Whenever I see a caged hamster frantically racing around in his wheel, but going nowhere, I think I know how he feels.
Maybe you do too—wondering what all the busy activities and tight schedules accomplish, fearing that one day you’ll look back on your life and not see much meaning to all the motion.
I know all the popular time management techniques and have taught most of them. But I’m still often frustrated with the stewardship of my life, which is one of the major challenges I face as I pursue the splendor of the Kingdom. There are simply too many things to do, too many choices to make, to leave it to chance. That tension isn’t all bad, though, because it causes me to continue aiming for the target of seeking to always live the most meaningful life I can have before God. And that mindset is critical to being a Kingdom carrier.
The apostle Paul urged the Ephesians to live lives worthy of the calling they had received (4:1). In 2 Thessalonians 1:11, he added, ” …we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours….” In Colossians 1:10, he elaborates, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” Paul’s words affirm that God is concerned with how we spend our time because that makes a big impact on what fruit we bear. That includes making good life choices.
Over the years, the life management phrases that have been most meaningful to me have been, not those that stress schedules and “to do” lists, but those that provide a framework for making the daily hard choices. Here are a few:
First Things First
Jason had promised to teach his son, David, how to play baseball “as soon as I finish this project at work.” But the project dragged on through the spring and summer. Every time David asked, “When can we play baseball, Dad?” Jason responded, “Soon. Don’t you worry, little fellow. We’ll do it.”
But autumn came and still they had done little more than play catch in the front yard a few evenings. The rest of the time, Jason left home early and worked late, devoting his energy to meeting the demands of his boss. David lost faith in his dad as a promise keeper and was ridiculed by the neighborhood boys because of his poor skills
Former President Lyndon Johnson once said, “The problem with this nation is that we constantly put second things first.” Charles E. Hummel warns in his booklet, Tyranny of the Urgent!, “We live in a constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important tasks rarely need to be done today, or even this week.”
The important, like our children, will always wait for more opportune time. The urgent, like the needs of a client or boss, demands immediate attention. If we hope to lead worthy lives, we must determine to do first things first.
You Always Have Options
It’s easy to feel victimized, trapped, without choices. Jason responded to David’s pleas by moaning, “They don’t give me a choice.” The omnipotent “they” can trap us into believing we don’t have choices.
But the fact is, we always have options. Granted, some of them aren’t very appealing. Some will be expensive. But we alwayshave options. We have the choice to say no. We have the choice to compromise or seek creative alternatives. We have the choice to make personal sacrifices.
One friend in a position similar to Jason’s refused a promotion that would have required long hours away from home. He deliberately moved off the fast track to place his family first. It was a tough choice, but one that earned him the esteem of both his family and his employer—and ultimately didn’t hurt his career at all.
Knowing that I have choices is freeing. As soon as I see beyond the demands of the omnipotent “they,” I gain the personal power to make the hard choices that will make my life worth living.
Some choices will require a total change. I probably can’t keep my present job and accept a new one at the same time. But choices like this are far fewer than those that allow some flexibility each day.
The Next Five Years Will Go by Anyway
How do you make those hard choices? Many people are immobilized by decision‑making, and therefore, do nothing. What they don’t realize is that doing nothing is itself a choice, but it’s one that squanders personal power.
When faced with tough choices, consider that “the next five years will go by anyway.” Then ask, “At the end of those five years, what will be important?”
When Jason asked that question, he realized that his six‑year old son would be 11. More than half of his years at home would be gone. Would they be years filled with laughter, shared secrets, learned skills? Or would they be years of more deadlines, nights and week‑ends away, and increasing distance between father and son?
The fact is, the next five years willgo by anyway—regardless of the choices we make. That being the case, will you look back with joy or with regret?
When in Doubt, Do Both
Let’s not pretend that choices are easy. They seldom are. If they matter, they’re often gut‑wrenching. But few choices must be either/or. Get creative. Think differently.
Rather than saying, “Should I stay at work orplay ball with my son?” Jason can reframe the question. “How can I meet my responsibilities at work and teach David to play ball?”
Suddenly there are many options. They can get up an hour earlier and play in the morning. He can bring work home to do after Jason goes to bed. He can commit every Saturday afternoon to Jason. If his employer is totally unreasonable, Jason can update his resume.
When you determine that you can do both, endless creative ideas will present themselves to you. Brainstorm with others who are less invested in the decision. You’ll be amazed at how often you can accommodate seemingly conflicting options.
What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
Some choices involve doing something new, which makes them scary. Fear often immobilizes us, making us feel trapped. But few decisions are as monumental as they feel.
Jason can question both options. “What’s the worst that will happen if I leave work early twice a week?”
“I’ll need to explain it to my boss.”
“What’s the worst that will happen if I do that?”
“He’ll be upset and it will show up on my performance review.”
“What’s the worse that will happen then?”
“I won’t get a raise.”
“What’s the worst that will happen?”
“We’ll have to cut back on our spending.”
Play the “what’s the worst ” game as far as you can. It seldom reaches a life and death decision. In fact, it will free you from feeling trapped.
What’s the worst that will happen if Jason doesn’t spend time with his son now? Which is the greater long-range risk?
How Do You Eat an Elephant?
Thinking we must do everything at once is overwhelming. But seldom must we juggle all the balls at once, especially in a major change. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “One bite at a time.”
Jason doesn’t need to leave work early every night. He doesn’t have to coach Little League. All he needs to do is take a bite: Give David an hour one evening per week. When he’s comfortable with that, he can take another bite: One hour two evenings per week. Then another bite: An hour Sunday afternoon. Eventually, Jason can reach an equilibrium where he, his boss, and David are reasonably content. Sure, there will always be tension, but Jason will be handling the various demands with a sense of balance.
Gray is Beautiful
Many of us have grown up with black and white thinking. A decision is either right or wrong, a person is either good or bad. We evaluate ourselves and our decisions by this standard.
It’s freeing to realize that between black and white is gray, a large, beautiful space. Gray can free us from the extremes. Gray gives us unlimited an expanse in which to maneuver.
Jason is not a good dad or a bad dad, a good employee or a bad employee. He’s just a guy doing the best he can. Sometimes he’ll do things right and sometimes he’ll make mistakes. Whether he accepts it or not, he’ll spend most of his life in the gray area. If he can accept and embrace the gray, he’ll feel a lot better about himself. And frankly, it won’t change reality at all!
Some Things Will Never Get Done
Being able to acknowledge that some things will never get done is important for Jason, whose “to do” list rivals the Federal Register. He’ll never find time for David if he doesn’t face this and ruthlessly trim his list.
Back to point one—what’s important and what’s urgent? Facing the fact that some things will never get done offers grace to Jason and to the rest of us. Accepting that some things will never get done will allow Jason (and the rest of us) to choose the important tasks without suffering under a sense of false guilt.
A life worth living. What is that? Perhaps it’s a life where we walk uprightly before our King—where we maintain deliberate lives in the present tense, where we make tough decisions, and where we give ourselves the grace to struggle.