Lecture 8: The Careful Timekeeper

Lecture 8 – The Careful Timekeeper: A Man With a Stopwatch

Why are those of us who live in the richest countries in the world suffering from so much painful and debilitating time-poverty? Time is far more valuable than money. It is far more limited and far more difficult to recover when lost.

I. A Theology of Time

Question: What is God’s view of time? What does the Bible teach about time?

1. God gives time (James 1:17)

We do not deserve a second of time in this world. Through sin we have forfeited our right to exist. Therefore, every moment of life is a gift of God. If a man were standing beside me giving me a dollar bill every second, or every minute, I would love him. But God is standing beside us and giving us something far more valuable – the seconds, minutes, and hours themselves

2. God gives enough time (John 11:9)

We sometimes say, “I just don’t have enough time.” I know we are rarely saying it as a complaint against God, but it does reflect upon God. If someone gave you a hundred tasks to do in one minute, you would view that person as unjust and unfair. It’s simply not enough time. But God has given us enough time to do all that He requires of us in this world. He is not unfair or unjust. Perhaps, as we shall see, our perceived lack of time is due to doing more than God requires of us.

3. God gives limited time (Ps. 90:10)

We have a limited time on this earth. Our arrival and departure times are on God’s timetable. However long it may be, it does have a limit that we shall not pass.

4. God judges our use of time (Rom. 14:12)

We are used to the idea of God judging our words or our use of money. But the idea of God watching over our use of time is not often at the forefront of our thoughts. Words are audible, money is visible, but time seems so much more nebulous, so much difficult to get a hold of. Yet, as it is His gift, we will be called to give an account for our use of it.

5. God commands us to redeem time (Eph. 5:16)

To redeem a person means to act to secure a captured person’s rescue by paying a price. To redeem time, therefore, means to act to secure the recovery of wasted time by paying a price. And that price, as we shall see, is self-discipline and self-denial.

6. God offers eternal life to those who have abused time (Romans 6:23)

Though many of us grieve over “the years the locusts have eaten,” God promises to restore those years (Joel 2:25). And what a restoration! He gives far more than we have taken. Despite us taking God’s gift of time and using it against Him, God still offers us the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:23).

II. A Devilology of Time (The Dangers of Time)

Question: What is the devil’s view of time? What does he want us to do with time?
I’ve proposed a basic theology of time. Now I will give you a devilology of time, time from the devil’s perspective. I’m really asking, “What would the devil teach a class on time-management?” He would have three main points:

1. Squander it (Time-wasting)

This hardly needs amplification. It is simply letting time slip through your hands without using it productively. And its especially easy for a pastor to fall into this as he has no time-clock or boss to check how he is using his time. Time can be wasted in various ways:

a. Laziness

We simply go about our business too slowly, too half-heartedly.

b. Disorganization

We may be running around, but we are running around as headless chickens because our studies, our finances, our administration, our libraries, etc., are a mess.

c. Inefficiency

We may not be using the right technological tools to simplify tasks. We phone when we should email. We use Strong’s Concordance rather then Bible software. We write out things by hand again, and again, and again, rather than use a word-processor. We try to study for sermons in the afternoon when we are sleepy rather than first thing in the morning when we’re at our brightest. We read where there are lots of distractions rather than where we can really concentrate, etc.

d. Indiscipline

We too easily choose to surf the Internet rather than study a text, we spend too long on the phone to friends when there are people to visit in hospital. We fail to plan the week or our day and end up aimless or simply reacting to the demands of others.

2. Stretch it (Time-stretching)

This involves lengthening our days, our working hours, so that we can do more and more work. Psalm 127:2 addresses this and calls it vain, partly because when we stretch our hours, we often simply stretch our work to fill the hours, rather than pack more in.
Again this is so easy for pastors to do, as we have no fixed hours. We can start stretching our hours, and yet we are not getting more done, just taking longer to do it. Isn’t it amazing how quickly you can prepare a sermon when you have a deadline!
Set yourself office and working hours, let your wife and family know them, and try to stick with that.

3. Squeeze it (Time-squeezing)

This happens when we have so much to do that we do nothing well. We try to squeeze so much into the day that we squeeze the quality out of our work, and also the joy and satisfaction out of our work. We aim too high, spend our day stressed, and end up looking back dissatisfied at all we were not able to do. We can sin by doing too little, but we can also sin by attempting to do too much.
It always strikes me when reading the Gospels, that there did not seem to be any sense of rush about the Lord’s life. He seemed to be largely unhurried, calm, and peaceful. Yet he never sinned sins of omission.
When born, we are automatically enrolled in this dark class under this dismal teacher. And even if the Son has disenrolled us and set us free, we find it hard to unlearn the lessons completely. How much we need the Holy Spirit to empty our minds and hearts of devilology; and instead fill them theology; and maybe especially with Christology.

III. The Management of Time

Question: How do I manage my time better?
In view of our theology of time and the dangers that face us in our use of time, here is my outline for managing time for God’s glory. We can call it “Murray Minute Management!”

1. Peace

The most important time of the day is first thing in the morning. Get up early enough to have a quiet time for reading the Bible and prayer. Those first moments of peaceful orientation of the mind and soul are the foundation of a successful day of ministry. And the key to getting up early enough is getting to bed early enough the night before. If you are finding it impossible to get up early enough for an undistracted devotional time, then you are going to bed too late. The success of the day depends on the amount of sleep you got.
I prefer to have a shower before I read and pray as it helps to wake me up. A cup of coffee is also an essential and pleasant companion. Find what works best for you and stick with it.

2. Plan

I’m going to deal with organization and administration in more detail in the next lecture. However, some overlap here can do no harm.
After your quiet time, use paper, a whiteboard, or electronic means to list all the things you have to do in the day. Or, ideally, pick up the list you prepared the day before. Someone once said that for every minute spent in organizing an hour is earned! Slight exaggeration, but a lot of time is saved if we pause to get organized rather than just plunge into the first thing that comes to mind. And make sure you have only one to-do list!
I keep that list with me all the time and keep adding to it. Some items are for that day and other items will be for the future. But everything that needs to be done goes on that list. I try not to carry anything about with me in my head.
I’ve tried many different To-Do systems and finally settled on a simple and free electronic App called Wunderlist, which also has an iPad and desktop version. Paper is too simple for me but some of the other software solutions like Omnifocus are too complicated (and expensive!)

3. Prioritize

You are not going to get everything done, so you have to let the less important things wait. Organize the list of to-do’s into the following categories:

a. Urgent

There may be phone calls, visits, or emails that simply have to be done that day.

b. Big

Make sure you do something substantial in your work each day. If you are a pastor, it may be a few hours on a sermon, or a few hours writing an article, or a few hours of focused study, etc. It is very easy in the ministry to let the little things squeeze out the big. The little things are less demanding on the mind and soul and give a sense of “I’m getting things done!” But time must be set apart for the longer-term, substantial things. It is usually best to do this first thing in the morning, after devotions.

c. Daily

There are some routine things that happen every day, or should do. They are not urgent and the world won’t fall apart if you don’t do them; but if you let them build up, then you will eventually become overwhelmed. Some examples may be email inbox to zero, non-urgent phone calls, diary organized and coordinated with wife, bank accounts balanced, back up data (or use Dropbox).

d. Visits & Meetings

Are there any meetings or visits planned for the day? Work out the most efficient way of combining these to minimize travel time. What other errands can I do on these trips?

e. Long-term

Try to find one slot in the week that you dedicate to more long-term projects. As a pastor, you will be asked to write articles, review books, contribute to reports, deliver lectures, etc. It is usually best to schedule these projects for completion every 2-3 weeks rather than let them build up on you, so that you have five to do in two days time! If you don’t schedule it, it won’t get done.
Andrew Carnegie once asked a consultant, “What can you do for me about time control?” The consultant said, “I’ll make one suggestion, and you send me a check for what you think it’s worth. Write down what you have to do on a piece of paper in order of priority, and complete the first item before you go to the second.” It’s reported that Carnegie tried it for a few weeks and sent him a check for ten thousand dollars.

4. Pick

Pick the right time for the right tasks. 80% of your results are achieved by 20% of the things that you do. If you don’t set aside time for tasks, they are unlikely to be done. Make sure you choose the right time slot for each task and allocate enough time for it.
Devote large blocks of time to important tasks. Squeeze less important tasks into smaller blocks and consolidate smaller tasks into one block to release larger blocks.
And don’t multi-task. Glen Stansberry says:

Every time you switch your attention, there’s a cognitive ramp up time. It can range from a few seconds to a few minutes. So, if you constantly cycle between checking email, IM, twitter, texts, voicemail, calendars, blackberries, apps, scores, stock quotes, news, current projects and more, then respond to each, the time you lose to incessant ramp-up becomes substantial. Instead, minimize time lost to non-stop cognitive ramping by batching your time and focusing on individual categories of tasks with intense, yet discrete bursts of attention.[footnote]Glen Stansburry, “80 Ways To Steal Valuable Minutes For Your Workday,” www.americanexpress.com, accessed 7.8.2016,  https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/idea-hub/topics/lifestyle/article/80-ways-to-steal-valuable-minutes-for-your-work-day-glen-stansberry[/footnote]

You should try to “see”, to “visualize” time, by blocking out a wall-planner or diary with different colors. Use Morgenstern’s book to compare what a cluttered schedule looks like as opposed to an organized schedule. The former makes it difficult to see what you have to do and when you have to do it. The latter removes guesswork, is orderly, and helps you to see what has to be done at a glance. It is also easier to see when you have reached capacity.

5. Perform

Here I’d like to address the common problem of procrastination. Andrew Carnegie said: “No unwelcome task becomes any the less unwelcome by putting it off till tomorrow.” So it’s not just Christians who see the devastating effects of procrastination (derived from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”). In fact, numerous scholars have contributed to a recent book about it called The Thief of Time. At $80 it probably won’t be near the top of your book-buying priorities. But The New Yorker has done us a favor with an extensive review, summarized below:[footnote] James S, “Later,” newyorker.com, accessed 5.21.14, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/10/11/101011crbo_books_surowiecki?currentPage=all[/footnote]

a. Procrastination is painful

Undone items on our to-do list gnaw at our consciences for weeks and even months. Why do we avoid unpleasant tasks when the act of avoidance only increases our discomfort?

b. Procrastination is costly

Procrastination makes businesses lose money (see Alex Taylor’s recent history of G.M., “Sixty to Zero,” in which he highlights how key executives delayed and delayed inevitable decisions), and pastors lose credibility.

c. Procrastination is irrational

Piers Steel defines procrastination as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off. Samuel Johnson said: “I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.”

d. Procrastination thrives in vagueness

David Allen (of Getting Things Done fame) insists on clear and concrete task lists. He says, “the vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it.”

e. Procrastination feeds on perfectionism

Procrastinators are always waiting for the perfect time. General McClellan’s excessive planning and preparation infuriated President Lincoln during the Civil War.  He was always asking for more troops and more weapons and more time to plan the ideal battle.

f. Procrastination picks the easy route

In an experiment, “people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing.”

g. Procrastination often arises when we have too much to do

When we are overwhelmed with to-dos we often feel there is no single to-do worth doing.

h. Procrastination is increasing

“According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.”
Gretchen Rubin, of Happiness Project fame, gives Six tips for forcing yourself to tackle a dreaded task, quoted below:

(i) Do it first thing in the morning. One of my Twelve Commandments is “Do it now.” No delay is the best way.

(ii) If you find yourself putting off a task that you try to do several times a week, do it EVERY day. If you’re finding it hard to go for a walk four times a week, try going every day.

(iii) Have someone keep you company. Studies show that we enjoy practically every activity more when we’re with other people.

(iv) Make preparations, assemble the proper tools. Clean off your desk, get the phone number, find the file. I often find that when I’m dreading a task, it helps me to feel prepared.

(v) Commit. We’ve all heard the advice to write down your goals. On the top of a piece of paper, write, “By the end of today, April 7, I will have _____.” In other words, give yourself a deadline.

(vi) Remind yourself that finishing a dreaded task is tremendously energizing. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.

Some other helps might be:
(vii) Reward yourself. If I do this today, I will buy a book on Amazon this evening!
(viii) Break down huge tasks into smaller steps. Instead of saying “I have to write a book today!” say “I will write two paragraphs today.”

6. Pace

Some live life at Wall Street trader pace. Others go for the “let it all hang out” pace. Neither helps the leader or those he leads. Somewhere between these two poles is where we should find ourselves; and it will vary from person to person. Find a pace that allows you to get a good amount of substantial work done, and yet that will allow you to have time for people and they are not afraid to ask you for time.
Set yourself time limits on work. You can spend an endless amount of time perfecting a sermon or a report. You have to draw a line somewhere so that you have time to do other duties. You also have to be able to distinguish between tasks that require a much higher quality of work than others. For example, a sermon for a nursing home on a Sunday afternoon does not require as much preparation as the main preaching sermon of the week.
Pace your to-do list as well. If you have ten extra things to do this week, then do two a day rather than try to do ten on day one. That breaks up the mountain into small manageable steps.
One way to speed up the pace at which you do mundane tasks (if not all tasks) like email, is to use a stopwatch or timer.
“Pace” is the best place I can find to also mention exercise. Glen Stansberry said: “It sounds counter-intuitive, but you have to spend time exercising. Research has shown that exercise boosts cognitive function, creativity, problem solving and productivity. In fact a NASA study showed employees who exercised daily worked at 100% efficiency after 7 hours, while those who didn’t saw a 50% drop, meaning it took them twice as long to accomplish the same thing. So, exercise, in effect, creates time.” [footnote]Glen Stansburry, “80 Ways To Steal Valuable Minutes For Your Workday,” www.americanexpress.com, accessed 7.8.2016,  https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/idea-hub/topics/lifestyle/article/80-ways-to-steal-valuable-minutes-for-your-work-day-glen-stansberry[/footnote] Build in buffer time so that you have space to accommodate if something interrupts or goes wrong. If you don’t and something does set you off-schedule, then it will be impossible to get back on track and you will lose momentum.

7. Purge

One of the benefits of auditing our time over, say a week or two (by recording what we do with every 10-15 minute time block) is that it usually helps identify a number of time-wasters in our lives. The very exercise of recording our time is revealing and even corrective. There’s no question that the biggest drain on knowledge workers’ time these days is the Internet. You will have to find a way of controlling this either through self-discipline or with the help of time clocks and filters/blockers.

8. Protect

According to Morgenstern, the average information worker is interrupted by another person or by technology every 11 mins and it takes 25 mins to refocus. So, if you are ever going to get quality thinking and writing time, you will have to protect the time you set aside to do this. Mark out “study appointments” in your schedule as if you were visiting with someone, and make it non-negotiable.
I found the mornings were the best for this. I usually protected 8am to 1pm Tuesday to Saturday. I protected the time by informing my elders of my study time (which also percolated into the congregation), putting the phone on the answering machine, shutting down email, etc. I made a point of returning all phone calls at lunchtime (incoming calls take an average of 11 minutes but outgoing calls take about 7 minutes). You have to balance accessibility with productivity.[footnote]Leadership Handbook of Management and Administration, (Grand Rapids: Baker. 2007), 106[/footnote] My wife liked to bring me a coffee mid-morning, and sit and chat for a bit. But when I started making coffee in my own study and having some snacks in my drawer, I found myself able to accomplish much more!
You will want to have a notebook nearby to jot down “to-do” and other thoughts that occur while you are preparing sermons, so that you don’t think, “I better do that before I forget.”

9. Pause

You need a Sabbath like everyone else, a time to take a break from work and take time out for yourself and your family. When we homeschooled, I took off every Monday. My wife was strict about this. Only twice did I persuade her that I really needed the extra day to work. In both cases, I accomplished no more by the end of the week than if I had taken the time off and rested.

10. Price

I hope all this has convinced you of the need to value time far more highly than you have in the past and to realize that as you get older, the value of time only increases.

IV. Two Kinds of Life

Question: How do I balance strict scheduling with accessibility and availability?
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about two ways of thinking about life: the Well-Planned Life and the Summoned Life.[footnote]David Brooks, “The Summoned Life”, nytimes.com, accessed 5.21.14, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/03/opinion/03brooks.html?_r=5&src=me&ref=homepage&[/footnote]

1. The Well-Planned Life

Brooks’s presentation of the Well-Planned Life leaned heavily on a 2010 Harvard commencement address given by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and a “serious Christian” (yes you read that sentence correctly).
Brooks underlines Christensen’s Christian commitment by narrating how he refused to play College sports on a Sunday. But, Brooks says, Christensen “combines a Christian spirit with business methodology.”

In plotting out a personal and spiritual life, he applies the models and theories he developed as a strategist. He emphasizes finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs…When he is done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.

Christensen observed how high-achievers usually misallocate their resources. If they have a spare half-hour, they use it to produce some tangible result at work (like closing a sale, writing a blog! etc.), rather than invest time and energy in far more important things like family relationships, which may not yield results until 20 years later.
Christensen’s advice? Invest a lot of time when you are young in finding a clear purpose for your life. “When I was a Rhodes scholar,” he recalls, “I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it — and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.”
Having done that, he says, you are then able to make the right decisions about time-management and talent-multiplication.

2. The Summoned Life

David Brooks then goes on to describe the “Summoned Life,” a life lived from an entirely different perspective.

Life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose.

So, instead of plotting a course like a strategic planner, we should wait for the course to unfold and respond accordingly.

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

Such questions can only be answered by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.

In America, we have been taught to admire the lone free agent who creates new worlds. But for the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.

Brooks says that the more individualistic “Well-Planned Life” is more American, whereas the more social “Summoned Life” is common elsewhere.
Which is best? Well, in Brooks’s predictable “moderate” style he comes down firmly on the fence by concluding: “But they are both probably useful for a person trying to live a well-considered life.”
However American or un-American these two ways of living are is not the most important question for us. Rather we should be asking, which is the most biblical?
(i) The person who lives a well-planned life (WPL), takes time to find a clear life-purpose, then makes appropriate decisions about how to spend their time and use their talents.
or
(ii) The person who lives the summoned life, who rejects the possibility of long-term life-planning, but as situations and circumstances arise, they ask, “What are these circumstances summoning me to do?” In fact, I think it would be more accurate to call this “The Reactive Life” (RL)
I believe that every Christian should live a WPL. No Christian should be just a victim of events, a helpless cork tossed to and fro on the ever-changing ocean of circumstances and other people’s expectations. We must take the time to prayerfully seek a life-purpose. God put each of us here for a specific reason, and we shouldn’t just drift from day to day, from week to week, from year to year, frittering away precious time without any sense of direction. We must take our time and our talents to God and ask Him what He will have us to do…and wait for His guidance. That simple act would save many Christians from many years of pointless ping-ponging around from job to job, from passion to passion, from person to person, and from place to place.
However, there are dangers in the WPL, especially in the selfish neglect of important relationships, as Brooks also hinted at. The person living the WPL can become insensitive to circumstances, events, and people around him. “I don’t care if my neighbor is sick…I have a plan and I’m sticking to it.” He can become frustrated with anyone and anything that interrupts his plan or renders his day “inefficient.” He can become deaf to God’s voice speaking to him through His Word, and through providence as his life unfolds. While he may have got his life-plan from God, he may neglect to get his everyday-plan from God. Everybody needs to allow an element of RL in their life.
So, I suppose I’m joining David Brooks on the fence. However, I’m definitely falling over on the WPL side, as I believe it is more biblical than the RL. Consider Christ’s life. He did not get up every day and wonder, “What am I doing here?” or “Where am I going?” No, He had a very definite life-plan (maybe we should say death-plan), which He received from His Father. However, He also had the right balance between the WPL and the RL. While there were times when he would not be deflected by people’s demands and the pressure of unpredicted events, there were other times when he did respond to pressing need and urgent circumstances.
If I can apply this especially to pastors, I would say that too many pastors live a Reactive Life. We often go from day-to-day just responding to events, phone calls, emails and others’ agendas. We may have a weekly plan that involves preparing two or three sermons. However, we don’t usually think much further ahead than that.
I would encourage pastors to think more long-term, not just about their congregation but about their own lives. Take your time, your talents, your interests and your schedule to the Lord and ask Him to help you plan a long-term project. It might be to master Greek or Hebrew, to research a favorite subject, to do a Th.M. or D.Min., to write a book, to evangelize a particular place or group of people, to mentor a young man, etc. Prayerfully pick a project and allocate fixed and non-negotiable time to it every week. Let your family and elders know your plan and seek their cooperation.
The person who lives the well-planned life is better-equipped to react to the unplanned events of life.

V. Conclusion

I suppose whatever way we live it has to be a prayerful life (PL). I believe we do need to take time out to ask what God would have us to do, not just for today but also for the longer-term. Maybe the equation should be something like 70% WPL + 30 % RL + 100% PL (Prayerful life). Doesn’t make logical sense, but I think it does make spiritual sense.

Extra Reading

Personal Time Management Guide
Time Management
Time Tracking Software
How to accomplish a lot in a few hours
80 ways to redeem time
Prioritize your time
Philip Ryken Sermon on Time Management