Courage to Step Away from the Work

I wish that I could say every morning I make time for prayer, quiet, and reflection, but I don’t. This morning, however, I did and a phrase popped into my head that had never been there before – Courage to step away from the work.

The context of this phrase came as I was thinking about, and praying for, my brother and several friends who are going through periods of intense work pressure or work-related stress in their lives. While each situation is very different, all seem to be wading through an overwhelming stream of work, an uncertainty about a work future, or a dissatisfaction with their current work that they can’t seem to escape. As I asked a blessing for strength on them, it dawned on me that they probably don’t have the strength to endure these situations.

Work can be both intoxicating and addicting, leading us to feel like if we just put in 30 more minutes tonight or return 5 more emails or complete one more report we’ll feel really good. I know this to be true because I’ve been there. I’ve sent emails to colleagues at 8 o’clock on a Friday night when I should be enjoying a movie with my family. I’ve texted my wife that I won’t make dinner because I have to finish a project. I’ve returned to my desk before bed for a few hours of “uninterrupted work” only to find that I can’t sleep because I got my mind racing with the things I have left undone. And I still do these things on occasion.

So today, my prayer for myself, my brother, these particular friends I have in mind, and anyone else that thinks they have too much work to do to relax is this: I pray that we will have the courage to step away from the work because the work is not worthy of our worship and it is robbing us of our peace and joy.

I fully appreciate that hard work is necessary and I even believe that work can be an act of worship and praise. However, our culture has placed an undue value on “putting in time” at work. My technology makes me completely accessible to my colleagues in Portland, OR, Australia and Europe any time I allow it. If you look at the time zone map, you’ll see that as a worker in the American East, working for a company based in the American West, with colleagues and projects going on in both Australia and Europe, I could, theoretically, work 24 hours a day and be engaged during someone’s work day that needs me. I choose not to do that.

Instead, I choose to focus on engaging with my far flung colleagues only in thoughtful and meaningful ways. This sometimes demands that I hop on a call with Australia at 11 o’clock at night or support a conference call with European clients at 6 in the morning. Last night it meant an important phone call with a team member in Portland, OR at 8:30p my time as he drove home from work. The key is that I focus on MEANINGFUL interactions. Rather than respond to every email from every time zone every time, I select ones where I can add value. Instead of making myself available to anyone who wants me at any time, I define my availability based on when I can be attentive and engaged. And often, I spend time during my typical workday here in the Eastern Time Zone doing things that are personal tasks, family obligations, self-improvement, or just fun.

It takes courage to step away from work, but it is wholly necessary. The word courage is defined by Oxford as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” Walking away from the work definitely frightens me. It can be terrifying to think about what Monday might be like if I don’t check off everything on my Friday list, or what my boss might think if I don’t respond to his email within 5 minutes on a Sunday night (which is Monday morning in Australia), or how a client might react if I don’t pick up their phone call from California at 6pm Eastern time as we are sitting down for family dinner. Still, we must act in the face of that fear and walk away, hit ignore on the phone, or shut down the email.

You see, while we all inherently know that we need space in our lives for fun, family, friends, hobbies, or relaxing, we somehow give these things second class status to work. So we press on, trying to squeeze work into every nook and cranny of our lives. All the while, we are missing out on the joy that comes with allowing space and time into our days.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your volume of work today, stressed out about your work situation, or just looking at a to do list that seems insurmountable, have the courage to step away from the work. Unless you are a surgeon, it is unlikely that anyone will die from you not getting back to them or not attending to their need (want). Don’t fill your time away with anything that even feels like work. Instead read a book, go for a walk, sit at a bar, talk to your spouse, enjoy your backyard, or just sit quietly. You’ll find that not only will the work still be there, but you will be refreshed and re-energized when you return to it after your courageous hiatus.

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Fear and Courage

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Fear: An emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous.

Courage: The ability to act in the face of fear.

A little over a year ago, my friend Brad and I decided to go mountain bike riding in Moab, Utah. For those of you unfamiliar with mountain bike culture, Moab is to mountain biking what Nashville is to country music. Neither Brad nor I are exactly mountain biking experts and when you put two 6 foot, 3 inch guys over the handlebars of a piece of aluminum screaming down a rocky trail we’ve never been on, fear will creep in to the picture. The photo above was taken AFTER we faced those fears and came out on the other side at the entrance of Arches National Park, unscathed and courageous.

I tell this story to illustrate a lesson that I’ve been visiting quite a bit lately – fear is not something to ignore, it is something to embrace. It has been amazing to me that as I have improved my level of self-awareness, I have become acutely aware of how much fear I have in my life…fear of failure when I go into a big business pitch, fear of a lack of approval from my boss for my job performance, fear that I am making parenting mistakes, fear that I’m not meeting all of my wife’s emotional needs, fear of being accepted by new friends for being who I am, fear of disappointing my true, long time friends because I’m not available enough for them, and the list goes on and on. For a while I was so ashamed of these fears thinking I was weak and lacked self confidence. 

The turning point for me was a realization that the fact that I can recognize these fears creeping in to my thoughts, gives me an amazing power. I now can recognize the fears for what they are – simple emotions, not good or bad, just feelings. I have now become the most courageous person I know because I recognize the fear is there and I ACT. I do not allow the thoughts of fear to linger for more than a moment, I attack them with a rigor that allows me to confidently sit across from a client and stay completely in the moment with them, I work every day in a way that I know will produce my best, I parent with love and grace and trust that it is enough, I do things that I know will make my wife feel good when I see them to be done, I talk to new friends in honesty and straightforwardness and let them decide where the relationship goes, and I try to touch my dearest friends in multiple ways through the power of technology on a regular basis.

My life isn’t always screaming down the side of a single track mountain bike trail, but my fears are real. I’m courageous because just like during that trail ride, I hold on tight, pay close attention, and only go as fast as is prudent.