The Most Productive 4 Hours of my Week

I received an undergrad degree in industrial and systems engineering. IE’s, as they are called, are sometimes referred to as efficiency experts. Whether that’s true or not, the training I received from my degree has force me think about leadership productivity. In this post I describe my most productive four-hour time block each week, what I do, and why it’s so productive.

Productivity concept in word tag cloud on white background

This might surprise you, but those four hours fall on Sunday afternoon between 1 and 5 pm. I call that time block my strategic planning time that positions me for maximum productivity in the week that follows.

Many pastors rest and nap on Sunday afternoons. I don’t begrudge those who do. I used to take a two hour nap every Sunday afternoon. But I’ve discovered several reasons why those afternoons have now become so productive for me.

Why Sunday afternoons have become so productive:

  1. My body’s already flowing with hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and neurotransmitters (dopamine and norepinephrine) that heighten attention and focus. After I’ve preached and interacted with people I’m already on a “high.” So, I simply ride out that extra boost of energy on Sunday afternoons.
  2. Those hours put me into a forward looking perspective for the next week which motivates me with positive anticipation.
  3. Since the brain loves certainty (and dislikes uncertainty), when I carefully plan my week up front, I set my brain at ease knowing that I’ve prioritized what must get done. Since I’ve already set those priorities, I don’t waste energy during the week wondering what I should do next.
  4. I’ve chosen a place with minimum distractions, McDonalds. That may sound odd, but the McDonalds near my home allows me to pick a booth away from noise and people distraction which helps me concentrate. I usually buy lunch and a refillable soft drink which allows me to get some caffeine into my body. I also use noise suppressing headphones to block out all noise. In this post I suggest 4 ways you can improve your focus.

What I do that makes Sunday afternoons so productive:

  1. I review my personal mission statement and true north values. This post describes how to discover your true north values. By starting here I keep what God has called me to at the forefront of my thinking.
  2. I review what I call my ‘church dashboard.’ My dashboard summarizes our church’s mission, vision, values, and goals. This provides a one page snapshot of our overall direction and helps direct me to allocate time blocks to work on specific goals and projects.
  3. I review my upcoming schedule for the next 3-4 weeks and make appropriate adjustments. I use Outlook for the Mac as my calendar program. I also create specify action plans needed for upcoming meetings and projects.
  4. I review a set of folders where I’ve placed notes or materials that relate to key ministry areas and significant projects. Those include budget planning, leadership development, writing projects, new initiatives, and staff. Reviewing these folders helps remind me to allocate time to work on those projects.
  5. I revisit an email file I created in Outlook called, “Act upon in a Week.” Throughout the week I place emails in this file that didn’t require any immediate action. I’m more effective dealing with the tasks these emails generate all at once rather than spread out during the week.
  6. I determine what I call my ‘big three’ goals for the coming week, goals that take precedent over all others.
  7. I usually drink half a bottle of 5 Hour Energy to help me focus (probably by boosting the neurotransmitter dopamine) and give me an overall sense of well being (probably due to an increase in serotonin). See my post here about energy drinks for pastors.

Although Sunday afternoons have generally been downtimes for pastors, I’ve re-purposed those afternoons with encouraging results.

What do you do on Sunday afternoons that boosts productivity?

If Sunday afternoons don’t work for you, when do do your strategic planning for the week?

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What Would you Do for $10,000,000? How Leaders Build Integrity

What are you willing to do for $10,000,000?

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James Patterson and Peter Kim published the book, The Day America Told the Truth in 1991. In their research they posed this question to 2,000 Americans in an anonymous survey. These are the results.

  • Would abandon their entire family (25%)
  • Would abandon their church (25%)
  • Would become prostitutes for a week or more (23%)
  • Would give up their citizenships (16%)
  • Would leave their spouses (16%)
  • Would withhold testimony and let a murderer go free (10%)
  • Would kill a stranger (7%)
  • Would put their children up for adoption (3%)

These stats and others reveal that integrity is taking a beating today. Yet, leaders who truly want to honor God and effectively lead must lead with integrity.

One of the most interesting narratives in the Bible, the story about Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, illustrate how leaders build integrity. These young Hebrew men were conscripted into service for Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar after receiving three years of training.

As you read this qualities, rank yourself on each one.

Integrous leaders…

1. …willingly make tough choices.

Daniel refused to eat the king’s food offered to young conscripts (Daniel 1.8) because the Jewish law prohibited eating food offered in idol worship. He risked expulsion from the training academy and possibly death by making such a choice. He made the tough choice anyway.

2. …treat their critics and adversaries with respect. 

After the king’s wise men, of which Daniel was one, were unable to both tell the king a dream he had and interpret it, he issued an edict to have all the wise men executed. However, just before the execution Daniel approached the executioner with ‘tact,’ a Hebrew word used to describe taste (Daniel 2.14). The way Daniel approached the executioner literally left a good taste in the executioner’s mouth, a euphemism we use today to describe a good experience with another. This encounter opened up the door for Daniel to appeal to the king and interpret his dream which in turn prompted Nebuchadnezzar to rescend his decision.

Interesting brain insight: a part of our brain called the insult registers taste and emotional experiences with others like disgust and bitterness. Daniel’s interaction with the executioner kept the executioner’s brain from responding with these strong negative emotions, a wise example for we leaders when dealing with those who oppose us. Try to leave a good taste in the mouths of your critics.

3. … build their moral compass around Jesus.

When Daniel appeared before the king, he told him that no mere human could interpret his dream, but that the God of heaven could solve his conundrum. Daniel’s commitment to God served as his true north, his moral compass. Whenever Daniel faced a decision he always defaulted to what pleased God. This post describes how to build true north values into your life and leadership.

4. … remain consistent even in the small things of  life and leadership.

In Daniel’s later years he was faced with what appeared to be a small compromise. The then current king, King Darius, was tricked by leaders jealous of Daniel into issuing a 30-day edict requiring everyone to pray to the the king. Because they could find no character flaws in Daniel (Daniel 6.4), they resorted to trickery.

For decades Daniel had prayed to God three times a day and everyone knew it. Daniel, now in his 80’s, could have easily made this small compromise (pray to God in secret and fake prayers to the king) to avoid stress and difficulty in his old age. However, he refused to and was thrown into the lion’s den where God later rescued him. Great leaders refuse to cut corners, compromise, or hedge in even the small matters of life and leadership. 

5. …realize the people will either become bitter or better when they live with integrity.

Throughout the story, people responded to his integrity in one of two ways. They either were threatened by it and hated Daniel because of his integrity or they lauded it. When leaders take a stand for integrity, not everyone will respect your stance, cheer you on, and affirm you. Some will do the opposite. Great leaders lead well regardless of how people respond to their integrity.

6. …model integrity for their kids and grandkids.

Although Daniel and his three friends don’t model this quality, it’s worth stating. Our kids and grandkids will more likely do what we do (and did) that what we say (or said).

Centuries ago the ancient Chinese were so fearful of their enemies on the north that they built the Great Wall of China, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was so high they knew no one could climb over it & so thick that nothing could break it down. Then they settled back to enjoy their security.

 But during the first 100 years of the wall’s existence, China was invaded 3 times. Not once did the enemy break down the wall or climb over its top. Each time they bribed a gatekeeper and marched right through the gates. According to the historians, the Chinese were so busy relying upon the walls of stone that they forgot to teach integrity to their children (source unknown).

Great leaders diligently seek to live, model, and build integrity into their lives. With integrity they spiritually thrive. Without it, their souls wither.

What other characteristics would describe an integrous leader?

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What Effective Pastors Must Prioritize

I’ve been a pastor almost 35 years and I’ve made lots of mistakes. But as I’ve grown wiser, I’ve learned that if I prioritize a few key choices, my life and leadership dramatically improve and my ministry becomes more effective. Here are three key choices I encourage every pastor to prioritize.

priorities

Priorities for every pastor

1. Place sermon prep time at the top of your list.

Whether you preach or teach regularly, unless you calendar when you prep your messages, you will likely shortchange adequate prep time. I’ve been doing it for decades now, but I still need 15 plus hours each week to craft a message. I calendar my study time in the mornings when my mind is freshest. In this post I delve more deeply into sermon prep time. 

2. Craft messages that included three essential components.

  • Build them around a strong Biblical basis. Make sure your messages are rooted in God’s Word.
  • Always include clear application. This is where you connect the then and there to the here and now. People will remember your teaching better when they can apply to their lives what you say. It’s called self-referential learning. Stuff sticks in our brains when it’s self-referential.
  • Keep in mind techniques to help your listener pay attention. Only what gets paid attention to gets learned. And if the church people don’t pay attention to your messages, they won’t make much of a difference in their lives. In this post I suggest 5 brain-savvy ways to help people pay attention to your sermons. 

3. Keep yourself healthy.

Ministry leaders who prevail prioritize their health. And the arenas of health include your body, your relationships, your mind, your emotions, and your soul. To keep healthy in these areas requires we make these choices.

  • Eat healthy.
  • Exercise at least 3 times a week.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Keep short relational accounts with others. Deal with conflict sooner than later.
  • Challenge and stretch your mind by learning new things, even outside your ministry role.
  • Process your emotional pain.
  • Spend time with God every day, excluding sermon prep time.

As I’ve prioritized these three areas, ministry has become much more fulfilling.

What other areas do you believe pastors should prioritize so they stay sharp and effective?

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When a Leader Spirals Downward

An aviation term called a death spiral describes what can happen to a plane in nighttime or poor flying conditions when a pilot loses his sense of the plane’s horizontal orientation. The plane can begin to spin uncontrollable. Unless the pilot pulls out, he can spiral out of control and crash. In ministry, leaders can often get caught in a similar downward spiral mentally, physically, emotionally, or relationally. When that happens, what can we do to pull out of it? The prophet Jonah illustrates what contributes to a downward spiral and what we must do to pull out of one.

spiral downward

In Jonah 4, Jonah finally relented and obeyed God’s call on his life to preach to the ancient city of Nineveh. The city then repented and turned to God. And yet, Jonah wasn’t happy. He spiraled downward. His response gives us clues to what can cause a downward spiral in ourselves.

What can cause a downward spiral?

1. Prolonged stress. Jonah had almost drowned, was stuck in the belly of a big fish for three days, traveled over a month to Nineveh, and had just finished a stressful and extended time of preaching. He was tired and near burnout. The same can happen to a leader after prolonged and intense ministry. Such stress can set the stage for the beginning of a downward spiral.

2. Self focus. In the original language in Jonah 4 he used ‘I’ and ‘my’ 9 times. After the people repented, which Jonah didn’t really want, he turned inward and felt justified for his intense anger at God. Turning inward facilities a downward spiral. When we turn deeply inward and ruminate and rehearse what we don’t like that is happening to us, it exacerbates a spiral.

3. Cutting off from others. After Jonah’s preaching, his anger drove him to cut himself off from the Ninevites and from God. He left the city in a huff instead of staying there to help the people understand more about God. Often when in a downward spiral, we pull away from the very people we need to be around.

4. Disproportionate emotions. Jonah got angry at God for not destroying the Ninevites yet was deliriously happy about a plant that provided him shade. Emotional responses that are out of proportion to what precipitated them often signal we are in a downward spiral, whether it’s being overly glad or overly angry about something insignificant.

5. Distorted thinking. Jonah was not thinking clearly based on his unhealthy response to God’s work in Nineveh. When in a downward spiral our negative emotions get amplified and clear thinking gets skewed.

6. Justifying bad behavior. When God questioned Jonah about his behavior, he justified it with a defensive attitude. When we’re well into a downward spiral, it’s easy to justify poor decisions.

So, when a leader finds himself in a downward spiral, what can he or she do? Consider these six choices that can help us pull out of a downward spiral.

1. Practice gratefulness. Jonah showed no gratefulness for God’s delivering him from death nor from God’s bringing repentance to the Ninevites. Gratefulness could have benefitted him in many ways as science is now revealing.

Gratefulnes can…

  • help you become more other-centered.
  • give you more energy.
  • help you sleep better.
  • make you physically feel better (it increases several ‘feel good’ brain chemicals).
  • help you become less materialistic. Jesus said, “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35)
  • help combat negativity and the negative emotions that follow.

2. Become other focused. It would have behooved Jonah to be joyful over what God did in Nineveh rather than turning his eyes on his anger and disappointment.

3. Ask yourself well-placed questions. God asked Jonah three questions, not because God didn’t know the answers. Rather, He asked Jonah the questions to prompt him toward healthy introspection. Unfortunately, Jonah never looked inside but simply reacted and fed his downward spiral.

4. Get into community. When we pull away from others, it contributes to a downward spiral because we can lose perspective in our own negative thought stream. However, when we are with others who care about us, they can give us fresh perspective and help us when we really need it. In fact, when we associate with others who care about us, our brain releases oxytocin which bonds us to them and makes us feel better.

5. Do something constructive. For Jonah, the best thing for him would have been to go back into the city to minister to these newly changed people. To pull out of a downward spiral, brain studies show that simply making a decision can dampen our negative emotional centers and help us think more clearly.

6. Rest. One of the best ways to pull of out a spiral is to simply slow down, rest, and take care of ourselves. Jesus reminded us of this in Mark 6.31. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Have you ever been in a downward spiral? What has helped you pull out?

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How Leaders Defeat Discouragement

Somebody once said there are two things in life we can’t avoid, taxes and death. I’d like to add a third, discouragement. Church leader or not, you will face it. It’s an inevitable part of life. Here’s how I’ve learned to defeat discouragement.

Man crying tears of frustration

Some time back discouragement hit me like a ton of bricks one week. It all began on a Monday evening after a good day at church the day prior. We had baptized a dozen people, another half dozen indicated they had trusted Christ, and we began Alpha with a bang.

But when I got the stats back from Sunday’s service, I got bummed out. A not-so-good attendance and a very poor offering pushed me into discouragement. I’d been doing well to not allow low Sunday statistics affect me. This time, however, I didn’t do so well.

During this time of discouragement I learned three small choices that have helped me dig out of my funk. Often we must take the initiative as did King David when lifted himself out of a serious bout of discouragement when he did this. He, “encouraged himself in the Lord his God.” (1 Samuel 30.6)

I believe small choices that may not seem overtly spiritual can become ways we can encourage ourselves in the Lord.

Here are the three.

Break up your routine.

That week my wife and my daughter were going to make a run to our local super Wal-Mart and they asked if I wanted to go. My first inclination was, ‘No.’ But after a moment’s reflection, I said, “Sure.”

Usually I’d just sit at the man bench at the check-out line (those benches where guys sit while their wives shop).

This time, however, I decided I’d go to the books’ area and browse. When I did, I picked up a Guinness Book of World Records and had few laughs. I saw, among other records, a picture of a guy who held the world record in piercings (yuk) and a picture of another guy in India with the world’s longest ear hairs at 7 inches (gross). This little break, albeit odd, helped get my mind off my discouragement.

Pamper yourself.

For a guy, this may sound feminine. But I don’t mean you have to get a pedicure. Here’s how I pampered myself.

At the time I swam at a local indoor pool three times a week and usually went back home to grab some breakfast. I was on a tight budget (as many pastors are) so I seldom ate out. But that morning I decided I’d go through the drive-thru and get some breakfast at McDonalds to treat myself.

I spent a few dollars on a sausage biscuit and an egg McMuffin. After I slathered each with grape jelly, I enjoyed the small treat. This small ‘self-care’ gesture encouraged me. Self-care gestures can help us defeat discouragement. 

Do something outrageously fun.

When I lived in Chicago, each Tuesday night I’d attended a musical improv class. I’ve never had as much fun as I did in these classes. At the time it was my fourth round of classes. As a pastor I was a bit of a novelty to my classmates. Comedy turns blue so often but when I put my clean twist on things, my classmates got a humorous kick. When I drove home afterwards I felt like I’d made a huge deposit into my soul by simply doing something fun. When you feel discouraged, do something fun. 

So, the next time you face discouragement, give these ideas a try.

  • Break your routine.
  • Pamper yourself.
  • Maybe even join an improv class.

What has helped you defeat discouragement as a leader?

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