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.

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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)