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Busy’ is no excuse

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 9, 2006

“How about sex.” That sentence (or actually, sentence fragment) comes from one of the students who wrote me after my last column, in which I wondered what topics undergraduates would find helpful, particularly in their lives of faith. That same student also told me that my writing was too boring to hold people’s attention, so I thought I’d try to pull you in right from the start.

“It’s time for a new approach to the talk about sex,” this person continued. Yikes. I’m going to have to save that topic until I can give it some more thought. What would my new approach be? I’d want to be careful; the wrong kind of column and I could lose my job … though come to think of it, then I wouldn’t have to worry any more about what I’d write.

Another student told me that most people don’t really read The Observer, they just sort of skim it while they eat lunch and then throw it in the recycling bin on their way out of the dining hall. She’d love to give me some ideas for future topics, she said, but she was too busy and had to go write a paper. I did realize from her e-mail that I often read materials that aren’t my top priority that way too – in a multi-tasking sort of way, claiming to myself that I’ll get back to it more carefully later. My usual excuse for the careless first read and the often-forgotten second read? “I’m too busy!”

Believe it or not, being too busy came up in more e-mails I received than any other single topic; yes, even more often than sex. Most people talk about how busy they are while bemoaning the fact; you may even know (as I do) some people who are downright whiny about how high they have climbed on the “busy-meter.” Maybe you’ve been a busy whiner yourself (as I have).

I would like to propose that being busy – even being too busy – has the potential to be a very good thing. Your schedule, and your attitude toward the way you spend your time, tells you exactly what your real priorities are, no matter what you say they are. A former teacher of mine used to say that you can tell what a person values by looking in their checkbook register, though I suppose now she would have to say their debit card record. I say you can also tell by looking at someone’s calendar. There’s a level of honesty present in how you spend your time that you cannot deny.

For most of us, one main demand, usually our chosen vocation or profession, takes up the bulk of our time. Whether we would consider being “student” or “faculty,” “rector” or “staff member” or “parent” our main responsibility, we must give that aspect of our lives many hours each day. However, that one aspect of life isn’t usually what puts us over the edge into the zone of the “too busy.” Come on – even the most serious student around here participates in a few other activities outside of class and studying.

So what do you consider your highest values? What – or who – is most important to you? Does the way you spend your time each day reflect that? Now, you don’t necessarily have to spend the most time each day on what’s most important to you. You can be very committed to your faith without spending hours each day in prayer and service. You can believe that staying fit and healthy is important without spending the entire afternoon each day in the gym. However, can you really say that your faith means a lot to you if you don’t take time to pray during the day; if you find excuses to miss Mass sometimes; if you never participate in the opportunities for service presented through the Center for Social Concerns? Can you really say that you value your health if you rarely – or never – make the time to exercise? If you’re always “too busy” to do something you say you really value, then face it. You just don’t value that thing as much as you claim to.

My husband has a rule of thumb for whenever either of us is asked to commit our time to anything new. Whenever we say “yes” to something new, he reminds me, we have to drop an existing activity to make room for it. His policy is a good one, in part because we’re both busy, but also because it forces us to prioritize. How much do we want to say “yes” to this new opportunity? Enough to drop something we’re already doing? When we follow his plan we stay out of the trap of mindlessly saying yes just because it sounds good to us, or because (the slyest trap of all) we’re flattered to be asked. Saying “yes” in this way keeps me attentive to the fact that really, whenever we say yes to something, we’re saying no to something else. Even in our multi-multi-tasking society, we must make choices. Those choices give a much more honest accounting of our true priorities than what we claim to hold dear.

In any environment filled with successful people, as Notre Dame is, a person’s level of busy-ness can often become (falsely) equated with how important or how valuable they are. Don’t be fooled. God knows how priceless each one of us is and wants us to use the precious gift of each day with wisdom and love – and probably not at breakneck speed.

This week’s FaithPoint is written by Kate Barrett, director of resources and special projects in the Office of Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.