As I continue this series on getting things done, I want to remind you of our definition of productivity:
Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.
I would like to briefly address that “good to others and glory to God” because I know it can be a little bit abstract.
Let me confess: Doing good to others and bringing glory to God is not something I think about every moment. When I sit down to do paperwork for the church I don’t think, “How can I glorify God in this?” When I take my son out for breakfast I don’t think, “How can I do him good and glorify God over the next hour?” Perhaps I should, and I probably have a lot of room for growth here. But what I ensure I do is reserve moments of deliberate thoughtfulness and in these times consider and plan how I can do good to others and in that way glorify God. I structure my life and live within a system so that day-by-day and week-by-week I am executing plans and projects that reflect the time I spent considering how to do those good things that bring glory to Him.
Today I want to turn to the very practical subject of task management tools because they represent the heart of an effective productivity system. The task management tool is tool you use to store and organize your tasks or actions. While each of the four tools is important, none is more crucial to the functioning of the system than this one. There is a real sense in which all of the other tools are supplemental to it, because this is the one that will determine and propel your actions each day.
I use OmniFocus as my task management tool. I appreciate its rich feature set, its attractive design, its excellent desktop and iPhone apps, and the way it comfortably complements the way I like to get things done. However, most of the principles I am about to lay out will also work with ToDoist or similar packages.
Let’s talk about how to get your life into a task management system, and how to structure a basic workflow.
No two people use OmniFocus exactly the same way, and most people don’t use it exactly the same way for very long. That’s just fine. I will tell you how I use it in the hope that you can use that as a starting point and adapt it to fit your life and your responsibilities.
If you went through the previous article, I trust you have already installed your task management tool and begun the basic setup. I organize OmniFocus according to my 5 areas of responsibility: Personal, Family, Social, GFC [church], and Business. Each area of responsibility contains what OmniFocus calls projects and these projects represent my roles, duties and projects. Within each of these OmniFocus projects I have one or more tasks. Here are some examples of this hierarchy of area of responsibility → project → task.
Area of Responsibility: Family
- Open: New Savings Account
- Update: Budget
- Research: New Insurance Policy
- Project: Home
- Register: Keurig
- Complete: Kitchen Paint
- Buy: New Fire Extinguisher
Area of Responsibility: Business
Project: G3 Conference
- Decide: Text to Preach
- Prepare: Sermon
- Book: Flights
- Project: Free Stuff Fridays
- Verify: This Week’s Sponsor
- Launch: This Week’s Giveaway
- Choose: This Week’s Winners
- Send: Winners to Sponsor
Area of Responsibility: Church
Project: Young Adults’ Ministry
- Set: Next Meeting Date
- Decide: Next Meeting Topic
- Project: Members’ Meeting
- Create: Members’ Meeting Agenda
- Discuss: Agenda with Elders
- Send: Agenda to Members
ADDING TASKSWhenever I think of something I must do, or may want to do, I immediately add it into my OmniFocus inbox. The inbox is a place to hold unfiltered and unsorted tasks, so I add tasks to it indiscriminately. Because OmniFocus is on my laptop, desktop, and iPhone, I have it with me just about anywhere I go, and this allows me to enter items the moment I think of them.
I always begin tasks with a verb followed by a colon and then a brief description. I do this primarily to ensure that I am adding only tasks that require action (and not, for example, information that would be better stored in Evernote). OmniFocus is the place for life’s verbs while Evernote (or another information system) is the place for life’s nouns. I keep tasks as short as possible, but with enough information that I will remember what I need to accomplish. (See the examples above.)
At least once a day I process everything in my OmniFocus inbox, ensuring that I reach inbox 0 (See “Daily Review” below). For an item to leave my inbox and find its way to its proper home it must have at least two pieces of information: a project and a context. Each task can be assigned to only one project and one context. Remember: A home for everything, and like goes with like.
- Project. A project is a task (or role or duty) that requires multiple actions. The way I use projects they can either be short-term (Summer Vacation) or permanent (Family Finance). This means some projects will be completed (Summer Vacation, Close Bank Account) while others never will (Family Finance, Spiritual Care).
- Context. A context is a location you need to be, tool you need to have available, person you need to be with, or scheduled time you need to be in, in order to complete that task. Contexts are perhaps the most abstract and debated feature of OmniFocus, but they are tremendously helpful if you commit to using them. However, if your task management software does not support contexts, don’t despair—you will be fine with only projects.
There is some other optional information I may add besides the project and the context.
- Due Date. This is a date I must have the task completed.
- Defer date. This is a date that will “activate” the task; if I set a defer date, the task will remain grayed out until it reaches that date. For example, I want to remember to order concert tickets, but they do not go on sale until December 1, so I defer the task until December 1 since I cannot take action on it before then.
- Repeat. This indicates if and how often a task or project will repeat. A repeated task can be completed, but then re-appear on a pre-determined schedule. For example, every Wednesday I need to remember to send a list of quotes to Kate so she can create graphics for them, so a new version of that tasks appears each Wednesday morning.
Action: Go ahead and begin adding some tasks. Start with a few simple ones and try to add a few repeating tasks in there as well.
DAILY REVIEW (CORAM DEO)
To manage your time well you need to know what the possible tasks are for any given day, and you need to know what time is available to you. Once you have that information before you, you can begin to fit tasks into your day like pieces in a puzzle. For that reason, the system is absolutely dependent upon regular reviews—short reviews that are daily and tactical, and weekly reviews that are lengthier and strategic. Let me tell you about my daily review; we will cover the weekly review at another time.
Every morning, before I do much else, I open OmniFocus and perform a daily review that I refer to as my coram deo (learn more). I do this after I complete my personal devotions, but before I begin my work day and before I look at my email. The purpose of this review is to consider all of my projects, duties, and appointments, and to prayerfully choose the tasks that will receive my attention that day.
The daily review is tactical, meaning that I am looking primarily at the short-term. I am not strategizing or taking a broad view of life, but simply thinking about how to best use the 10 or 12 hours directly ahead of me.
The daily review consists of these 6 actions:
- [Get Focused] Pray
- [Get Clear] Bring: OmniFocus Inbox to 0
- [Get Current] Check: Calendar & Alerts
- [Get Current] Check: Waiting Context
- [Get Current] Check: Forecast for Next 7 Days
- [Get Going] Flag: Today’s Top Tasks
Let me tell you a little bit about each of them.
[Get Focused] Pray. I pause to pray, giving the day to the Lord and asking him to help me use it to his glory. I ask for wisdom to know what I ought to do, and for grace to do it well. In the note for this task I also copied and pasted a line fromR.C. Sproul: “To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.” I want to structure my day to do that very thing.
[Get Clear] Bring: OmniFocus Inbox to 0. I go to my OmniFocus inbox and tidy it up by assigning a project and context to any items there. When possible I also assign a due and defer date. This assures that I have not overlooked any tasks that might need my attention in the day ahead.
[Get Current] Check: Calendar & Alerts. I open my calendar and look for any meetings or appointments that are happening today or tomorrow. I check each of them to ensure that I have set appropriate alerts. This step tells me how much time I have available to complete tasks.
[Get Current] Check: Waiting Context. The waiting context is to-do items whose next action is dependent upon another person (I will tell you more about that in the future). I review this context on a daily basis to see if any of these tasks were completed or otherwise moved forward so that I can now take action on them again.
[Get Current] Check: Forecast for Next 7 Days. I open the forecast perspective in OmniFocus and take a brief look at all of my tasks through the next 7 days, looking for any approaching deadlines.
[Get Going] Flag: Today’s Top Tasks. As I look at the waiting context and the forecast, I am beginning to determine which tasks I will attempt to accomplish today. Now I go through tasks and set the flag on anything I am committing to do today. Typically this is items due today, but it may also be items due days or even weeks ahead, depending on the time I have available. I may also adjust due dates for items that can wait for another day.
This review takes only 5 or 6 minutes. By the end of it, I have looked at all the things I could do in the day ahead and have selected the ones I actually will do—or plan to do, at least. It is 4 or 5 minutes well invested.
And then it comes down to actually getting things done.
There are two screens in OmniFocus that get most of my attention. All throughout the day I am looking at OmniFocus’ Today perspective which displays all of my flagged tasks grouped by context. Then, throughout the day I find myself in different contexts, and this is where the OmniFocus’ context perspective is so helpful.
I often begin my day with time I have blocked off for creative work. I can look at my OmniFocus GFC: Creative context, see my flagged tasks, and work on those ones. This may be preparing the sermon for next Sunday, or preparing the content for the next young adults’ meeting. If I complete them all, I can move to some of the unflagged tasks. Then I will have an elders’ meeting, and I can look at my GFC: Elders’ Meetings context and bring any of those items to the attention of the other elders. When I return home I may have some unexpected downtime at my desk, so I can look at myBusiness: Administration context and see if there is someone waiting to hear back from me about a conference.
All the while I am accomplishing tasks, marking them as complete and moving to the next thing. Few things are more satisfying then clicking the “complete” circle and watching that task disappear.
Let me conclude with this: Do you see how the system begins to keep itself going? There is an up-front investment in learning the tools and configuring them. There is a small amount of maintenance. But once the system is in place, it is very powerful, and begins to propel action. All you need to do is commit to it!
Not too long ago I had the opportunity to speak to a gathering of young adults from several churches across our city. I chose to speak about how any Christian (not only young adults) can make a church better and stronger. Here are some of the things I came up with: 7 things your church needs from you.
Your church needs you to…
1) Be Humble
There is no character quality more important than humility. While humility does not come naturally to any of us, it can be learned, because here’s the thing: Humility isn’t a feeling or an attitude—it’s action. If you want to learn humility, you need to act humble. Here are 3 quick tips on becoming humble:
- Find mature Christians who exemplify humility and spend time around them. Learn from them and learn to be like them.
- Volunteer for the lowliest of tasks. Don’t ask to be in the public eye when you serve, but be content to stay in the back. Find joy in doing the lowliest jobs and do them when and where only Jesus will see.
- Get to know Jesus. It was Jesus who said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12). And it was Jesus who humbled himself the deepest and was exalted the highest.
2) Prioritize Church
Every church has people who make the public gatherings of the church a low priority. These are the people who only come to church when it is convenient and who use any excuse to miss a day or miss a service. Every church desperately needs people who will make the public gatherings a top priority. Today is the day to begin elevating the importance of church in your life.
Let me give you two reasons:
- First, you need your church. God made you part of your church for your good. You cannot do life on your own. You aren’t strong enough, you aren’t wise enough, you aren’t mature enough, you aren’t godly enough. Without the beautifully ordinary means of grace you encounter in the church, you won’t make it. Without the support of your brothers and sisters, you won’t make it.
- Second, your church needs you. God made you part of your church for the good of others. 1 Peter 4 says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God has gifted you to be part of your church, and those gifts are to be used for the good of other people. So prioritize church as an expression of generosity toward others.
3) Consider Giving God a Day
Why don’t you considering setting aside an entire day of the week and dedicating it to the Lord in a special way? We believe that the Old Testament law has been fulfilled in Christ, though there is some disagreement among Christians about the implications. But even if you believe that the Sabbath command is no longer binding on us, there is still value in learning from it.
It completely changes Sunday when you give the entire day to the Lord and his people. Now you’re not having to decide whether to take that class or join that club that meets Sunday afternoon. You’re not skipping church during exam time because you’ve got studying to do. You’re not leaving early to get home before the football game starts. Instead, you’re leaving behind all the cares of life, and even many of the joys of life, and dedicating an entire day to worship, to fellowship, and to serving others.
4) Live Like a Christian All Week Long
It is easy enough to be a Christian at church, but then you get home. But then you go to work. But then you go to school. And then you’re surrounded by people acting ungodly, and even worse, you’re left along with your own thoughts and your own desires. Yet your church needs you to live like a Christian all week long.
Each of us faces different challenges and different temptations. But one key to living like a Christian all week long is spending time in Word and prayer every day. Make this a priority no matter how busy you are and no matter how crazy life seems. Make this something you do no matter how badly you’ve sinned and how little you feel like doing it. Pray day-by-day not only for yourself, but for your church. Take that membership directly and pray through it from A to Z, and then start over.Make your devotional life something you do not just for the good of yourself, but for the good of others.
5) Get to Know People Not Like You
Churches are involuntary communities—we don’t get to pick who comes to them, God does. So what we have to do is learn to live with these people and learn to love these people, even when they are very different from us. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” If your church is divided so that all the young adults hang out together and all the older folk hang out together, or if all the people with accents hang out together and all the people without accents hang out together, that makes a statement about the gospel—that the gospel is not big enough and powerful enough to really make people love one another even though they are different.
So commit to get to know people not like you. There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to say that some of your best and closest relationships are with people who are very different from you.
6) Learn Generosity
Few things reveal the heart better than money. Money has an amazing way of displaying what you really believe and what you really value. No matter who and what stage of life you are at, there is no better time than now to learn to be generous with your money. Here’s what the Bible says: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” You must give, and you must learn to do it cheerfully.
Here are just 2 quick tips:
- Remember that it’s not your money. The money belongs to God—he just gives it to you to manage it. And he means for you to manage it well and to his glory.
- Give to the Lord first. I know people who say they can’t give to the church, and yet they’ve got a new cell phone and are carrying a cup of Starbucks into church every week. That doesn’t compute. Learn to give the first and best of your money to the Lord. The harder that seems, the more you need to do it.
7) Be a Great Church Member
Make yourself invaluable to your church, and do this by serving other people. I love reading about Dorcas, the woman Peter raised from the dead who was described as being “full of good works and acts of charity” (see Acts 9). “When Peter arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them.” Dorcas was a great church member. She loved people so much, and did so much good to them, that the whole community mourned when she died.
Would that be you? Would the people of your church weep as they remember you for all the good you did to others? Find the place you can serve your church, and serve there without fail, without excuse, without requiring praise and accolades. Do it for the good of others and the glory of God.
One of my lifelong struggles has been finding freedom in the most basic part of the Christian life—personal devotions. It’s not that I don’t do them, of course, but that they rarely seem to come easily and naturally. I want to wake up longing to read the Bible and eager to pray. I want to get up in the mornings thinking, “I just can’t wait to hear from God and speak to God.” But so often I find myself reading and praying out of simple obedience. That duty is too seldom joined by delight.
It isn’t always that way. There are times—times I love—where there is tremendous joy and freedom. For weeks now I have been in one of those periods, and it has been a joy and a delight to spend time in the Word and to pray. And in this time I’ve been drawn to parts of Scripture that rejoice in Scripture. I was recently transfixed by Psalm 19 and David’s sheer joy at this great gift of God. After listing so many of the benefits of God’s Word he says,
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
David tells us that God’s Word is precious. David is king over his nation and has access to all of its wealth, yet he looks at it all and sees that it is nothing compared to the surpassing worth of God’s Word. Where other men’s desire is to enrich themselves with gold, David’s desire is to enrich himself with the wisdom of God through the Scriptures.
David tells us that God’s Word is pleasurable. I don’t think there is any natural substance more delicious than honey (though perhaps maple syrup could be a close contender), and yet David can proclaim that God’s Word is sweeter even than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. As honey brightens the eyes, God’s Word brightens the soul.
David tells us that God’s Word is protective. He knows that the wisdom of God revealed through his Word will warn him and protect him away from sin and its consequences. David can look at his life and see those times he did not heed the warnings and receive God’s protection, and now he knows: God protects us through his Word.
David tells us that God’s Word is profitable. The Word of God does not only warn, but it also profits. Those who heed God’s wisdom and obey his law receive all the benefits that come from walking with God. They receive the greatest reward of all: they are with God and in God today and every day.
God’s Word is precious, pleasurable, protective, and profitable. What a gift it is!
I have no recollection of where I found the 4 P’s of God’s Word or whether I came up with them on my own; I want to credit David Murray as it sounds like his doing…
I have been writing a series on getting things done and, because I don’t know how else to do it, giving you a glimpse into my world to show how I get things done. To this point I have shared what I mean by productivity, showing how it extends to all of life (not just the world of business) and that the heart of productivity is glorifying God by doing good works [Part 1]. Last time I showed how I have divided my life into areas of responsibility that encompass everything I do, and I showed how I map out my specific roles within each of those areas [Part 2]. And now we are ready to move forward.
In a moment we will talk about getting on mission and staying on mission, but first I want to give you something to ponder over the next couple of days.
TIME & ENERGY
I believe we tend to focus too much on time management and too little on energy management. Yet in many vocations and in many places in life it is energy, not time, that is the more valuable commodity. Like time, energy is limited and needs to used strategically. You can give massive amounts of time to certain areas of life, but if you only give those times in which your energy is at its lowest point, your productivity will still be low.
There is a call here to know yourself. So over the next couple of days ask yourself these questions: At what times of day am I at my mental peak? At what times of day am I least-effective? Am I a morning person, a night-owl, or a mid-afternoon warrior?
These questions are important because before long we will start to look at your use of time and, to some degree at least, manage your time around the ebb and flow of energy. You will want to plan to use your high-energy times to do your most important tasks and your tasks that depend upon creativity. You will want to plan to schedule your proactive and creative work when energy is high, and your reactive and administrative work when energy is low. So start thinking about that now, and we will return to this topic soon.
GETTING ON MISSION
Once you have defined your areas of responsibility, it only makes sense that you would define your mission for each of them. I don’t know how else you could know what to emphasize, what to say “yes” to, and what to say “no” to. So I want to encourage you to work on a brief and simple mission statement for each of your areas of responsibility. Even if it is not a lengthy statement, come up with something that will guide you and define what God calls you to in each of them.
Now, there are two ways that I differ from many of the productivity gurus out there.
First, I do not believe that you need to have a big-picture mission statement that encompasses all of life and all of your areas of responsibility. If that works for you and you want a mission statement for all of life, go ahead and prepare it. But I think there is more value, at least for now, in preparing individual mission statements limited to each of your areas of responsibility.
Second, I do not believe that your mission statements for each of those areas has to be fixed and unchanging. I see the purpose of these statements as guiding you week-by-week as you schedule your time and as you attempt to make decisions about where to expend your effort. So while you shouldn’t change them haphazardly, you can change them in small ways as your mission comes into focus and as it changes through life. The value of seeing these as “living” statements is that it frees you from having to think about it too hard right now. Come up with something that works, and refine it over a period of weeks or months.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean by mission statements. Here are my statements for three of my areas of responsibility: my work at the church, my ministry to the wider church (primarily through the blog and books), and personal life:
GFC: Teach, train, and execute [administer] so the people of the church will mature and multiply.
Explanation: I believe that if the people of our church are living as Christians, they will mature in the faith and they will multiply by sharing the gospel with others. My role in the church primarily involves teaching, training and administration; I want to do those things in such a way that it directs the people of the church to mature and multiply.
- Explanation: I believe that if the people of our church are living as Christians, they will mature in the faith and they will multiply by sharing the gospel with others. My role in the church primarily involves teaching, training and administration; I want to do those things in such a way that it directs the people of the church to mature and multiply.
Business: Use the opportunities God provides to help others think and live like mature Christians.
Explanation: Over the years my core mission as a writer and public speaker has come into focus, and what I love to do is help people to think and live like mature Christians. This is the focus of my blog, my books, and my speaking opportunities.
- Explanation: Over the years my core mission as a writer and public speaker has come into focus, and what I love to do is help people to think and live like mature Christians. This is the focus of my blog, my books, and my speaking opportunities.
Personal: Delight in God to the glory of God for the good of all people.
- Explanation: I believe that if I am delighting in God, my delight brings glory to God and overflows into doing good for other people. I am a better father, a better husband, a better pastor, and a better neighbor when I am finding my delight in the Lord.
Each of these statements serves as a measure or standard so that each week I can look back and ask, Did I do these things? And I can look at the week ahead and ask, How will I do these things? When someone asks me, “Can you speak at our conference?” or “Can you meet with me to talk about this topic?” I attempt to make decisions according to my mission. If it fits my mission, I will give it time and energy and enthusiasm. If it does not fit my mission, I will not prioritize it in the same way.
Action: Write a mission statement for each area of responsibility. Give it your best shot for now, and prepare to keep refining them as time goes on.
ARE YOU ON MISSION?
You may have noticed that to this point I have only asked you “What are the things you are doing?” and “What are the things you are responsible for?”. Before I move any farther, I want you to take a good look at those roles, tasks, and projects under each of your areas of responsibility to ask whether those are the things you ought to do. Do the things you do actually fit your mission? If not, either you need to adjust your mission or adjust your roles.
Here’s the thing: Over time you inevitably collect roles and projects that do not fit your mission. Sometimes you take things on out of necessity—there is no one else to do it. Sometimes you take things on out of mismanagement—the boss dumped it on you. Sometimes you take things on out of plain old fear of man—you did not want to say “no” or you wanted to impress others with your willingness to do it all.
So keeping your mission in mind, you need to return to that list of roles and projects and ask questions like these:
- Are these the right and best things for me to be doing?
- Do these things fit my mission?
- Are there things I can do in each area that no one else can do?
- Where am I especially gifted or talented?
As a pastor I know that I am constantly tempted to take on tasks or projects that would be better done by a deacon or an office administrator. Yet having these things done by a person better called, skilled or equipped, will free me to focus on my core mission. As someone who just loves the approval of others, I am tempted to take on speaking engagements that have little to do with my core mission. In the end, they only end up being a great distraction from what matters most. Greg McKeown says it well in his book Essentialism: “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’ ” The better we know our mission, the better we can make such decisions.
Action: Prayerfully examine the roles and projects under each area of responsibility to see if they meet your core mission.
So, what do you do with items that don’t fit your mission? You have several options.
- You can delegate them to someone who can do them better. Maybe you have been managing the family’s budget, but you realize that your spouse can probably do it better. Ask if he or she is willing to take on that task.
- You can drop them. In many cases things are being done for no good reason at all. Many churches have ministries that made good sense ten years ago, but since then no one has ever stopped to ask, Should we still be doing this? If it doesn’t serve a clear purpose today, perhaps that time and energy would be better directed elsewhere.
- You can do them. Before you dump everything that doesn’t perfectly fit your core mission in each of your areas of responsibility, remember that you are in the business of expressing love to others—doing good deeds that will benefit them. This is where Christian productivity varies so much from what most people teach, where they encourage you to be as selfish as you want, to get rid of anything that doesn’t excite you. As a Christian you can do things that do not perfectly fit your mission, but still do them out of love for God and with a desire to glorify him. God may call you to do things simply because they need to be done, and he may even spiritually gift you to do them with excellence. This is why you need to prayerfully examine your roles and projects.
To this point our pursuit of productivity has been on a very broad level—we have been looking at life from a wide angle kind of perspective. If you have followed through all three articles, you know that God is calling you to do good for others in all of life, you have divided your life into various areas of responsibility, and you defined both your mission and your tasks for each of those areas. You are now in a great place to start looking at tools that can help you in life. That will be the subject of our next article.