I had a couple of ruthless high school English teachers who routinely "bled" across my and my classmates' papers with their red pens - fabulous teachers who taught us to write. One point they eventually got across is how much harder it is to write a short paper than a long one. This is counterintuitive but true. Today this point re-emerges when a client is relieved to learn that a permitted proposal length is only 25 pages instead of 100... And I have to explain that the short proposal will actually be a lot more work than the longer one would have been.
Why is producing a short document - a quality one, I mean - usually harder than producing a long one? Because each word in a short document must be well chosen, providing a comprehensive picture in a limited space. This takes planning, editing, and painstaking revising. And the writer can't indulge in any luxuries a longer text affords - lengthy explanations, sidebars, a little redundancy.
Basically, you have the opportunity to be lazy in writing a longer document - blatantly or subtly. But you can't get away with that in a short text.
It recently occurred to me that this principle isn't just true in writing; it's true in a lot of life. Sometimes doing more is actually lazier than doing less.
Think about a jam-packed day filled with 20 activities - errands, work tasks, social gatherings. You come home exhausted.
But while doing 20 things in a day may be tiring, it's not really difficult. It's like spewing hundreds of words onto a computer screen as fast as possible. Anybody can do that. The difficult thing is only doing three things in a day - three selected, planned, prayed-over things, conducted with conviction and excellence.
Most of the tasks that fill my time on 20-task days are reactive and even compulsive: living life in a knee-jerk fashion. Hurrying through, I skip reflection, prayer, and paring down my list to the truly important. These omissions are actually a form of laziness -
a reluctance or unwillingness to do necessary work; seeking the easy way out. We think of laziness as idleness and procrastination, but it can also come in the shape of frenetic activity and over-full days.
Combating laziness - whether slothfulness or frenzy - requires self-control. By harnessing self-control, the lazy person takes herself in hand and does the hard work of remedying the situation. An idle person gets off the couch and finds her car keys. An over-active person ceases bustling and does some prayerful revising of the overly long, rambling document that her life has become.
The topic of self-control gets so little press today that it almost seems a foreign concept. Even among Christians, it is a contender for the least-talked-about fruit of the spirit.
But acting without thinking - performing tasks reactively - defines lack of self-control. Routinely overfilling our days with activity means we ourselves are not in control of ourselves, our time - so we can't possibly give control over to God.
The classic biblical text on over-activity is Luke 10, when Jesus dines with Mary and Martha and rebukes bustling Martha for being "worried and upset about many things when only one thing is needed." The "one thing" he means is sitting and listening to him, which Mary is doing. Many have observed that Jesus seems almost unfair to Martha here - after all, didn't someone need to cook for him? Who wouldn't want a clean table and hot meal for Jesus if he dined with her?
But Mary's natural disposition is my chief interest. Was she usually a low-key person or as efficient as Martha? Maybe she had a fast-paced disposition like mine and tended toward productivity. Maybe she was inclined to be a 20-task-a-day person but had learned self-control and trained herself to do only the most important things - like sitting with Jesus.
The hardest thing about revising down a long document to a short, compelling one is cutting text. Preludes, incisive points, examples - they all have to go. Only the best can stay, and figuring out what constitutes the "best" is the most grueling part. What activities might Mary have edited out of her evening to free herself to sit with Jesus, focusing exclusively on him? What would this look like if Mary were alive today and living in my world?