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.

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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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.

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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What Effective Pastors Must Prioritize

I’ve been a pastor almost 39 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 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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Cut your Losses and Do Something Different?…the Sunk Cost Bias

Leadership demands our time, energy, and often our financial resources. Hopefully the projects and people we invest ourselves in are worthwhile and fulfilling. Often we invest so much of ‘us’ into a project that we can’t imagine not finishing the project. When we’ve already invested considerable time and energy into something, stopping it may seem foolish. Unfortunately, we seldom ask ourselves if we really should continue investing in a project. A subtle mental trap comes into play called the sunk cost bias. Sunk cost bias simply means that because you’ve invested so much emotionally into a project, you feel that by quitting you’d waste what you’ve already invested and be a failure, even though you actually should cut your losses and re-direct your efforts. Consider these 5 signs that the sunk cost bias might be driving some of your leadership decisions.

  1. You have a nagging sense that you probably need to go another direction. Perhaps you’ve gotten new information or the landscape has changed and you have begun to doubt if you should continue in the current direction. And, you can’t seem to shake those doubts.
  2. You want things to change in your ministry or church, but you keep doing the same things over and over again, expecting to get different results. Einstein defined this as insanity.
  3. You know you should stop the project but fear having to explain yourself to others.
  4. You’ve poured so much into this project that that your emotional attachment has made you lose sight of your greater goals and vision.
  5. The project drains your energy rather than boosting it.

If any of these 5 signs are true of you, the sunk cost bias may be distorting your judgment. Consider taking these steps to evaluate whether or not you should cut your losses on some project and go a different direction.

  1. Talk to someone about your struggle who will maintain their objectivity and be honest with you.
  2. Play out the scenario if you did stop. What benefits would you gain? What new costs would you incur? What more productive project could you then invest your time and energy into?
  3. Were you to stop, who would you need to explain your decision to? How would you explain your decision? Might they actually respect you for making such a decision?
  4. Re-visit your values. Does the project align with your personal and ministry values and God’s call on your life?

How have you seen the sunk cost bias play out in your life or other people’s lives?

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Avoid Ministry Burnout by Asking Yourself 4 Questions

A few years ago I commissioned Barna Research, Lifeway Research, and Christianity Today to survey almost 2,000 pastors to discover what issues can cause a ministry or a leader’s passion for ministry to die. I based one of my books on those findings. Out of those findings, these four key questions emerged that all spiritual leaders should ask themselves at least once a year.

These four questions can help us face up to areas, that if left unattended, have the potential to kill our ministries or at best, drain the passion from our souls. Here they are.

  • Do you have a safe person in your life with whom you can process ministry problems and pain?
  • Have you looked deep enough inside to discover what truly bothers you about your ministry?
  • If those who see how you respond to ministry problems were asked to tell you what they thought, would they say you need to make some major changes?
  • To whom and how should you communicate your frustrations (your board, your staff, the church)?

It would do us well to heed Socrates’ wise advice when he wrote, “Know thyself.”

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