My granddaddy used to say, “If the Devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” That’s some good Southern preacher wisdom right there.
Before I broke busy in my own life, I proudly wore my busy badge of honor. I was the queen of busy. I even had the tiara and sash to go with it. Busyness made me feel productive and needed, and I overlooked the havoc it was wreaking in my life. Oh, there were warning signs, but I just kept straightening my tiara and assuring myself I was a strong, confident woman, who could handle the stress and chaos.
But contrary to what many of us have been told, we can’t handle it all, nor should we. So how do we know when we are reaching our limits? We aren’t like our phones with flashing numbers that tell us we’ve reached our capacity. But there are signs our body gives us if we’re paying attention, signs that may look different for each of us. For some the warning signs may be emotional. For others they might be physical, relational, or spiritual. But rest assured, if you are over capacity, you will soon find out— the hard way.
Sign #1: An Inability to Control Your Emotions
I was talking about reaching our limits with a leader at a large church recently. She shared that she can always tell when she’s over capacity because she can no longer control her emotions. She told me this story:
I was scheduled to meet a group of friends for coffee. I love these women. They are my ‘people.’ But as I thought through the other things I should be doing that day, I realized I was beginning to dread it all. I went from looking forward to a relaxing morning with my girlfriends to feeling anxious about the whole thing.
By the time I got to my car, I found myself feeling irritated with my friend who had set it all up. Didn’t she realize how busy I was, how much I had on my plate? A real friend would have realized that the last thing I needed was one more thing to do.
About halfway there, I had worked myself into an anxious, angry mess. I texted my friend and told her I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I turned my car around and cried all the way home. I pulled into my garage and sat in the darkness, completely depressed. I convinced myself that if I could just get past this season of busyness, I’d be able to pull myself together. I’d be okay.
I have thought that same thing so many times. An inability to control our emotions and constantly feeling anxious, irritable, depressed, and overwhelmed are all signs that something isn’t right. Out-of-control emotions often reflect the out-of-control demands we put on ourselves.
Sign #2: Lack of Self-Care
People who operate at overcapacity rarely have time for self-care. I’ve often justified skipping a shower and working in my jammies because I had too much to do. Or making Snickers and coffee my go-to meal because it was convenient, despite the fact that it made me a caffeine-crazed maniac.
I find it easier to escape online than to take action for my own health and happiness. I’ve spent years goofing off on Pinterest and admiring other people’s lives on Facebook instead of investing in my own life. If we already have a full plate of obligations and crazy commitments, the last thing most of us want to do is spend time planning healthy meals, working out, or taking care of our physical health or appearance. That just sounds like more work.
The American Psychological Association released a study stating, “In general, Americans . . . seem to understand the importance of healthy behaviors like managing their stress levels, eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise, but they report experiencing challenges practicing these healthy behaviors. They report being too busy.” When you start hearing yourself say things like “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” it might be time to take a look in the mirror and recognize this warning sign.
Taking care of yourself may seem selfish, but self-care is one of the most other-centered choices you can make in your life. That’s because you can’t live the life God created you for, with space to be aware of his leading, if you don’t take care of yourself.
Sign #3: Illness
There was a season when I simply could not get well. I lived with a cold, a sinus infection, a stomach bug, or the flu almost all the time. I remember telling a doctor, “You have to help me. I am sick of being sick!” He said, “Alli, is it possible you’re stressed?” I wanted to yell, “DUH!” but I restrained myself.
As I told him all the things in my life I was responsible for, he said, “Alli, you’re overloaded. Reduce your to-do list or stay sick.” Constant illness can be a sign of many things, and of course, you should see your doctor if you’re struggling in this area. But illness can also be your body’s warning to you that you need to make changes in your life.
Sign #4: Chronic Lateness
I believe chronic lateness is caused by the tendency to say yes to too many activities and to too many people. It’s a crazy cycle of trying to be all things to all people. In the end, we can’t get anywhere on time or accomplish everything we say we will, and we end up disappointing everyone because the weight of it is all too much.
A few years ago, I was at a conference, waiting for my turn to speak. I was told someone named Robin would be assisting me with a computer set up with my presentation. About 40 minutes after I arrived, the woman I assumed must be Robin walked into the green room. She had a baby on her back and was carrying three large bags. She gave me a list a mile long of why she was late. When Robin unpacked her computer bag, she realized she’d left my PowerPoint on her counter at home. She burst into tears and said, “I don’t know why I even volunteered to work at this conference. I knew I didn’t have time.” I gave Robin a hug and told her that I thought she was super- human for doing everything she was doing with a baby on her back, and I told her that if I had learned anything from years of giving presentations, it was to always have a backup on a flashdrive. I pulled that little USB drive out of my purse, and we both started laughing out of relief.
How many times have we known we didn’t have the time, energy, or emotional fortitude to put one more thing on our plates? How many times have we said yes out of obligation or guilt instead of out of genuine desire? If you’re noticing it is harder and harder to get anywhere on time and to accomplish things when you say you will accomplish them, it’s probably a sign that you are over capacity.
Sign #5: Self-Medicating and Excess
When the demands of life become too much, self-medicating is a very common response. For five years I ran a large women’s conference, and it seemed everyone and everything needed my attention. Once, a couple of close friends joked that they could always tell how stressed I was by how many times I touched up my makeup and how many Reese’s cups I ate. Overeating sweets is a problem for me. Anytime my life is out of balance, you can bet I’m probably curled up somewhere with a jar of Nutella and a spoon.
Self-medicating might also take the form of obsessive exercise, too many hours on social media, or watching a lot of television instead of getting much-needed sleep. Sometimes we can fool ourselves into thinking self-medicating is actually self-care — “I deserve that chocolate bar!” But if we find that our habits are directly related to stressful situations in our lives, and that they are not renewing or restoring us, then we need to recognize those choices as a warning sign of busyness. We need to ask ourselves if escaping reality just seems like an easier choice than reducing our to-do list. Whether it is overindulging or a serious addiction, self- medicating is a serious warning sign.
Sign #6: Neglecting Important Relationships
Do any of these sound familiar?
- “You’re always busy. You never have time for us anymore.”
- “Do you have to check your email now? We’re out to dinner.”
- “This is the third time you’ve canceled our date.”
- “Mom, can you please pick me up on time today? It’s kind of embarrassing always being the last kid here.”
Do you feel as if you are habitually letting down the people closest to you: your husband, children, close friends, family, and colleagues? It’s easy to feel guilty about these things. And once we start feeling just a twinge of guilt, it’s all over. The onslaught of pressure and guilt we heap on ourselves outweighs any positive feedback anyone else gives us. When I begin neglecting my important relationships, I know I’m over capacity, and it’s time to cut back to save my relationships and to save my peace of mind.
Sign #7: Neglecting God
In the Bible, we often see that Jesus is busy doing the work his Father sent him to do, living out his calling every day. But despite his busy schedule, Jesus is undeterred from daily reconnecting with God. He leaves cities with people unhealed, prayers unprayed, and work undone all so he can spend time with God. A huge sign that I am over capacity is when I start skipping church and prayer. Staying connected to God is what keeps me operating within my capacity and what helps me understand that God made me with limitations on purpose. Having a limited capacity is not a flaw in my character. It is by glorious design and for an incredible purpose: to realize my need for him.
Neglecting God out of our own busyness, combined with any of the other signs— lack of self-care, chronic lateness, illness, self-medicating, and neglecting our important relationships — are all symptoms that we are off balance. These are not things to beat ourselves up over, but they are signs we should heed.
Taken from Breaking Busy by Alli Worthington. Copyright © 2016 by Alli Worthington. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
Alli Worthington is the executive director of Propel Women and the author of the new book Breaking Busy: How to Find Peace and Purpose in a World of Crazy. She is a wife, mom to 5 boys and lives just outside Nashville, TN. Connect with her online at alliworthington.com.