Drowning in Details? Maybe We Can Surf Instead
October 14, 2021
By: John Harrell, Ministry Incubators
It was a typical weeknight shortly after Ana and I were married and we had just finished inching our little car home through the molasses of Seattle traffic. We had no way of knowing that as we clomped up the stairs to our apartment we were carrying two different visions of how the evening would look.
After barely a moment’s pause, I moved to the table and whipped out my laptop. The end of the month was coming and the rent would be due. With all the vigor of a workaholic and the obliviousness of a husband who hadn’t bothered to communicate with his wife, I jumped into tapping out numbers on the keyboard.
Ana, now finally home from her day at a demanding job, had been hoping for quality time with me when we got home. But instead of enjoying her husband’s attention, all she could see across the room was the ugly computer lid partially obscuring her tone-deaf beloved, who was engrossed in what I now know was the Urgent but Fleeting of something else that wasn’t the Essential and Life-Giving of her.
We laugh now looking back on that early weeknight in our life together. Like all relationships, marriage at its best is a symphony of dialogue in various forms, mostly unspoken. That night, when Ana and I were set up to play a beautiful, cheerful duet with our time spent together, my contribution ended up sounding like an out-of-tune solo on a kazoo.
Why? Because in those days I didn’t have a system for making sure things stayed off my mind until the time was right. It typically meant that I would sacrifice the crucial in the name of the pressing.
My personality type tends toward hoarding things—tasks, resources, attention, control—as a kind of security blanket. Worries, particularly about details, can make that list too. They’re on mine, and woven together they make for one scratchy blankie. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Not that it’s bad to pay rent, check e-mail, or file the reports that keep our lives and ministries going. It turns out that God cares a lot about the mundane, or else the Second Person of the Trinity wouldn’t have toenails. Jack Levison suggests that in Acts 6:2, when the earliest apostles are faced with a supply-chain crisis and observe that “it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables,” what they’re really saying is that the “mundane” matter of keeping widows fed is so essential that it merits a vocational calling for those who are gifted abundantly for that specific task. And it allows for others to focus on the specific ministries of love to which they are called instead. Everybody wins.
The Lord seems to take a similar posture toward periods of time: this, and not that, is the time for Jesus to incarnate, die, and rise again. This is the time for Esther to spring into action (4:14). This, and not that, is the “day” and the “hour” (Matt. 25:13). Everything has a season (Eccles. 3:1) with a name and a duty that the Most High has ordained.
You and I get to ordain time too. God’s grace has allowed us to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), which for us includes an element of controlling the things that are controllable toward holy ends. That means using the tools at our disposal to take care of the important things while also allowing for the mundane elements of everyday work not to become so covered in dust that they stunt the growth of what God is birthing through them.
Christian social entrepreneurs are no strangers to the vulnerability that comes through non-controllables. The world of the innovator is fraught with them. Will the economy tank before my donors make good on their pledges? Will my health hold up long enough to see the project through? Can I sustain enough interest over a long enough time that my community receives fruit from what I’m doing? Can I be a fully present spouse, friend, daughter or son, dad or mom, while also carrying out what God has given me to do?
It turns out that the answer is often yes—we can do all of those things, given enough practice. But it means doing some homework in advance to clear our minds for the crucial things when their moments come, things like loving our families without distraction, standing for justice on a moment’s notice without having to put gas in the car first, closing the deal with that critical donor without letting something as silly as a piled-up inbox crowd out her once-in-a-lifetime moment on the calendar.
But how to get started? I’ll tell you what I did: not long after that day with the laptop, I realized that what I was doing to organize my life wasn’t working. (I would come to see that I was stressed, distracted, and absent more than was healthy for anyone around me.) I started to look at how to keep my head clear enough to focus on the things that matter most in the times when they need attention. Here are some things that have been helpful for me.
- In general, avoid your inbox like the plague until 3:00 in the afternoon. Mornings were made for playing offense; afternoons were made for playing defense. Answering e-mail is a defensive posture. By waiting to deal with the day’s correspondence until after lunch, we refuse to allow someone else to determine what’s most important about a day that will never come again.
- Curate a list of things you’re waiting for and update it once a day. That’s everything, by the way, large or small—e-mail replies from others, documents, donations that were pledged, Amazon deliveries, stimulus checks. Look it over it at least once a day if you can. It takes practice, but it keeps those things from swirling around inside your mind at moments when you should be focusing on something or someone else with your whole attention.
- Once a week, plan your work-blocks out for the following two weeks. Make a weekly, full-day Sabbath the first thing that you place on the calendar. Arrange your blocks into roughly four-hour chunks if you can—morning, afternoon, and evening. (Leave time for e-mail, texts, and other messages at the end of each day except Sabbath.)
- Make an appointment with yourself at a consistent time each week to do this. Stick to it. Get accountability if you need to. The object here is to give yourself permission that (for example) next Thursday from 8:00 to noon, you are allowed to think only of that important project, that crucial donor meeting, that get-together with an old friend, that time in Scripture and prayer, knowing that the other details of life and work will take their places at the proper times.
But Ana, my bride, tells me that I’m more present now. I’m better able to say yes to my son when he asks for daddy’s attention than I would have been otherwise. And I can tell that my work is more focused. Are there stressful times? Are there weeks when I feel like I’m being dragged behind the wave, rather than staying ahead of it? Yes. But they’re less frequent now, and by God’s grace and with a little practice every day, I’m learning how to surf.
- To read about what we call the “rhythmic week,” see Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It (InterVarsity, 2008), 114–117.
- For a great discussion on how to organize one’s day to capitalize on the right energy for the right moments, see Ian Cron’s Typology podcast, episode s06–007, “Escaping Burnout and Living At Your Best,” featuring Carey Nieuwhof, author of the new book At Your Best (which I haven’t read yet; tell me if it’s good!).
- David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, rev. ed. (Penguin, 2015), and Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life (Penguin, 2009). Descriptions of the waiting-for list and the idea of keeping one’s mind clear are heavily indebted to Allen and his magnificent work in those books, which have been game-changers for me.
John Harrell is Ana’s husband, his kiddos’ dad, and lead project manager at Ministry Incubators. He is also a freelance editor and a pastor in the Free Methodist Church – USA.
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™