Productivity is Overrated: Balancing Hustle with Rest

Productivity is overrated, so how to define success?

On a recent Sunday, I was feeling inundated by a list of things to do and people to meet: going to the gym, walking the dog, contacting a repair service, having a hard conversation with my mother-in-law, catching up with a visiting friend… In the back of my head, I was trying to reconcile all these things, trying to make it all work, trying to hustle my way through — all on the literal day of rest.

Suddenly, the day was not at all what I had planned, and in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Maybe you’ve already figured out the whole work/life balance thing — setting boundaries, managing time, harmonizing hustle with rest. But if you find yourself dreaming of a weekend on your couch numbing out with Netflix and mac-n-cheese from a box, you’re not alone.

There’s a reason people make millions leading motivational seminars. There’s a reason people keep selling online programs about time management and morning routines. There is a reason why more than half of Amazon’s top 20 best selling non-fiction books are all self-help related. The world we live in promises that we can do more and be better, happier, more successful people if we read this book, buy this online course, or attend a weekend seminar.

There’s nothing wrong with self-help products. They’re generally written and led by people who see a problem and want to help solve it. Heck, I’ve attended seminars and read books and found them incredibly helpful. As a therapist, I often recommend books to my clients that would be included in this category.

The problem is why we’re looking to them in the first place. The question I find myself asking in one way or another is, “How can I get more done?” But what kind of a question is that? If that’s the most important question of my life, I’m heading down the wrong path. I’m flying down the highway with the radio blasting at a mind-numbing volume toward an epitaph that might read, “She did a lot of things,” or, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

I don’t really believe my greatest goal is to be productive. If you were to ask me, I’d tell you I want to love my people well and tell true stories about who God is and what He’s done in my life. That’s pretty much it. And yet, if you were to look at my planner, you would see a day-to-day life that does not line up with that goal — not even close. You’d see a shallow existence of working, running errands, putzing around the house, tidying up this and that, hosting dinners, recording podcasts, meeting deadlines and expectations. On the surface, it all looks very impressive, but underneath the smooth surface I’m often kicking and flapping like mad just to keep breathing.

If you read through some of my other pieces for Grotto, you’ll see a lot of ideas and some practical tips for implementing those ideas in your life. Writing those articles makes me feel good and helpful — I like to pass on what I’ve learned. But if you’re reading this, you don’t need more advice, more tips, more life hacks. You need less. We need less. I need less.

But how do we choose that? How do we examine a life so full of good things, a life so full it’s practically bursting at the seams, and decide what to let go of? How do we look around at the hectic, frenzied life we’ve built for ourselves and make a change?

I wish I had an easy answer, a three-step plan, a weekend seminar — but I don’t. And I’m afraid that when it comes to our lives, there is no easy answer, no three-step plan, no weekend seminar that will fix what’s broken. What’s broken isn’t our time management, our SMART goals, our intentions.

What’s broken is our relationship with our own busted-up selves and the One who made us. Most of us started saying “yes” to everything and everyone because it got us the approval and praise we so craved from our parents, our friends, our bosses, our in-laws. Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten to listen to the only One whose praise and approval really matters.

I’ll leave you with this one last thought. Before I got pregnant, I used to wake up in the morning, pack my husband’s lunch while I waited for my coffee to brew, and then take that steaming cup to the gray chair in the corner of our living room by the window. My prayer routine was impressive, official, and organized, and it made feel like a “good Catholic.”

Nowadays, it’s a miracle if I make it to the chair, and when I do, I hit “shuffle” on the playlist with all my favorite worship music and just let the Lord speak to me that way. It’s very much a time of receiving, which is a wild concept for me because my days are very focused on pouring into others in my work and close relationships. I really struggled to let that be “good enough” until my spiritual director helped me see that it’s exactly what I need in this season: to learn to receive.

Where do we let ourselves receive, especially in prayer? When do we set aside time and space to be still and rest in the truth that God is God and we are not? How are we opening up our ears, our hearts, our lives to His glorious plan for us, which has always been so much more than our capacity to do and achieve?

Grotto quote graphic about how to define success: "Somewhere along the line, we've forgotten to listen to the only One whose praise and approval really matters."

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