While a new crop of back-to-school photos fills our Facebook feeds, are you looking at the family calendar in utter disbelief about how many things you have to do? While we’re committed to work, the school run, making healthy lunches for the kids (that we really, really hope they’ll eat), cramming in shifts and meetings, buying new laundry detergent and booking the car in for a service…. how can we do it all without actually turning into some sort of squishy, stressed-out cephalopod?
Acknowledge the goodness of work
How is God using you through your work today? It can be tempting to tune into that sulky little internal voice in the morning, but whether we get paid in dollars in the bank or sticky kisses on Sunday afternoons – work is actually a good thing. We are made in the image of a worker God, who made and continues to make creation, who looked at it all and said, ‘It is good’. It is good for us to work, and labour; it’s a vehicle of God’s providence for us and the people we care for, and through us he uses it to glorify him and care for his creation. Remembering this can be both encouragement and worship.
Embody multiple callings but focus on one at a time
God has equipped us to serve in multiple ways in multiple places – but since we actually only have one brain per body, it’s usually best to focus on just one of these at a time (and wherever your brain and body currently is, is a good place to start). Some seasons (or days) you will work primarily on your home, on others you’ll be at a business or on the road or in a ministry. Be conscious of the context he’s built you for in that moment and focus your effort there.
What about when you have to do lots of things in the one place? We often try to deal with the mental load and multiple responsibilities by multi-tasking. However, humans actually can’t do multi-tasking—we switch-task, flipping our attention rapidly between multiple tasks. Not only do our brains pay a massive cost in energy resources and time for every attention shift (up to an average 25 minutes per shift), it’s like they get confused about which task to invest in so they just fritz between the two. This means you’re less able to think deeply and invest in either task. Long-term, that chronic brain drain also makes it harder to make wise choices, problem-solve, and keep our impulses under control (sneaky afternoon chocolate, anyone?).
So what to do instead? Single-task. Pay attention to just one thing at a time—just that report, just that phone call, just that email. Your brain will thank you for it!
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Australian couples work between 72 and 74 hours a week on average (with women working maybe an extra 1.5 hours per week), but where men average 46.7 hours a week on paid work, women average 22.2 hours (many of which come from lower-paying, part-time roles, which are often beset with job quality issues like high demands and workloads, low autonomy, skills and security, all of which can contribute to burnout). The remainder goes on housework and care for others. Unfortunately, this can take a significant toll in our broken world – for example, a recent study of mothers found that when they are the ‘first responders’ for their children’s wellbeing, while also carrying the mental load required to keep track of everything and everyone, they are vulnerable to overload and depression and their relationship satisfaction can get seriously undermined. UK researchers have established that many mothers working full time, managing a household, and raising two children, show terribly elevated biochemical markers of chronic stress across their system (hormone, cardiovascular, metabolism, immune and inflammatory responses at levels almost 40% higher than working women without children. Only parents who worked reduced hours showed less biochemical distress (and then we circle back to the other issues associated with part-time work).
This data is terribly sobering. However or wherever you work, it’s absolutely imperative, for your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those who depend on you to be real about the pressures and stresses you’re facing and find ways to master them. Fill your cup even as you pour yourself out.
Fill your cup
1. Rest briefly but regularly through the day.
Take some time out to let your body and/or brain rest, even if it’s just five minutes every hour or two to just breathe slowly, and/or sit and have a cup of tea. Program a reminder into your phone. Thank God for the body he’s given you and the way it works for him and you and the people around you, and put some time aside just to look after it.
2. Figure out what really matters in your work.
Knowing that you are stepping up and doing something that matters, no matter how small, can paradoxically help you put other stresses in their place, even though this takes time or effort away from those commitments. So talk to God about all the different kinds of work you do, and the different roles and responsibilities you carry. List them. Look at them each in turn. Is this a work he has given you or have you just decided that it should be done? What’s the meaning behind the role or work? Who is it really for? Ask him about what really matters to him and to you in your work, and align your expectations with his.
3. Use the distinction between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’
Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, the mastermind behind D-Day and 34th President of the USA, said, ‘I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent’. Recognising this distinction really can help you master a crazy workload.
Important things align with who and what is important to us and help us achieve our aims in life (for example, organising a family day or securing funding for a project). Urgent things are whatever requires immediate attention or will have immediate consequences, and are often about other people’s objectives, not our own (such as cutting your toddler’s sandwich just so or filing a report). Can you sort what you’re doing today according to this distinction and choose just one important thing to do? How does that feel?
When we know which activities are important and which are urgent, we can avoid turning ourselves inside out to ‘firefight’ the unimportant urgent activities and shift towards growing what really matters—our people, our faith, to His glory.
For more practical and effective tools for Chief Executive Octopi to refresh and revive, check out these Saturday retreats to burn bright and prevent burnout (March 30, Stanwell Tops, tickets starting at $139), master mental loads across life, work and ministry (May 18, Bundeena), or fill your cup: pouring yourself out in a stress-filled world (August 17, Mulgoa).
Once a clinical psychologist, Krystyna Kidson had kids, fell in love with coaching and is now The Psychologist Coach and founder of the Paraclete Initiative, a stress mastery and burnout prevention ministry; coming alongside God’s people with practical, effective strategies that they can use to throw off that which hinders and be free to love and serve God and others more meaningfully, effectively, and sustainably.