Time is the marker of history, and a primary dimension along which we are able to see the work of God. Idealistically, time ought to be enabling and informing. In reality, there is never enough of it, and so the theme of time takes on a tragic tone in our lives.
Since my post contrasting “maker” and “manager” time, I've received several expressions of interest in time management ideas. In honor of the beginning of a new year, here are my favorites. Perhaps they can fuel New Year's resolutions for your own time. Please know these ideas are offered by one who often feels managed by time rather than the other way around.
Schedule in advance
Most people schedule fixed appointments like committee meetings, counseling sessions, working lunches, but not parts of long-term tasks. Even the tools we use for scheduling (Outlook or other electronic calendars) encourage this approach, leading to the displacement of important tasks by the urgent, though less vital ones.
Put time on your calendar for things that too easily get shifted, like prayer and reflection, and for things that will take time over periods of several months, like strategic planning or that book you've been wanting to write. You may still need to shift things, but at least there is a stake in the ground for important projects. If blocking off the time on the calendar seems too rigid, then assign one larger task (e.g. worship reflection, book writing) to each day of the week, and use unstructured time during the day for that project.
Don't forget to schedule time for time management. Time spent developing or updating your system for handling correspondence, documents, files, and other information will pay dividends, though it feels unproductive while you're doing it.
Use systems, not just tools
Technology offers great power for time management, but overwhelms many users with complexity. The most important way to simplify is to adopt a system or set of tools rather than individual pieces. For example, if your organization uses Outlook, then use it not only for email, but also for calendaring and managing contacts. If you are in a management position, encourage people to adopt the system across the organization so that scheduling meetings or sharing documents can be relatively seamless.
For people in smaller settings, Google offers free calendar and email tools, including contact management, that also integrate with their Google Docs web-based document and spreadsheet software.
Adopting a system of tools as a package helps you become familiar with the shared commands and conventions between the tools and enables synergies. If you read an email in your Gmail account about a meeting next week, there will be a link on the right for you to add the meeting to your Google calendar, or to add the agenda document to your personal folder at Google Docs. The way these systems work together saves real time as we deal with hundreds of emails in a week.
No small percentage of lawyer jokes relate to the billing of time, but a simple form of time billing can have lots of benefits. Determine a handful of categories for the ways your time is used (for a parish minister, these might be “congregational care,” “worship and preaching preparation,” “denominational meetings,” and so on). For a couple of weeks, track time in quarter-hour increments by these categories by listing the categories and checking off time during the day. Microsoft Outlook's Journal feature is another great way to do this.
If you do the hard work of maintaining this data, you may be surprised by what takes your time. If a change is needed, you have objective data to help you make a case to managers or lay leaders for support. This is valuable, but extremely tough to track over any period longer than a couple of days. So encourage someone else to track with you or ask a manager or lay leader to hold you accountable for tracking your time.
There is great freedom and power in seeing time as a theological topic rather than simple brute chronology. Time is the primary dimension along which we are able to see the work of God. And of course God’s great Work cannot be managed by us. Our task, then, is to make ourselves as available as possible for our role in God’s activity. Good luck, or as we say in God-inflected time, blessings, for managing that great and important project in this New Year.