By Kevin Peck
The work of ministry leadership is perilous.
There are countless pitfalls along the pathway of honoring the Lord and tending His sheep. We are under constant attack from a supernaturally powerful enemy. We’re at war with our own sinful nature, tempted by the world and its shiny offerings. We battle discouragement from failures, negative feedback, and our own fragility.
These dangers are real and must be confronted, or else they will destroy us. But there is also a sneaky enemy, seemingly benign, but one that slowly erodes our effectiveness. What is it? It isn’t particularly scary, and it doesn’t make for a very provocative sermon.
The enemy is distraction.
Plain, simple, run-of-the-mill distraction. However, when you consider the importance of our mission and the brevity of our lives, this fight against distraction proves to be a paramount battle. It’s one we must win.
“In fact, you have made my days just inches long, and my life span is as nothing to you.
Yes, every human being stands as only a vapor. Selah” – Psalm 39:5
Distraction is the shape-shifting enemy that masquerades as one of many allies. “Multi-tasking,” “reprioritization,” or even “responsiveness” can be pseudonyms for the relentless enemy of progress.
In order to discern whether one of these common allies to progress is actually distraction in disguise, it’s helpful to stop and name our own emotions. In the midst of our hectic schedules, we must learn to stop and ask what is driving our choices.
Distraction can be diagnosed by sensing one of three common underlying emotions: aimless, overwhelmed, or uninspired. When we’re arrested by one of these common feelings we will tend to make work choices that don’t get us the results we—or our teams—need.
When we’re aimless and unclear in what we ought to be working on, distraction is wreaking havoc. Distraction halts progress in our missional priorities and our organizational goals. Rather than making progress for the glory of God, our aimlessness leads to working on whatever comes our way.
We manage symptoms of larger problems or simply “keep the machine working” rather than pursuing the world-changing, God-honoring ends that inspired us to lead in the past.
When we’re overwhelmed, distraction drives rather than purpose. Rather than executing a purposeful plan and making progress toward clear objectives, many leaders are distracted by the sheer volume or complexity of the work at hand.
Overwhelmed leaders aren’t leaders; they’re reactors.
All too often, leaders sit down to work and feel like they have a million things to do accomplish, but can’t clearly identify the first step, much less the subsequent ones. The problem they will work on is usually the most urgent one. These leaders live each day feeling like they’re falling further behind despite their best efforts.
When we’re uninspired our work follows the path of least resistance. One the most dreaded causes of distraction is lack of inspiration. It’s scary for a leader to admit they just aren’t inspired. This symptom can be difficult to admit because the distraction is more intentionally self-inflicted than the other two cases.
When leaders are uninspired, they simply distract themselves with the mundane because they don’t have the energy to aim higher. For some leaders, the next big change or momentous goal is clear, but the energy required to lead comes at too high a price.
If any of these scenarios resonate with you, the following four keys can help you recapture your schedule and make progress toward God’s purposes for you as a leader.
These strategies aren’t magic beans to take you to the heights of effectiveness, but they represent regular rhythms to be practiced.
1. Lift your eyes before you put your head down.
Far too many Christian leaders lead non-Christianly. They pursue God’s glory as their ends, but they don’t pursue it by the means He has given us. God has not only called us to lead, He has supplied the power to accomplish what He sets before us.
When we feel poor in time, we offer less of it to prayer. But God’s Kingdom is not like the world and it won’t be advanced by worldly means. Nothing destroys the roots of distraction like prayer. Apathy itself is cast off, not by willful performance, but by the power of the Living God.
Time management in this life is anchored in enjoying eternity in the here and now. When we first walk in the garden with the holder of ten billion stars, we will find ourselves able to navigate the priorities and complexities of our calendars with the wisdom of Heaven.
2. Start each day, week, month and quarter with a plan and priorities.
This key sounds simple, but it is so often ignored. Sometimes the mundane answer is the right one. Take time at the beginning of day, week, month and quarter to set priorities and stay committed to a plan.
The reason this advice always shows up in books and blogs is because it is right and there is no way around it. If you want to get in better shape you need to exercise. If you want to get better at golf you must practice more.
If you want to manage your time more effectively you need a plan and priorities and you need to revisit them each day, each week, each month and each quarter, minimally.
This pattern of behavior will kill the aimless mornings and overwhelmed moments that lead to paralysis. If you take 10 to 15 minutes in the morning to prioritize and plan you can attack the day with purpose, knowing you are working on the right things.
The same moments at the start of the week, month and quarter will keep you from getting stuck on the urgent and keep your mind free to engage the important.
3. Create blocks of time to avoid switching gears.
One of the most vulnerable times for distraction comes in the transition time between tasks. When we stop one task and start another there’s a lag in our attention. This is particularly the case when the kind of work is different. Our minds steal a break to reset and restart.
In these transition moments we find ourselves aimless and often uninspired to move on to the next thing. Time blocks are sections of time set aside for similar kinds of work to avoid the number of times our minds need to switch gears.
For instance, rather than responding to email throughout the day, set aside a few blocks in the day to check and answer email. The time in between will be far more productive for progressing a project or engaging fully in a meeting.
Another helpful strategy for using time blocks is to stack meetings into the morning or afternoon, or maybe on one particular day of the week. When we stack meetings we can fully engage in each one and be more fully present to engage in solid work during the non-meeting blocks.
4. Kill the idea that your agenda is public property.
This strategy has been one of the most effective ways to own my own agenda for the day. One caveat before diving in: We are servants in Christ’s Kingdom and so we must remain in an available posture to those we lead.
However, at times, we must be unavailable to everyone so that we might be available to someone. The reality is that if you’re available to everyone, over time, you will actually not be available to people who matter most.
For those you can influence, insist on no open-ended emails—messages that end with “thoughts?” Or, “Can I be honest?”
Open-ended emails like this are usually are a sign that the sender hasn’t fully finished their own thoughts. Rather than asking my thoughts on a subject, I ask those I manage to boil down emails to multiple-choice answers. I ask them to provide meaningful options, along with their own personally suggestion, for any question they are asking.
Without this tactic, my email inbox becomes a public sign up for putting things on my task list. There are people in our lives who we simply must respond to and they will dictate the rules of engagement. But if you can, shut down the public property mentality on your task list through open-ended emails.
To keep a regulator on the “Can I have 10 minutes?” visits, host open office hours. I want to be available to my team, but there is a way for me to have some say in the matter.
Rather than your whole day serving as open office hours, delineate some time for this purpose and let your team know when it is so they can plan ahead and utilize those times well. While someone popping in may only be a 10-minute conversation, it costs much more when you factor in distraction.
Don’t let disruption and distraction own your schedule. Distraction keeps you from making progress for the glory of God while leaving you laden with guilt, shame and disappointment. These strategies are a start to owning your schedule and putting it to work for His sake.