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The Spiritual Value of Wasting Time at Work

August 13, 2012

I was on speaker phone the other day with a colleague, Bruce, closing up several items regarding some new deal activity.

After five minutes or so, the business part of our conversation was over, so I fired up my computer, opening several application windows in anticipation of the call winding down.

Hello, excel! Hello, email! Good day, internet! What’s up?

I was itching to get back into productivity mode.

I started clicking through a spreadsheet analysis, attended to a few emails that needed attention, and jump-started several to-do items regarding that new business we had just discussed.

Except that Bruce was still talking.

He was apologizing for his delayed response from my call last week, which was really no big deal, and went on to explain the reason was that he had undergone surgery. Upon hearing the word, “surgery,” I stopped for an obligatory moment of concern.

“Oh. Sorry, Bruce. I didn’t know.”

Part of me didn’t want to go there, but I knew I had to ask the next question. “What was it for?” I was looking intently at the speaker phone as if he would notice my attentive gaze.

Bruce went on to describe the procedure. It sounded concerning, but not too bad — he was back to work, after all — so I went back to my awesome multi-tasking, figuring I could listen to his sob story while also maintaining an extremely high level of productivity.

“Yeah, I’ve had this condition since I was in my thirties…” His voice droned over the phone, sounding like he was in a large echo chamber, while my little fingers played the keyboard like a Rachmaninoff symphony. “It kept getting worse, so the doctor finally said we needed to honker down and deal with it, so we scheduled the surgery, and…”

He was just getting warmed up.

I interjected a couple words every so often, but did not back off on my workflow.

“Uh huh.”

BAM. There goes another email!

“Wow, Bruce. That’s wild.”

A final calculation on that spreadsheet analysis. Done!

“You don’t say.”

What? J.C. Penney reported negative earnings again? Losers.

As I busily attended to my various tasks, I caught little snippets of his tale. “Heart catheterization… blah blah blah…anesthesia…blah blah… in surgery for eight hours….blah blah…atrial fibrillation…”

This continued for several minutes until, by some act of spiritual subconscious prompting, I recalled the scripture verse I had read that morning — something by the Apostle Paul about love being the greatest expression of faith.

What am I doing?! This guy, this work colleague — this friend — had been through a serious, difficult, scary health issue, and I was treating it like a waste of time. I jerked my self-centered hands off the keyboard, shut down the computer screen, and turned my full attention to the conversation. To Bruce.

Ultimately, business is about human beings, not transactions. When we’re working, or when we’re leading, we can get overly focused on productivity and delivering results, believing that every moment must be filled with direct outcomes – typing an important email message, preparing for a meeting, writing that next business plan, whipping up that next spreadsheet analysis.

While the human beings are left in the dust.

I listened closely to the rest of Bruce’s harrowing story with a focused compassion, recognizing a vulnerability he hadn’t disclosed before.

When Bruce finally said goodbye, I couldn’t help myself from noticing the digital timer on the phone’s LCD screen. Over 30 minutes – gone. Sheesh. I cringed, thinking of all that time lost in a distracted multi-tasking haze instead of wasting it on another human being.

44 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2012 8:46 am

    My routine every morning: read scripture and accompanying meditation. (Today is Ezekiel 1:2-5, 24-28.) Meditate… not so fast. Meditate. Ask self: anything you want to share with the blogosphere? (Today, ‘no’.) Next read BlogHer. (Nothing.) Post to twitter, read twitter feed. Re-tweet good stuff. Find a blog to read and comment on: The spiritual Value of Wasting Time at Work. Yes. Here’s something I want to share.

    Thank you for slowing me down and helping me focus on what is most important. (And thank you HigherCalling for the tweet.) Ahh… (Breathe) Ahh…

  2. pastordt permalink
    August 13, 2012 1:00 pm

    I am so sorry to say that I can totally relate to this. Sometimes I do believe the devil’s favorite foothold is that incessant voice that says projects/accomplishment are more important than people. Thanks for being honest here and reminding me that the conversation is more important than the keyboard.

  3. August 13, 2012 1:33 pm

    The word God keeps giving me as I juggle a newborn, house stuff, wife stuff, and work is “intentional.” The less intentional I am, the worse I will use my time and the less I will serve others. Good stuff here!

  4. August 13, 2012 2:13 pm

    Ouch. This hurts because I see me. But preach on. It’s what I need to hear–people trump tasks.

  5. August 13, 2012 5:13 pm

    • August 13, 2012 6:06 pm

      Gorgeous, yes? I must change the Rachmaninov link to include this music. Thanks, Nance.

      Sent from my iPhone

    • Donna permalink
      September 30, 2012 3:20 pm

      The older I get the more respectful of this music I am. Beautiful!!

      • September 30, 2012 4:18 pm

        My husband was once a dead head, and now he goes to the symphony.

  6. August 14, 2012 8:03 am

    On my second son’s 4th birthday I was decorating his cake the way he requested (with “Henry,” a character from Thomas the Tank Engine). Cake decorating stresses me out. I felt rushed and thought of the other things I had to do for his birthday. Birthday boy walks into the kitchen to say something to me, and I yelled something like, “Don’t bother me! I’m doing this for YOUR birthday!”

    I call it one of my loser mother moments.

  7. Dan Roloff permalink
    August 14, 2012 8:29 am

    A great reminder. Thanks, Jim.

    • Richard permalink
      September 1, 2012 6:28 pm

      Monicasharman, the fact that you recognized the slip, will make you a good mother and never a loser

  8. August 14, 2012 9:03 am

    It’s easy to read stories like this and to imagine how we would react. Of course, we’d all like to think that we would be listening and attentive, giving attention to the soul we’re talking to instead of to our to-do list. But yet, how often we fall back into the same routine of go, go, go and forget those around us. Great reminder and great story!

  9. August 14, 2012 10:26 am

    And it’s not just at the office. Mothers are often congratulated for their mad multi-tasking skills. I think of the years I wasted, not being present with my kids.

    • August 21, 2012 6:15 am

      Because kids, like co-worker Bruce, take a long time to get where they are going. . . .

  10. August 14, 2012 12:45 pm

    Ultimately, life is about human beings–not doings. Being present. Being Him with skin–within the walls of home and without. I keep reminding myself of this. I’m not very good at it. I’m also not a very good multi-tasker. When I do that, I do nothing well.

    • Teresa Clyne permalink
      August 14, 2012 2:34 pm

      Sandra you brought out the excellent point…”When I do that, i do nothing well.”… referring to multitasking. It goes for everything in our lives. If we cannot devote enough time and attention to something we will not do a good job of it, whether it is parenting as Nancy Franson alluded to, or our work, or participating in a conversation. I think God intended for us to live our lives simply…prioritizing and picking our battles (where we focus our attention) two ways we can feel like we are doing the right thing, instead of feeling guilty for multitasking.

  11. August 15, 2012 9:43 am

    Ouch. Lately, I’ve been turning off my screen and email during phone calls. But there is something so easily satisfying about answering an email and seeing it disappear.

    Real people are never that easily satisfying.

    Thanks for the call to slow down and engage with people for real depth, instead of settling for the superficial satisfaction of email. (And really, what does this say about me that I get a little charge when I answer email? My pride apparently knows no limits.)

    • August 17, 2012 5:14 am

      You hit the nail on the head. For those of us who are driven to be results and task-oriented, the satisfaction of a sent email or a to-do list item checked off can be very rewarding. The conversation with a colleague, however, generally has no result to speak of, and usually prevents us from accomplishing our tasks. Real people require a much deeper, grounded, mature point of reference than getting stuff done.

    • August 17, 2012 1:54 pm

      You really do that? Oh man….Next time you call me, I’ll have to do the same out of courtesy

  12. August 15, 2012 11:33 am

    “I cringed, thinking of all that time lost in a distracted multi-tasking haze instead of wasting it on another human being.” Well played.

    I think this is what the Bible means when it talks about storing up treasures in heaven. You might not be cranking out productive work for that 30 minutes, but you did store up a greater reward in heaven by being attentive to the needs of another person. Thanks for the lesson and reminder!

  13. Monika Demuth permalink
    August 16, 2012 3:04 pm

    I work in the Tourism & Trade industry…which is all about the “People Business”. There is nothing more rewarding than making someone feel good about life, taking frustration out of a lost visitor to town, sharing ideas and making them feel special ! We all like being made to feel special ! NO computer can do that for you. The sooner the young people find out that actually having a conversation in PERSON is a good thing, you may learn something from eachother. Communication and customer service is a GREAT thing, try it sometime.

  14. Sheila Seiler Lagrand permalink
    August 17, 2012 8:15 am

    I did this yesterday, except my interlocutor, a dear friend who was telling me about the sad decision to file for bankruptcy, was physically present in my office! When I realized what I was doing, I turned off my monitor and apologized, but oh. . . I remember the look in his eyes as my fingers tapped the keyboard.


  15. August 17, 2012 9:17 am

    JB — just so you know, I read this post from start to finish without stopping even once to check e-mail, my phone or documents related to next week’s fantasy football draft. Appreciate your honesty here; calls to mind the Gospel story of Mary and Martha. When it come down to it, almost all of us are Marthas rushing around trying to get things done. But in fact, whatever is in front of us right this moment is probably what God wants us to focus on. We just need to be reminded of that every 30 seconds.

  16. Archy permalink
    August 17, 2012 1:05 pm

    Based on the comments above, I am reminded of the following verse:

    Colossians 3:23-24 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

    I do have a small question/concern that bugs me about all this though… granted, if you’re self-employed, or if the situation is concerning family, you have the right to shut off your productivity/tasks for 30 minutes to focus on another human being, but if you’re at work and on work time, don’t you have a spiritual obligation to focus on your work, and give your employer a legitimate day’s work?

    Granted the following:
    – We need to be concerned about those around us and that ministering to others (being selfless).
    – The above line is important than focusing on what we want to accomplish, our tasks and productivity (being selfish).
    – If I spend 30 minutes investing in another human being, non-work related, am I then morally obligated to spend an extra 30 minutes at work working?

    I’m hoping that someone could just clarify this for me (maybe even Mr. Wood himself) and how this apparent dilemma is reconciled for others.?.?

    • Sheila Seiler Lagrand permalink
      August 17, 2012 1:28 pm

      I heartily agree that I’m obligated to work the number of hours/day that my employer expects me to work (and pays me to work).

      I also work as an exempt employee in an environment where it’s not unusual for me to do a bit of work here and there outside my scheduled hours. It all shakes out in the end.

      • August 17, 2012 1:56 pm

        If I was productive every moment of my work day…think of the output I could do!

        So…am I cheating by not being productive all the time?

      • Archy permalink
        August 17, 2012 2:58 pm

        @David, are you purposely not being productive all the time? I think that was the distinction I’m trying to draw or establish.

    • August 18, 2012 10:24 am

      Archy, you are bringing up a very good point. It depends on what kind of job you have. I write from the perspective of a leader/manager whose job it is to motivate, develop and inspire people to do their best. If I am more concerned about “doing” stuff than actually paying attention to the people around me, it is a poor sign of leadership. (think of which kind of boss you would rathe have– one who cares and takes time to show an interest in you, or one who shuts you out because he’s too busy all the time with “more important” work”?) .

      But to your point, if you are being paid for producing a certain amount of tasks or calls or whatever, you really need to be focused on that, and absolutely avoid the appearance of wasting time. That doesn’t mean you cant still have meaningful conversations and relationships with your co-workers. There a lot more I could say here, but I hope this clears up a little bit.

    • Bruce permalink
      September 19, 2012 8:40 pm

      I worked for a government organization for 35 yrs. up until a year ago. Need I say, there are far more productive environments? During the course of my career I beat myself up often for not behaving as I believed the Lord would have me. There were times that simply helping another person brought joy to their faces, for which I praised God. I will never forget time I came in early. A co-worker in another department came in to see me with a deep concern. I came in early to avoid interruptions, so I often nodded my head and said, “uh-huh…hmm, wow,” etc. as stated above. My friend was so thankful that as he turned to leave, he stopped and said, “thank you so much for helping me”. I really never said anything, but I did keep eye contact during the conversation.

      This is not to say this was the standard of my career performance. I failed many times to communicate the Gospel to others, but I know, “…there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ”. There is a difference between “worldly guilt” and “conviction by the Holy Spirit”. For far more on this topic, please refer to the book called “How People Grow, What the Bible Reveals About Personal Growth” by Dr.s Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Bottom line: It is critical that we gather together to “share one-another’s burdens”, even like this, however “Cyberficial” (my term) it may be.

  17. August 17, 2012 8:40 pm

    Yikes. You’re stepping on my toes. — though I have been taking a stab at intentionality these last few days of summer before school starts. I’ve got a long way to go.

  18. August 18, 2012 7:54 am

    J.B. Can totally relate, unfortunately.

  19. August 19, 2012 3:08 pm

    Look at you! Spreadsheets AND conversation! I am not a good multi-tasker. I know me. I have to do one or the other. So, I find myself scheduling lots of lunches where I can give my undivided attention to the person across the table from me. It works, but requires lots of discipline…in the form of working off all those lunches.

  20. August 19, 2012 5:16 pm

    Awesome…though my job drives me absolutely nuts, it has drilled this into me.

    “Ultimately, business is about human beings, not transactions.”

    Also, this post cracked me up because I SO do that speakphone stare.

  21. August 21, 2012 12:27 pm

    The wise Thomas S. Monson once said, “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.” Fortunately however, this challenge provides a wonderful opportunity to experience opposition at its finest: the painful guilt of forgetting to show love versus the joy in remembering that people are most important. So raw, yet so real. Beautifully illustrated, J. B.!

  22. Mark Puffer permalink
    August 25, 2012 1:53 pm

    When I am on the phone with someone I do or have done business with and they say something in the lines of “I have something I want to tell you or explain to you” I give them my undivided attention because at the end of the day, None of us are going to take our accomplishments with us.

  23. August 27, 2012 1:52 pm

    It looks like many of the comments are focused on losing productivity to sit and listen. From my perspective, that stopping and focusing on someone else may have been the only truly productive thing you did that day. In a business environment that is so artificial, you will win and keep many more clients by stopping and really tying to help. The emails and task lists have an ever diminishing value and the real conversations have an ever increasing value. That’s how I see it at least. That doesn’t even factor in the gospel, which flips the scales entirely in favor of empathy and compassion.

  24. August 29, 2012 9:13 am

    No doubt I always get confused what is good, whether I should leave me fone calls(from beloved) or my research work for which i am paid for. Very awesome insight for research, I believe that research should be made on a topic which is teasing us, what is the truth? can any body help me in making a research question and a model from the this story.

  25. September 2, 2012 8:51 pm

    So very true! God laid this on my heart last week too. I asked myself: exactly who is my “neighbor” and am I recognizing the opportunities to love them that God puts in my day? I came across this quote:

    “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    George MacDonald has a really excellent “unspoken sermon” on the topic too. “…This love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self” -George MacDonald

  26. September 10, 2012 11:26 am

    SO 100% Robotic Efficiency is the Bible Test ? Have yo started at two monitor write code for 30 minutes straight ?

    How About What Is actually accomplished within the allotted time?

    .Sometimes the graphics dept. doesn’t have the images ready or one of the servers is down down – we cant help that

  27. Don permalink
    September 27, 2012 6:38 pm

    Reblogged this on One Bondservant's Diary and commented:
    Well worth the 2-3 minutes it will take you to read.

  28. October 1, 2012 12:48 pm

    An excellent reminder of how the cares and concerns of our brothers and sister should be bared by us all. Thanks for the reminder.


  1. Wasting Time … | THE STRATEGIC LEARNER
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