“Our soul is like a stream of water,
which gives strength, direction and harmony
to every other area of life.”
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart
I went on a time management kick a few years back, and it was exhausting. I wanted to “make the most of every opportunity” and “redeem the time” that I had available, but my good intentions were soon overrun by my own fractured sense of why I was so hour-and-minute oriented. As I strategically planned my goals, meetings and inboxes, I began to be crushed by the constant failure to maintain everything at work and still have energy for my wife, kids and friends after 5pm. Furthermore, around the same time, I developed fibromyalgia, a chronic pain and fatigue disorder, so my time in the office began to be more limited and my energy at home became even more depleted.
I found some really helpful principles and resources in the best of the time management materials out there—if there was a “Peter Drucker is my homeboy” t-shirt, I’d order one for every day of the week and two for the Sabbath—but I began to realize that I didn’t have a sanctified, integrated view of managing my ever-limited time and energy. But surprisingly, it was my chronic illness, which significantly reduced what I can accomplish, that beautifully enabled me to slow down enough to recognize a few things about my own soul and the unique realities placed upon me.
As a result, I’ve slowly developed a grid for how to best invest myself into my roles and responsibilities. Here are the rules:
1. Consider Your Soul
One of my favorite authors, the late Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, wrote:
What is running your life at any given moment is your soul. Not external circumstances, or your thoughts, or your intentions, or even your feelings, but your soul. The soul is the aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of self. It is the life-center of the human being. It regulates whatever is occurring in each of those dimensions and how they interact with each other and respond to surrounding events in the overall governance of your life. The soul is “deep” in the sense of being basic or foundational and also in the sense that it lies almost totally beyond conscious awareness. In the person with the “well-kept heart,” the soul will be itself properly ordered under God and in harmony with reality.
As I have begun to study the immense biblical writings on the nature of the soul, I have begun to realize that all souls are fragile, easily damaged. When functioning properly, my soul is a well-spring of life, a stream of water that is truest to how God has created and called me. I am acutely aware of God’s presence, sharply attuned to my own thoughts and emotions, and able to integrate and balance my roles and responsibilities without conscious effort. But sadly, these days—moments, really—are few and far between.
Instead, I often neglect the health and well-being of my soul. When I work a 15-hour day, when I go several days without exercise, when I use every possible moment in a day to be productive, my soul suffers. Years ago, one of my pastor-friends once asked me how regularly I consider my limits. I responded that I could only recognize a limit after I passed it. It was like driving by an exit that you meant to take on the highway, noticing it was just behind you while you cruised along at 75, with the next exit a good 25 miles further. Ever had that feeling?
It’s amazing how fully integrated God has made us as human beings. There is absolutely no possible way to let your work not affect your spiritual life, your physical health not affect your ability to concentrate, or your intake of social media not affect your behavior toward your kids. The connections are not always simple to make, but they are always present, because our soul integrates and orders everything we think, feel, say and do.
That means that if you want to make the most of your time, you had better embrace your reality.
2. Embrace Your Reality
I use this phrase approximately twenty times a day and in all my writings.* Henry Cloud’s book Integrity is helpful here: he states that the definition of integrity is the courage to meet the demands that reality places upon it. For example, an airplane has structural integrity when it functions properly at the speed and altitude for which it was designed.
The question is: What demands has reality placed upon you?
It may sound like over-kill, but this is an essential exercise: Before you plan your hours, days and weeks, you must recognize your God-given situation.
Calling: What particular gifts and convictions have God entrusted to you?
Priorities: What are your truly God-given priorities?
Life Stage: How does your life stage affect your time and energy?
Marriage: How are you going to love and care for your spouse before all other relationships?
Parenting: What type of childhood do you want your kids to have and how will you ensure that?
Friendships: How are you building and maintaining lifelong relationships?
Health: What physical limitations (sickness, age, etc) or habits (poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, etc) influence you positively and negatively?
Work: How does your work and its various aspects (tasks, meetings, public speaking, conflicted relationships, stressful responsibilities, evenings and weekends, etc) affect you?
Finances: What financial responsibilities must you maintain (making a certain income, managing debt, etc)?
All of these very real factors should not be ignored when considering how to best invest your uniquely God-given gifts and time into his world. Any time management resource that neglects the differences in life stage between a parent of three preschool kids verses an empty nester will not bring about lasting change. If you make a decision to cut back at work to get more time at home but don’t consider your financial obligations, that won’t last long either.
It may sound a lot more complicated, but it’s actually quite freeing. We are all living within fences—the boundary lines have been drawn around us and are typically placed where they are for our own good. When I can learn to think, “Father, what are you calling me to be and to do today?,” I can begin to set my own soul at ease and let it direct my planning and efforts in a more centered way.
The final step, after considering your own soul and embracing your unique reality, is to then manage your energy—not just your time.
3. Manage Your Energy
I maintain a subscription to the Harvard Business Review and keep its latest issue on or near my desk at all times, in order to make sure none of my pastoral interns starting making suggestions of their own.
According to Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, authors of the classic HBR article, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” and subsequent book The Power of Full Engagement, our culture has made it increasingly difficult to manage our roles and responsibilities well.
“Most of us respond to rising demands in the workplace by putting in longer hours, which inevitably take a toll on us physically, mentally and emotionally. That leads to declining levels of engagement, increasing levels of distraction, high turnover rates, and soaring medical costs among employees.”
The Schwartz/McCarthy article demonstrates that energy can be “systematically expanded and regularly renewed,” but many people, especially leaders, fail to do this. There are significant implications for organizations of all types here.** But to keep this on the personal level, consider using this principle to create a written inventory of the things in your given day that are energy-producing, energy-depleting and energy-neutral. Here’s a sample of my lists:
Gainers (energy-producing activities):
Reading, spending time with Jessie and the boys, journaling, listening to good music, hanging out with guys, working on projects, 1-1 meetings, light exercise (i.e. golfing), Mondays and Fridays, watching sports, talking about sports, writing ridiculous essays about sports, etc
Drainers (energy-depleting activities):
Responding to work-related emails, texts, calls and other messages, long meetings, large meetings, large and long meetings, Tuesdays, public speaking, vigorous exercise (wipes me out for days), spending time with my boys between 10pm and 7am, etc
Neutrons (energy-neutral activities):
Brushing my teeth, driving to work, family finances, expense reports, Thursdays, doing house and yard work, etc.
Of course, you can’t simply eliminate drainers and spend your whole life on energy-producing activities. Then you’d be the sun, which I’m pretty sure is just a big ball of kinetic energy if I remember right. But you do want to manage your time according to each task’s energy demands, or else you’ll end up being one of those people who are constantly energy-deprived, life-destroying and Black Hole-ish.
There’s got to be a balance here, and for my work days, I find it in doing the most critically calling-specific, gifts-enabled tasks when I have the most energy. So I spend my mornings reading, praying, working on projects, and doing 1-1 meetings. And then I spend my afternoons, when I have a lot less useful energy and my personal freshness matters less, I schedule long and/or large meetings, respond to emails and approve reimbursements.
Since I’m doing energy-depleting things in the afternoon, I really need a transition routine before or during my trip home, so that I can again invest increased energy in my darling wife and boys (speaking of energy: raising three boys five and under is exhausting!). I typically do my light exercise after work, or if my body is hurting, I’ll spend a half-hour writing before leaving the office or stop by a local bookstore to browse for 15 minutes.
So nothing here is ground-breaking. But I have found that placing the priority on the health of my own soul and working from there in a careful manner provides me with a deeper walk with the Lord, a much higher quality of life and more satisfaction in my marriage, parenting, friendships, and work.
* Even in sports: teams that embrace their realities and act according to a set of convictions and principles will eventually outlast the get-good-quick teams surprise-them-with-a-niche teams. The longer you stay in one place as an athlete or team, the better you are at responding to the demands of reality upon you, and the more effective you become in adversity. This, my friends, is the fidelity factor, and it explains Seattle’s Super Bowl win, the Spurs’ return to championship glory and the upcoming dynasty of the Kansas City Royals.
** It should seem obvious that increased time in stressful work means decreased energy in that work. But this is our story—when we get overwhelmed with more tasks and new projects, most of us are hard-wired to work harder and longer. But the authors show convincingly that this response is a short term gain and long term loss. Simply working longer hours does in fact deplete our physical and mental energy, and as a result, personal satisfaction and productivity quickly drop. Then, whole teams and organizations become less effective, creating more stress on workers. Translation: you get a bunch of stressed out, malnourished, sleep-deprived (add: passive-aggressive, insecure and anxious if you’d like) workers, trying to solve problems that require imagination and collaboration. Obviously, this won’t generate the results anyone is looking for, and a vicious cycle will rage on.
For some great further reading on soul, energy and time management, check out John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping, Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive and Essential Writings, CJ Mahaney’s Biblical Productivity, Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next, and each of the linked articles above.