Posts in Ministry
How to Get Into the Zone When You Work

Have you ever had one of those days when you were like a stick-shift car?  Back and forth, herky-jerky...

 My first stick-shift was an old pickup truck and a summer job allowed me to deliver engine parts to local garages.  I was a terrible driver and I was lucky that I wasn't fired- it was that bad.

Work can feel like this too- back and forth, tossing and turning from one thing to the next.  The modern workplace is built to chop up our day into small blocks of time.  The problem is that the boundaries of our "blocks" are fuzzy.  Every "got a minute" takes us away from our ability to focus.

When our days are filled with lots of interruptions, it's very hard to get our heads back to a focused state.  It can take several minutes to refocus after being interrupted.  Meetings are much the same, draining our energy and taking up an awful lot of time.  

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Too many interruptions (and/or meetings) can leave your head spinning and your day totally wrecked.  These work-killers are nothing more than "noise", creating a slow hum of displeasure in the day.  With each interruption, you lose your head of steam and become more and more irritated.  By the time you leave, you are frustrated and can feel defeated.

To counteract these pesky bugs, one thing is necessary: deep work.  Deep work is the ability to focus, without interruption, on meaningful and challenging tasks for a prolonged period of time.

Check out this post about how deep work can help clear your head and further expand your ability to do deep work.  The question remains- how much deep work do you need in order for your day to feel good?  After all, most of us can't afford an entire afternoon alone in an office, doing deep work.

An hour without interruption might be satisfying enough.  Imagine a day with just two blocks of uninterrupted time?  As you begin to experience time-focused periods of your day, you'll begin to notice something.

You'll notice that you're not as frustrated when the interruptions do come along.  This is because you know that you've already tasted "the good stuff" (of uninterrupted work) and you desire it even more for the rest of your day or later in the week.  Having a block or two of deep work under your belt helps to "absorb" these interruptions.

Let me share a personal story to help make this point.

I was feeling particularly disjointed a few weeks ago.  I knew that this was the result of not scheduling several hours of focused (i.e. "deep") work.  As a person of faith, I try to see my work as part of my relationship with God.  As such, I turned to prayer in order to recalibrate my day.

My prayer was very, very simple, "Lord, just give me the courage to do deep work, if even for a briefer time than I would like."  I just needed to get into the zone and then all would be well.  No more distractions, just focused and deep work.

This turned out to be exactly what I needed and my day went much better.  I turned off the noise in my head and the noise around me using an app called Self Control.  This forced me to write, to create and to ultimately finish a project that was in need of closure.  When all was said and done, I felt great.

My day was rescued because I was able to dial back the noise, focus and put my head down in order to work.  Can you relate?

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If you look back on the past week, can you name a day when you went home and felt as if you got absolutely nothing done?  As you look forward to the week ahead, where can you schedule blocks of deep work when no one and nothing will be able to interrupt you?  Once you schedule these blocks, you'll be in the zone and feel great about it!

One Clever Way to Chart Your Personal Growth

Productivity expert Carson Tate uses a wonderful tool to categorize folks according to their personal style of working.  

The Arranger

The Planner

The Visualizer

The Prioritizer

You can take the test here.  The book is even better as each chapter lets you just zoom in on the strategies that match your particular style.  As an avid book scanner, it was nice to be able to breeze through each chapter, not feeling guilty about it.

I'm a Planner first and a Visualizer second. My wife is an Arranger to the max.

Typically, when you take any assessment like Tate's (or Disc or Myers Briggs, etc.) it just gets filed and you move on.  I decided to do something different this time around.  I wanted to savor the assessment and link it to other measurements like Disc, Meyers Briggs and Enneagram.  

What if I could design a personal growth "tool" of sorts?  And, what if I could make it look nice?

The latter part was important to me.  Yes, I've written (in the past) my goals and posted them on my office wall.  Yes, it's worked.  What didn't work was the utilitarian vibe- I needed something stylish, something with some class.  

Enter Canva.com.  

I use Canva daily (yes, daily) for reports, flyers, brochures, social media graphics and anything else in between.  It's nearly free and makes even the most basic designer look like a pro.  What if I could take my productivity style, along with a few other growth metrics, and create something out of it for my office?  Using Canva, I finally could.

Step two was to find a template in Canva that matched my office's aesthetic.  I chose a "resume" design- very simple and easy to manipulate.

Step three became more difficult as I had to limit the information to one page. The temptation in these things is to make it complicated.  Not this time, I told myself...

The final product included the following:  

  • Mission statement
  • Productivity style
  • Myers Briggs indicator
  • Disc rating
  • Enneagram rating
  • Quarterly goals
  • Spiritual growth target
  • Audacious career goal

Here's what the final product looks like in my office:

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The value of this process was twofold.  First, it memorialized what I'm working on right now.  Second, it made personal growth much more than just a few ideas on a scrap of paper.  When you make something look nice, it gives it dignity and a proper place.  

Think- Baron Fig notebook as opposed to a cheap $1 version.

You can do this too.  It's that easy.  I've created a template for you to use for yourself.  It will save you about 15 minutes.  If you're familiar with Canva and want to do it on your own, that's ok too.  

Here's the download:

Free Personal Growth Template

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The real question is this: how are you capturing and honoring your own growth goals?  

Sometimes, Productivity Isn't Enough

About two weeks ago, something weird happened.  After a very productive week, I went home on a Friday afternoon feeling somehow unfulfilled.

My todo list was solid.  I had used my Daily Plan day after day as I have for years.  (You can grab a copy using the form below.)

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My quarterly goals, inspired by other practitioners, were in place.

Why was the weekend, ordinarily a delight, seemingly ominous as my week wrapped up?  

My life coach was very helpful after we talked about it.  His point was simple enough- you need more than productivity to feel happy.

I turned to Patrick Lencioni's book The Advantage, for some perspective.  Alignment is about "connecting with your why".  Patrick puts it this way, "Great leaders see themselves as Chief Reminding Officers as much as anything else.”

A great leader reminds the team why they do what they do.  

This affirms why the best companies are truly mission-driven.  Millennials more than any other group remind us of this.  Younger workers crave purpose more than just the hacks to shave a few minutes off their next meeting or the keys to getting to inbox zero.  

My own "hmpf" on that Friday was fairly normal after all.  After I had made sense of it, I decided to revisit my quarterly goals and my own mission statement.  These would, no matter what, inform my productivity.  I was resolute.

The weeks afterwards were markedly different.  The productivity remained but this time was animated by something deeper.  

When you feel fragmented or empty and you've been producing solid work, there are a few things you can do to reconnect with your own mission and purpose:

  1. Spend some time alone.  Get with your thoughts and write.  Why were you feeling shallow?  What is it about your work that you enjoy?  What part of it bothers you?
  2. Get away.  It may be time for a day off or a vacation.  If you've been running on empty, you just may be tired.  If so, stop working and recharge your batteries.
  3. Seek the advice of someone you trust.  Maybe you just need to talk to someone without being judged.  For me, seeing my life coach is invaluable and encourages me to reconnect my work with my mission.

Productivity isn't enough.  Connecting your work with your why, now that's where the magic happens. 

Time to Stop Listening to Experts

I once had a friend who loved a particular saint. She read her books, prayed her prayers and in general, modeled her life after the saint.

Until it stopped working.

She realized that she was better off finding her own way. Years later when I asked her if she was still into the saint, she said quite remarkably, “I actually think that the saint sort of messed me up.”

All those years, she spent trying to be exactly like the saint only to find that she was uniquely gifted in ways the saint couldn't touch.  For example, while the saint was mousy and mild-mannered, my friend realized that she had a playful side that made others feel welcome.

My friend is like most of us I suppose- we like experts. They have authority. They are popular. Their voice seems to be “louder than words”.

The catch, of course, is that your voice (mine too) is as loud as you want for it to be. Volume is not what we are looking for. Rather, it's depth we are after.

These days, I'm reading Todd Henry's "Louder Than Words". One of his key points is this: find your own voice over time and then polish its edges.  Says Henry, “You need to create space for your creative process to thrive rather than expect it to operate in the cracks of your frenetic schedule.” The fact is that:

  • No expert can provide a perfect path.
  • No expert knows you exactly like God (and your friends do) does.
  • No expert cares enough to talk with you regularly.
  • Some experts aren't really experts at all. 
  • Some experts' experience is so wildly different from yours that following them might be a waste of time. 

I'm not opposed to learning from others but I've seen too many "experts" whose advice just isn't helpful to regular folk.  My preference would be to listen and learn from mentors.  Mentors have a vested interest in you and they care.  They typically have accumulated wisdom that can be unpacked through their relationship with you.  That's powerful.

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Through mentors, we can be reminded why we do what we do.  This is one reason why the GTD weekly review is so important.  A weekly review tells us what's on our plate and how we can organize our priorities.  Most experts can't do that.  They just make us feel bad that we're not more like them.

For me, I am a school leader. My colleagues, each astounding, teach me how to be a better person. Occasionally, I provide something of value to them. Our students? Simply extraordinary in every way. They too help me to find my leadership voice.

Who is helping you find your professional voice at this stage of your career?

The Things We Get To Do

I attended a Board meeting last night and the night before that a dinner dance for my daughter.  At some point during both days, I probably said something like, “I have to go to this event”.

Now that both evenings have passed and went extremely well, a shift is what I really need to make in my vocabulary.

I got to dance with my daughter and my wife.  I got to serve at the pleasure of a Board that supports me.  So much of my life is a privilege and blessing.

The list gets longer and today might be a day when you craft a similar inventory of “everyday blessings”:

-I get to wake up each morning and kiss my family goodbye as I head off to work

-I get to travel along nice country roads each morning

-I get to listen to podcasts each day and learn from experts 

-I get to work with amazing people who serve amazing kids

-I get to do work that matters and makes a difference

-I get to blog and podcast and connect with others around the world

-I get to worship each week in a Church full of relatively nice people

And the list goes on.  See what your list produces and if you’re like me, you’ll want to shift from “have to” to “get to”.

Instead of "have to", shift to "get to" in your vocabulary.

Instead of "have to", shift to "get to" in your vocabulary.

Which Details Are You Noticing at Work?
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Herb is my neighbor and I've noticed that his car is missing for each of the past three Sundays.  Not one to get up early on a weekday, I put two and two together and realize that he's gone fishing.  Not an expert in marine science, I then wonder if the fish are more hungry on a Sunday.

But I digress...

This is interesting to me.  A friend taking time to do something that matters to him.  No fanfair.  No big announcement. Just something he does.   

This happens at work all of the time.  You pass a teacher in the hallway who is especially chipper... or blue ... or stressed.  This is life after all and teachers and school folks are hardly immune to the heaviness of life.  School leaders too. 

It's a Sunday in July as I'm writing this.  I'm on the porch and noticing the birds outside.  Very loud today.  The sun is kissing a large ornamental grass by the front walkway and some perrenials are about to explode with color by the driveway.  I'm noticing things.  

Mornings seem like a more clear time to "see" than at other times but maybe that's just me. 

What are you noticing?  It may be at work with folks heading off for vacation or kids "reporting for duty" at summer school.  Or, it may be when you get home after a long day and your wife isn't smiling because something's gone wrong during the day.  Notice these things.  Take a short, subtle inventory in your mind. 

Noticing takes time.  It takes humility.  It should, ideally, nudge us to action of some kind.  This might be a note in someone's mailbox to encourage them or picking up the phone to tell someone you care about them.  Something like that but in your own way and for (and with) your people.

What are you noticing today?  How will it nudge you to greater leadership, attentiveness and action?