Get Rid of Your Bloated To-Do List and Get Your Life Back

productivity tips

167. That’s how many things I had put into my electronic task-management system called Wunderlist for me to do.

That’s no exaggeration.

One hundred sixty-seven items.

ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-SEVEN.

Why did my to-do list get that bloated?

Any time I thought of something that I should do, I’d add it to my list:

“Read this book.”
“Call this person.”
“Start this thing.”
“Fix this link.”
“Pray about hiring that person.”
“Lose 20 pounds.”

And my personal favorite,

“Clean out my to-do list.”

Sometimes I’d put “clean out my to-do list” on my to-do list TWICE.

Thanks to David Allen and his book Getting Things Done, I forced myself to get into the habit of collecting anything that came to my mind and quickly put it down on my list before I lost that good idea.

Idea? Put it in Wunderlist. Got another one? Perfect. Put it in Wunderlist too.

On and on it went.

Supposedly, according to Allen’s GTD system, I was supposed to take a day once a week to winnow my list down to a manageable size, delegate certain items, focus on what’s essential, then shove everything else into other files to attend to them when it was appropriate.

The fatal flaw in this plan? That weekly day of reckoning NEVER came for me.

That’s because collecting and writing down everything that popped into my head created this monstrosity of bloated mental fogginess. Managing my “tasks” was turning into a part-time job in and of itself.

In his Confessions, Augustine said, “The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.” I was living that truth every single day.

Thankfully one gloomy Monday morning I had a eureka moment of God-given inspiration.

I looked at my 167-item list and uttered the three greatest theological words in the English language: “This is stupid.”

Brian’s Productivity Tips for Pastors

I deleted Wunderlist, abandoned the GTD process of task-management, and never looked back.

What was the problem?

Almost all task-management “systems” are perfect for a manager.

As a pastor, the majority of my time is spent as a maker.

Makers vs. Managers

In his classic article “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Paul Graham observed,

“There are two types of schedules, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

These two very different roles and approaches to managing a weekly schedule are wholly overlooked by the majority of pastors I end up coaching.

As Graham points out, when you are a maker, being called into a meeting doesn’t just change your schedule. It changes the mode in which you work.

Makers can’t just “flip the switch” and get back into “making mode” after they’ve been called into a 20-minute impromptu meeting.

To a manager, a 20-minute meeting is invigorating. To a maker, they have to sit back down and try to get back to that place they were in before they were interrupted. The problem is 9 times out of 10 the “attention residue” (as Cal Newport calls it) is too strong and the maker can’t get back into their groove.

To a manager, a quick 20-minute meeting is but one tiny little cog in a productive day. To a maker, a hastily-scheduled 20-minute impromptu meeting will most likely end their day’s productivity.

Makers work in large blocks of uninterrupted time. Managers work in units of time.

And therein lies the problem for Pastors.

Pastors Are Both Managers AND Makers

Senior pastoring, by its very nature, forces us to wear a manager’s hat and a maker’s hat in the same week.

In some situations, next week you will put on your manager hat:

You will go to the office.
And hold office hours.
And conduct staff meetings.
And meet individually with staff and parishioners.
And do paperwork and return emails and phone calls.
And collaborate on service design.
And work on building projects and fundraising.
Etc.

But in that same week, you will also put on your maker hat:

You will need to read and reflect on Scripture.
And pray.
And write sermons.
And prepare Bible studies.
And read books.
And reflect on your church’s situation and strategy.
Etc.

Every single one of us knows how these two hats compete for the most coveted real estate in our weekly schedule.

Which hat is the most important for us to wear?

We all know the answer to that: the maker hat.

Everything we do as a manager should emanate from the time we spend as a maker in prayer and study and sermon prep and reflection.

When we are busy and unhealthy and lack intention, we all know which hat wins the day: the manager hat.

Sermons get put off until Thursday. Or Saturday. Or Sunday morning at 3 a.m. when we walk up and cry out with the passion of Elijah, “Dear God save me!!!” (been there, twice).

Prayer gets rushed.

Meditating on Scripture simply to listen to God becomes non-existent.

Want to block off three to four hours to go to a coffee shop and pull out a pad of paper and reflect on the problems we need to solve?

Please. Not happening.

In the middle of all this manager busyness, we ALWAYS sense an internal draw to put our maker hat back on.

Acknowledging the Dilemma

In his book Spiritual Leadership, Henry Blackaby wrote,

“God has a plan for each person that is uniquely suited to that individual. Unlike people, God never piles on more than someone can handle. God never overbooks people. God never drives his servants to the point of breakdown. God never burns people out. God never gives people tasks that are beyond the strength or ability he provides.”

We have enough time next week to finish the things God wants us to make and the things God wants us to manage.

If we don’t have the time, then the problem is with us, not God.

We have enough time next week to finish the things God wants us to make and the things God wants us to manage. If we don’t have the time, then the problem is with us, not God.CLICK TO TWEET

But if you’re not consistently accomplishing both your maker and manager tasks, I have good news for you.

There’s a better way.

An easier way.

A life-giving way.

It’s not the only approach that’s out there, but it works for me, and I think it can help you.

A Task Management Process That Works

1. Delete Whatever Task-Management System You’re Using

Get rid of that weird calendar thing that you do.

That convoluted task-management system you found out about on that podcast.

That app on your phone.

That expensive planner a social media celebrity got you to buy.

Pitch all of it.

2. Buy a Moleskine Notebook

To-Do ListI use and recommend: Moleskine Classic Hard Cover Notebook, Ruled / Lined, Large (5″ x 8.25″). It will last you more than six months.

3. Buy a Pen Holder to Attach to Your Moleskine

To-Do ListFor some reason, Moleskine doesn’t provide a pen holder, so I have purchased these elastic band pen holders that you can attach to the back of the Moleskine.

The pens I use are Uni-ball micro-point (0.5mm), blue.

4. Place Your Ideal MAKER Priorities on the Left Inside Cover of the Moleskine

On the hard inside left cover of the Moleskine, I want you to write down your MAKER weekly priorities.

Here is a picture of mine:To-Do List

If you can’t read the picture, here’s what it says:

Maker Priorities

Eat 2,000 calories
Read 1 chapter and pray
Social media posts
Sermon overview
Sermon
BrianJones.com article
SeniorPastorCentral.com article
Exercise
Read 1 book
“A” leader meeting ideas
Leadership Team ideas
5 podcast interviews
Mountain hiking adventure
Lisa date
Call/text all family
Finances
4 hours writing a new book

This is the list of my ideal weekly “if everything goes right in the universe” MAKER tasks that I’d like to get done in an absolutely perfect week.

Will I ever accomplish them all? Of course not.

But we must have a clear picture of what we’re aiming for, and more importantly what we’re NOT aiming for.

FYI: I always tell the pastors I coach to dedicate Monday through Thursday, 4 a.m.-noon as “maker” time for personal/God/alone maker stuff. Noon to 5 p.m. becomes “manager” time when they meet with people.

Maker tasks are always done in a separate location from where the manager tasks are done. I do all of my maker tasks in my home office or at Starbucks. I do all my manager tasks in the church office or in remote meeting locations.

That way there’s a clean break.

Mornings are for making.

Lunches and afternoons are for managing.

The clear shift in locations helps me know which hat I’m wearing.

To help you create your list I would highly suggest you read my article My Monthly Trip to The Monastery and/or follow a similar process to get away and arrive at your ideal MAKER weekly calendar.

Again, at this point you want to settle on your ideal weekly MAKER tasks: read, pray, write a sermon, write articles, read, etc.

5. Place Your MANAGER Meetings in a Different Calendar

Conventional wisdom says to put your tasks and meetings on the same calendar or in the same system.

[insert "the three best theological words in the English language” here]

“Conventional wisdom” is always written by managers for managers, not makers.

You WANT to have your maker tasks housed in one location and your manager appointments housed in another.

These are completely different kinds of work that you have to protect from each other. Otherwise, the manager will always cannibalize the maker’s time.

Did you hear that?

Pastors must protect their maker time from the manager.

Pastors must protect their maker time from the manager.CLICK TO TWEET

What calendar do I use? I use Outlook, so that’s where my meetings go.

FYI: If you haven’t read my article How Senior Pastors Can Schedule Their Week for Maximum Impact I would highly encourage you to do so.

That article will help you think through the flow of your week.

While you are going through this process think like a minimalist.

Challenge every single meeting on your calendar.

Cut everything that can be cut.

Condense. Shorten. Minimize.

6. Late Sunday Afternoon Set Aside an Hour to Pick No More than five to six MAKER Tasks to Focus on for the Week

At this point, you have your ideal week in your Moleskine, and you’ve whittled down your weekly MANAGER schedule to the absolute bare minimum.

Now you’re ready to plan your week.

Here’s how this works for me:

  • On Sunday mornings I preach and love on people, then go to lunch with the family, then go straight to the grocery store to do grocery shopping, and then come home and take an hour-long nap around 4 p.m. Hopefully, there’s golf on TV because I can nap like a boss when golf is on.
  • Around 5 p.m. I wake up, drink a bottle of water, and take out my Moleskine and my laptop.
  • I review my weekly priorities list on the left-hand side of my Moleskine. I look at my weekly calendar. Then I pick the five to six MAKER tasks that I need to get done that week.
  • Then I schedule the manager meetings I need to have as well.
  • Then I put those five to six tasks on the right-hand side on a Moleskine sheet of paper, opposite of my ideal weekly priority list.

This takes about an hour.

Here is my actual list from this past week:To-Do List

If you can’t read the picture, here’s what it says:

This Week

Sermon
Plan next sermon series
Write SeniorPastorCentral.com article
Read Predictable Success by Les McKeown
Mountain adventure
Plan next 7 days social media posts
Write Leadership Team report

You’ll notice in the picture that I only wrote down seven things to get done this past week and only crossed off four of them (I’m writing this on Friday).

I consider this week a RAVING success.

Why?

Because last Sunday I leisurely took the time to comb over my upcoming meetings for the week, calculated the time necessary to accomplish my MAKER tasks, and decided that if everything went perfectly, I could get seven things done.

In short, I was intentional.

If things went very well, I could get four to five done.

And if it was an average week, I could get two to three things done.

I got four MAKER tasks completed so I was pumped!

Bible study, prayer and exercise are so habituated that I don’t even need to list them on my to-do list anymore.

My mind this week was clear. I didn’t feel rushed. There was no disorder.

7. What to Do When Other Tasks Come to Mind During the Week

No doubt during the week you’ll think of stuff you need to do.

DO NOT randomly jot down anything that comes to your head.

To-Do ListIf something comes up that fits with your maker priorities, then it’s OK to write those down. Much of what you write down will be things you don’t want to forget and will delegate to other people.

Over the years I’ve gotten into this nasty habit of emailing myself stuff. And that’s OK to do in a pinch. But I have to remind myself that I’m creating more work for myself because I’ll need to go back through my inbox and write them down in my Moleskine anyway.

So during the week whenever I think of something I need to write down, I turn the page and write down those items.

The reason I put them on the back page is it communicates to me that unless these items are an absolutely high priority, I don’t touch them until I’ve accomplished my entire list on the front of the page.

8. Next Sunday Rip Out the Page You Used for the Past Week and Start Fresh with a New Page

To-Do ListAfter you do this with a couple of sheets the moleskine papers stay perfectly in place and won’t easily fall out.

9. Begin the Process All Over Again Each Sunday Afternoon with a New Page

Each Sunday afternoon I begin the whole process all over again by comparing my top MAKER priorities with the time I actually have to get them done.

10. Enjoy the Benefits That Come From a Simple, Clear and Intentional To-Do List

To-Do ListHere’s what will happen as you adopt this approach to your daily and weekly tasks:

  • You’ll stop wasting time because you’ll realize how much time you’ve wasted in the past trying to accomplish more things than were humanly possible.
  • Your mind will feel clear and focused as you untie yourself from the mental weight of an unwieldy and bloated task management process.
  • You’ll start to do a better job of estimating how long certain projects will take, like writing sermons.
  • You’ll start devoting longer blocks of time to a handful of tasks.
  • Your increased focus will cause you to become more vigilant about protecting your MAKER time from the MANAGER side of you.
  • You’ll slowly realize that the manager side of you exists, in part, to enable the maker side of you to be successful. You are a praying, writing, thinking and reflecting maker first, then an acting, deciding, relating, empowering relational manager second (think Acts 6:1-7).
  • Best of all, over time your mind will become clearer, you’ll become more productive, and you’ll end up having a heck of a lot more fun.

Trust me on this.

Get rid of that bloated to-do list and get your life back!

This article originally appeared here.

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Brian Jones
I’m the founding Senior Pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In 13 years the church has grown from a small group in my home to over 2,000 incredible people. Before that I served in churches of 25 to 600 in attendance. I love church planters and pastors of smaller churches, and totally understand the difficult challenges they face as they try to help people find their way back to God.

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