Perhaps you (like me) have had grand plans of working steadily on projects or sermons only to find that it is Saturday night, and tomorrow is the deadline. Modern ministry is full of distractions. It is challenging, perhaps now more than ever, to keep the main thing the main thing. Many people spend time focused on tasks that are urgent but unimportant, such as the latest email, text, phone call, or fiery twitter thread. It is easy to let your time slip away wasted on inconsequential tasks all the while justifying your business with the thought that someone has to do it.
Consider the appointment of the proto-deacons in Acts 6. The apostles say that “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). Someone had to serve the tables, but it was poor stewardship on the part of the apostles to stop and put the word and prayer on the back burner. So, the apostles tell the church to appoint men to serve the tables while they “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Those tasked with shepherding Christ’s church must prioritize the ministry of the word and prayer.
So, what do we do? How do we combat the list of ever-growing distractions? That is where I hope this post can help. I would like to offer you a way to redeem your time and utilize it in the best way for Christ’s church. This time management method has helped me for years, and I hope it can help you. It is called time blocking. Time blocking is a way of scheduling your time for a specific task or project. You simply divide your day into chunks of time, devoting each chunk to a project or task and only that specific project or task. There are two main benefits. (1) Your day starts with a concrete schedule. Instead of being open to whatever may come your way, you are ready to tackle the most important things because you decided beforehand what those are. If you get distracted, just look at your schedule and get back to it. (2) It provides time limits for projects. One of my professors often said, “work expands to fill the time allotted to it.” He is right. If you never put a time limit on a project and don’t define what being done looks like, the project will continue ad infinitum. This is especially true if you struggle with perfectionism. Put a time limit on projects so you don’t continue tinkering away.
A common pushback against this method is that ministry is too reactionary to work for time blocking. The pastor must be ready to attend to the needs of the congregation. I would suggest that your congregation’s greatest need is to be taught the word. They need to be taught properly and equipped with excellence for the work of ministry (Eph 4:12). That starts with your putting private study and prayer in first place. Time blocking will help you manage your time effectively, so you can give adequate attention to the word and prayer first and then attend to other needs.
Schedule your priorities. Do not just assume the most important things will get done without some level of intentionality. If you have the most important things time blocked, you can turn down interruptions because you have something scheduled. You can say, “sorry, I have an appointment to get to,” because you do, an appointment with your Bible and prayer!
Interruptions will happen. I am not sure I have ever executed a day exactly as I planned. While time blocking can help guard your time against trivial matters, nothing will stop interruptions. One day a coworker stopped by my office asking for my help. I looked at my schedule and said, “Sure, I’ve got time.” I remember he quipped back, “This is ministry, bro!” Ministry is about people, and people need attention. Things come up, and that is okay. You might be asking, then why bother? Because you will still accomplish more having planned something than having planned nothing at all. Time blocking is a flexible and organic time management system. When something inevitably comes up, just deal with it, update your schedule, and move on.
I hope at this point I have convinced you of the usefulness of time blocking. Now, I would like to suggest a way to get started. This is not the only way. It is just how I do it. You can use this as a starting point and come up with your own method. I use my task list as the launching pad for creating time blocks. I start my day with a quick (five minutes max) planning session. My task list is divided by projects. In the morning, I pick the three most important tasks I have going on and schedule how much time I think it will take to complete them. Sometimes it is a task that gets scheduled, and sometimes I schedule time for a project and then work on the tasks inside of that project. I work better in the morning, so I schedule the most important things first, and save less important tasks for the afternoon. Here is what that might look like.
You will see that the priority tasks for the day are marked with a red circle. Less intensive tasks are marked with a tag @Admin_Task. This will be important later.
Here is what this day might look like if it were time blocked:
Notice that meetings are in a different color, so they are easily identified. I use a digital calendar because it can be easily changed. You could do this in your favorite notebook too; just leave space in a second column for changes.
I mentioned that I start the day with a quick planning session, but it is not on the calendar. That is because it only takes five minutes. So, I usually fit it in at the end of the Bible Reading and Prayer block. I do this with several other kinds of small things including checking email. I used to just leave notifications on my phone, but that was very distracting. Now, I check my email in between blocks in case there is anything urgent that I need to attend to and devote a small block to working through the rest of the emails. This is another benefit of time blocking. It also knocks out shallow work more effectively. I tag these shallow work tasks with the @Admin_Task tag, then schedule a block of time for getting those things done instead of scheduling out each individual task. This will help you fight distraction because you know that those tasks will get done, just not right now. Right now, you can focus on the task/project at hand.
Time blocking promotes deep, focused work. Spending two or three hours on sermon prep allows you to go deeper and focus better than trying to grab 30-minute chunks throughout the day. It helps you move the important things to the time of day where your energy is at its peak instead of giving your leftover energy to it. I hope this helps you keep the main thing the main thing.
I would love to hear from you about your favorite time management tools. You can reach out to me on Twitter (@thephilipcecil).