I learnt many humbling lessons from my brush with cancer. I say ‘brush’, because however tough it was, I have friends and family who are currently facing end of life issues, and I never got there. Nevertheless, I had to learn that I am finite. And I don’t mean that I learnt I was going to die at some stage – we all know that, and I guess Christians are used to thinking about that quite a lot, and should be prepared for when the theory becomes real.
No, by finite, I learnt that I have limits.
I remember one season when I faced in reality a question most of us only ever walk through in ministry seminars or in reading self-help books: if I only have one hour in a day when I have energy for my ministry work, what should fill that hour? And an hour was the maximum – and often an optimistic assessment, before I finally gave in to the chemo and surgery.
I was brought up with old-school Time Management theory. There is enough time for everything so long as your prioritise properly and organise yourself.
But of course there isn’t – and there never was. There are always too many things to cram into a day.
And it’s the wrong approach.
Think how you handle an email that pings in at 9.30 when your mind is clear, and the coffee’s still fresh in the cup. Easy – boom. Now, think how you react when it pings in at 4.15, and you’re tired and your head is scrambled.
Think how you handle an email that pings in at 9.30 when your mind is clear, and the coffee’s still fresh in the cup. Easy – boom. Now, think how you react when it pings in at 4.15, and you’re tired and your head is scrambled. Does it take longer? Of course. And I had days when that handling that one email (opening, reading, thinking about the reply, writing the reply, hitting send) would be a major piece of work. For an easy one.
15 minutes to handle emails in the morning might be enough. 15 minutes in late afternoon is never enough. Because it’s not about the time. It’s about energy. And your energy is finite, dependent on a number of physical and mental issues. Not least, when you last ate, and what you ate.
At some stage you will learn that you are finite – not just that the minutes in the day are finite, but that your physical and mental resources are finite. You can only burn a calorie once.
So here are three keys to energy management (apart from diet and exercise), to help you build out from a solid core of time when you are at your best, focussing on what’s most important.
1.Clearly identify those very few things which are utterly essential for you, and you only, to do
I know, you have lots to do, and there’s a long list, and, and, and… I’m not talking
delegation or getting an administrator here.
The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto described a phenomenon which is now named after him, stating that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort, in almost any field. You can disagree as much as you like, though I’ll bet that 80% of your church’s income comes from 20% of the membership – am I right? Work with it.
So what’s your 20% – the stuff that produces so much more impact compared to its apparent importance?
- Your personal walk with God. You simply can’t delegate bible reading and prayer can you? For yourself, not for prepping talks or leading services. You can’t delegate that.
- Your personal health. I’m not going to get too personal here, but when did you last step on the scales? You can’t delegate that, either.
- Marriage, family, friendships – they all need attention, and our best attention.
- And what’s next? Well, ministry tasks. You work it out – list the 20% of your ministry tasks that deliver 80% of the ministry effectiveness. Those are your focus.
2. Ruthlessly limit the time it will take to do those things
Now, for all their importance, those things must not fill your diary.
Alongside Signor Pareto, meet Cyril North Parkinson, who expounded the famous law
that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’. Of course it does. Why else do we have sermon-writing crises each week?
So the next step is to put tight controls around those key tasks so they don’t take over your diary and leave you overwhelmed again. Spend some time working out how long it will take to do that task, and then allocate that (and only that) time to do it. There are no rules here – one person can put a full sermon together in 8 hours, someone else at a different stage and with different gifts will take 15. But you know your best pattern.
3. Know your bodily rhythms and energy levels
This third step is critical: you need to learn that your good use of time is connected to your level of energy. I know for example that an hour of sermon prep in the early morning will be much more useful than hour in the late morning. Fresh, rested, with a clearer mind, I can achieve far more at 8 than 12. And far more at 12 than I can at 4.
If you ever met John Stott, did you see him between 3 and 4pm? No, never. Why? The famous ‘Horizontal Half-Hour’ – the best use of Stott’s energy levels and massive mental focus was to go to sleep.
And then work out how you can enhance your body’s resources. Go for a run. Join a gym. Dig the garden. Eat well, keep up your fluids. You know that all that stuff is true, don’t you? Exercise increases energy levels, done well. Sitting at a desk all day is not a good use of your body or your energy. Your body was designed to move, lift, bend, get out of puff. It was not designed to restore itself with chocolate chip cookies.
So here’s the magic formula: Pareto (Focus) + Parkinson (Limits) + Physical common sense (energy) = productive time
4. What remains is for the remainder, because you have given your best for the best
Ministry never ends, and there are always a dozen more people to see and talks to give. I’m certainly not saying that we become idle. But standing back like that is not advising you to take your foot off the accelerator at all – we should spend ourselves for God. But spend yourself – steward yourself – intelligently, and you’ll achieve far more, for longer.