by Melissa Brotton  |  19 August 2021  |

“A time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

There can hardly be any doubt that we live and move at a frenetic pace in our culture. Even those who live outside of cities say so. A day at work can seem like a week at times, depending on what we are up against. And there are multiple things to do at home too. Even Sabbath can be busy if we are involved at church. The weekends are gone too quickly, and then it is back to the grind. Just part of life now, right? So, when are we really supposed to have any down time?

Wait a minute! I realize I asked that question about down time as if I am entitled to it. Am I? Having grown up in America, I am told that we work, work, work during the week and then have “time off” on the weekends. But what, really, is time off? Does it mean we sit and do nothing? Since I can’t turn off my brain, that seems impossible too. Finding something enjoyable to do, spending time with loved ones, or working at a hobby might be a better way to explain what we mean by “down time.”

Time commitments at work can create a sense of never getting off the treadmill. Some of us become unintentional workaholics. Many of us know how Arianna Huffington’s life turned upside-down after she collapsed from exhaustion one night at home while checking emails. Huffington had been working 18-hour days while building her corporate career. After her wake-up call, she made huge changes in her life and daily routine. She now gets eight hours of sleep each night, for one thing, and she has established Thrive Global to help businesses to incorporate wellness into their workplace environments. She remains a strong advocate for companies to invest in their employees’ well-being.

One of the reasons time has become a precious commodity to us is that we feel we have so little of it. Another reason is that we understand that time is inextricably tied to our well-being: our mental and physical health, things we know God supports for us as well.

But what is time anyway? One of my favorite books is Charles E. Hummel’s Freedom from the Tyranny of the Urgent, a work that grew out of a pamphlet that he published in 1967, which quickly became a business classic. If you have read this book, you know that Hummel got the idea of the urgent as tyrant from a passing statement made by a factory manager he was acquainted with: “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”[1] In his book, Hummel wrestles with the definition of time and shows convincingly how elusive and slippery this concept is. For example, clocks show us the hours of the day, but they do not show us time itself, only that time is passing. Human and animal aging happens over time, but aging does not show us time, only time’s effects. We may work during the hours of a day, but our work does not constitute time itself; our work is only how we spend time.

Hummel’s book offers a closer look at how Jesus set priorities in his day-to-day work as a preacher, teacher, and healer, showing there are important principles to extract for his followers in the 21st century. How, for example, did Jesus know when it was time to break camp and go to the next town even when there were people left behind who had not been healed yet? What things did he set aside so that he could do what needed to be done during daylight hours? How was he sure that he was going about his Father’s business? How, in short, did Jesus set his priorities on a daily basis?

As well, Hummel makes use of his personal experiences to show how being in the Father’s will moment-by-moment can happen in today’s world. He offers practical advice and a way to form a hybrid list of important and urgent daily or weekly activities. One of my favorite pieces of advice from Hummel is to leave some buffer room for the unexpected, something that happens a lot in my own work.

There are many uses for our time, but followers of Jesus want to know how he wishes for us to use our time. Here are some principles I’ve been trying to make the most of my days and to establish my priorities.

Devotion, Prayer, and Praise

God loves to hear from us. We make God’s day when we commune with him, telling him everything like we would our best friend, confessing our sins so he can set us free, allowing him to teach us. He loves to hear us sing — even with tone-deafness or a scratchy throat. I have found that prayer in the morning orients the whole day and sets up God’s gracious acts for us. Prayer at noon offers a refresher for my afternoon’s work, and prayer at evening helps me wrap up the day and settle any open accounts I have with God, offers me opportunity to pray for others, and allows for a peaceful night’s rest. Spending time with God is a healing balm that assists us in our service to others.

Study of God’s Word

God’s word sustains us through the rockiest paths we tread on a daily basis. My favorite daily-work principles come from the following verses:

  • Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (NKJV).
  • Psalm 37:5,6: “Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the   noonday” (NKJV).
  • Luke 12:2: “For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known” (NKJV).
  • Psalm 66:12: “You have caused [others] to ride over our heads: We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to rich fulfillment” (NKJV).
  • These scriptures hold me up when I feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed. When I walk with Jesus, I know he will be faithful to his promises.

Service to Others

For those of us with service-oriented careers, this one may come more or less naturally, but it is not always easy, depending on factors related to one’s personality, workplace culture, daily hassle index, and energy levels, not to mention, ahem, the possibility of personality clashes. As family therapists say, adaptive behaviors from home become maladaptive outside of the home, a fact that can cause challenges when interacting closely with others in the workplace or in other venues. We can’t always please everyone, but the Golden Rule is imperative. When we fail, we can offer sincere apologies, or better yet, repent of our own maladaptive habits and try to do better next time. A dear friend told me about the three owed behaviors in any workplace: 1) courtesy, 2) pleasantness, and 3) competence. To this list I add two more: integrity and grace. Integrity keeps us alive to our accountability to God, to our superiors and to those we serve through management roles or on coequal terms. Grace is the undercoat needed to sustain the other four. When I rely on God’s grace in place of my own, I do much better in a given day.

Limiting the Priority List

I have learned through my studies that it is best not to put too many items on a daily or weekly list. Some authors say that only three priorities are needed, and some say that you can do a mix-up of two big and two or three smaller tasks. As stated before, it is important to leave cushions of time for emergencies. This does not mean that you need to sit around and do nothing during the cushion-time. You can be working on things, but just remember that you are prioritizing the emergency if it occurs.

“Sufficient for the Day is its own Trouble” (Matthew 6:34b)

Jesus’ words ring true especially when it comes to squeezing tomorrow’s work into today. I am extremely guilty of borrowing tomorrow’s troubles for today, but I am eager to reform my ways. This principle is one of the most effective ways to truly feel rested and still get everything done that needs to be done in a given day.

“Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No” (Matthew 5:37a)

Finally, counting the cost of any request for my time is paramount to my peace and joy. Making sure we can commit to something before we say yes is a basic courtesy, and it is very difficult to work with those who do not adhere to this principle. It can be very costly to an organization as well. Though it can be hard to do, saying no is sometimes the greatest gift we can give to our colleagues and friends when our ability to complete an extra task well is questionable.[2] It is a healthy practice to think carefully through a task before you accept it.

I hope these principles of time management support you in your work and ministry. As we try on the word of God, we will find more of how he wishes for us to live our earthly life—not in frantic, grasping ways, but in attention to holistic wellness that he has planned for us. When we commit our plans to the Lord, he has promised to bless us in every other way as well (Proverbs 16:3).

[1] Hummel, Charles E. Freedom from the Tyranny of the Urgent. Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 1997, 10.

[2] I speak mainly of extra task requests here, not of employees’ regular assignments.

Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems. 

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