Escape the tyranny of the to-do

Five things Jesus teaches about ‘errand paralysis’

Let me start with a confession: this article is being written while I am on the toilet eating breakfast. That’s right – all three tasks being done simultaneously. You may call that disgusting, but I call it maximum efficiency.

You see, if I can get ahead during my allocated breakfast time, then I can commit to my 10-minute timeslot for listening to a Bible-reading app. All going to plan, I will then make the read-the-news-of-the-world-in-10-minutes timeslot, before “getting showered and dressed very quickly” begins.

I could continue listing the precise chunks of activity that delineate my day, but I think you get the drift. No doubt you can also imagine the roadmap of tasks – positioned like domino tiles at precarious, minute-long intervals, so that if one task slips, a cascade of to-dos crash into the end of the day. And so, at 9pm (sit-on-the-couch-and-watch-TV-for-a-few-minutes time), those exact same neglected tasks remain on my list (often joined by a few more hopeful bullet-point friends).

It seems that no matter how effective and efficient I am, I can’t get rid of these dregs. When I discovered that my inability to tame these unruly items had been given an official title – “errand paralysis” – I inwardly cheered. It wasn’t me that was the problem.

“Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out.” – Anne Helen Petersen

However, my demeanour changed when I eventually got around to reading the lengthy Buzzfeed article that recently went viral (it had been on my to-do list for a while). The article by Anne Helen Petersen explores the burnout experienced by her millennial peers. One of the symptoms of this burnout is the inability to perform mundane tasks such as replying to emails, scheduling appointments and vacuuming the car. Petersen admits: “My shame about these errands expands every day.”

She surmises: “Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalised the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalised that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it – explicitly and implicitly – since I was young.”

I really feel for Petersen and the millennial cohort who, aged 23 to 38, are already full of disillusionment rather than aspiration. But reading the article as a 40-something Gen-Xer, I felt as if I was holding up a mirror to my own life. Yes, the pace of life and society’s demands have intensified dramatically, but millennials are not the only demographic contending with these issues.

Essentially, what we are all dealing with is ‘this-world-itis’.

Petersen is right to suggest there is something broken deep beneath the surface of 21st-century life, and that the problem won’t be resolved by meditating, taking time off, delegating or trying to optimise our time. She is also correct in saying the diagnosis must go beyond errand paralysis and even burnout. But, unfortunately, no amount of earthly analysis will reveal a solution. Essentially, what we are all dealing with is “this-world-itis”. And to tackle the problem, we need to look to wisdom beyond this world.

Fortunately, we have been given the ultimate example of optimal earthly living in one who has “overcome this world”. Jesus’s countercultural, other-worldly wisdom teaches us (among other things) five lessons about how to cope with the overwhelming demands on our time:

1. There are more important things than to-dos

This is illustrated most clearly in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel. As Martha (the doer) tries to rustle up some food for Jesus and the disciples when they lob on her doorstep, Martha (the be-er) simply sits at Jesus’s feet, listening to what he says. When Martha appeals to Jesus to ask her lazy sister to help, Jesus responds: “Martha, Martha … you are worried about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

2. We must remain focused on our purpose

Jesus lived with intentionality and single-minded purpose, as he concentrated on what he saw as the most urgent tasks of mentoring his disciples, teaching about the kingdom of heaven and preparing for the cross. From an earthly perspective, it could be argued that he left much work undone – surely there were many more he could have physically healed. But Jesus’s heavenly perspective allowed him to remain focused and refuse to be corralled by the less important.

3. We need help from above

Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). In connecting with his heavenly Father, Jesus found the wisdom, peace and determination he needed to continue his ministry. Even the son of God needed supernatural help to get through daily life on this earth.

4. The rhythms of this world are not natural

From the beginning, we were built to need rest – just as our creator rested after designing our world. Unfortunately, after the fall, our natural rhythms were disrupted, and the beginnings of stress and burnout were evident as early as Genesis 4 – when Cain’s work becomes hard and fruitless, making him like “a restless wanderer on the earth”. Since then, God has continually called us to observe a day of rest, with more than 150 references to Sabbath in the Bible. Still today, Jesus calls us to: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

5. There will always be to-dos – until heaven

Ultimately, the tasks and the stress of this world won’t end until this world does. We will only experience relief from the tyranny of the to-do in heaven – when, in the words of the well-known hymn, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

My precious, finite hours on this earth are often dictated to by bossy dot-points.

Just like Petersen, I feel ashamed of my to-do list. But, this is (mostly) not because of the jobs that are left undone. I feel ashamed because I have allowed this list to have such sway in my life – that my precious, finite hours on this earth are often dictated to by bossy dot-points that largely relate to the meaningless and trivial.

Reading her article was a good reminder to reflect again on the words and example of Jesus, and try to curb my task-focused lifestyle to allow more time and flexibility for relationships and other activities with a divine purpose. No doubt I will still continue (year after year, most likely) to add the usual suspects to my to-do list: fix the flyscreens, finish my daughter’s baby book (she’s now 10), arrange a pest inspection, file photos, etc. But my prayer is that every year I care less and less about whether or not they actually get done. In fact, I (almost) hope that they are never completed. That way, I will know that more of my time has been spent on things that really matter in the light of eternity.