Work

Death by productivity

Delphne Tan // November 5, 2018, 3:14 pm

Death-by-productivity

If anyone looked at my scheduler, they would be (in my biased opinion) impressed by the level of detail I put into my planning.

Rainbow splashes of every highlighter colour, one for every aspect of my life: Work, church, gym, gigs, rest, holidays, birthdays. I wielded my to-do notebook with such pride. I loved flipping through the year’s tasks to see satisfactory strikes across each one.

And in the past five years of being a teacher in a neighbourhood school in Singapore, I have learnt invaluable organisation skills. I’m constantly thinking ahead, of what needs to happen before the previous task is even completed.

Even my personal life was scheduled. After all, how does one maintain an acceptable social life when life is so intensely busy? So productivity was the anthem of my life, and I preached it more than I preached the good news of Christ.

But while I had been “competent”, “task-oriented” and “capable” at work, I was an utter mess emotionally and spiritually.

I was dead inside.

“Physical sickness we usually defy. Soul sickness we often resign ourselves to.” – Mark Buchanan

For the past three years, I had resigned myself to a spiritual sickness that eventually turned into a numbness like death.

I did not take joy in doing God’s work at church, or feel that it was a privilege to serve Him. I struggled to mentor and nurture my students and I couldn’t extend grace for the simplest thing like a late assignment. I rebelled and spoke critically of management at work.

Even my spiritual community faded into yet another item on the schedule. I spent every sermon wagging an accusatory finger – as if my inability to find intimacy with God was the speakers’ fault.

I was filled with so much anger and guilt at myself.

Even my spiritual community faded into yet another item on the schedule.

I cried out so many times for all of this to end. I wanted to have a change of heart. I wanted God to take over, to lead me and guide me.

But I couldn’t let go of my need for control. It started out as a necessity to cope with work. But it soon spiralled into an unchecked, obsessive need for control over everything – from my diet to my time with people.

I tried to control my students’ behaviour and their academic performance. I tried to control my colleagues’ work and performance. Needless to say, I soon lost control.

“Burnout” is what people call it, but this is what it really is: Spiritual and emotional death.

I had to be torn away from that life before I could see how my need for control was destroying me.

I had become obsessed with going to the gym. My need for control morphed into this need to become fitter, which made for a torturous time.

I hated it but I forced myself to go, and felt guilty because I struggled to, until a loving lady from church asked me “Why do you want to go to gym?”

I burst into tears and blurted that I didn’t know. When you cry about going to the gym, you know the problem is serious.

My productivity was false hope for salvation … The brokenness that I experienced came as a result of trying to run my life – to be my own god.

What I came to see is that I am not saved by my competence to plan out my daily life; I am not delivered by my ability to lift heavy weight (Psalm 33:13-17).

My productivity was false hope for salvation. God is sovereign: He is in charge of my life and of everything that happens. But when I tried to control everything, I was trying to snatch from God what He does best – running the world! I was doomed to fail.

The brokenness that I experienced came as a result of trying to run my life – to be my own god. And the irony of needing to control everything is that you will eventually lose control.

What does it look like to give up control?

For me it meant having to leave my job temporarily to step out into the wilderness with God. There He began healing me of all my brokenness.

He is peeling back the layers of hurt and anger that I had swept under a carpet in order to function at the level of productivity I did. He is teaching me over and over again to come back to the rest that is found in His love for me. He is showing me His faithfulness in the most ridiculous ways when I choose to allow Him to interrupt my daily life.

I’m relearning again how to love others and to build deep relationships. I’m reminded over and over again through the Bible that I have been given the gift of grace (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Everything that I do and have is given by God – not by my own competence.

Does any part of my story sound familiar to you?

The busyness? A seemingly inescapable death of the soul? Scheduling sleep only to encounter the anxiety of not being rested?

Or maybe it’s the breakdown of relationships around you – the haunting paradox of yearning connection but being physically unable to emotionally manage being around people?

Or perhaps it is the guilt of being unable to manage stress. Maybe it has all been too much lately, and you’ve numbed all your emotions so you don’t feel it.

What would it look like to give up all the control that you are asserting over your life?

Perhaps it is taking a short break to seek Him – to waste time in His presence. Perhaps it is finding a close mentor to pray through all of this. Perhaps it is to spend a day a week to realign and pray through the things you are worry about.

It might be good to note that control usually has deeper roots, a pattern of belief in our life that we have grown accustomed to. Ask God today: What are some of these roots responsible for this unhealthy need for control?

Jesus loves us, He has extended the gift of grace to us. There is no need for us to work endlessly to prove our worth. He offers this gift to us so we may enter into a relationship and intimacy with Him.

My prayer for us is that we being “rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17b-19).


Delphne is an educator who hopes that what God has taught her will bless others. If you are in need of encouragement or a chat, email her at tan.delphne@gmail.com.