The Spiritual Value of Wasting Time at Work

new-york-sept-05-026I 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 did not want to go there, but I knew I had to ask the next question. “What was it for?” I fixed my eyes 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 on 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,” he continued, “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 analysisDone!

“You don’t say.”

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.

About J.B. Wood

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