The Fruitfulness of Plodding

A question I frequently get, and which I am generally reluctant to answer, is a question about time management. How do I get everything done? I don’t like to answer this for three reasons. First, I don’t get everything done. The done stuff is visible enough, but the undone stuff is sitting on my desk, staring at me malevolently. Secondly, I am a firm believer in distinguishing principles and methods and I am afraid that if I talk too much about what I do, or the way I approach things, people in completely different circumstances, or with different sets of gifts, will think that I am saying that this is “the way.” Which it isn’t. And third, it seems awkward and self-centered to talk about yourself like you were a template of some kind, as though you were trying to explain to people how you got to be so wonderful. That kind of attitude evokes the ick response, and I don’t ever want to look like I am doing that.

That said, the question has come up again, and so despite misgivings, I am going to try to answer it anyhow — at least at a general level. The first part will emphasize principles, the second part methods.

I believe in plodding. Productivity is more a matter of diligent, long-distance hiking than it is one-hundred-yard dashing. Doing a little bit now is far better than hoping to do a lot on the morrow. So redeem the fifteen minute spaces. Chip away at it. For example, I have a stack of six books that I am working through most weekday mornings — a page or two of each every time I sit down to read. I do the same thing with writing — if you have time for a little bit, then do a little bit.

Second, maintain boundaries for everything, boundaries that suit the circumstance. When the kids were little and still at home, the daily routine was completely different than it is now that they have families of their own. Generally, pastors need to set boundaries to keep their work from spilling into family time, and not the other way around. So, for example, when we were first married, we set the boundary that I would not allow my work as a pastor (Bible studies, speaking engagements, etc.) take me away from home in the evenings more than three nights a week. Flipped around, I would be home with the family a minimum of four nights a week. My work was restricted to specified reservations, and as my responsibilities grew I had to figure out ways to be more fruitful in those alloted times. When an extra load developed, the idea was to have it land on me and not on the family. If it has to get done now, then get up at five, and nobody else pays. So if you need to, get up at five, but always try to go home at five.

A sixty hour work week is an honest job and a significant load, but a lot of the problems that come to people who work this much happen because of where those sixty hours are placed. It is possible to work sixty hours and still have lots of time left over for family. A week has a total of 168 hours in it. Sixty hours of work leaves 108, and eight hours of sleep a night take away another 56 hours, leaving you with 52 hours a week to play tag with the kids.

Third, measure progress by the extended video, not the snapshot. Set goals for getting things done, but have the time for measuring the goals be extended enough to allow for daily or weekly fluctuations. For example, when I first began to work as a minister I set a goal for my weekly reading, as measured by the month. I wanted to read on average 1-2 books a week, calculated by how many I finished in a month, which would be somewhere between four to eight books. Set hard but reasonable goals, and measure them in reasonably extended time units.

Fourth, use and reuse everything. Act like a Sioux with a superstitious fixation on using every last part of the buffalo. I know that my blogging pace sometimes creates the illusion that I do little other than sit here typing like a madman, but that is really not the way it is at all. Prepare things with an eye on reusing them in the future, and make sure to use (any useful) work from the past. This is how former Credenda articles are shaped into books, sermon outlines are shaped into books, Bible study outlines from fifteen years ago are lightly edited into continuous prose and turned into blog posts and may one day find their way into a book, and interesting quotations from books I have read are posted here with a view to using them as the research background on future books.

Those are some of the basic principles. Here is the second part, the particular details. Saturday is my day off, the day for pottering in the yard, and relaxing my brain by making a dump run in my pick-up. The people out there at the dump must think I throw things away for a living. I go into the office early on Thursday and Friday. Thursday is our weekly elders’ meeting at 6 am, and Friday is a men’s prayer meeting at 6:30. Monday through Wednesday I go into work at 8, and five days a week come home at five. Wednesday is blocked off as my sermon prep day. Sunday I get up at six to prepare various prayers and exhortations for the service. I have a number of pastoral, counseling appointments scheduled throughout the week, and the rest of the time is taken up by teaching (NSA, Greyfriars) and committee meetings of various kinds. In between these different appointments and events, I write as I have the opportunity. In the evenings, Nancy and I hang out with the kids and grandkids who come over frequently, I play the guitar, read, and so on. It is a full and busy life, but we work hard at preventing it from becoming frenetic. I hate frenetic, which returns us to the previous point on the fruitfulness of plodding. Living this way, we have found that it adds up.

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