The secret to not being overwhelmed
One of the turning points in my life was an email I received from Fr. Joseph Langford, MC back in 2009. He was close friends with Mother Teresa, and she worked with him to found her order of priests.
I had the privilege of getting to know Fr. Langford because I was working with him on a website project, and one day when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I decided to seek his advice.
It occurred to me that Mother Teresa must have had more demands on her time than she could ever even come close to addressing — and considering the type of work she did, serving the poorest of the poor all over the world, she must have often felt daunted by how many important things needed to be done compared to how little she could do.
So I asked Fr. Langford: What did Mother Teresa do when it seemed that there was more work than she could possibly handle?
His response was simple and wise, and it marked a turning point in my life. In his reply to my email, he wrote:
The [work she could not get to] she did not think twice about, nor should you or I, since God is not asking you to do what He does not give you the time (or health, or resources) to do. So be at peace.
Fr. Langford also mentioned in the email that he had recently been diagnosed with blood and bone cancer. He knew he didn’t have much longer to live, and his words were potent with the kind of wisdom you can only get when you’re face-to-face with the reality that our time on this earth is quite limited.
Fr. Langford passed away only a few months after he sent that email, but his brief message changed the way I approach life. Immediately I began to seek solace in the idea that God only asks me to do what he gives me time to do, that I should not feel burdened my unfinished tasks that I truly did not have the ability to get to.
And it helped. A lot. But, as it usually goes with me, it wasn’t quite that simple.
In all the years since then, something has nagged at me about the concept. There was a sense that Mother Teresa’s lesson hadn’t quite clicked with me the way it should. I felt like I had mostly put it into practice, yet I still felt unsettled about what I was and wasn’t getting done — I didn’t feel that soul-quenching peace you get when you’re exactly in line with what God wants you to be doing.
It was only a few weeks ago, when my to-do list exploded like never before, that I finally understood why.
At the end of one week in the beginning of February, I looked at my to-do list and laughed. There were 17 items written down that I had designed as essential things that had to get done. Many of them involved deadlines that would make me look bad to other people if I didn’t hit them. It was really important stuff.
Of the 17 must-do, super-important items, I had done three. THREE!
And the most surprising part? I felt at peace about it. When the day drew to a close that Friday, I didn’t stay up until some insane hour, frantically working to cross off a few more items. I didn’t snap at the kids or miss time to chat with Joe because I was stressed and frustrated. I felt happy, free, and even took some extra time to dig into a favorite novel that night.
It occurred to me the next morning that it seemed like I was finally beginning to live Mother Teresa’s advice that I’d tried so hard to implement for so long. But why now? What was the difference?
It took me a while to spot what had changed, but when I realized what it was, it all made sense:
I finally had space in my schedule. Thanks to some babysitting help and a couple of tweaks to our routine, I had a few hours per week — predictable time that I could count on and plan around — where I could do nothing but think and pray and get my priorities in order.
Once had that, everything changed.
Suddenly I was okay with only getting 3 out of 17 critical things done that week, because I was confident that those were the three most important things for me to be putting my energy into. I had had sufficient prayer time to “put on the mind of Christ,” so I was fairly sure that I was putting first things first.
Before, I might get 12 out of 17 things done, but I would still be plagued by a feeling of uneasiness, because I had been going through my day unmoored from God’s guidance. I was jumping from one thing to the next, feeling like I was trying to sort through an avalanche, and at the end of the day I would wonder if maybe the five things I didn’t do were the only ones that really mattered.
But when I finally had the time to prayerfully prioritize my approach to each day, it was so much easier to keep my life in balance. I could finally say with a shrug:
“Well, Lord, I guess that long list of things I didn’t do today isn’t that important. You could have either given me more time or put those things at the top of the list if they mattered in your plan, but since you didn’t, I’ll forget about them for tonight and go read a book in bed.”
When you look at Mother Teresa’s daily schedule, you see an extraordinary amount of time for prayer and reflection. I used to wonder why she didn’t cut some of that to do more work since she was so busy, but now it all makes sense. The more demands you have on your time, the more time you’re going to need to connect with God so that you can receive his guidance as you make the extremely difficult choices about how you use your time.
I talk about survival mode a lot, but I don’t think I ever had a clear definition of what that term really means. Now I do:
If you don’t have at least a few blocks of time per week that are both predictable and uninterrupted, where you can prayerfully get your priorities in order, you are in survival mode.
That’s okay — we’re all there sometimes. Some of us spend years there, in fact. But it’s important to recognize that you’re in this state so that you won’t beat yourself up if it feels like things aren’t going well, and so that you can enact some strategies to make your life easier. And once you accept the fact that you’re in survival mode, you can take an honest look at how you got there and what you might be able to change to make things better.
For me, it’s a constant ebb and flow into and out of survival mode. This week, for example, with my surprise trip coming up and my poorly timed blogging commitments, I have had little balance. I’m overwhelmed and our house has been operating in survival mode (my apologies to Netflix for the bandwidth usage, which I fear reaches into some kind of red-zone when the Fulwilers have weeks like these). Next week will be a “re-entry” week once I return from my trip, so it promises to be crazy too. I did feel led to do the trip and to stick with my writing commitments, so I have peace about how crazy-busy I am — but I know that this kind of thing should only be short-term.
Now that I understand the secret to not being overwhelmed, I know what the goal is:
I need to tackle everything in front of me and not waste energy stressing about being temporarily overcommitted. Then, as soon as I can, I need to dig my way out of this deluge of commitments and get back to a routine where I have regular space to decompress and ask God what I’m supposed to be doing right now.
Once I have clarity, I should do those things to the best of my ability. And — guess what! — there are going to be way, way too many of them for me to handle. So when it’s time to rest, I need to call to mind Fr. Langford’s wise words and peacefully, confidently hand my long list of unfinished tasks back over to God.
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