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.