Author’s Note: This post was originally published on September 16, 2017. It was one of the most vulnerable pieces I’ve ever published here. At the bottom of this post, I have added a short update on how life has changed over the past year.
September 16, 2017
Several months ago I had the chance to reconnect with a woman who is a good friend and former colleague. Though she called specifically to talk about grants, we stayed on the phone a while longer, catching up on the rest of life. When my friend asked how I was doing, I admitted I’d lately been feeling overwhelmed: I’d taken on too many projects. I was groaning under the weight of overcommitment. I wasn’t as present at home as I wanted to be. I didn’t feel like I was doing my best work. I was hopeful I’d get free soon, but my talk of change rang hollow even for me.
Then my friend said something that literally stopped me in my tracks: “John, do you realize this is exactly what you were saying five years ago?”
Thank goodness for enduring friendships. Thank goodness for longtime friends who recognize unhealthy patterns in us and have the courage and candor to point them out.
Because my friend was right. For many reasons—the need to be liked, the need to achieve, my ADHD, a genuine desire to help, my wide-ranging interests, the supposed financial reward, the habits of “side-hustling” (I spent years working full-time while also striving to get my writing career off the ground)—I was consistently over-committing, at the expense of my own health, happiness, and productivity, and at the expense of my family.
If I’m being even more honest, two years before the time my friend was referring to, my work life and home life had been so out of balance that my wife actually called an intervention. My pastor was there. Some of my best friends came down from Portland. Still other friends drove eight hours from California just to be there. These folks sat in my living room, asked me about my workload, and talked about the effect work-life imbalance was having on my closest relationships and on the quality of my work itself. They made me promise not to take on any new projects for one year without the whole group signing off on them. I promised and I even followed through. For a time our lives were simpler but richer.
But eventually I got into the same situation again. And then again.
The irony is that my life is faster now than it was before I wrote a book with the word “slow“ in the title. I have opportunities coming my way that I never dreamed of. I’m being asked to write more books, give talks, and teach workshops. I get to visit neighborhoods around North America, meeting passionate people doing beautiful work on behalf of the common good. I get to collect stories of hope and renewal. Most days it feels like I’ve sneaked through the side-door of one of the most interesting conversations I could have imagined.
Yet even as so many new opportunities have come my way, I’ve struggled to know
- which of those opportunities I should say “Yes” to
- which ones I should say “No” to…and how to say “No” well
- how to make the most of my limited work time
- how to set clear boundaries that protect my health, my relationships, and my reputation.
I recently took Michael Hyatt’s Personal Productivity Assessment. Reading the results of my assessment was like looking in a mirror. I recognized his description of being pulled off-task, the splintered attention, and the dissatisfaction I feel at the end of a day when I’ve been constantly busy but have little to show for it. The only thing I’d change was the name Hyatt gave my productivity personality type: “The Multi-Tasking Maven.” That name is too generous. Most days I’m “The Multi-Tasking Masochist.” It’s as if I’m buried under a heap of boulders, but then you hear my muffled voice say, “Just one more rock.”
Having worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly 15 years, I’ve met many executives, staffers, busy volunteers, and community advocates who experience the same thing I’m describing. We give until our lives are off-balance and out of margin. Like some absurd dream, the road we’re walking suddenly becomes a treadmill; we do our best to keep up but the treadmill keeps getting faster. Not only are we not making meaningful progress on the truly important things, Something Else is catching up to us: frustration, despair, burnout.
Sorry to paint such a dark vision, but I’ve seen this happen numerous times in the nonprofit world, where some 50 percent of employees are in danger of burning out. I’ve experienced it in my own life. To some extent, I still am. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible that by working less but working better we can actually be more productive and effective. It’s possible for us to thrive at both work and home. Balance and freedom are available.
With the help of Michael Hyatt and others, I’m finally starting to identify some of the root causes of my pattern of overcommitment and overwhelm. I’m also getting a glimpse of a better way.
I’m particularly drawn to Hyatt’s use of the word “focus.” That word “focus” derives from a Latin term meaning “domestic hearth.” This makes sense when I remember that the hearth, or fireplace, was once at the center of family life. Families gathered at the fireplace for warmth, for light, to cook food, to heat water, and to socialize. The ancient Romans carried some of the hearth fire with them on long trips, to keep one’s home close even when traveling.
The hearth was once even the focal point for a family’s spiritual life. For example, some Celtic Christian women, when they rekindled the fire each morning, used this chore as an opportunity to pray for protection for the family and to give the day to God. “I will kindle my fire this morning,” they softly intoned, “In the presence of the holy angels of heaven…” (I don’t have similar prayers for the object at the center of our family room: the television.)
Productivity “hacks” work for most folks, but I need something deeper; there is actual re-wiring that needs to happen. This is one reason I appreciate Hyatt talking so often about reconnecting with our “why” (more on that below).
In this context, maybe the first step in improving our focus isn’t to squint our eyes, lean in, and stare harder. Rather we start by taking a step back, softening our gaze, and taking in the whole picture. It’s from this vantage point that we begin to make out what’s truly important. It’s from here that we can ask ourselves, “What is my hearth? What’s at the center of my vision for a flourishing life?”
Reflecting on those questions, my hearth would have to include:
- Being faithful to my most important relationships—God, my family, friends, and neighbors
- Doing high-quality work that aligns with my deepest calling
- Having enough margin that I get to pursue other pastimes I love: hobbies, reading, travel, etc.
How would you answer those questions? Taking the time to consider them might be the first step toward decreasing the overwhelm, increasing your effectiveness, and being able to focus on the most important things at home, at work, and in your community.
I’m early on that journey myself. We can walk together.
September 28, 2018
It’s amazing how often someone will say to me, almost apologetically, “I know you’re busy…”
My reputation precedes me. Or maybe cultural expectations precede me. Or both.
But what I now get to tell my friends who say “I know you’re busy…” is that I wouldn’t describe my life as busy anymore.
I’d say my life is full but not busy. And may not even full. Because when I think of the word “full” I think of a barista at a coffee shop sliding across the counter a latte so full that the the milk is defying the laws of gravity and somehow extending above the rim of the mug. It will spill when I try to move it. So my choice is to walk at a snail’s pace across the café, leaving a trail of coffee behind me, or to bend awkwardly at the waist and slurp the drink down before lifting it.
Life is like a latte: without margin, there is no margin for error.
So if not “busy” or “full,” how would I describe my life one year after writing a post about suffering as a Multi-Tasking Masochist? I would describe it as abundant, rich, and comfortable. I feel more human.
I spent the last twelve months standing at the counter sipping down the latte. I completed or disentangled myself from commitments that weren’t aligned with my deepest Why. And I really didn’t replace them with new commitments—with a couple “duh” exceptions that I’ve since wrapped up too.
Leaving—or simply not renewing—some of those commitments were easy. Like giving up my office downtown and setting up in a small room at home (closer to my actual hearth), which saved the family both money and time.
In other cases, leaving was hard. Like when I asked if I could step down from the elders committee at my church a year before my term was over.
I even made the difficult choice to step away from this blog for a year…despite everything I know about the importance of consistent blogging and despite my belief that it has the potential to be more impactful than many of the other things I was still trapped doing.
One morning last winter before we left for work, when my wife and I were saying goodbye to each other in the driveway, she said playfully, “John, be a quitter today!” The line stuck and became a kind of mantra: “John, be a quitter today!”
A friend told me recently that Bob Goff quits something every Thursday. That’s what all of last year was like for me.
I gave myself a deadline of June 30 for extracting myself from as much as possible. And I got there. July 1 was my Day of Jubilee.
Today, I’m doing fewer things, and I believe I’m doing them better. Most of the things I do are in that sweet-spot where talent, passion, impact, and mission overlap. I work less and I’m more productive. I’m more present at home with my wife, my daughters, and my housemates. I can run into neighbors and chat leisurely, without anxiety of the work I’m supposed to be doing. I’m exercising more, going to the gym with a friend and walking the kids to school. I’m reading more and doing more woodworking. I finished my book proposal and sent it to my agent…and he sent it to publishers three days later.
Last week I was invited to a meeting about this really cool new initiative in town. I love what this small cadre of folks are doing. Yet as I sat in the meeting I found myself feeling constricted; I was having trouble engaging.
Finally I said, “I feel like I will be more helpful if I put something out on the table. I’m so excited about what’s being planned here tonight. I support it. And I believe there are ways I can help. But I think it’s important that I tell the whole group what I said to [Sarah, the woman who organized the meeting]: I simply can’t commit to anything right now. In fact, I asked my wife to ask me the following question when I walk in the door tonight: ‘Did you commit to anything?’ My answer has to be no.”
The others laughed, as I hoped they would. And from that point on, with expectations clear, I was able to fully contribute to the meeting—encouraging, offering ideas, making connections, and talking about some of my own experience in the field. The other folks appreciated my honesty and were protective of my time.
It’s only been three months since my Day of Jubilee. I am by no means perfect. And I know that I’ve “relapsed” into overwhelm before, so I want to stay both humble and vigilant. But I feel like I’m in a better position than in years past. I have more tools and resources, including those from Michael Hyatt (see below). I do a check-in every Monday—a process I’ll talk about more in a future post. I’ve also asked for accountability from my closest family and friends.
And there’s another motivation too: how good it feels to be less busy, less manic, less stressed, less grumpy, and more focused on the few things that matter most.
Postscript: I’ve learned a lot over the years from Michael Hyatt, the former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. I used his guide to creating a nonfiction book proposal to get my last book contract; I’ll use it again for what I hope is my next book deal. I listen to his podcast and still read his blog. For a long time I subscribed to his membership community. I took Hyatt’s book, Living Forward (Amazon | IndieBound), with me on a solo retreat. That retreat was an important milestone on my occasionally bumpy, at times unnerving, often thrilling, but always meaningful journey of living with deeper purpose and direction. I’ll probably write more about that retreat someday.
I really do recommend taking Hyatt’s Personal Productivity Assessment. It was illuminating, to say the least. I’m not an affiliate of Michael Hyatt’s Free to Focus program this year. I don’t even think the program is open right now. Still, I recommend taking the productivity assessment. I hope you find it as useful and illuminating as I did.
The Grant Writing Process: 11 Basic Steps (PDF & Checklist)
Writing grants for your organization is an adventure.
You wouldn't set out on an epic hike without at least a general understanding of the terrain ahead. So why would you set out on your grantseeking journey without an overview of what lies in store?
This eight-page PDF and checklist are the perfect place to start.