bring refreshment and peace.

—Lauren Mann