The Hidden Power of Leaving Things Undone
(Post Note: I had this post written and ready to go in mid-March, before a pandemic hit and made life around us came to a halt. I hit “pause” on publishing it for awhile: Somehow, it just didn’t seem like a good fit as we were adjusting to social distancing and the economic slowdown. But now, a few weeks into all this craziness, maybe we’re ready to start learning from it. This pandemic has been a forced slow down for all of us: We’ve all had to leave things undone. We’ve all had to live with things spinning out of our control. It’s torture for a perfectionist, isn’t it? Dear friends, there’s something powerful about learning to live with uncertainty. There’s something strong that we can choose to weave into the “new normal” we’ll build in days ahead: I pray this post will help you find peace in the days ahead.)
This one’s for all who’ve laid awake in the dark of night, desperately trying to get all the to-dos out of your mind.
I see you, sister. There in the middle of the night—when the bright numbers on your alarm clock taunt you, ticking away the hours of rest you long for. Those moments when the house lies still, but your mind seems to be spinning.
There in the middle of the night—when your mind remembers all those unchecked marks on the day’s to-do list, and conjures up a dozen more you should’ve gotten done. When your body tosses and turns, and you can’t seem to escape the thoughts about situations that need fixing, relationships that need to be improved.
There in the middle of the night—when perfectionism bites the hardest, and you think of every single little way you’re failing to live all your ideals.
If you’re lucky, after enough tossing and turning and turmoil, you finally fall into a restless sleep. Then jolt awake to an alarm. And though you drag yourself from bed with a groan, if you’re really honest, you also feel a bit relieved. Because you made it through another night. And now you can start getting more things done.
I know this middle of the night ritual all too well. I’ve spent many a restless night longing to flip the “off” switch on my mind and drift into peaceful sleep. Is it just me—or is 2:00 AM a the hour when you feel like the worst mother, worst wife, worst employee, worst (fill in the blank to suit your purposes) on the planet?
I remember an especially brutal cycle of sleepless nights. It was several years back, when my kids were young and I was trying to balance motherhood with a part-time youth director role and freelance editing projects. Life felt like a crazy juggling competition, where I kept trying to see how many balls I could add to the mix.
The real problem was that I was actually a good juggler. I’ve been graced with good organization skills and a strong dose of follow-through. When it comes to getting things done, I’m efficient and good at prioritizing my time. So when it came to balancing all those life demands, I tackled it like a boss—calendars and to-do lists at hand. All those balls kept floating through the air, and I’m sure it all looked rather impressive to bystanders.
What they didn’t see were the sleepless nights. The way my body and mind always felt amped up. The sleeping aids I started taking with more and more frequency. Even in moments when I squeezed a bit of “chill time” into my busy schedule, I’d find myself feeling guilty instead of relaxed: Thinking about all the causes I should should help, injustices that needed my attention, volunteer roles I should fill.
It’s hard to take a break when you’re a perfectionist. It’s hard to take a load off when you always feel like you have to be “on.” I remember feeling like I couldn’t catch a breath—but I didn’t quite know what to do about it. Looking back now, I can see so clearly why I felt like I was suffocating: Perfectionism had a choke-hold on my heart.
The Perfectionist Deception
Thankfully, God didn’t leave me tossing and turning my way through sleepless nights. He just kept calling to me, quietly but persistently, with a simple message:
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
I’d heard those words countless times, of course. I could quote them during my Bible study time, no problem. But I certainly wasn’t living a Psalm 46:10 kind of life. My heart rarely felt still. For all the “good” I kept doing with sincere intentions to love God, I felt a distance there between us. But ever so gently, God closed the distance between us and opened my eyes to see what was strangling me. Two “perfectionist deceptions” that had steered my heart off course:
Deception #1: It’s sinful and weak to be still: A real Christian should be able to get it done.
Deception #2 This is all on you: If you don’t take care of these problems, no one will.
At a very deep level, perfectionism berates us because we are human. We need to sleep. We need to catch our breath after a big project or event. We need time to heal from life’s inevitable wounds, or time to adjust when life gets turned upside down. Perfectionism tells us we should somehow be stronger than all this, able to power through it all. But according to God? It’s okay to be still. God wove a cycle of work and rest into His creation long before sin came into the word: How could He possibly resent or disapprove of our need to rest, when He designed it?
Even more, God commands rest throughout Scripture. (As in, Ten Commandments level of certainty.) Yet the perfectionist deceptions somehow convince us that those commands don’t exactly apply to us. That somehow we’re different, stronger than others. More capable of carrying out God’s plans.
One day, God exposed the ugly root of pride in all this, with one simple thought that pierced my mind: “You know, dear child, you don’t have to be God. I’ve already got that job covered.”
I’d been living as though every single cause and conflict rested on my weary little shoulders. As though God would somehow be unable to work things out if I needed a break. I’d been living as though I could play God’s role. But God called me to lay that ridiculous notion down:
“Let me be the Rescuer, daughter Let me work the plan.”
The Practice of Leaving Things Undone
I sleep much better these days. (Although I will admit that control and anxiety still flare up from time to time, especially when pandemics hit our world!) Deconstructing those perfectionistic lies has helped me breathe a little easier, remembering God’s role is the hero–not mine. But it didn’t happen by accident. It happened with practice. With a particular spiritual practice I call “leaving things undone.”
Inevitably, when the day starts to dwindle or the week winds down, I find myself thinking about “a few more things” I’d like to finish up before I rest. But these days, instead of just pushing on to finish them (and watching all my time evaporate), I’m learning to leave some things undone. It’s hard, and it fights every one of my natural inclinations to ignore the unfinished to-dos, but I’m learning to trust God with them— to admit my own need to rest and renew.
I know, I know. We can’t opt out of everything. Some things have to get done. That’s why some of our perfectionist tendencies can actually work to our advantage: Planners and calendars and systems—they help us prioritize what’s important so the “necessary” things get done first.
But if we’re honest, we often stretch to do “one more thing,” not because it’s so necessary for today, but because we’re worried about the tomorrows. We fall back into the perfectionistic lie that says “This is all on you.” Or, alternatively, we push to do more because we feel guilty when we don’t: We fall back into the lie that God will disapprove when we need a break.
But what if you practiced leaving some things undone? What if you took a few moments at the end of each day to unwind, to reconnect with family or a hobby that gives you joy? What if you gave a whole Sabbath day, each week, to set the “business” of work and family life aside and simply enjoy the gifts of the moment?
What if you really believed God loves you—even in when you’re doing nothing? What if you really trusted that he’s got tomorrow in his capable hands?
Friends, I recognize this is a hard practice to adopt. Some of you are rolling your eyes as you read this, thinking it’s impossible. (I know, because I’ve been the one with the eye rolls and snarky thoughts myself!) But all of us, in one way or another, can practice surrendering our agenda to God. We can practice letting God be God, while we meet our human need for rest. “Leaving things undone” can take many different forms:
- Maybe it’s saying no to a commitment, even if you feel gifted for it, or worry that no one else can do it. (And trusting that if it’s not the right season for you, God will provide someone else!)
- Maybe it’s doing something well, instead of trying to do it perfect (Sure, adding that one extra detail to the fundraiser decorations might be just perfect, but are they good enough for the purpose as they already are?)
- Maybe it’s living with little mistakes instead of spending precious time trying to fix them. (Yes, the pie you made for the dinner party is a little unsightly because the filling bubbled out around the edges, but you can still serve it with love instead of making a whole new pie.)
- Maybe it’s honoring the interruptions in your day, instead of resenting them. (Recognizing “holy moments” to love well, even when it means abandoning part of your to-do list.)
- Maybe it’s admitting you need help with everything that’s on your plate. (This is honors-level character work for perfectionists: Because it means exposing that you can’t do it all on your own!)
At its heart, the practice of “leaving things undone” leads us to our deeper need: Our need to surrender. To surrender our agendas and to-do lists. Our ideals. Maybe even our hopes and dreams about how we want our lives to play out. It’s not easy to stop hustling and trust all those things to God while we rest.
But oh, how it’s worth it. Because it’s there in the resting that you come to know the Father’s love:
It’s there in the resting that you find your scattered, anxious heart being made whole once again.
Working with Dad
I remember an elementary-school project from years ago. Each student was assigned a state to study and told to create an informational display. With a sheet marked “Minnesota” in hand, I turned to our family’s trusty encyclopedias and began digging up facts. As for presentation, my parents helped me brainstorm this creative display: I cross-stitched the name of the state, it’s capital (St. Paul, in case you wondered), and it’s state flower (the lady slipper, as I’m sure you know). And my dad headed to his workshop. He set to work creating a Minnesota-shaped frame for my cross-stitch, which he’d turn into the cover for my little state report.
I’m not kidding, people. We really did this. And it wasn’t even during a pandemic with extra time on our hands!
I recall finishing up the written report for the inside of the book, and carefully finishing the last stitches of my design. And then I handed it all off to my dad. I sat down to watch TV for a little while before heading off to bed.
I slept peacefully and by the time I awoke the next morning, Dad had finished staining the Minnesota frame and carefully attached my cross-stitched fabric inside. It was a sight to behold. And thank-you, Minnesota, for inspiring that moment of glory I felt in my little heart that day. I set off to school, excited to share my report—and its perfect cover—with my class.
I think it goes without saying that I got an A.
It’s a sweet memory, a special project I worked at with my dad during simpler times—life before all the responsibilities and pressures of “adulting.” But it reminds me of something that still holds true: Sometimes, while you’re resting, your Dad turns all your work into something more beautiful than you could ever accomplish on your own.
That’s some powerful truth for a perfection-leaning heart.
As I’ve pursued the practice of “leaving things undone,” you know what I’ve noticed? I still work hard and get a lot done through my days. But when I set my own tasks aside to honor my God-designed need for rest, God’s keeps doing a quiet work in my heart. Bit by bit, choice by choice, those perfectionist lies are fading and being replaced by peace. Time after time, God reignites my purpose and passion for the days ahead.
Others might see this all as getting less done. Failing to achieve all my goals. Missing opportunities. But I’m seeing a different angle, sweet friends. Because there in the resting, our Father keeps working with masterful hands. He pieces together all the messy and beautiful parts of our lives, and he transforms it all into something more exquisite than we could ever imagine.
There in the resting, we get to be shaped by Love.
(This post has been part of the Practice Makes Imperfect series. Click here to learn more.)
I needed this. Thank you!
Thank you. This was so well-put!
Such an encouraging word, and meeting me exactly where I am today. Life, as a whole, has been all about perfectionism for me. This 2020 pandemic, along with some super-challenging personal circumstances, has brought me head to head with how completely I fail with Perfectionism as my quest. Learning one day at a time, and blessed by the insights you shared. Thank you!