It’s a busy time of year for many of us.
But the truth is, many of us live busy lives year-round. Talk to anyone at almost any point during the year and ask how they’re doing. Some form of, “I’m busy,” is almost invariably part of the answer. I’m guilty of it too. I’m busy and I’m not afraid to let people know that from time to time.
This time of year, of course, we add the holidays to our packed schedules. Which certainly adds to our busyness and stress. But Christmas festivities can also function as a scapegoat for our busyness. “Of course, I’m busy and feeling stretched—look at all the things we have going on!”
Which again, is usually true. Or at least partially true. Because for many of us, our feelings of busyness do not simply stem from all the major things going on this time of year.
Instead, our busyness arises from three tyrannies of everyday life: the tyranny of the urgent, the tyranny of distraction, and the tyranny of the mundane. Our response to these tyrannies—these pressures and expectations that we set for ourselves or feel from others—often drives our feelings of busyness. Let me explain.
The Tyranny of the Urgent
The “tyranny of the urgent” is a term coined by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, so chances are you have heard about this before. This tyranny consists of demands that present themselves as important and necessary even if in the grand scheme of things, they are not. Think of those red notifications on your phone, most of what ends up in your email inbox, most attempts to market something to you, those sorts of things.
The vast (vast) majority of the time, these are issues that do not actually demands your attention right now—but they present themselves as if they do! Our phones are the best (worst) at this. Very little on my phone needs to be addressed right now. But you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise with all the noises and highlights and notifications and reminders that smart phones default to using.
What can we do about the tyranny of the urgent? In the first place, we need to recognize this tyranny for what it is: an unnecessary suck on our time and energy. And then, we need to limit our expose to this tyranny. Start now by turning off your notifications on your phone, or severely limiting them. Last year, I went through the apps on my phone and changed my settings so those red bubbles only appear for text messages (which don’t make sounds), phone calls (which still do make sounds), and banking notifications. That is it. No social media notifications, no email notifications, no notifications from other apps. All those things will be there when I need them, and in the meantime, they do not get to communicate that they are urgent.
There are other ways to resist the tyrant of the urgent too, such as scheduling times to check your email, resist making big purchases in the spur of the moment, scheduling time to deal with time-suck tasks, and the like. By reducing your exposure to this tyranny, you can find more time to put first things first in your life.
The Tyranny of Distraction
The tyranny of distraction is a phenomenon that people are paying more and more attention to (though only for a moment before they move onto something else). This occurs when we are overstimulated and loose our ability to focus. In a world of seemingly endless choices, how can we decide what to pick? Which of the endless combinations will I choose at Starbucks? What am I going to watch tonight and on which of my seven streaming services? Such distractions often lead us to spend more time deciding than enjoying the fruits of those decisions.
The tyranny of distraction also keeps us so preoccupied that we often forget to prioritize what is truly important for us. For example: sleep is good. But sleep instead of spending time in community or going to church or serving or bettering yourself is not good, especially when you were so busy being distracted the night before that you choose to spend time on your phone instead of going to sleep at a wise time. That is the tyranny of distraction in action. One distraction leads to another, which leads to another, and before we know it, everything is out of sync.
What can we do about the tyranny of distraction? The key here is to order and prioritize. What is truly important in your life? But those things first and ruthlessly defend them. You have found that you do better in life with eight hours of sleep? Let nothing get in the way of you getting that sleep. You know that spending time with other people is good for your mental health? Give your friends permission to make you spend time with them. Practice saying no to invitations or opportunities that infringe on other, more vital habits. Put the important things on your schedule and then order and prioritize those things like they matter. Because they do.
Because we live in a world of distraction, overcoming this tyranny is going to take time. Give yourself grace. You are going to get distracted. That is okay. When you find your mind wandering or you start turning to your distraction device, stop and get back on track. (This is where setting intentional limits on distracting habits like doom scrolling can be helpful.) Before you know it, you will be well on your way to possessing the discipline to set aside distraction for the things that are actually important in your life.
The Tyranny of the Mundane
Last (but certainly not least), there is the tyranny of the mundane. These are the boring everyday things that you must do as a functioning human being. This is paying the bills, doing your laundry, emptying the trash, washing the dishes, taking the kids to school. This tyranny is different than the first two because these are duties, these are practices and activities that are required of us. What can we do about the tyranny of the mundane? Let me make three suggestions.
First, use these activities as changes of pace. When doing the dishes is chore, it gets old fast. But when doing the dishes is a 10-minute break from work, then it becomes a change of pace, something helpful to give your mind a break from something else. Especially if you work from home, consider how you can integrate the mundane into the breaks in your work to change the pace and get things done.
You can also use shake up your routine with these mundane tasks. Do something differently or in a different order. Break the rhythm of the monotony. A relatively easy way to do this is to do your mundane things with someone else. Pack up your laundry and go fold it at a friend’s house. Meet someone at Starbucks while you pay your bills. Start a competition in your neighborhood to see you can get their trashcans to the road first on trash day. Shake up your mundane routines and make them more fun.
And finally, look for efficiencies within the mundane. Be careful with this. Life is not all about efficiency. But do not be afraid to explore the possibility of finding ways to make these mundane tasks more efficient for you. Maybe you are the kind of person who hates doing your chores but knows that once you start, you can do it all. If that is you, schedule a day to tackle those mundane tasks. Of maybe you do well with rewards. Treat yourself—after your mundane tasks are finished. (Get on your phone after the laundry is folded, not before.)
Another practice here is to ask for help. Maybe you only know one way to do something. Consider asking someone else how they do things. You may be surprised at the creative ways that other people get through the mundane in their lives.
The tyrannies of everyday life are hard to overcome. But they can be resisted and defeated. You can find joy even in the middle of the busyness of your life by resisting these tyrannies and enjoying the life that God made you for.
What about you: how do you resist the tyrannies of the urgent, distraction, and the mundane?