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To Be Busy or Be Fruitful?: Making the Most of the Time You’ve Been Given

My writing career started in the middle of the internet boom (and shortly afterward, the bust.) During that heady time, some of the employees at our tech company were known to sleep under their desks in sleeping bags. And we praised them for this. We admired them. Now, I wonder what we were thinking.

If our culture had a golden calf or idol, I think it would be called Productivity. Our non-fiction bookshelves are lined with tomes about efficiency and life hacks. Social media has made stars of people who sell these ideas. I think that’s why we feel particularly lost during a quarantine.

Who are we without our busyness?

I fell headlong into this way of thinking as a young person and have had to slowly find my way out. Even now the allure of productivity is there, but now I wonder what its real value is. What does it matter in the long-term?

Confusing Busyness with Significance

Being busy feels good to me, well the idea of it feels good. A full life can be exhilarating and also highly stressful. But when I became burned out, I assumed it was my problem not anyone else’s. It was only hurting me so it was an acceptable loss. (Ask my family if they agree.)

I excused my busyness for years and did my best to cut back when it seemed out of control. But I had no measuring stick for how much was too much. If I compared myself to other people, I was never really doing enough. Besides, productivity is constantly rewarded in our culture from the time we are young. It starts even in nursery play groups, when moms compare how early their children read.

Most of us feel better when we are surrounded by people and productive work than when we are alone or don’t have plans. We’ve been conditioned to believe that more is better. More activity helps us to feel needed and appreciated.

A full life seems like a significant life. But is it necessarily?

A Higher Goal — Fruitfulness

Although I have managed to scale back over the years, I didn’t fully grasp how the busyness compromised the fruitfulness of my life and my health until the other day.

I was observing my sad tomato plant. I’m a terrible gardener. Just terrible. I decided to try gardening again during the pandemic, even though my last attempt didn’t produce much. So I planted and watered and waited without really knowing what I was doing. A recipe for great success, I would say.

Then I watched a gardening show with my youngest daughter. The hosts talked about pruning back the tomato plant as it grows, helping it form one large stalk, as well as fertilizing it each week. This all made perfect sense but I hadn’t done either of those things.

So I had a plant like this.

A beauty.

It was clear I needed to cut it back. But everywhere I looked I saw little blooms—the places where fresh tomatoes would grow. My plant was happy to produce. But as you can imagine, the tomatoes got smaller as the branches reached out further from the stalk. The plant couldn’t even support its own weight, so I had to prop it up.

What would I cut off? How could I cut off a living part that seemed to be doing okay, if not wonderfully?

And this is what my life has often come to—a thousand branches of activities that I’m barely able to nurture, and they are all “producing.” But has my life been producing as it should? Is it revealing the ripe fruit God intends or just scraps here and there? Am I being held up by others, unable to hold my own weight in each situation?

How do I solve this conundrum—Extreme Productivity vs. Fruitfulness? It is clear to me that we can’t always have both.

The answer is in focusing my attentions and saying “no” to many things. I am but one planting, and I was meant to concentrate my attention, my energy, my resources on one big stalk and a few smaller branches. And that’s it.

That’s it? Doesn’t seem like much.

Maybe it means crafting a small life. But what might the fruit of my efforts be like with my attention focused? How clear might my brain feel if it wasn’t juggling so much? How much energy could I devote to those few things? How much peace could I experience? How much more bountiful might the fruit be, how sweet?

In the case of the tomatoes, and us, less might really be much more.

Cutting Back Wisely

When our lives are already blooming, things are in progress, it’s tough to cut back so that we are organized around two to three most important things. It’s hard to disappoint ourselves and others. Here are a few questions to consider when cutting back.

1. What’s best for me in this season?

What we must remember is that the very best things for our lives, the gold, are in the things that are right for this time. The world may hold many options for us, but they are not all meant for us. So we ask God. What do you want me to do? We ask Him to show us the best way. We ask Him to close the doors that aren’t meant for us. He has other people for those tasks. God won’t spread me so thin that I can’t produce. He’s all about fruitfulness (and pruning).

2. What do I have provision for?

God gives me the portion I need for the tasks I have to do. The portion He gives is plentiful. But his asks aren’t burdensome. When my life feels overly burdened (with activities and tasks I’ve created), that’s a good indicator that I’m not following directions from Him well, and I’m not making the hard choices of saying “no” and pruning what’s getting in the way.

3. What is My Heart Condition?

We must also examine the condition of our hearts. Anything that is simply propping our egos up isn’t really for our good, even if it feels good. Anything that I have chosen out of fear of not having enough love or not having enough provision, is not usually a good thing. Anything I have chosen just to fill an empty spot in my calendar, might not be a good thing. When my heart is set on God and filled by Him, I need way less in the way of false comforts. I can be satisfied with a smaller life.

We can’t always see when our lives need to be pruned back, and it’s often a painful process. But remember that we don’t serve a God of lack but of plenty. He won’t leave us feeling empty or worn away.

How to Begin the Pruning Process

To evaluate your Productivity vs. Fruitfulness, make a simple list of the things that fill your days. Pray through each one and consider where your heart is, why you’ve chosen that activity, and what God would say about it. Prune accordingly. When in doubt, ask a mentor or trusted friend for confirmation.

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