As our country and the world have wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few months, I’ve found myself reading about and reflecting on pre-quarantine life and its “normal” aspects. What I discovered was our culture’s troubling obsession with busyness and productivity. I simultaneously discovered my own complicity in the culture of busyness and its detrimental impact on my spiritual life. As states begin to loosen restrictions on our activities, it is more important than ever to reevaluate our priorities and explore ways to keep God at the center of our lives. Part of exploring this is identifying the things that come between us and God or distract us from keeping Him at the center of our lives.

The Culture of Busyness

The culture of busyness is a pervasive aspect of modern, American culture. Some people wear it as a badge of honor: The busier you are, the more important you are. The culture of busyness allows us to define our self-worth by our calendars and planners, as opposed to by our inherent God-given dignity. “Hustle culture” also plays a role here, encouraging us to constantly increase our pace of life. If we aren’t hustling, what are we really accomplishing, anyway?

The culture of busyness allows us to define our self-worth by our calendars and planners, as opposed to by our inherent God-given dignity.

Against the backdrop of capitalism and individualism, it’s easy to accept busyness and hustle culture as natural parts of life. Even during school closures, record unemployment, and the shuttering of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were bombarded with messages to make the most out of this time. Clean your closets, bake a sourdough bread load every day, and become a world-class knitter: These are your quarantine goals. Don’t get me wrong — if these activities bring you peace, then by all means, forge ahead. (I’ll admit to cleaning out closets over the last few months). However, the messaging that an economic shutdown must translate into acquiring a new skill, taking up a new hobby, or hustling in a new way is problematic. When we should have been focused on taking care of ourselves and simply showing up to the best of our abilities, we were told to start hustling in a new way (Paul Ollinger, “Your Only Goal Is to Arrive”). To what extent do we fill our lives with activities and tasks we don’t necessarily enjoy, simply because we feel like we should?

When to Say “No”

The obsession with productivity and the constant need to be busy is physically and mentally harmful, because it overstimulates our body’s stress response systems and produces stress hormones (Lisa Quast, “Here’s Why You Should Stop Boasting About Always Being Busy”). In her book Live Big, Love Bigger: Getting Real with BBQ, Sweet Tea, and a Whole Lotta Jesus, popular blogger and author Kathryn Whitaker recounts the story of how the premature birth of her fifth child helped her reevaluate her priorities and ultimately rediscover happiness, authenticity, and freedom. At one point in the book, Whitaker discusses her family’s controversial and criticized decision to suspend all of their commitments: volunteering, school sports, etc. She advises using the following metric when deciding on activities to include in your life: “If it’s not a ‘hell yes,’ say ‘no’” (Whitaker 118).

Whitaker’s metric helped me realize how overcommitted I was and the number of activities I was doing simply because I felt like I should. Work happy hours? I’d really rather go to the gym. Networking events? Hard pass. The beauty of rediscovering the power of “no” (especially when the choice is made for you courtesy of a pandemic) is the ability to reorder and reprioritize your life. As Whitaker explains, saying “no” allows us to embrace “the purposeful act of being” and be fully present in those spaces where we say “hell yes” (118). Trimming activities in this way not only frees up a remarkable amount of time; it also allows us to reincorporate important activities which have fallen by the wayside. At least for me, these past few months have revealed the extent to which my busy schedule prevented me from (or at least was my excuse for) praying regularly. The first Sunday following our state shut-down, I turned to my husband, David, and said, “I feel so lazy — I haven’t gotten anything done today.” He looked at me quixotically and replied, “What do you mean? We did morning prayer, live-streamed Mass, and even went to (social-distance approved) Adoration. I think it’s been one of our best Sundays ever.” That realization stung.

The beauty of rediscovering the power of “no” is the ability to reorder and reprioritize your life.

Reprioritizing Prayer

Needless to say, that conversation was a wake-up call to my own complicity in hustle culture and the manner in which I used it to avoid stillness, silence, and prayer. From that point forward, I made a more concentrated effort to prioritize prayer. I moved my Magnificat to our coffee table, where it would be conveniently within reach every morning. David bought me an “Every Sacred Sunday” Mass journal that I started using as we live-streamed Mass in our living room. David started leading us in Evening and/or Night Prayer for the Liturgy of the Hours. There are plenty of days where we don’t meet these prayer goals; however, prioritizing them has brought me peace and comfort when the world outside my windows is anything but those things.

Now that our state has partially reopened, I find myself worrying that I’ll be sucked right back into the culture of busyness and putting prayer on the back burner. So I’ve been asking myself the following questions:

  1. Which spiritual practices brought me the most peace during quarantine?
  2. How can I restructure my day to prioritize prayer?
  3. What are my “hell yes” activities? Which activities should I decline?
  4. Is there anything else I should eliminate from or add to my life to grow closer to God?
Now that our state has partially reopened, I find myself worrying that I’ll be sucked right back into the culture of busyness and putting prayer on the back burner.

As we establish a new “normal” and create new routines, I encourage you to reflect upon this time in quarantine. See what lessons you can take from it as we move forward and reenter society. Rather than using this time as a covert opportunity to reengage with the culture of busyness, ask yourselves the above questions, and embrace your honest answers. Take a hard look at your spiritual life, and see where it needs to be nurtured. I truly believe that refocusing on being rather than doing will not only improve our well-being in these difficult times but also lead to a stronger relationship with God.

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Michelle Mowry-Willems

Michelle Mowry-Willems is a lawyer currently working as a law clerk in Reno, Nevada. She and her husband David are newlyweds who met on Catholic Match (yes, it works!), and they are both avid runners who enjoy running together every day. Michelle is passionate about all things related to reading, coffee, and cooking, and is currently obsessed with her new Instant Pot.

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