A few years ago, I was planning for an upcoming “boot camp” for new field leaders. Our boot camps are two full days of training but hardly “a place or undertaking that resembles a military boot camp especially by requiring one to endure intensive training or initiation”.1 Merriam Webster definition #3 for “boot camp. But then maybe we should ask the participants, not the trainer! In preparation, I asked these new field leaders and their directors what topics they would want us to cover. I gave them a list of topics we had covered in previous years. Someone suggested “how to stay on top of things”, something not on my list. In subsequent years, participants have almost always selected this topic as something they want to address at boot camp.

The difficulty of staying on top of things

This suggestion initially surprised me, but it immediately made sense. New field leaders have a steep learning curve as they move from front-line ministry into more administrative roles in missions. One of the challenges in this transition is how to manage the myriad of expectations, tasks and messages that come with their new role. See my recent blog post on the paradoxes of leadership. But regardless of whether you find yourself in a new leadership role or not, we all struggle to “stay on top of things”. As mission workers, we all end up wearing multiple hats, filling many different roles because of a shortage of personnel.

In this blog post, I want to briefly summarize what we talk about in this hour and a half session at boot camp. These are the principles and tools that have been most helpful for me to “stay on top of things”. I recognize that you will need to adjust my system to fit your personality and work style.

Identify your big rocks

Image from blog post by Matthew Ross

Many of you will be familiar with Steven Covey’s demonstration on why it is important to schedule your priorities. Covey refers to one’s priorities as “big rocks”. If you seek to add big rocks to a jar that already has a number of little stones and some sand in it, the rocks will not fit. But if instead, you put the big rocks in first, the stones and sand will fit into the jar as well. In the same way, if our lives and schedules are full of less important things, we will not have the space to accomplish the things that really matter. We need to start by making sure we set aside time for our priorities (God, family, evangelism, disciple-making, learning, etc.).

But before you can put the big rocks in first, you need to first identify what those big rocks are. What are your primary responsibilities, the critical things that God has given you to accomplish? Each of us need to be able to clarify what God is asking us to do. We need to recognize where the boundary lines for those responsibilities lie.

What is the work God has given me to do?

What is your work and what is not your work? Jesus was able to say at the end of his life:

I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.

John 17:4, NIV

Our Lord knew exactly what work his Father had given him to do, and he could say with confidence that his work was finished. There was much left to be done in establishing his kingdom, but he had done what the Father had given him to do.

How do I better understand what God has given me to do?

How do you identify what God has given you to do? I would suggest you review your:

  • Job description. If you don’t have a job description, start with creating one together with your supervisor. The SEND U wiki has some sample job descriptions and templates.
  • Roles in life (spouse, parent, child of God, member of a church, etc.).
  • Field’s and organization’s vision and goals.
  • Personal calling.
  • Personal wiring (your strengths, personality, gifting).

Furthermore, ask the following questions of yourself:

  • What do I need to do to be true to my calling?
  • What does the rest of my team rely on me to do so that we can accomplish our objectives?

Your resulting list of key responsibilities will probably need to be checked with your team leader and teammates. It will also need to be refined over time. But an essential element to staying on top of things is do understand what God has uniquely given you to do.

It doesn’t matter how efficient you are if you are doing the wrong things in the first place. More important than efficiency is effectiveness — getting the right things done. In other words, productivity is not first about getting more things done faster. It’s about getting the right things done.

Perman, Matthew Aaron. What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (p. 43).

Develop helpful habits

How do we maintain the discipline to consistently prioritize the most important things in your life? I think we all would admit that we just do not have the mental or emotional energy to force ourselves hour-by-hour to continually choose to do the right things. Something more interesting or more urgent distracts us. We become lazy and let things slide, even with the best of intentions.

To address this problem, we need to establish habits that we can do semi-automatically, without going through the process of debating each day, each week or each month whether we are going to do them or not.

Many of the things we do each day feel like the results of conscious decisions when, in fact, they’re prompted by habit. Habits exist to save our brains energy. If we had to weigh and consider each move we made, we would be mentally exhausted by breakfast. Instead, we operate largely by automation, reserving our mental power for more significant choices.

Excerpt From: “The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: A Summary and Analysis” by SpeedReader Summaries.

A biblical example of a habit is Daniel who continued to pray three times a day even after the king had issued a decree forbidding this practice (Dan 6:10). He did what he normally did, “just as he had done before”. For me, my time in the Word every morning is a deeply-engrained habit. I get up, make coffee and begin reading the Word. I never think about whether I will do anything else – except when I have a really early flight or call.

Disciplines are hard until they become habits

Disciplines are really hard, until they become habits.  They still require energy, but they become more automatic.  We can do them without needing to make a conscious decision to do them. 

As part of growing in maturity in Christ, we need to develop new habits of the Spirit that replace the old habits of the flesh. Once these practices become habits, we will do them almost automatically, and they won’t be nearly as hard as when we first started doing them.

I believe establishing these habits is key to getting things done. Planning my tasks for the day at the beginning of the day (after my time in the Word) has become one of those habits. So is mapping out my week on Monday morning. One of the habits that I am still seeking to establish more solidly is only working on email twice a day – once at the start of my work day and then again just before dinner time.

What habits do you need to stay on top of things and keep the important things the most important in your life? 

Establish regular “Refocus” times

To stay on top of things, you will need to set times to review your commitments, evaluate what you have been doing, and make course corrections.

On a daily basis, our time in the Word helps to refresh our minds and hearts about our primary commitment to our relationship to the Lord. In our work, we also need ways of reviewing our commitments and responsibilities and adjusting our priorities or our schedules.

More than ten years ago, I established a regular habit of going through a Refocus time at the beginning of every quarter. Four times a year, I spend a couple of hours looking at the following:

  • Review. I review my personal mission statement, my job description, my annual ministry plan and my IGP (individual growth plan). Am I still on track? Am I doing what I have committed to do?
  • Reflect. I list the significant things I have accomplished in the past quarter. What issues remain unresolved? What have I learned these past 3 months? Which of my responsibilities has been most neglected this past quarter?
  • Refocus. What opportunities do my team and I have in this next quarter to make significant contribution to the kingdom of God? In light of the above opportunities, what should be our and my highest priority or priorities in this next quarter?
  • Resources. What adjustments do I need to make to ensure that I will be able to stay healthy, joyful and spiritually vibrant in this coming quarter? What (or whose help) do I need to accomplish my priorities this next quarter?

You can see a fuller list of questions on the SEND U wiki.

How often will you schedule a time for review your plans and commitments?

Clear your mind without losing it

In order to stay on top of things, we need to develop a system that will allow us to concentrate on work before us. This system will help us eliminate needless distractions and anxiety about the things that are still left undone.

Make time for deep work

In a previous post, I reviewed Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World“. What is “deep work”? Newport defines it as:

“professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Cal NewPort, Deep Work, p.3.

Deep work is the most satisfying and most productive. Therefore, staying on top of things means setting aside some time for deep work. Deep work for you could be writing a newsletter, preparing a sermon or a Bible study, making an important decision or spending an extended time in prayer. How do you find time to concentrate without distractions from others?  Some of us need to leave our desks and find a quiet place to think and work. Others may turn off their phones for a while. I find Saturday mornings to be a great time to do the deep work of writing blog posts, since I have no meetings scheduled that day.

How do we focus on work without becoming distracted by our own thoughts? One part of this is overcoming the fear that we are forgetting something important. We cannot work deeply if we are constantly reminding ourselves of something that we must not forget.

Close open loops

Here is where David Allen and his book, “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” has been very helpful for me. Allen talks about “open loops”. These are incomplete tasks that your brain is unconsciously keeping track of, even while you are working on something else. I must not forget to answer that email. I need to get an answer to that question by tomorrow. My friend asked for a Bible a week ago and I haven’t brought it to his place yet. My home church needs some pictures for the mission conference next week. These open loops are all pulling on your attention and limiting our ability to focus on the task at hand.

David Allen says that we must first identify these open loops and collect them in one place to which we know we will return at a future time to deal with them. By so doing, we can close these open loops; we get them off our mind. The collection place may be a notebook you carry with you or a box on your desk. But more likely, it will be an electronic app that will remember them and remind us what we need to do and by when.

Use tools for staying on top of things

For me, I need three important tools to help me close these open loops and stay on top of things:

  • A calendar that reminds me of all my appointments. I use Microsoft Outlook.
  • A goal-tracker. I use Microsoft Planner to track both my own monthly goals and my Annual Ministry Plan (AMP), as well as the goals of my teammates.
  • A to-do list for smaller tasks. I use Microsoft To Do.

Many of you will find that the to-do list, particularly Microsoft To Do can adequately handle tracking your goals as well. Since these are all Microsoft Office 365 apps, my flagged emails and my goals from Planner also show up on Microsoft To Do. That integration is really handy.

I know that many use their email inbox as a collection spot, but I am not in favor of that method. It only collects incoming email, and does not store communication I need to initiate. It also assumes that email is a primary means of communication. With our organization increasingly using Microsoft Teams to communicate, I am finding that my inbox is not at all a good indication of what I need to do each day.

Very little of what I need to get done each day involves paper (documents, letters) or physical objects. But in my home office back in Ukraine, I also have a stackable office letter tray, and I use the top shelf as a collecting spot for physical “open loops”.

Return regularly to the collection spot

In order for this system of collecting “open loops” to work, you have to regularly return to these collection sites (e.g. the to-do list) and work through the items listed. I do so every morning when I plan my day. As I said, this is one of my helpful habits. I open my to-do list, look at my calendar, glance through my email, and read through my messages on Microsoft Teams. I flag any emails or messages that I can’t answer in two minutes or less. Then I create my task list for today on Microsoft To Do, including the flagged emails and a task saying “Respond to saved messages on Teams”. I enter major tasks or projects into my calendar as blocks of time for “deep work”. As I complete the tasks throughout the day, I check them off.

Because I have a system dealing with open loops, I (almost) never worry about forgetting something. I don’t even try to remember what appointments I have today. My app on my phone and my computer do the remembering and reminding.

Now I realize my system may not work for you. But you need to have some kind of system that allows you to forget about what is not yet done in order to focus on what is before you. This system is critical to staying on top of things.

Recommended book

What's Best Next

Finally I would also like to recommend a book that I have found very helpful in “staying on top of things”. Matt Perman’s “What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done” is one that I regularly recommend on this subject. I wrote a review of the book a few years when it was first published. Perman is a big fan of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” strategy. But he has also committed himself to seeking God’s glory above all else, and so he provides a wonderful biblical foundation for “staying on top of things”.