Busyness vs. The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


A new year invites reflection. What to change, what to stop doing, what to start?

For some, becoming more active, adding something new would be life-giving. Many, however, are overwhelmed, burdened with too much to do. Being too busy hinders us from living as the people God created us to be. For that reason I included a class on “busyness” for the first eight years I taught Discipleship and Ethics. It felt, and feels, important. Yet I dropped it from the course.


The simplest answer is that there were other topics I wanted to include. Something had to come out. Combined with that I had the sense that if we worked at the other themes in the course we would address many of the factors that contribute to busyness today. Yet, perhaps, more honestly, the reason I pulled it from the course is that I never figured out how to teach it. The class on freedom from busyness was the one I changed most. From small tweaks to radical overhauls I don’t think I ever taught it the same way twice. Perhaps I gave up.

I think, however, an even deeper reason I dropped it is that I felt uncomfortable addressing the topic. How could I call for change in an area in which I was so burdened myself? My sense was, on this topic, I was in worse shape than most of my students. I do not mean to imply that I no longer struggled with Mammon or technique or others themes from the course. But at least in all the others I could point to progress. In 2006 I had little sense of progress in the burden of living with the sense that there was more to do each day and each week than I was able to do.

I have made some progress since 2006, yet it continues to be the area in which I struggle the most—feel the greatest lack of shalom. What progress I have made comes from weaving together various threads: journaling, therapy, spiritual disciplines, talking to friends, saying “no” more often. In this blog I will share one thread I found helpful last year.


Pursuing the Essential


A former student, Kristin Fast, recommended the book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The author, Greg McKeown, contrasts two types of people that he calls Non-Essentialists and Essentialists. A Non-Essentialist commits to virtually everything without exploring. An Essentialist explores more options, but commits to less . . . "distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many” (21, 48). What follows is not so much a book review--I skipped sections and skimmed much of the book. Rather, I offer a few insights and quotes I gleaned from the book that provide helpful tools for dealing with the burden of having too much to do.


If our brain is like a search engine, “good opportunity” will bring up many options. A more advanced search asks three questions: “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” (22).

“There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: ‘I have to,’ ‘It’s all important,’ and I can do both.’ ... To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: ‘I choose to,’ ‘Only a few things really matter,’ and ‘I can do anything but not everything” (31).

“The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. . . When did you last take time out of your busy day simply to sit and think?” – not just a few minutes to think over the day’s to-do list, or zoning out in a meeting thinking about a project (68).

“[The] non-Essentialist avoids saying no to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure. . . [An] Essentialist  dares to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully” (137). How?

- Separate the decision from the relationship – denying the request is not the same as denying the person (137).

- “Focus on the trade-off. The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no” (138).

- “Make peace with the fact that saying ‘no’ often requires trading popularity for respect” (138).

McKeown presents the analogy of a camp counselor who put the slowest hiker at the front and worked to help him go faster (lighten his pack, encourage him)—something I did as a camp counselor. The idea being that any little improvement you can make to the slowest hiker will allow the whole group to get there sooner. “Essentialists don’t default to band-aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, ‘What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?’” (187). Piling on many quick-fix solutions vs. removing obstacles to progress.

“If we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot.” Rather than dedicating lots of energy to prioritizing every day and fighting to do essentials, initial energy is used to create the routine (187).

The Non-Essentialist’s mind is spinning, stressing about the past and worrying about the future. The Essentialist focuses on the present, what is important right now, enjoys the moment (218).

After a day of leading a seminar McKeown returned to his room. “I felt a sudden pull in a million directions. Everything around me was a reminder of all the things I could be doing: check my e-mail, listen to messages, read a book I felt obliged to read, prepare the presentation for a few weeks from now, record interesting ideas that had grown out of the day’s experiences, and more. It wasn’t just the sheer number of things that felt overwhelming, it was the familiar stress of many tasks vying for top billing at the same time. As I felt the anxiety and tension rise I stopped. I knelt down. I closed my eyes and asked, “What is important now?” After a moment of reflection I realized that until I knew what was important right now, what was important right now was to figure out what was important right now!” (He ended up journaling about his day, connecting with his family, and get things in place for the next day) (221).


May you and I in this year ahead have the wisdom to discern the essential from the non-essential, and in the security that comes from resting in God’s loving embrace may we have the courage to say “no” to the non-essential.




Posted on January 5, 2016 .