Stretched Thin: A 21st Century Epidemic
Today, I made a list of all the things that I have to catch up on after missing four days of work during a quick vacation to see my brother-in-law get married in Montana. As I laid out the list, I realized something very odd. There were a lot more than four missed days of tasks to accomplish! As I reviewed the list, I realized that there was closer to two weeks worth of work setting on the pad of paper. How can that be? How can four missed days turn into two weeks of work?
This realization hit me hard. Actually, it convicted me. All it really did was confirm something that I have known for a long time. I am stretched too thin. This is not a new epiphany – it is something that my wife and I have been discussing for some time now. Yet, there was something about that task list staring up at me today that pierced deep. Seeing the reality of how thin I am really stretched, neatly categorized and listed out, really brought the message home. Something has to change; something has to give.
Stretched Thin: A 21st Century Epidemic
I think it is safe to say that I am not the only one with this issue. In fact, I don’t think it is a very unique problem at all. I would even venture to say that being stretched too thin is a 21st century epidemic. And it is a killer! It kills dreams, marriages, families, one’s sanity, and even leads to actual death, as stress and unhealthy living habits cause heart attacks and other physical illnesses.
The difference between this epidemic and others, the thing that makes this really scary-deadly, is that we wear it as a badge of honor. It makes us feel important, needed, even powerful, and thus spreads through our whole body before we even knew we were sick. Then, without warning, the symptoms pounce as the illness reveals its true self. Stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, and, if left untreated, it leads to more serious problems like business failure, loss of jobs, marital and family problems. The disease turns against us and what once gave us a sense of purpose, now makes us feel lost in a sea of meaningless tasks. What once made us feel powerful now weakens us, as fatigue and desperation settles into our souls.
The good news is that this epidemic is curable. You see, the sickness starts with a simple, yet possibly fatal, mindset shift. It starts when we confuse business with productivity. We start out meaning well. We want to make a difference, work hard, follow our dreams, but somewhere along the way, we told ourselves that the more we had to do, the more we take on, the bigger our rewards would be.
This model of thinking may have started at work, but we quickly brought it home, where the epidemic spread to our spouses and our children. Somehow, our kids have to maintain a 4.0 while also being the all-star player on the baseball, basketball, and football teams, while simultaneously mastering the piano, playing the flute in marching band, and being an active participant in the church youth group.
Before we know it, our lives are too busy at work and outright crazy at home. But it is not too late. There is hope for a less painfully-stretched future. If you act quickly and decisively, your life can settle back into its more natural, not stretched, shape. You may be left with a few stretch marks, but even those will fade with time.
Here is where I have to state the obvious: do less stuff! I know, there are no “aha” statements here, just the simple truth. It’s not visionary, but it is profound. We are addicted to being busy. Trying to stop cold turkey is not going to happen, but little step by little step, we can learn to bring balance into our lives.
The Steps to Recovery
Start by dropping some of the little things that don’t matter. Things like taking on unnecessary work projects. The second summer camp for your kids. Hire a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn. Then, start moving on to bigger things. Prioritize everything you do. Weigh the consequences of letting different things go. Yes, you will have to make some sacrifices, but remember we’re sick, and medicine does not always taste so great.
The next thing you can do as you start to get a handle on what really matters in life is to start scheduling in downtime. Literally, put one night on the calendar (and try to work your way up to at least three nights) where you have nothing to do. Slowly, you can start filling some of these nights with fun activities, date nights, family outings, but keep them low-key and spontaneous. The idea is not to make downtime one more activity that you have to fit in. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I picked three nights: it is because if you stay with just one, it will soon fill back up, but by having three or more, you give yourself the flexibility to still meet needs and changing schedules and priorities without jumping back into hectic mode.
It may not seem like it now, but being less busy will actually make you more successful. Putting limits on your day helps you focus on the things that really matter. Without limits, everything that comes at you takes precedence, but limits allow you to stop and figure out what tasks and activities actually help you reach your goals. Realizing that you can’t do everything forces you to only do what has to be done. These are the things that will actually move you forward, enhance your career, build your business, build stronger family bonds, and lead to a more fulfilled life. Plus, keeping yourself in a more relaxed state keeps your mind sharp, and having room in your calendar for the unexpected turns such events into manageable opportunities, as opposed to miniature crises.
Bottom line, there is nothing wrong with full and productive days, but when four days of vacation leaves you with two weeks of work to catch up on, you know you have an issue. When the things that you enjoy no longer bring you enjoyment, you know that you have been infected by the 21st century epidemic of being stretched too thin.