The English language has lots of odd quirks. Try eating a deserted dessert in the desert. Bowing to a bow. Tasting apple in a pineapple. Finding quicksand that’s quick or a boxing ring that isn’t square.
And that’s only the beginning. Perhaps one of the oddest things about how we communicate is our pat answer phenomenon – the act of asking and answering questions with automatic responses. Here are a few examples to illustrate this phenomenon:
Q: “How are you?”
A: “I’m fine.”
Q: “What’s new with you?”
A: “Not much.”
Q: “How have you been?”
It’s the last answer that may suggest far more than a communication quirk. In fact, it may be the one automatic response that’s accurate every single time. We’re busy. We’re always busy. No matter when we are asked, or by whom we are asked, that answer is consistently correct.
Life is a busy business. And maybe it’s time to ask “why?”
the activity trap
The act of activity, more so than the actual result, has swept through nearly every area of life like a tsunami of…well…busyness. And the aftermath is everywhere. There are corporations focusing more on process than product, churches promoting more events than evangelism, and families spending more time doing than simply being.
We’re in an activity trap that is odorless, colorless, tasteless, invisible to the naked eye, yet as firm and binding as any cage. Instead of results, or converts, or quality time, our dedication to being and remaining busy has become the end achievement.
We are active. But what are our activities achieving?
recognizing the busy
Somewhere, perhaps in our formative years inside a structured class schedule or in our corporate years inside another structured schedule, we’ve learned that being busy equates to importance. If you finished your classroom work early, the teacher didn’t congratulate you on your achievement. Instead, he/she usually found additional work to keep you busy. In your job, it’s much the same.
We are not rewarded for the hours not filled with activity so we do not value them. We fill them, instead, with working more, watching more television, having more social engagements, taking on more projects, or signing our kids up for more activities, because activities – simply being active – will help them become more well-rounded. Reportedly.
A busy life is considered a more desirable one. Scroll through your Facebook news feed for a minute-by-minute example.
We’re busy, and though we’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and always running behind, we’re dedicated to staying busy.
well, hello there martha
Martha understood busyness. She valued busyness. Even with Jesus sitting inside her living room, she was in the kitchen being busy.
Mary, on the other hand, sat at His feet.
There, no doubt, were things that needed to be done. Chores that hadn’t been finished. Responsibilities that hadn’t been fulfilled. Expectations, namely Martha’s, not being met.
Yet, Mary kept sitting at His feet. She stayed still. She listened. She chose to focus all her attention on one thing: Jesus. And, as Jesus explained to Martha, she chose right.
“My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42
posted speed limits ahead
There are, however, tips that might get you on the right track. In George S. Odiorne’s classic, Management and the Activity Trap, he gives some helpful guidelines to help those in management create an “output-centered system” in their corporation that cuts out unnecessary busyness and focuses on results. These are such common sense tips, they could be applied universally.
What might help you to see this sage advice from a fresh perspective is to focus on the word “worthy,” a word Jesus himself used with Martha. So what are your worthy goals?
In other words, when your employees or coworkers or family is successful, what does that look like? How do you gauge success? When you can focus on the end result, working backwards may help you remove activities that are not relevant to that result.
2. Getting commitment from people
In Management and the Activity Trap, Odiorne puts it this way, “What is required is not a personality trait but some assurance that the individual will produce specific outputs in a reasonable time frame, within defined constraints.” In other words, are your people on board? When you begin setting your worthy goals, will they be committed to them, also? In fact, when you begin setting your worthy goals, will you be committed?
3. Accepting responsibility
This is where it gets down to the nitty-gritty: the results. Whatever your behavior produces, or the behavior of those under your leadership (such as your staff at work or your children at home) produce, will you accept it honestly and wholly?
Activity is often used as a smokescreen to cover things we don’t want to face, whether that’s a sense of vulnerability, a lack of confidence, or even a repeated failure. Getting rid of unnecessary activity means looking with open eyes at the outcome. If it isn’t hitting the mark, either in your office, church, or even home, why is that? Does your behavior play a part?
4. Supporting and assisting
Whatever you expect of your department, or even your family, they will need the resources, both physically and emotionally, to fulfill those expectations. Meet their need and see what they can achieve. (Also, it rhymes…sorta.)
5. Relieving employees from goal pressures
Odiorne calls this the “final requirement” to turn your organization into a “sound, output-centered system.” This is where breaks come in. And vacations. Leisure hours and free time. Moments to do nothing, to achieve nothing, and to simply be. By providing this time, even planning for it, you place value on time spent being…unbusy.
Being active isn’t bad. It’s when activity becomes your goal that life can get sticky. And exhausting. And wasteful. Martha had the guest of all guests in her house, but she chose not only to focus on the unimportant details (yes, when compared to spending time with the Son of God, food preparation is unimportant), she grew angry with Mary for not choosing her busyness, too. By being busy, by valuing busy, we may even grow frustrated and annoyed with those around us who do not follow in our active footsteps.
Instead, be Mary. Find your worthy goals. Sit before them. Focus on them. And ignore Martha. Congratulations! You’ve discovered what is better.