Friday, September 28, 2018

Alignment - Conclusion

Over the past four months I have shared a part of my recent journey related to personal effectiveness. This series of posts developed because I had become stuck and was not accomplishing all that was before me. As I mentioned in the early posts, I completed what I had to do, and did it well, but I was not moving forward as I needed to do.

The hard part for me was that I am normally a productive person (or at least I thought I was). But due to that season in my life (no more than 6 months total and the worst of it was only a couple of months), I have learned some things about myself and about being productive. That was the purpose of these posts - to share my lessons to help any of you avoid similar traps and/or to find a means to break free quickly.

So, let me share a few key thoughts in this post, the final post in this series.

Planning is Biblical

I know many people like to be spontaneous, but for the most part I am not. I am, however, much better about this than I used to be. For instance, in an upcoming vacation, I know the city where I will be on which day, I know the hotel and car I will have, but I am not making plans for each day until that day (or perhaps the night before). Yes, I have identified a few places I would like to visit, but I have not determined which day or time - which I would have already considered in the past. But I digress. So, my trip has a little spontaneity, but overall I am a planner.

Planning is biblical. If we look at the lives of David, Nehemiah, Paul, etc. we will find that these individuals made plans. Sometimes the plans were changed (e.g. when the Spirit kept Paul and his companions from going to Asia and went to Macedonia (Philippi) instead - Acts 16.6-12), but plans were made nonetheless. So, we plan and then leave them to God by saying, and meaning, "if the Lord wills" (James 4.15). I would encourage you to read some verses just from the book of Proverbs (Pr. 14.15, 15.22, 16.33, 16.9*, 20.18, 16.3, 21.5) for a quick look at what the Bible says about our plans). Again, make plans, even detailed plans, but trust God.

*Over the past two years, Proverbs 16.9 has really been a guiding principle for me in this area.


Effectiveness and Productivity Are Different

Today's buzzword surrounding the ideas from this series is productivity. We hear about apps that make our life productive. We have tools (software and hardware) designed to do the same. A plethora of books have been released over the past few years related to the idea of productivity. All of this is fine, but I would rather be effective than productive.

Admittedly, the two ideas are related, but productivity is more comparable to efficiency than effectiveness. Productivity and efficiency are elements in being effective, but I can choose to do things very efficiently and be very productive at issues which have no real impact on myself, on others, or on anything of value (or for God). Additionally, I can be efficient at accomplishing a task and making matters worse. For instance, if I was to clean the garage, I could get done more quickly if I threw away everything that was out of place, but how would that help me later? It would not help, so the process of cleaning out a mess in that way might be very efficient, but ineffective.

Therefore, the term I chose to use most of the time in this series is effectiveness (or personal effectiveness). Sometimes being effective means slowing down to do things well instead of just accomplishing them. As a pastor this certainly relates to sermon preparation. As a teacher this could relate to preparing lessons. Over time, we can become more efficient in these processes, but the goal of preaching and teaching is to be effective. However, let's look even deeper. Effectiveness as a pastor (and a caring teacher) also includes spending time with others. Depending upon the person that could be categorized as a very inefficient use of time, but in a moment or need, it may be the most effective thing I can do.

Again, the current buzzword is productivity. And personal productivity is nicely alliterative. But I urge you not to consider yourself effective unless you are accomplishing a purpose that needs to be accomplished. The words the Christian should long to hear are "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25.21, 23). While some of us are called to do more than others, the key is doing them well, which is to be effective.


Personal Effectiveness Is An Important Issue

For a variety of reasons, I have recently asked my daughter to help me with this blog. One of the biggest reasons is so that I do not fall into the efficiency trap and overlook the need to proofread. She has only been helping for the past few months (sometime after this series started), but she gives me thoughts, helps correct typos and minor grammar issues (hopefully minor!), in addition to helping make this blog a little more professional.

As we were talking about the new host for this blog (see below), she mentioned how much she has enjoyed this refresher as she has read the posts. She mentioned Tim Challies' book Do More Better, and said that he and I have basically shared many of the same ideas. I was aware of Challies' book, but I have not read it, and now apparently do not need to do so. But the point is that many new books on the subject have been written, and many experts have written on the matter. Some of us may not be experts per se, but the growing number of voices shows this is an important issue in all of society, and particularly in the realm of ministry.

As I mention to my students each term, the Bible does not record every moment of Jesus' life (it records relatively little of it in actuality), but what we do know about Jesus is that every action He took was intentional. Furthermore, Jesus had no idle time. Even when He got up early to pray or take a nap someone would come to interrupt Him (e.g. Mark 1.35-39, Mark 4.38). If we are to be like Jesus, then we need to take the idea of effectiveness seriously.

So, we need to take this issue seriously. We must submit our plans to God, but if we are to accomplish all that He wants us to accomplish, we must also consider if we need to change our current approach and, if so, how we can become better at living our lives effectively.

With that, I will put a wrap on this series. And with that, I put a wrap on this blog being hosted on Blogger. I did not realize this until today, but I began this blog on the first of October and will end it at the end of September. 6 years have passed between that starting and ending point, but Blogger has served me well during that time.


Moving to WordPress on fotonni.com


As I mentioned above, my daughter is now helping me with some of the editing and especially the look of this blog.  The time has come to move forward with this blog. For us, that means moving to WordPress. For the time being, we will leave the old content here. We also plan to move some of the posts to the new site as part of an upcoming series.

The new blog will actually be hosted on our ministry website fotonni.com. To access the blog, you can follow the link to http://fotonni.com/hp_wordpress/. The content will largely be the same, but I will include my current reading list and some comments about the books I am reading along the way.

The plan is to continue to post new content each Friday, so the introductory post will be Oct 5. Beginning, Tuesday, Oct 9, we will begin to move some of the content over beginning with one post per week on the extended series from 2017 on the 4L's and how they relate to vision, mission, and strategy.

So, until next week, at our new home, I hope you will find yourself being productive. More importantly, I hope you are effective in what you are doing.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Alignment - Google Calendar

We come to the penultimate post for this series. Over the past couple of months, I have written about being stuck, getting unstuck, aligning my day, and finding peace even though I am busier than ever. A part of that alignment has come from re-aligning how I use certain tools (ToDoist and Google Calendar) and switching to a different note-taking tool (Evernote). I have covered ToDoist and Evernote in previous weeks, so today, I conclude the tool part of this series with a look at the last of the primary three items necessary for personal effectiveness - the calendar.

Many calendar options exist, but I have chosen Google, and have used it since it was in beta (I probably began using it in 2007 or early 2008, along with gmail). At the time, I traveled for business and needed something with me wherever I was. I had used yahoo for the few years prior to that, but simply did not care for it as well. So, I chose Google - and have used it for most everything since (including tasks and notes, ironically).

We all have calendars we use for various purposes, and my purpose this week is not to show how to place something on a digital calendar, but to share a couple of principles as to what I include on my calendar - and only on my calendar.

The most important reason for a calendar is to track your schedule of meetings and appointments. These appointments can include appointments for yourself. For a pastor that could include study time, sermon prep time, prayer time, etc. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the book Deep Work. The idea of engaging in deep work is that you need to schedule blocks of time to allow you to go deep, to think deeply (and often critically). If we do not plan these times, they will not happen. Personally, I have several calendars that show themselves on my Google Calendar. I have a personal calendar (family gatherings, doctor appointments, etc), one for the church, one for MY work at the church, one for PTC, and one for all other ministry aspects such as teaching at the college/seminary, helping churches, etc. All of these show on one calendar and are distinctive by color (which is the same color I use for the tasks in ToDoist). I will say more about how tasks and calendar items are kept separate in a moment. First, let me mention why I keep a separate calendar for the church and MY church work.

The idea of having two calendars may be obvious to some, but perhaps not to everyone - especially for a new pastor, particularly one at a small church, who might be reading this. The rationale is that the church will have regular items on a calendar. For instance, each week, our church gathers on Sunday mornings (Sunday School and Worship), Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings. Those items are rather fixed. However, we also have other semi-regular events, special events, and meetings that are on the calendar (which is online for members or guests to view). But sometimes, something is not a church-wide event or meeting. For instance, items related to meeting with someone (or a group) about a prospective idea for the church, or mentoring someone, making a home visit, etc. do not need to be on the public church calendar. They do need to be on mine. So, I have a separate calendar for these items. However, because they are both related to the church, they both are in the same color family (green). (From a task perspective, I do not separate these items.) Another benefit of having this second calendar is that it separates your identity from that of the church. Especially for those serving at smaller churches, as I do currently, many expect the pastor to be at every function. If your calendar and the church's calendar are the same, you might fall for that trap. Having a distinction, even a minor one, can help provide an air of freedom which is important because the pastor is not the church nor is the church the pastor!

Let me move on to discuss another important distinction I make with my approach to calendaring. I do not like a cluttered calendar, so whenever possible, I leave it open. That is, I don't have to schedule my time for a lot of what I do and thus does not go on my calendar. Appointments, meetings, and gatherings (such as with family) are what go on my calendar.

A calendar is for things with dates and times. Most of the tasks I do throughout the week do not need to have a time. For instance, I am writing this on Wednesday and one of my Wednesday tasks is to take out the trash. It must be done in the morning, but I know that. Because it is a task, I have a task in ToDoist (without a time listed, although ToDoist does allow times), but not a calendar item. So, simple or even time-consuming tasks do not show on my calendar in part because I want to keep it simple. I am not trying to create a colorful mosaic. Now, if I am doing a task that may take awhile, I can schedule a block of time and simply block that time off on my calendar with the appropriate color and an event title such as Sermon Prep. But I try to keep a hard line between tasks and calendar items. I do not use this approach much (except for Deep Work) because if something unexpected occurs, you have to shuffle everything on your calendar. I used to do this thinking it made me more organized. However, I have found the white space on the calendar much more beneficial. Again, I am busier than I have ever been, but by including "less" on my calendar I have more freedom to accomplish my daily tasks and goals when I want to/can throughout the day.

So, calendars are for dates and times, not tasks. I keep a hard-edge between the calendar and task list except for the synchronization of colors which define the role I am in on a particular day and/or at a particular time. The one commonality between the calendar and task list is an item that reminds me of my overall focus for the day. For instance, apart from this blog which I typically do on Wednesday so it has plenty of time for editing before posting on Friday, today's focus is mainly church and some PTC related (if time allows). I have two all-day color-coded calendar items defined each week on Wednesday which say Focus-1-FBC and Focus-2-PTC. These same two items are at the top of my ToDoist app each Wednesday as well (flagged with the top priority - red - so they are at the top of the list). I have something similar for each of the other weekdays, depending upon the day. So, again, I keep a hard line on this distinction between dates and times versus tasks. But I know others (like my wife) who uses times within her tasks. The key is finding what works for you. But for me, keeping a hard-edge between the various tools has worked very well. (Incidentally, my tasks contain few notes, because notes are for Evernote. A note may need to outlive a task, so storing it in a separate place, unless it is specific to a particular task alone is quite helpful.)

So, that is it. A calendar is a calendar. But we can be strategic in how we use it. My comments here may not be exactly right for everyone, but after much trial and error I have found my current approach to be best for me (I did use to link ToDoist to my calendar, but found it overbearing - remember, I like a simple calendar! And remember the general premise of whitespace I mentioned several weeks ago, here.).

And with the coverage of the calendar, I have come to the virtual end of this series. Next week, I will conclude the series and make an announcement regarding the new home of this blog. Until then, be productive, but more importantly, be effective!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Alignment - Evernote

Two weeks ago, I mentioned the need for a way to track tasks, gather information, and keep a schedule (here). Last week, I elaborated on the idea of gathering information (i.e. data storage, here). This week, I will provide a brief overview of how I use Evernote as my tool of choice. Please note that many tutorials and helps exist, and that is not my intent here. Rather, my premise is to reveal some generalities of my use to allow readers to conceptualize how they might use it as well. If you are interested in seeking specific ideas on a particular use, I recommend checking the Evernote website or searching YouTube for videos.

The two primary aspects of Evernote are notebooks and tags. Everything that is stored ends up in a notebook, but tags are optional. Evernote will allow you to create 250 notebooks for a personal account and can store up to 100,000 notes. I have 14 primary notebooks, two of which are stacked. A stack is having notebooks within a notebook (like a subfolder in a filesystem). My primary notebooks are for personal, for the church (as pastor), for PTC (as chairman/trainer), and for MBTS (as a professor). Others relate to the Bible (with notes linked from Google), templates, checklists, journaling, etc. The advantage of a stack is evident in areas with multiple responsiblities. For instance, as an adjunct, I teach multiple classes so I have a notebook for each class under MBTS, but I also am developing three courses so I have a folder for that as well. I do something very similar for church-related work, particularly for sermon information and research.

One of the greatest benefits of Evernote is the webclipper tool. The key to using Evernote is to USE Evernote. With much of our research today being done on the web, having a tool like the webclipper makes storing worthwhile articles and information easy. I mentioned in the above paragraph that I store research for classes and sermons under certain notebooks. With the webclipper tool, I can easily clip full articles (minus the sidebar advertisements) into the folder I want. Of course, bookmarks in the browser can do something similar, but after I store it in Evernote, I can highlight, tag, and title the article in such a way that I know exactly how I intend to use it. With a bookmark, I have to sift through the article again, so this is a much better approach.

Again, USING Evernote is the key to getting your benefit. But how you use it may take some time to determine. For instance, I still store files on my computer, but some I now have linked to Evernote. One change I have made is files I have with notes from the Bible. As I take personal notes while reading, I will place the notes in a file. I have now moved those files to Google Drive and set up a link in Evernote. I have one file for each book of the Bible and now those files are accessible on Evernote and tagged, highlighted, etc. wherever I need access to them (you can make certain folders available offline which can be handy when you are in remote places in Kenya or elsewhere!).

Two other uses I have found extremely beneficial are journaling and storing book notes. As for journaling, I have established a template in a note. I copy that note each time I journal and then record key events, reflections, lessons, and next steps. By the way, if I have next steps, those items are immediately recorded in ToDoist or Google Calendar so I do not forget them. At times in my life I have kept a journal, but mostly on paper. By using Evernote, I can attach pictures as well! For instance, our church has recently done some renovations and while recording thoughts in a particular journal entry, I attached three or four pictures. Thus, my journal becomes somewhat like a intrapersonal blog.

As for the book notes, I have found a reason to return to Kindle. I have used Kindle off and on for several years, but as a professor, having the physical copy of many books is helpful. Thus, I buy a lot of physical books even if it isn't necessary. But when travelling I take my Kindle in order to save on space. Well, with Kindle, you can easily move any highlights or notes to Evernote. The process can even be done by a copy/paste when you are logged into Kindle through a browser. Of course, some books have a lower limit on the amount of data that can be "moved" from the book, but the availability store notes in Kindle allows them to be searched by keyword. This has begun to, and will continue to, transform my reading, and therefore, I hope make me a better teacher and preacher as I am able to find information for lessons and sermons more easily as opposed to trying to remember where and when I saw a particular quote, thought, or anecdote. If for no other reason, this option makes Evernote worth the investment (I do use the premium version).

The final benefit is the tag-system Evernote employs. This system is no different than some other systems, including the labels used for this blog. Basically, beyond the idea of linking items within a notebook, the tags allow items (notes) to be grouped by common characteristics - including across notebooks. For instance, I have a travel notebook which includes itineraries and notes about upcoming trips, but also notes about prior trips (with a year label such as 2018). But a trip to Kenya is not just travel, it is mission oriented, and it relates to training pastors and I have journaled about the trip, so into which folder should the notes be placed. A note can be in only one folder, but tags provide additional options for linking similar items together. Of course, with Evernote's powerful search capacity, labels are not necessary, but for me, I have found them particularly useful.

One final thought on how I use Evernote. Like ToDoist, I place my new notes into the Inbox first. This allows me to process them later which can help me to remove frivolous notes. So, I have set up the Inbox as my default notebook (including for the webclipper tool) and then once a week, at least, I move items to the notebook that is the best fit. This overall approach is not necessary, but seeing a note twice helps to make the content stick in my mind better in the short run, which is likely when I will need it. Once it is moved to the appropriate notebook, I will likely forget about it in a short period of time unless it involves a particular project on which I am working (and for this, make sure to add notebooks or even notes to the Shortcuts).

So, that is an abbreviated review of how I use Evernote. I could say more about each of those items or how effective using the built-in Evernote camera is for allowing a document to be indexed by Evernote even if it is handwritten (this is great for meeting or conference notes). As I mentioned last week, other tools exist, but Evernote has proven most effective for me. Whichever tool you choose, experiment with the tool until you are able to make it work for you.

We have now reviewed tasks and information storage. We have one more piece to the productivity triad - the calendar. Next week, I will review my use of Google Calendar. Until then, be as effective as you can!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Alignment - Information Storage

In last week's post, I mentioned that to be truly effective we need to be in control of three aspects of our lives - the schedule we must keep, the things we must do, and the information we must know/remember. Of course, each of those areas may cross-over into another area. For instance, what we must do requires knowledge and must be done within the schedule we must keep. However, while overlap exists, the ideas of these three elements can be separated, and should be for clarity sake.

Having covered that concept last week, and having spent a few weeks on tasks (including a mention of ToDoist as the tool I use to manage tasks), I now want to turn to the information portion of the triad. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the choice of tool is not the most important part of being effective - the use of the tools you choose is what will make you effective. By that statement, I mean two things. First, you must choose a tool that best fits your need. Second, you must use it. This week, I will cover my journey through three tools. Next week, I will spend more time on Evernote which has become my tool of choice.

As I just mentioned, choosing the right tool is important. But my choice of tool may not be the best choice for you. Personally, like most anyone over the age of 30, most of my information storage in the past was on paper. I have a couple of file cabinets that contained a great deal of information in a manner which was easy to find as long as I filed it properly. But as technology has developed, the amount of available information has exponentially increased. A paper file system may work for some aspects of life now, but having information at our fingertips has become more important. Thankfully, with the advent of smartphones, we are able to have information at our fingertips if we take the time, and develop the know-how to do so.

Like to-do list managers and calendars, options exist for electronically storing data. Of course, if you have a computer, you are familiar with storing files in a file system. But data storage in the second decade of the 21st Century goes well beyond that option. And the options can help us store anything from pictures to book notes to receipts to recipes and even a great article or blog entry that you find on the web. So, with multiple options, you may need to take your time to try a few and determine which one works best for you.

For me, I have spent time with Evernote, Google Keep, and OneNote, but have settled on Evernote after eight years of trial and error. Google Keep was a nice option for me because of it being a part of the Google ecosystem. Back in the early 2000's I traveled occasionally on business, and I needed access to email and a calendar wherever I was. This was before smartphones, so I began with Yahoo. But I didn't truly care for it, and soon switched to Google. Because I was already using Google for email and calendaring (and a few other items), adding Keep seemed natural. I used Keep some, but never liked the design and could not get comfortable with the notes as they simply appeared on the screen. I would try to shuffle them to make the total process more appealing, but I just never liked the overall look and feel.

I also gave OneNote a try. However, OneNote's biggest obstacle initially is that I am not a fan of Microsoft. However, I really liked OneNote, particularly the earlier version (2013, I think). The "notebook" concept with the individual tabs on the right and the pages within each tab was ideal for someone who demands the functional aspects to be matched by the visual (i.e. aesthetic) aspects. Because of my work with the seminary, I needed to convert away from a Linux-based operating system and OpenOffice, so OneNote became accessible and I liked it. However, because of my different roles I found myself using the product a little differently on three different computers. That is not the fault of OneNote, but when I went to fix the issue, I was unable to get the notes to match as I needed them. Furthermore, the changes in OneNote2016, and the phone app, were not as appealing to me.

So, that led me back to Evernote. Interestingly, I first used Evernote back in 2010, but after a year or so, I abandoned it for Keep. But on my most recent trip to Kenya, I decided I would use it to track my days (i.e. journal) and give it a fair chance to be my tool of choice. On the previous trip, I had used Keep, and again, that was ok, but at that point I was using Keep for a few items and OneNote for others, and when I went this past January, I knew my goal was to stay consolidated. Well, Evernote, did the trick. I liked the phone app and when I returned to the States, I installed it on my laptop. Soon after, I decided to pay for the premium version so I could have it installed on another device as well. Over the past seven months, I have become well-acquainted with Evernote and plan to use it for years to come. (Of course, the challenge of moving data from one system to another is one reason not to switch, but I have done that with all of my old notes to Evernote, and I suppose I can do it again, if I ever need to do so).

So, that is a bit about my journey with storing notes and information. I realize you may not care, but as I flesh out much of how I have become more organized which, in turn, has made me more effective, I wanted to share that I have tried a few options and found some to be wanting. But, again, it is a personal preference. If you are all-in on Microsoft, then integrating OneNote and Outlook may be a tremendous help for you. Likewise, some may prefer Keep. Other options such as Zoho exist as well. But for me, I have found much to like about Evernote and I am still finding new tricks to use.
Next week, I will share a few of the ways I use Evernote to help me be productive, to remember, and to reflect. Until then, make your week a productive week - for you and for God.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Alignment - Productivity's Big Three

Let me state a twenty-first century reality: most people are very busy! Particularly in the western world, we live (and die) by our schedules. Most of us probably had the thought, "I cannot get any busier than I am right now" within the last ten years (if not the last ten minutes). But somehow we found a way to get busier. That is true for me which is why I have been blogging about my recent journey through this process. Some of what I have been sharing is not new, but much of what I have shared over these past couple of months has evolved from what I did in the past. The biggest change is the idea of alignment - which is the title of this series of posts.

Over the past several weeks, I have written about aligning tasks by day depending upon the role which needs focus. I have written about how I try to use time between tasks to maintain momentum within that role. And last week, I wrote about how prioritizing individual tasks allows us to accomplish tasks we might rather avoid because they are hard or are more time-consuming. But, amidst all of my writings, one truth remains - I am busier now than I have ever been. Yet, I believe my health is as good as it has been in decades. In particular, my blood pressure and resting heart rate have dropped dramatically over the past six months. Again, it is not because I have less to do. On the contrary, I am much busier. (For instance, today I woke up at 1:45 am to teach pastors in Kenya via the internet for 5 hours before taking a 45 minute nap and beginning my day.) So, what is the difference? I am better organized now than I have been in the past. Let me share the three basics.

The three most important considerations are how to track our appointments and schedule (calendar), what we must do (tasks), and where to store data (information). Effectively managing these three aspects will lead to better productivity. While some people need less organization than others, not having some system in place for these items will eventually lead to chaos. I will share my process, but the key is to have a process that works for you. For me, I use Google for the calendar, ToDoist for tasks, and Evernote for storing information (as the following picture shows).



First, let me briefly mention my tasks. I have spent the last few weeks in this blog focusing on how I organize my tasks, but the key for me is to have them organized electronically. As I mentioned last week, keeping tasks on paper is fine, but when you have several repeating tasks having them in a digital system makes sense. Furthermore, by having them in an electronic format, I can access them from any device. (If you recall, I use ToDoist, but several quality options exist.) For instance, when walking to a meeting this morning, I was reviewing my tasks for the day. With paper, that is not always possible. But tasks are just one aspect of organizing our lives. We also have an abundance of data in our lives and, as mentioned, earlier, we must know our schedules. Let me talk about the information portion first.

The amount of information we are exposed to each year is growing exponentially. Psalm 46.10 says to be still and know that I am God. But as challenging as it is to be still physically, it is even more difficult to still our mind. So, it is important to have a place to store information. Of course, properly storing documents on a computer is important for those who do a lot of work in that way, but an old fashioned file cabinet can work just as well. But what about those notes you need to remember? Like our list of tasks, having our notes with us can be helpful because we do not always know when we will need them. Smartphones have a Notes option built in now, but the default app is often quite simplistic because not only are we exposed to a lot of information, we are exposed to different types of information. So, like an old fashioned file cabinet, we need to have mechanisms in place to separate certain pieces of data from others. For me, my choice to store information is Evernote. I first used Evernote in 2010, and then moved away from it trying other options such as Google Keep and OneNote. I had certain reasons for using each of those tools, but over time I found myself using different tools for different roles. On the one hand, this almost makes sense, but what if you do not have access to a particular tool when you need it? On my most recent trip to Kenya (January 2018), I decided to use Evernote to record my thoughts about the trip. When I returned to the US, I decided to give the software a more robust try and now use it exclusively for gathering my notes and other types of information. I will elaborate on note taking and Evernote over the next two weeks.

The last need of the big three is a calendar. A "working" calendar has been a staple for generations. From wall calendars to desktop calendars to digital calendars - being able to know when and where one should be has long been an important part of life. In fact, the calendar is likely the most important of the three because you need to know where you will be before you can know what you need to do (tasks). And you need to be somewhere before you have information to gather (even if that somewhere is at home). So, the calendar is a critical piece towards being productive. My choice of calendar is Google Calendar and I intend to speak to my use of the calendar in three weeks.

As I close, let me encourage you to consider how you keep track of your life. You do it somehow - even if only in your mind. But in today's world with all we must remember, our minds will soon fail us and we will miss an appointment or forget a critical piece of information or to do a certain task. Many different types of systems exist (as do software choices, if you prefer that option), but the key is choosing one and making it work for you. What I know for a fact is that my system and software choices are not for everyone, but they work for me - at least for now. I do know of one hole in my system that I would gladly fix if a digital option were readily available. For now, it is not available, and the system that I have developed works well - for me. So, as I expand on my thoughts over the next few weeks on Evernote and Google Calendar, consider what you need from a note-taking tool and calendar. (Remember, I covered tasks and ToDoist previously). Perhaps my system will give you ideas about how you can develop a system to help you become more productive - that is, more effective - at doing what you need to do, when you need to do it.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Alignment - Prioritizing Individual Tasks

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the importance of prioritizing tasks in a general way. Knowing which tasks must be done on (or by) which day is important. So in our day-to-day routines we must prioritize tasks to ensure that the most important ones do not get overlooked or build up and overwhelm us. The good news is that the approach to doing this is rather simple. Let me start with the principle and then I will mention the software I use (which does the same thing with a slightly different approach).

Perhaps the easiest approach is to use the ABC (or 123) method. Whether you use letters or numbers does not matter as the approach is the same. The basic premise is to write down everything you need to do on a given day or in a given time period. You do not need to worry about the order you write them, just record the thoughts as they come. After recording your tasks on paper, prioritize each one by placing an A, a B, or a C next to it. As more items enter your mind, add those to your list and apply a letter as well. You do not need to worry about dates or times, this list is simply to record what needs to be done. (Dates and times are calendar items in a perfect world, but that is a post for the near future.)

Once you have your list and your letters (numbers) by each item, you simply start with the highest priority items (A or 1), and complete all of those. Then you begin working on the next set (B, 2), until those are complete, and, if time and energy allow, you begin working on the last set. This sounds overly simple and it is, but only if it is used. However, most people do not prioritize their tasks or work on the wrong set of priorities first. Let me explain.

Many people may make a to-do list (TTD, Things to Do). But others try to keep track of everything in their head. That may work when your task-list has a couple of items on it, but as your responsibilities grow, your number of tasks will grow and you will soon forget something - and often that something is quite important! So, eventually, most people write down some sort of list. Usually, the initial approach only records the most important items ("I can't forget to do this!"). The problem is that without seeing all our tasks we begin to lose perspective on everything that needs to be done. The problem with writing down everything each day is that we cannot get everything done and therefore using our priority system, we carry forward the items we did not complete - which creates a lot of redundant writing. (This is the value of software which I will cover in another moment.) So, yes, I do advocate recording each task and prioritizing each one as well.

As I mentioned above, once you prioritize you simply begin with your A-level tasks. As your list of tasks grows it is likely you will not get to your C-level tasks on many days. That's ok. That's why they are C-level. You want to do them. You may need to do them. But not today. If they are important enough to do, the C-level tasks will eventually move up to a B or even an A-level task, whether that is tomorrow, next week, next month, etc. But that is why it is important to record every task - to maintain perspective on all that needs to be done. But we have one more problem...we often like to focus on C-level tasks over A-level tasks.

By our own admission, C-level tasks are not as important (remember, we prioritize our own tasks). And many times, they are not as important because they are more "fun" or simple than some of those items that are more important. So, we WANT to do them first. The problem is by doing the C-level tasks first, we spend time that cannot be regained - time that may be very necessary for the A-level tasks we need to accomplish. So, it is not enough to prioritize! We need to be disciplined to focus on our priorities. Covey said, "The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities." Assigning tasks a priority is the first part of that statement, being disciplined to work your priorities is one part of the second!

A look at part of a typical
Wednesday. Notice the red
and orange strips on the left.
Those strips represent the
flag colors on the app for the
phone.
Now, before I close this post, let me briefly mention the benefit of software. In a world where most of us have a device more handy than we do paper, using an app makes a lot of sense. Furthermore with the app, I can access it anywhere (phone, computer, tablet, work pc, etc.) Thus, I can check which tasks need to be done, add new ones, mark tasks completed, etc. wherever I am rather than wondering "Now, where did I leave that list of things to do?"

I am not promoting any particular software as many apps are very good at helping us manage our tasks. One of the premier products is Omnifocus (for iOS only). Wunderlist is another good tool. But the tool I use is Todoist. It is a free app that is cross-platform. (I use the paid version so I can assign/receive assigned tasks from others.) Todoist has many great features, but related to prioritizing tasks, it uses flags. Todoist has red, orange, yellow, and white (none) flags. So, instead of three options (ABC) it provides four. And because it is software the tasks are easily repeatable at all sorts of intervals (helpful for a task like a weekly blog!), and if an item is not completed, it can easily be moved to another day. Furthermore with color schemes for projects (or filters), I can quickly identify tasks related to my different roles by color. (I use the same colors for each role in my calendar as well.)

Life is full of choices, and being productive means making good choices and setting priorities. These choices and priorities are necessary in all of life, and that includes managing our tasks (so they don't manage us). Whether you use paper, an app, or a hybrid system, taking the time to prioritize, and having the discipline to stick with your priorities will help you become more productive and more effective, and may even help you know when it is time to say, "No" because your plate is too full.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Alignment - White space and its Purpose in my Tasks

Last week, I shared my general philosophy for how I schedule my time with the promise that I would get more specific this week. To get more specific, I must re-state what I have previously mentioned in this blog. My work-related responsibilities are focused in three primary areas - pastor, adjunct professor, and leader of a non-profit training organization. Additionally, I sometimes assist other churches with administrative/leadership issues. And, I have a wife, two grown children, a son-in-law, a pseudo-adopted son, and a few very close friends. So, yes, like others, I am busy. But it is not THAT I am busy that matters, it is HOW I am busy that allows me to function.

The key for me is stated in the title for this series - Alignment. As I began this series, I mentioned the importance of alignment as I sought to get back on track from my lull in effectiveness. As I mentioned then, my primary method of accomplishing tasks was to find a day with fewer tasks and add any new tasks to that day until I had to move to another day and so on. However, the problem with that approach was the loss of brain power as I moved from one area to the next. One of the challenges those of us who are busy have is finding margin. Juliet Funt calls this whitespace. Funt's organization focuses on helping companies find whitespace (www.whitespaceatwork.com). The idea is to remove as many "low value" tasks as possible to allow people to focus on what is more valuable. This principle is critical, but is not always easy to accomplish in the moment. Besides, as Funt says, "We are too busy to get less busy." (1)

Therefore, let me gently redirect our thinking of whitespace to where we see it most - in the margins of books, newspapers, magazines, etc. A book without margins (or very small ones) is difficult to read. We desire that white space to allow our eyes to better focus, to be less strained, and to be less tired as we read page after page. Likewise, our lives can be better focused and we can feel less strained and tired if we have white space in our lives. But what do we do with that white space?

In a newspaper or magazine, we rarely do anything with it. But, in a book one is meant to learn from (i.e. not a book being read for entertainment), many people will write notes (at least non-Kindle books). Why? To focus their thoughts on what has been read for future benefit. I use my white space the same way in how I schedule my tasks. I want the down time between tasks to prepare me for the next task. (I am only speaking of moving from task to task not taking extended breaks like lunch or something similar). In my previous arrangement when I added tasks based upon my busyness, I had to "switch gears" from my role as pastor to that of adjunct or leading PTC and back. Now, I have aligned my tasks with certain days being focused on on or two of those roles. Within that time of focus, I complete tasks related to one of those roles for the entire day or accomplish everything for one role before moving to the next. Furthermore, I have scheduled a task for each day that reminds me of the intended focus for that day.

My rationale for using the dead time (white space) this way is because with multiple responsibilities, it is not easy to shift from administrative tasks for the church to answering student emails, and then planning a course for PTC. It can certainly be done, but if my mindset is already focused on church-related matters, I gain some synergy by moving from task to task because my brain is already engaged in the general responsibilities of a particular role (pastor, professor, PTC). Although this alignment has only been in place for a few months, I have found my effectiveness has greatly increased.

So, what does this look like practically? Well, Monday or Tuesday is a church-related day. The day of the week depends on which day I teach on campus. If I go to campus on Monday, my church day is Tuesday and vice-versa. This semester, I will be teaching on campus on Tuesday, so my Mondays are largely administrative in nature, but the entire day is related to church-related ministry until I have accomplished each task. This includes catching up on emails, sending a preparatory email for the coming week, preparing for a lesson on Wednesday, as well as any meetings I might have for the week. Currently, another Monday task is working on updating policies and procedures for the church. To gain the maximum benefit, it is helpful for me to combine the preparatory email (for the week's worship service) and the Wednesday night lesson together and all of the other administrative aspects together. In this way, I am focused on teaching and the Bible in one block of time and all administrative matters in another.

This Fall, Tuesday will be centered around gathering materials for class in the morning, generally a meeting over lunch, and teaching from 2:30-5:20. With an hour and forty-five minute drive each way, most of my Tuesday is done. Usually, I am fairly tired when I arrive home, so I use the rest of the evening to relax and prepare for the next day.

I shared a typical Wednesday a couple of weeks ago (primarily church-related), and Thursdays are church-related as well as it is my scheduled day to prepare my sermon, and Sunday-night lesson, as well as any items related to the bulletin that need to be added. When this is finished, I typically will do something related to the seminary (such as grading or checking discussions if I am teaching online).

Friday is primarily a day for PTC when it can be. This includes preparing lessons or thinking strategically. I need the day to become more centered on making contacts and building a network of pastors and churches to be involved in the ministry.

Saturday is often a day for personal matters, but I also use the weekend to catch up on any items that I did not get completed on their scheduled day. (I will have more to say about this in next week's post.) Sunday is primarily a church-related day, but the afternoons can be a time to process other items as well. Sunday evenings after church are typically a time to prepare for Monday.

So, that is a typical week of aligning my tasks. Next week, I will review the idea of prioritizing those tasks with a mention of the software I use. The key for anyone is not which software to use (several good choices exist), but to know how to use the software that meets your needs in the way YOU want to use it. I will say more about this in a future post as well.

For now, I must stop as this post is much longer than I would typically like. So, once again, if anything I have written helps you, I am thankful. So, until next week, take whatever steps you need to become more of the person God would have you to be.


(1) Juliet Funt, Global Leadership Summit, 2017

Friday, August 10, 2018

Alignment - The Philosophy of Scheduling Time

Over the past couple of weeks, I have focused on general aspects of time. Specifically, I have written about the need to take an inventory of our time (here) and the way to begin to prioritize the tasks that make up that inventory (here). In doing these two steps, we are much better prepared to allocate our time according to the work we need to accomplish.

Again, I realize that many people will want to start with an inventory of the work (i.e. tasks) that needs to be done instead of the time. Certainly, the two go hand in hand, but the reality is that tasks change and time does not. God gave man 24 hours in a day, but He gives us different tasks. Noah had 24 hours and built an ark over 120 years. Moses had 24 hours and led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus had 24 hours and sought and saved the lost over approximately 3.5 years. For the last 2000 years, people of all backgrounds and responsibilities such as the apostle Paul, Luther, Washington, Lincoln, Ford, Gates, Jobs, etc., have all had 24 hours. And each had to measure their time in order to accomplish their tasks.

So, now we are ready to consider how we schedule our time. And to effectively schedule our time, both the time inventory and the priorities matter greatly. The importance of the time inventory is to help us know how much actual time we typically spend on a given task. Many people will underestimate the time needed and thus run into a time crunch. The time inventory can help us mitigate this issue. (Of course, distractions will occur making the inventory less than perfect, but without a starting point - which was likely developed with distractions taking place - we will mislead ourselves in setting our schedule. Likewise, the priorities matter because we can move certain items to different days or parts of a day when our energy and focus is better or not as much needed.

So, for me, two key factors lead the thought process - the day and the number of hours available in that day. The day is important because certain days have pre-established events. On Sunday morning, as a pastor, my day is pre-planned from 9 am to noon and from 5:45-7:30 pm. On Wednesdays, my evening is pre-planned from 6:15-8:15 or so, and we often have some sort of team meeting at 5:30. Additionally, I must prepare for those scheduled times. Sunday morning requires sermon preparation. Sunday and Wednesday evenings requires preparation of a lesson. And to honor the time of my wife (who is the part-time administrative assistant), I must prepare the sermon and lessons before they are "due" to ensure she can prepare handouts, powerpoints, etc. Furthermore, a lesson takes a certain amount of time, but a sermon takes more. And, for me, I prefer to prepare the lessons, and especially the sermon, with a relatively consistent stream of thought. That is, I don't want to work on something for 15-30 minutes, then do something else, then return to the sermon, then do something else, etc. Granted, sermon preparation takes me several hours and is interrupted by lunch, but otherwise the task itself is usually the single focus of work being done on a Thursday until it is complete. Therefore, I need to schedule a large block of time to accomplish the task.

This idea has come to be known as deep work. Cal Newport published a book with the title Deep Work in 2016. Although I have not yet read the book, the premise is that our brains cannot engage in the deep thinking required to accomplish tasks which stretch us mentally. For instance, our society has become so accustomed to hearing pings and beeps and seeing notifications on our phone. In fact, my phone has a blue light "blinking" at me right now. It has been doing so since I started this blog and will continue until I am finished. What would be better is for me to turn my phone face down and disable any sound or vibrations, but I have not done that because writing this blog requires some thinking but not deep thinking like the preparation of a sermon. (I sometimes leave my phone at home on Thursdays until my sermon is done to avoid most every distraction).

So, the schedule must account for the amount of time necessary to accomplish work that requires deep thinking. Combining the time needed to thinking deeply with the tasks that are of the highest priority, begins to define the schedule for me. Furthermore, I find that I am most productive when working through a consistent schedule whenever possible. Like last week's post showed, I can adapt when necessary, but it is best for me to prepare a couple of days in advance at least to give my mind time to consider the lesson and make alterations if needed. Thus, Wednesday night lessons are developed on Monday. Sermons are developed on Thursday. In each case, it is like writing a draft of a paper. I develop the draft and have enough time to "forget" about it, so that when I review it, I can see it with fresh eyes and make appropriate changes. Therefore, I have sufficient time blocks allocated on Monday and Thursday to accomplish these tasks. As a pastor, flexibility is needed at times (for instance, people having surgeries, meeting with the sick or dying, or funeral preparations), but if I do not have a schedule with which to begin, then I will certainly overlook some important tasks later.

This post has provided a philosophy for scheduling time. Essentially, I am most effective when I set aside time based upon the day certain items are "due" and the hours necessary to do deep work first. From that point, I can begin to place other items in place. Over the past few years my random placement of tasks based merely on the time available was adequate but was not allowing my brain to remain properly engaged for a full day. Thus, I needed to take one more step. I needed alignment of my thoughts to be most effective. I have touched on this in a previous post (here), but I will go a little deeper in next week's post. In subsequent weeks, I will then share how I am using certain software applications to tie all of this together.

Again, I appreciate all who read these posts. I write them in the hopes that, at least, one person may benefit from my journey through this process. And, even if the article does not help others, taking time to write is giving me a chance to crystallize my thoughts - which is helping me as I make adaptations to become more effective and be better equipped to become the man God has called me to be. Ultimately, to live in, not of, the world (the basis for fotonni) requires me to live by faith (Heb 11.6) but to do so by maximizing what God has given me to do (Matt 25.14-30; Luke 12.48). So, thanks for indulging me, and I hope it can help you become the person God has called you to be as well.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Alignment - The Covey Matrix and Rescheduling Priorities

Last week I spoke of the need to take an inventory of how we spend our time. Our tasks are important, but over the course of our life, our responsibilities change. What does not change is how much time we have in a day. So, rather than beginning with our list of responsibilities (tasks), we must begin with how we spend our time.

For instance, I usually prepare my blog on Wednesday in order to post on Friday. Today is the exception because I have an opportunity to see a friend from Nigeria who is in America for just a few more days. I only learned he in Kansas City (about 2 hours away) on Tuesday, and fortunately, he is unable to meet today, so we are planning on having a long lunch tomorrow. But means that I must get today's work done as well as tomorrow's (which is usually sermon prep day). But because I know my time inventory as well what is important versus urgent, I can make adjustments when the needs (or in this case desire) arise.

Before I share more about Covey's Matrix, let me provide the time inventory for a normal Wednesday. After I wake up, I usually lie in bed for 30-60 minutes and think. Some will call this a waste of time, but for me, it allows me to process my thoughts and begin to take control of them. What I mean is that you have no control over your thoughts at the moment you awake. Perhaps a noise has startled you, or a dream had control of your mind, etc. So I get those thoughts out of my way and begin thinking about what I need to consider because once I am out of bed, I am normally in "go" mode (except if my back is hurting). Then, I get ready, eat, set out the trash, head to the office and begin my daily work including to post the church blog, prepare my personal blog, prepare for any meetings that evening (not studies, those are completed Monday), do some administrative work, eat lunch, read, do sermon research, do something related to PTC, eat dinner, attend a meeting, go to prayer meeting in summer (Community Groups the rest of the year), check emails and Facebook,  journal (I resume this discipline today), and relax while watching a show with my wife. Finally, the day ends as it started - in bed. (The timeline for a typical Wednesday with the related Covey Quadrant is as the bottom of this post.)

But this week, I must consider what is most important if I am to cover two days worth. This is where having considered the Covey Matrix is helpful. The picture here is a quick review of what each quadrant represents and how to use it effectively. (The full article is worth your time. It can be found at: https://succeedfeed.com/stephen-covey-4-quadrants-to-be-productive/.)
Picture found at:
https://succeedfeed.com/stephen-covey-4-quadrants-to-be-productive/

Most everything on a typical Wednesday is in Quadrant 2, but I can cut time from Quadrant 4 by limiting my thought-processing time early, by eating quickly, and postponing my sermon research and administrative work scheduled for Wednesday this week. Thankfully, four additional factors are very helpful this week. First, my back did not hurt this morning, so I gained time then. Second, I was extraordinarily productive Monday so I can skip the administrative work. Third, much of my research for my sermon was completed last December because I was writing a series of sermon outlines for LifeWay which I am currently using now, and our church is in the midst of some renovations so we are not having a meeting that is typically scheduled for this evening.

So, I can look at my schedule and see what is most important for these today and tomorrow if I wish to see my friend. These are items which I must do (i.e. I cannot delegate), and do not want to become stressed by delaying the work. If you recall above, I mentioned I do my Wednesday lesson planning on Mondays (when it is important, but not urgent) rather than Wednesdays (when it would be both important and urgent). This is why I do sermon research (Quadrant 2) on Wednesday so I can do my sermons on Thursday (again Quadrant 2, since the sermon is not "due" until Sunday morning). However, I must also consider anyone else who is effected by my work. If a powerpoint or handout is to be used, then that person needs to have the information timely. And if I am to be a good leader and set the example, then I need to get my information to the person(s) involved in a manner so they can operate in Quadrant 2 as well (i.e. not putting them in a urgent mode because of my lack of planning).

Therefore, this week, I need to determine if I want to push off my sermon prep (Thursday's primary task) until Friday or do it a day early. The problem with moving it up is that I am normally not mentally ready to do it on a Wednesday. The problem with moving it back is that my Fridays are usually heavily focused on my work as an adjunct for the seminary, and that is especially true this week. So, in weighing the options, today (Wednesday) is the better day. To mentally prepare, I woke up 45 minutes earlier, abbreviated my morning schedule, and began my work earlier. For instance, I am in the final moments of writing this blog and the time is not quite 9:30 am, which is usually about an hour before I would begin it, so I will have about two hours to begin working on my typical afternoon items - one of which I mentioned I will forgo this week because the research is already complete. So, I should be able to complete my sermon and its related components today, which will free me up to be gone for several hours tomorrow and still remain free of Quadrant 1.

As Covey said, "the key is not to schedule our priorities, but to prioritize our schedule." If you review my schedule below, you will see that I have some Q4's at the beginning and end of my day, but otherwise my schedule is prioritized to accomplish what is important before it comes urgent. Therefore, while I prefer to keep to this schedule, I have some buffer in my overall schedule should an emergency arise (such as a member of my congregation having surgery) or if a rare opportunity presents itself (like a friend from 1/3 of the way around the world being two hours away). Of course, the opportunities (rare or otherwise) should fit within the scope of your overall life mission, but that was last year's series. For me, seeing Ayo does fulfill my mission (and my vision) as another friend and I are considering going to Nigeria next year on mission so talking to Ayo while he is here fits perfectly!

Again, my purpose in sharing these posts is ultimately that we become better disciples for Jesus. God is the author of time (as well as life), so learning to manage ourselves related to the time we have been given will allow us to not only be more effective, but to know when worthwhile alterations to our plans are possible and when they are not. Therefore, I hope these musings are profitable for those who read it, not just in me sharing from my experiences, but in helping others to consider how to best organize (align) their lives as well.

--
Time Inventory (Covey Quadrant):
45 minutes (6:45-7:30) - Awake and process thoughts (Quadrant 4)
1 hour (7:30-8:30) - Get ready and eat, set out the trash, and stretch my back (Q2, I often read ministry-related magazine articles as well, thus Q2)
8:30-9:00 - Quickly review 3 websites for news and sports, post Church blog (Q4)
9:00-11:30 - Prepare for meetings, Church-related admin work, prepare blog (Q1, blog is Q2)
11:30-12:15 - Eat lunch and relax (Q4)
12:15-12:30 - Check emails (Q3)
12:30-4:00 - Read Bible, sermon research, and read from a book (Q2)
4:00-5:00 - PTC - related (Q2, usually, could be Q1)
5:00-5:30 - Eat (Q4)
5:30-6:30 - Meeting (Q2 usually, but occasionally Q1)
6:30-8:00 - Community Groups (prayer meeting ends earlier) (Q2)
8:00-8:30 - Get home, prepare a small snack (Q4)
8:30-bed - Emails, Facebook, journal, and watch a tv show (Q3 to Q4)

Friday, July 27, 2018

Alignment - An Inventory of Time Spent

At the conclusion of last week's blog, I mentioned that I would begin to detail my week in the next post. Well, as I conceptualized the blog, I realized I needed to back up to discuss the need of reviewing how our time is spent before sharing how alignment can work. So, bear with me as I discuss the need to be honest in learning to budget our time (this week) and determining the importance of each item (next week).

One of the concepts most anyone who has studied personal effectiveness will share is that it is important for an individual to know what they do with their time. Most people are familiar with the idea of a financial budget, but we are all familiar with a time budget - many just do not know it. For instance, a person who has a job knows how long it takes to get to the proper location and makes plans to be there timely. Or, a parent who is taking a child to school has an idea of how long it will take to get to school AND potential routes to take in case of problems (such as traffic), with a nearly automatic adjustment for the difference in time. Of course, in America, one of the greatest indicators of our awareness of our time budget relates to the meals we eat. Eating out is "faster" than making something at home and microwaving a hot pocket is "faster" than preparing a roast in the crock pot. So, we are aware of our limitations of time and very loosely budget it, but to become effective, we must be firm in our understanding.

Firm does not mean inflexible, but it does mean knowing how we spend all of our time. Just like knowing where our money goes, knowing how we spend our time can be very freeing. As many have noted, many people can have different amounts of money, possessions, family members, and different levels of health, but we all have the same amount of time. Yet, most of us have said something to the effect, I wish I had more time. But we cannot make more time. We are confined to what God has given us, so if we are too busy then it is our fault, not God's. (For Christians, this is particularly important, because as we become busy, we often cut from our time with, or serving, God!)

So, taking the time to review not just our calendars, but the things we do is a great place to start aligning one's life. The challenge for most people who attempt this is they begin to judge the activity before recording it. My encouragement is to avoid that temptation by considering this exercise similar to that of brainstorming. In brainstorming, the idea is simply to record any ideas. Judging the merits of those ideas come later. Likewise, when recording the time you spend, you may have habits that you would rather not record the amount of time you spend. However, if we choose to take that approach, we are not being honest with ourselves. First, record the time, then make the decision on what needs to be adjusted.

For me, I have three primary areas of responsibility related to "jobs." I am a full-time pastor. I am an adjunct professor. And, most recently, I have added the responsibility for leading an organization to train under-resourced pastors around the world (and to-date, I have done nearly all of the training). Those three areas keep me busy, and could lead to burnout. So, last Fall, I began to relieve some of the stress by playing a video game (soccer). This began as an activity a couple of days per week. Then, shortly afterward, my lower back began to ache each morning, so I began to play the game each morning for several minutes (maybe 30), while swaying back and forth and stretching out my back. This worked great for my back, but as I continued progressing in the game, the 30 minutes turned into 45, then 60, and sometimes longer. My back did not need the extra time (most days), but I would get to a point in the season that I didn't want to lose my thought process (if you understand what the transfer window is, you may understand). I was still accomplishing my tasks, because I would get up earlier, but the time I was spending on this game was becoming detrimental to my thought process (and led to my being stuck).

So, I needed to take the time to take inventory on my week. I knew I was spending too much time on the video game, but until I realized that what had been a couple of hours per week was now taking multiple hours per day a few times per week (ouch!), I could not begin to shift my time. I was not unaware of the time playing the game in general, but rather than dismiss the exercise of reviewing my time or negating the truth, I admitted the truth (personally, and now here publicly) and could then begin to work towards returning to functioning much more effectively. Once I had reviewed how I was spending my time, I was able to remove some of the unimportant and less important items and better coordinate the tasks, meetings, and other responsibilities into the time that I have on a weekly basis.

The truth is that books such as What's Best Next (Perman), and Smarter, Faster, Better (Duhigg) will do little to help unless you are willing to change what needs to be changed. But sometimes knowing what needs to be changed means simply taking time to know what we are doing or developing an understanding as to why we are doing certain things (see The Power of Habit by Duhigg). But once that truth is realized, the choice must be made to change. And once the choice is made to change, then the challenge is be disciplined enough to do so.

So, this next week, I encourage you to take an inventory of how you spend your time. This inventory does not need to be shared with anyone (unless you desire to do so), so be honest with yourself. After recording the items, then you can begin to make choices on what should remain and what can be omitted. But, I would urge you not to discard the list yet, because you may want to add one more piece of information to help you make your choices. I will cover that next week, and then begin to turn to how I have re-allocated my time each week.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Alignment -> Synergy

Last week, I mentioned that I was making a distinction between alignment and focus. The idea of alignment and ministry first really captured me in the book Simple Church. The authors define alignment as "maximizing the energy of everyone." (The authors also distinguished between alignment and focus in that book.) As it relates to personal productivity, I am not concerned with the energy of everyone. Although others impact me and my efforts impact others, the alignment I seek revolves around what I need to accomplish and when.

Most who will read this blog will find themselves in a similar position to myself - busy. One of the keys to personal effectiveness is keeping oneself organized. Without a good system of organization, we lose track of our time, our responsibilities, and what we need to accomplish our work. I will cover aspects of each of these areas in the coming weeks, but for now, let me simply say that I have been experimenting over the past few years with a few approaches, and I believe a part of why I am more effective (i.e. productive) now is because I have narrowed down the best option FOR ME. Again, I will say more about this in my next few posts.

As for alignment, however, one of the ways I have managed myself over the past couple of years has been based upon how busy I was on a particular day of the week. If my Monday did not look particularly busy, and I realized I had a new task to complete, I would add it to Monday. Logically, this approach seems to make sense, particularly if, for instance, Tuesday and Wednesday were "filled" with tasks and/or meetings. And, for the most part, this approach was ok - at least until I hit a bit of a wall last Fall. But as I have been reading and contemplating over these past couple of months, one idea came to mind - my approach to completing my dissertation.
With all of the options we have in our lives,
we need to find a way to focus to find what approach
makes most sense for each of us as an individual.

When I first began working on my dissertation, I got distracted from my topic by researching the tangent of discipleship. Of course, discipleship is a broad term, but my dissertation was to focus on how a church's understanding of herself could impact the desire and ability to make disciples. But I lost focus because I was doing my research as I had time - a little each day - in addition to serving as a pastor, etc. But it wasn't until I created a physical space for me to work (my "dissertation station") that I began to excel. When I entered that area, I was not only focused on researching and writing my dissertation, I aligned myself mentally to the task as well.

This leads to the importance of alignment as I am using the term in this series of posts. Adding new tasks to a day without much work to do sounds logical, but for me it isn't the best approach if I have to mentally shift gears from one area of responsibility to another. Again, I serve as a full-time pastor, an adjunct professor, and have started a mission organization to teach pastors in under-privileged areas of the world. All three of these work-related areas are linked by the concept of teaching others, but the individual responsibilities within each vary greatly. For instance, pastoring has many responsibilities other than teaching and leading a small organization requires financial oversight, curriculum development, and developing a donor base, etc. Thus, to focus on a task was not enough. I needed to align my tasks by responsibility and then focus on the tasks at hand.

This has been a major breakthrough for me. While my specific approach is different than when I sat at the "dissertation station," aligning tasks by area of responsibility allows me to maintain a stream of thought, which creates a bit of synergy. So, instead of adding a task to a day which was less busy, I now seek to add the task in alignment with other tasks for that particular area of my life. In doing so, to alter the phrase of Rainer and Geiger I shared above, I am able to "maximize the energy of one." My "to-do list" may seem far more crowded on some days, but the synergy gained is allowing me to accomplish more as I focus on the aligned tasks at hand. (Certainly, this is not possible with every task nor on every day. Certain issues comes up and interruptions happen, but to follow this concept in principle is helping me a great deal.)

So, having generally discussed the benefits of alignment, next week, I will begin to share more specifically how I now approach each week. Again, my purpose in writing this series is in hopes that even one person might benefit. I have found a system that is beneficial to me. It is helping me to better fulfill my purpose as a child of God. You may need to tweak my system or come up with your own all together, but I pray the words I type here might be an encouragement for you to better fulfill your purpose as well.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Alignment, Intro

Over the last several months, I have mentioned my journey to regain a sense of focus, re-energize myself, and begin accomplishing the purpose I believe God has for me. Over the last couple of weeks, I believe I have begun moving in that direction again and feel good about the progress I have made. Along the way, I have promised I would share a few specific insights. In this post, I begin to share the importance of alignment which will be further detailed in subsequent posts. Overall, as I share these insights over the next several weeks, I do so with the intent that what I have learned may help someone else.


If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you know that my primary mantra for life is “When you stop learning, you start dying.” I believe this is true for several reasons, but one primary reason is that when we believe we know it all, we are unwilling to listen to others. When we stop listening to others, we no longer process new information – some of which may give us insights into improving our lives. I enjoy reading, but nearly all of the reading I do is to be encouraged or inspired. That is, I read books that will encourage me to grow in my ability to lead, to organize, to teach, etc. and to be inspired by seeing how the actions of others might help me better understand a situation or a person. This latter bit is usually through history and/or biographies (Currently, I am working my way through American history splitting time between biographies of the presidents (in order) while sprinkling in books about the society and wars during their terms.) So, my reading is meant to learn, which you might recall from my series on vision last year is an acrostic for my personal strategy.


Thus, it only makes sense that I would turn to books to help me move beyond my current rut. Last year, I read Matt Perman’s excellent book (“What’s Best Next”). I made it a goal to return to that book each year to make sure that my intentions were not slipping. The date set for that is July 1 of each year, so I am just now getting to it. But this Spring, his next book (“Unstuck”) was released and the timing of the release coincided with me beginning to seek answers to why I was stuck (although, that was not my word choice – I thought “distraction” was better at the time). But before Unstuck was released I began reading Duhigg’s instant classic on habit (The Power of Habit). And, because I had a fresh understanding of Duhigg’s work, I decided to begin his next book (Smarter, Faster, Better) immediately after finishing the first one. Then, finally, I turned to Unstuck. If I had to do it over, I would read Unstuck before Smarter, Faster, Better because you cannot move faster while you are stuck – you simply spin your wheels more. Nevertheless, having worked my way through these latter three books, and now reviewing What’s Best Next, I am no longer stuck, and a big part of that is alignment.


Alignment is the word I have ascribed to my current state. A couple of posts ago, I used the word “Focus” which is more common in society, and is prevalent in Unstuck, for instance. In fact, a couple of sentences from the latter third of the book speak to the idea of focus in a manner which has already benefited me.


“If you work with a low degree of focus, you will have to work a much longer time to get the same results. Conversely, if you work with a high degree of focus, you can do the same amount of work in much less time.”

– Matt Perman, Unstuck, p. 192

This statement is not from the pages of a book on rocket science. But sometimes getting unstuck is simply returning to principles we know to be true, but have forgotten to apply. Thus learning is only the first step...application must follow. And effective application of what is true is wisdom. So, for me it was a call to return to focusing on the right things. But as important as focus is, over these last two weeks, I have discovered that what I had considered to be focus, has actually become alignment. Focus is definitely a critical component of personal effectiveness, but focus is about the task at hand. For me, I needed to connect tasks from differing areas of my life into those specific areas. Connecting related ideas is known as alignment, and thus, while I agree wholeheartedly with the need to focus, it was not until I adopted an attitude of alignment that I truly began to move forward and accomplish what I need to accomplish.

Next week, I will share how I began to align my time.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Big “Mo” + Schedule Change

Note: Beginning next week, my regular posting day will be Friday.

If you have been reading for the last month or so, you know that I have been stuck in a couple of areas in my life. Both are administrative in nature, and have not reached a point of being critical – yet. But being stuck in these areas has led me to do some deeper thinking and reflection on other matters in my life and I altered the selection of books I would be reading to help me discover and, hopefully, unlock what was necessary to get moving again. In last week’s post, I mentioned that movement was taking place. This week, I can share that the movement has become momentum – I think.

Momentum is a fickle thing. We say we have momentum when things are going well, and perhaps we do. But momentum is not as real as we might think – at least not in all areas. In the realm of sports, momentum is discussed all the time, but really, it does not exist. One team may be doing well for awhile, but then the game shifts and the announcers say the “momentum” has shifted. Really, it is about one team making more (and better) plays than the other at any given moment. Certainly, a person’s or team’s confidence may be different, but momentum is a term from physics which measures mass and velocity. It does not measure confidence or performance. And, thus, to say that my movement has become momentum is likely not the right choice of terms.

But the movement that began is seemingly moving faster (an element of true momentum). As I evaluated some areas, I made some changes in my life and schedule and found that the movement over the first week has created even greater efficiency, and, more importantly, effectiveness over these last few days. Thus, I will hold to the idea of momentum being the right term.

That said, I do intend to provide some specific thoughts on this issue in the coming weeks. Instead I will close this post with an explanation of the initial sentence. As I have re-evaluated some aspects of my schedule, I have determined a few changes are in order. I have re-assigned certain activities to certain days and have added a few elements (through delegation) to make me more effective overall. One of those additions relates to this blog and the timing of it being posted each week. I considered moving other responsibilities to keep Thursday as the day for posting, but those changes will not work once my teaching schedule increases again in the Fall. So, the best approach for me is to change my posting day and make it Friday instead of Thursday.

The change will begin next week and I will then outline some of the ideas that have helped me and that may be of benefit to you as well.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

A Push + Focus = Movement

If you have read my posts recently, you know that I have been struggling to get over the hump in a couple of areas. I have been reading books and seeking to discern why I cannot move past this time of being stuck. I have had ideas floating in my mind for months, but nothing concrete has emerged. And then, in reading Smarter, Faster, Better (by Charles Duhigg), I was reminded that writing things down makes a difference for most people in not only retention, but also in our ability to process information.

The issue for me is that, like many pastors and educators, I am on the computer a lot. I am a believer that we need three main systems to track our lives – a task list, a calendar, and a place to store information. I have those and they are all accessible on my computer and/or phone (ToDoist, Google Calendar, Evernote, respectively). I am still trying to develop the system to work perfectly for me, but I have the system in place. So, if I have a note to type, it goes on the computer. And that can help, because I can see it before me rather than floating in the nebulous of my mind. But, in one of the stories Duhigg mentions, the difference between writing something down versus typing it on a computer can be significant.

So, I am resolved to write down some items that I believe are inhibiting me from being as effective as I desire to be. (And after these ideas are written and better understood, I will type them into Evernote to have them for future use.) I have already taken two main steps this week to correct some of the issues even as I seek to uncover more. And, sometimes it just takes a push.

Last week, I received a call about an opportunity to teach a class. This class will be a stretch for me in many ways but is perfectly inline with the work I did on my dissertation. Perhaps, I could state it this way – my dissertation covers one element of the class I have been asked to teach. But the preparation will be intense. And it will be important. This class will be the first opportunity for me to teach doctoral students so the bar is raised considerably. I do not take teaching lightly and this past Spring I taught an undergrad class that had a few students who are certainly capable of earning a doctorate someday. Thus, I seek to be prepared for any class. But doctoral students are more demanding (I know, I remember), so I must be fully prepared. And that was the push I needed! I believe that push has allowed me to crest the hump. I believe I am back on the path where I can be more effective than I have been in recent months. Certainly, the books have helped, and I will continue to read (and intend to immediately re-read the most recent set I mentioned a few weeks ago) to prevent myself from slipping off the path again just as I gain momentum. But, it is good to be moving forward again.

Even as I say I am moving forward, I must confess, that the two areas where I have been stuck are not the area where I was pushed. But the push forced me to consider my overall schedule, my overall objectives, and the overall scope of work which needs to be done in a certain time-frame. Thus, I have re-cast my schedule. I have created “Focus” days where each weekday will focus on tasks related to a certain responsibility (i.e. Mondays are focused on administrative issues related to the church, Fridays are focused on seminary-related work, etc). Seeing this ON PAPER (yes, I wrote it down) and not in both my daily task and calendar as visual reminders has helped me immensely just in the first few days. Of course, some tasks and responsibilities will need to be handled on non-focus days, and that is fine. But if the focus for the day is church-related, the church must be the primary focus which should bring some synergy of thought instead of simply attacking unrelated tasks across my various roles. (This is going beyond prioritization of tasks. I still do that as well, but I am better aligning tasks on the particular days where that segment of my life (i.e. role) is focused.)

So, again, a simple push has set me in motion. But the push came because I was seeking answers. And, in light of my current sermon series on Seeking the Heart of God, I hope my seeking was truly after what God wanted. I believe it is/was and now it is up to me to continue seeking Him and focusing on moving forward as He wants me to move. Ultimately, whatever God has planned for me (big or small) does not matter – my job is to be faithful to Him! And being faithful meant that I had to get unstuck. He has helped me do that. Now it is up to me to follow which means I must try to avoid getting stuck again.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

It Begins With One

The current sermon series I am preaching is entitled, “Seeking the Heart of God.” It is based upon the life of David (“a man after God’s own heart”) and is covering 2 Samuel. Of course to seek God is not to be perfect, but should lead us to better reflect Him and His character. Last week’s message was on the need for our motivation to be from love. This week’s message was on reconciliation.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I am also working through several books to help me be more productive (i.e. personal effectiveness) and one to get me “unstuck” in a couple of areas. Well, to bridge the gap between the effectiveness I seek and the reconciliation God desires for me, I must seek a solution that begins with me.

To reconcile means to bring into balance. That is what I am trying to do. At present, a part of my life is out of balance. I am not actively engaged in anything wrong, I am just stuck. And a part of that “being stuck” might be considered procrastination. I am not actively procrastinating (I don’t think), but I keep pushing off two particular tasks which do not have a definitive timeframe for completion, are very cumbersome, and for which I can not seem to determine a good approach (for one especially). However, I am beginning to see a possibility for that one item and have gained a bit of momentum on the other this past week. How? I took inventory.

Again, being reconciled means to bring into balance. Some will reconcile their bank balance to the personal records for instance. Others immediately think of reconciling with a person or a group of people (the focus of my sermon this week). But oftentimes, one of the biggest challenges to true reconciliation is that as an individual, I (and perhaps you as well) do not stop to take the time to see where I am out of balance with myself (or you with yourself). This is a real issue and can best be resolved with pen and paper or at a minimum seeing the words on a screen.

The reality is that we often think we know what may be wrong, but let half-developed ideas ramble around inside our heads and never force ourselves to deal with those ideas. By writing them down (or typing them), we can visualize the problems and begin to make sense of them in a more tangible way. We are also likely not to combine as many ideas; rather, by listing out a few, and taking time to truly analyze each one, many discover deeper challenges or realize that certain issues dominate others and deserve more attention in the short-run.

The truth is that whatever the focus of reconciliation, the process can be the same. Instead of needing to improve personal effectiveness (like I do right now), perhaps another time I will need to reconcile with another person. In that case, I can still take an inventory about the situation and list areas where I need to focus. Bringing myself into balance will be important before trying to bring another person into balance with me. In others words, I should learn to better know myself before I seek to better know others. Now, that statement is not an excuse to ignore others until I am perfect (because I never will be), but sometimes I have found that when tension exists in a relationship, it is not necessarily what someone else has done, rather, it is how I interpreted the action because of something that I was dealing with (or not dealing with) personally.

So, reconciliation begins with one. And for me, that one is me. And for you that one is you. It is that simple. But as you begin to know yourself and I begin to know myself, we should then seek to reconcile with others. After all, that is what God did for us on the cross and, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, we now have the responsibility to be agents of reconciliation for God – first toward Him and then towards one another.

With that, I encourage you to stop and take inventory about whatever is troubling you in your life and/or relationships. It must begin with one. For me, I have begun that process, and plan to see it through. And I am writing this post as a reflection of what I am learning and as an encouragement you take inventory of yourself as well.