Stressed Out: How to Calm the Anxiety of Too Many To-Dos

Jerusha Agen Fighting Fear 7 Comments

woman-stressed (853x1280)The familiar feeling nipped at my heels. A mixture of frustration, guilt, and anxiety.

The clock read 1:00 a.m. and I should’ve been in bed long ago. But my to-do list had come crashing in on me as it seems to do most evenings around 11:00 p.m. or so, bringing with it a disheartening realization of all I failed to accomplish that day.

I know the next day won’t bring me much closer to finishing the tasks before me. I’ll likely get a few messages from people wondering why I haven’t responded to an email or call. I’ll discover an item I was supposed to return is past the allotted return window. Or I’ll discover I’ve forgotten something important under the deluge of tasks.

Such premonitions catch up with me at the close of the day, fueling me to stay up late to check at least one thing off my to-do list and hopefully make the burden a fraction lighter for tomorrow.

Instead, all that effort yields is a late start the next day because I’m too exhausted to awaken when I should.

I’m not always quite this busy. Sometimes, the tasks dwindle and, correspondingly, so does my stress level. But those times, when I am remarkably on top of the pile, seem increasingly rare.

I know I’m not alone under this crushing, stress-inducing weight of busyness.

Within the last few weeks, I’ve seen blog posts about struggling with to-do lists the length of the Great Wall, friends have spoken of their packed schedules with stress palpable in their voices, some have fallen ill because of anxiety and lack of sleep.

And one dear friend asked me to write a blog post about how to face all that needs to be done without becoming anxious.

I decided that was a great idea, but not just for her. For me. And for all of those going through the same vicious cycle of busyness and stress that never ends.

After all, stress is just one of our code (read “excuse”) names for fear. And like all the rest of our fears, God has called and enabled us to eliminate stress in our lives, not to run as it nips our heels.

When I wasn’t sure if I should write this post and was uncertain what I, a clear failure at handling busyness without anxiety, would have to offer by way of advice, God led me to the Scripture I needed to see.

to-do-list (1280x852)In my daily Bible reading, I “happened” to read Luke 10:38-42. This passage tells the brief story of Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary (sisters to the famous raised-from-the-dead Lazarus).

While Jesus is there, Mary spends all her time sitting at His feet, listening to His teaching. Martha, however, is “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40).

I know Christian women are often asked if they are more like Martha or Mary from this passage. I’m definitely a Martha. I actually avoid hospitality because of the tremendous stress of getting everything just right. If I were hosting the most important Person in the universe, you can bet I’d be killing myself to make sure everything ran smoothly, gut clenched the whole time.

I can relate to Martha’s point of view. What she’s doing is important. Someone has to make sure the guests, Jesus especially, are fed and comfortable. Hospitality is something God commands us to give to others. We are supposed to bend over backwards to show them love and welcome.

But Martha has too much for one person to do in this situation. She’s being crushed by the stress of serving so many alone, so she asks Jesus to make her slacker sister fall in line.

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:41-42

woman-stressed-computer (854x1280)If you’re a Martha like me, your first response to Jesus’s rebuke here might be to gulp, convicted. And that’s good. Take a moment to repent of making an idol out of to-dos and busyness.

But then take another look at His words and see, hear, the comfort in them. Jesus sees Martha is anxious and troubled. He sees that YOU and I are anxious and troubled. He wants to free us from our anxiety and troubles. He wants to give us the “good portion” (emphasis mine) instead.

What is that good Jesus offers us? Mary chose it. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to the Word of God.

That is our portion. That is the perfect good God wants us to pursue and enjoy. Does this mean that you should cast everything else aside and study your Bible 24-7? Probably not for most people. God has given us responsibilities and work in this life that He expects us to accomplish with His enabling.

But how many of us are pursuing God first? How many of us are setting aside regular times to spend at the feet of Jesus, studying the Word, praying, and worshiping? How many of us who have set aside such times actually guard those times and prioritize them every day?

I don’t know about you, but I have many a day where the to-dos seem so insurmountable for the next twenty-four hours that I easily fall into shortening my devotional and prayer time. Or, worse, sometimes I skip it entirely, so convinced am I that my other responsibilities are more important than my time with Jesus.

My pastor has a saying that I love: “It isn’t a sin not to read your Bible; it’s just stupid.” Everything we need to handle all those daily tasks or tackle our hectic schedules is there for us in His Word, in praying and spending time with Him.

Yet most of us are scurrying around like chickens with their heads cut off (and probably not feeling much better), frantically trying to complete an impossible number of tasks every day. We’re feeling and behaving as if finishing those projects and meetings will give us satisfaction, worth, joy, peace.

But any such reward is fleeting at best. There’s always another task or obligation to replace each one we finish. Not to overuse a disturbing metaphor, but like the chicken, we can’t even see clearly enough to make our work count, to know what’s important and what isn’t, to follow our real calling in life.

We can’t, unless we make Jesus our priority. We need to choose the good portion, every day, first and foremost.

you-are-anxious-and-troubled-graphic (1280x866)So my best stress-busting suggestion? Check your to-do list. Is Jesus at the top?

If not, you’ll be stuck in a vicious cycle of anxiety and stress as you race to accomplish tasks that mean nothing without Him and will never bring you the peace you crave.

Put Jesus at the top of your to-do list, and keep Him there all day. Every time you feel that wave of stress wash over you and pull you under, reach for Jesus. Stop what you’re doing and breathe a prayer. Or actually walk away from your other to-dos and spend more time with Him, in His word.

Sitting at the feet of Jesus instead of worrying or running ragged over what “needs” to be done will give you the wisdom, strength, stamina, and joy you need to perform those tasks well, for His glory.

So give the load of your to-do list to Jesus. He is strong enough to carry it and you.

Then enjoy the peace that comes with the free ride.

Are you feeling stressed over your schedule? How do you combat anxiety when tackling your to-do list? Please share!

Comments 7

  1. Emily Conrad

    Your post echoes the book I’m reading, Rhythms of Rest by Shelly Miller, which is about observing Sabbath. Sabbath always seemed to me a boring and restrictive way to spend a day, but Miller’s book is showing me just how much resting is a gift from God and an act of trust akin to tithing. I’m starting to see it as an invitation to set aside a day apart from to-do lists, which I could never complete in my own power anyway, and revel in relationship with God, whose love for me isn’t dependent on what I can do or accomplish. He wants us to be with Him, trust Him, and remember that all good things come from Him, not from our abilities to get it all done. Great post!

    1. MJ

      Emily, I really appreciate your comments, as I recently was convicted by a sermon series to start observing the Sabbath (on Sunday) by truly making it a day of rest from my busyness, include anything related to my job, commerce, exercise, and more. Wow…what a difference did that make in my week!! Immediately, from the first Sunday I set apart to focus more on God and the blessings he had given me (church, family, leisure), I felt an enormous burden lifted, great joy in Christ, and true rest from my anxieties and worries. The observance of the Sabbath–to set it aside as a day of rest–is truly a gift from God waiting for us to open and claim.

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      Jerusha Agen

      I love God’s timing, Emily, don’t you? 🙂 I was recently convicted to honor the Sabbath commandment, as well, in a sermon series by Alastair Begg. It can be hard to actually take that regular rest, but God offers rich rewards if we do. I love your point that the Lord’s Day rest also reminds us that nothing depends on our abilities to complete it, but only on God. Thanks for your thoughtful insights!

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  2. MJ

    Jerusha — I can so relate to this post! Sadly, this too often becomes my average day, feeling the burden of things I need to do, and giving into anxiety (i.e., fear) regarding those tasks. What if I don’t get them done in time? What happens if I don’t get enough sleep? Will I get sick again? Will I ever get caught up with all this work? And on and on it goes…. But I have been learning to prioritize things of God, just as you described in your post, and God has truly worked through that. Setting aside time to do my devotions, even in the face of a mountain of work, has brought enormous blessing. Also, I find that stopping, setting a timer for 5 minutes, and praying during that time before returning to my work has been an effective way to get my focus off of myself and my inadequacies and onto God–our incredibly capable and caring Savior who will give us joy and strength in the midst of long to-do lists and seemingly endless piles of work.

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      Jerusha Agen

      What a wonderful idea, MJ! I love that tip of actually setting a timer to take 5 minutes or prayer when you’re feeling stressed. I’ll have to try that myself. How wonderful that God is rewarding you for your efforts to focus on and prioritize your relationship with Him. Thanks for sharing this encouragement!

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