Last time we looked at strategies for taking control of your technology. Now we will consider the environment.
Your normal environment, whether home of office, is full of things that are calling for your attention. Whether it is a photo of the family, a book you are reading, some unfinished piece of work or just the need to ‘tidy that shelf – it won’t take long’, you are surrounded by an environment that carries emotional and functional ties that shout for attention. As such, for focussed activity you are fighting a battle before you start. I urge you to find a different/neutral environment where this is possible and appropriate.
For years I have followed a practice that I have found particularly useful. When I have wanted some peace and quiet for a more prolonged period of prayer, or have had a piece of work, such as writing, that has demanded sustained concentration, I have gone to a neutral environment for a day. Usually this has been a friend’s house that has been vacant while they were out at work. Here I can just have the relevant ‘tools’ – books, laptop etc – to get the job done, although even having the laptop produces the temptation to look at emails etc. That can only be handled by self-discipline, which I consider below.
But going away for a day is appropriate only for a substantial piece of work. What about the day-to-day activities that can so easily get interrupted? Planning can achieve that. For instance I happen to be writing this part of the blog in a waiting room as I have arrived very early for an appointment. I knew I would have this time (several hours as it happens) so planned to use it productively. There is nothing in my view that I ‘own’ so I can just focus on this writing.
Removing yourself as far as possible from a distracting environment is something to be considered.
Is Tokyo the solution?
In the article on the website I referenced last time the writer tells of a man who went to extremes to put this principle into practice. He was writing a book and approaching a deadline. He could not see how to carve out sufficient undistracted time in his normal environment so purchased a ticket to fly from the USA to Tokyo and back in order to get substantial chunks of uninterrupted time. On arrival in Tokyo he went straight to the departure gate for his return flight! This seems a little extreme but demonstrates the value of making yourself inaccessible to interruptions.
Recently I watched a TED Talk on procrastination, the practice of putting off doing things. Distractions drove the speaker’s life. While amusingly presenting the topic Tim Urban showed how he personally lacked discipline and was trying to address it.
Self-discipline, which starts with self-awareness, is often the ‘bottom line’ to handling distractions. When you feel yourself reaching for something (smartphone?) while trying to attend to another matter discipline yourself to put it down and return to the matter in hand. Listen to that ‘inner prompting’ and pay attention to it. This takes time to learn and become a habit, and determination to implement, but it will repay you many-fold if you can stick at it.
There are yet more strategies we can adopt and we will consider these next time
So far we have considered what constitutes a distraction and have looked at some of the things that cause distractions. We could extend that list but there is little benefit. The important part of this series is to suggest solutions and strategies for handling distractions.
I am going to suggest several possible solutions for you to consider and apply in your own life; there is no ‘one size fits all’ but there are some principles that can be widely applied. You may also like to look at a website I recommend which has a fuller article on this subject, including drawing from various research papers which provide deeper understanding of why we behave how we do and how we can beneficially modify our behaviour.
We live in an age of bombardment, visual and auditory attention seekers attacking us from all directions. The result is that we lose focus.
Focus, like our physical bodies, needs intentional development if it is not to get lazy. To be honest I don’t find huge pleasure in attending a gym but I know that I feel better if I am disciplined and consistent at going through the routine my instructor has given me. That repetitiveness builds up muscle and stamina, and equips me better to meet the demands of everyday life.
Focus is similar; it requires self-discipline. What are some of the keys that can help us focus which, as we use them regularly, become a habit – the equivalent of a muscle made fit through regular usage.
One of my greatest battle-grounds comes at the start of the day when I set aside undisturbed time to read my Bible and to pray. Instantly my mind starts to wander. Then I think of something I should be doing that day and can’t get it off my mind. In order to remain focussed I have to be intentional, keeping a notepad beside me to jot down things that are distracting me so that I can return to them later.
The fact that I use a Bible reading scheme that is on my smart-phone is both helpful and unhelpful. Helpful as my ‘notepad’ is immediately to hand; unhelpful in that I can easily get distracted by other apps etc on my phone while turning to the notepad, which can take my mind in other directions. Once again, self discipline is called for!
2. Turn off the phone
It is important to differentiate between the vehicle and the content of communication. The vehicle, in this case the phone, can become all intrusive. How often have you been in conversation with someone and their mobile phone has rung? Without thinking they pick it up and answer it. If they had been away from their phone that person would surely have left a message or phoned back. Or they hear a text message arrive and reach for the phone? Meanwhile they have been distracted from the conversation they were having with you and typically restart it with ‘Now, where was I?’
Apart from being discourteous this is also inefficient. The train of thought of both of you has been interrupted by the distraction and intrusiveness of technology which seems to demand attention. Turn the phone off or put it on airplane mode! There are few things more irritating than talking with someone while being aware that they are not giving you their full attention. (We may consider listening skills on another occasion.)
Next time we shall continue to look at some other strategies to help you retain focus and handle distractions.
Last time we saw that we have the option of taking control when distractions might throw us off course. Now let’s look at what some of those distractions are.
1. Communication devices
There are many sources of potential distraction, but the main one nowadays seems to be so-called communication devices (which so often hinder quality face to face communication!). These are the biggest culprits ie the phone, for actual calls, and the tablet/smart phone, with all its alluring apps, text alerts etc. These in turn carry further distractions such as Facebook, Instagram etc – good ‘servants’ but over-bearing ‘masters’ if you allow them to dominate your life.
Then there are interruptions from outside which have the potential of becoming distractions – people who walk into your office unannounced, phone calls you had not expected to receive that appear to demand immediate response (but rarely do), and so on.
The result of all these distractions and interruptions can be huge frustration, a lack of achieving what is needed, resulting in the inclination to over-work to make up for lost time. This then invades family life and can tempt you to sleep fewer hours, which leads to diminished performance resulting in a spiral of tiredness > under-achievement > yet longer working hours > yet greater tiredness….
3. Social media
Many preachers reckon it takes one hour of preparation for every five minutes of a sermon. I was alarmed to be speaking to a preacher a few years ago who told me that he just did not have time for such preparation due to the demands of email, Facebook etc. Demands? To me this exemplified a lack of self-control. Where are his priorities?
This is another distracting principle that is often held up as a virtue. People like being thought of as ‘high capacity’ who get a lot done. And there is of course some truth in this. However, multi-tasking can also cause diminished performance on any particular task as your mind is not sufficiently focussed on the job in hand; one task distracts your thoughts from another.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. I am sure you have many more things that are personal to you which you could add to the list. Remember, in this context they are enemies to fulfilled and effective living!
I encourage you to be on the alert. Those things that interrupt or deflect your thinking– the thought that ‘comes to mind’ etc. – can so easily appear to demand immediate attention. Don’t be tempted! Be self-disciplined and ‘park it’ for future attention. You may even find it has gone away when you return to consider it!
Next time we will turn our attention to the core solution – ‘focus’.
As I sat down to write this blog the mail arrived. I recognised one letter and knew I was interested in the contents. Should I open it or set it aside? I set it aside. Had I opened it I knew I would be tempted to respond – but I had determined to write this blog! Writing was the most important priority at that moment. I did not want to get distracted.
When the disciples returned from their first ministry trip they were excited about what had happened. Jesus started to debrief them and, because of the crowds, they boarded a boat to cross the lake to a quiet cove. But the crowds saw them going and got there first on foot. Should Jesus stop and speak to them? Or was it a distraction? Potentially it was; he needed to make a decision. He took control of his options; he was not driven by the pressure of circumstances or popular opinion. Because he knew his calling to the lost (Is 61:1-3) he decided to teach all day. He also fed the crowd. Then he returned to his planned meeting with the disciples – not recorded, but how else could he have known the numbers of people and the baskets of left-overs? (Mk 6:43, 44) – before going away to pray.
We live in an environment of external ‘forces’ constantly clamouring for our attention. These are distractions; they invade our private space and knock us off course from the priorities we have set for ourselves. But, unlike many interruptions, which are imposed from ‘outside’, we have control over what we do with distractions. How do we avoid or handle them? Live on a desert island?! Clearly that is impractical (although an attractive idea for a season). So we need to know how to stay in control.
To help us get a grasp of the problem next time I will give some definition and examples of typical distractions that will help us to recognise them.
So far we have seen how to consider different issues related to the ministry and have captured ideas for improvement. We now need to take these forward to a finalised Action Plan.
4. Identifying and agreeing improvements to be made
By the end of Day 1 many sheets of notes have been blue-tacked to the walls of the room. On Day 2 we take each of the issues discussed on Day 1 and dig deeper until we have specific actions that all can agree need to be taken. By this stage there is an ever-growing participation and enthusiasm from the team members. Often they have had great thoughts overnight and have further contributions to bring following reflection about the process.
We start by prioritising the list of topics that we wish to discuss so that we can be sure that the most important are dealt with first. These are then captured on further sheets of paper to form the basis of an Action Plan. At this point, too, we ensure that each action point has been allocated to one of the team members and clarity is confirmed that they know exactly what is required.
It is easy to write a list of things to do and assume that they will all get done. How many of us make ‘do it’ lists and think that by so doing we have accomplished a task! But until the action is on a timeline, which is agreed by the whole team, I do not consider the Action Plan has been completed. We do this is the third step in the process. It is also important to ensure that there is a clearly recognised context for accountability, so meetings are built in to the timeline at which feedback will be given on the relevant action points.
6. Action Plan
Clearly it is unwieldy to work from many sheets of flip chart paper – I in fact prefer to use lining wall-paper as this can then be cut to a length to suit the need – so one member of the team is charged with the responsibility of writing the Action Plan into a document. A team member doing this helps ensure ownership of the plan.
Evaluating a ministry in this way results in an effective and well thought-through activity. Each member of the team has ownership of the ministry and, most important, the people being helped (I dislike the word ‘client’) receive the greatest benefit from the ministry being offered.
The process is enjoyable and people leave it with added enthusiasm and ‘buzz’. Team building is strengthened through the process and often previously hidden issues have been addressed in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect.
The Poor Deserve the Best
A fuller treatment of the Ministry Health Check is included in The Poor Deserve the Best, see side panel.
A similar process has been developed for planning a ministry from scratch. Here we take the various Key Indicators and consider how they apply to the ministry being planned. The result of the process is a document which provides the basis for setting up and launching a ministry.
Having outlined the philosophy of ‘pursuing excellence’ we shall now look at the process of carrying out a Ministry Health Check with a ministry team.
1. How long does it take?
Two days, or the equivalent, are needed for the process to be carried out. This may seem a lot of time but to lessen it loses much of the benefit.
2. Initial discussion and information gathering
On day 1 I work with the ministry team and facilitate discussions based on statements that are graded individually by each participant according to the extent to which they feel that statement applies to the ministry from their perspective. These statements relate to vision, team support, handling of finances, relationship with the church, and so on. There is always a range of responses. This helps lead to a constructive and sometimes amusing discussion as to why there are the different assessments.
I seek to get all members of the team to ‘open up’ in a non-threatening and affirming way to consider each of the issues raised from his or her perspective. This often raises unexpected issues that need addressing. I do not myself give direct input (occasional exceptions to this rule!) but help the team members to identify the key issues for discussion and action. This helps ownership and follow through of the Action Plan that is written on Day 2.
Throughout the discussion I make notes, which are agreed with the team, on large sheets of paper, particularly highlighting suggestions made by the team of changes they would like to make.
3. Who takes part?
All active members of the ministry team should be involved. Often the ‘junior’ ones contribute aspects that the leadership may not be aware of, so all have a contribution to make. It is important that the leader of the ministry does not dominate the discussion and I set rules at the start, such as everyone being equal in this context and whatever is contributed is accepted, not judged.
8-10 people is a good size. If there are more than 12 the process can become too drawn out and some will find it hard to participate.
I do not encourage church elders to take part in the whole Health Check unless they are personally involved in the ministry; they can inhibit others from speaking even if not intended. However, it is helpful for an elder to attend for the beginning of the first session to get a feel of the process, and then to be present for the whole of the Action Planning to ensure that what is planned is practical within the overall context of the church’s ministry.
Next time we shall look at how to handle the suggestions that have been made to improve the ministry and how to develop an Action Plan.
Last time I proposed that a church’s ministry with the poor should be excellent. Let me now share some ministries in which I have helped develop Action Plans for further improvement of what were already good ministries.
In Guinea, in West Africa, I helped evaluate a church-based school with which I have worked for many years. Originating out of the Sierra Leonean civil war of the ‘90s and into the new millennium, when many fled over the border to neighbouring Guinea. The school was started out of the church which was planted in the capital, Conakry, to serve the refugees. There are now well over 300 children attending ranging in age form 3-26. Many of the older ones have missed so much school due to civil and political unrest that they stay on until they pass their exams. Click on photo to see a video.
Gathering the staff I helped them look at key issues and produce an Action Plan for improvement, a process that is on-going, often hindered by circumstances, most recently by the effects of ebola which closed the school for many months.
The Sex Industry
The process is not only applicable to nations outside the UK. There is plenty of need in my own country. A few months ago I worked with a team who have had remarkable favour in having access to the massage parlours in one of the big cities. Two days with the team allowed us to examine what they were doing and to project ways of improvement. Many of their suggestions have already been implemented, but the process is on-going.
A Soup Kitchen, and a Mother and Toddlers Ministry
More recently I have worked with another two churches. One has been reaching out to street people with love and practical provision of food, clothing and a listening ear. The other is on an estate with many dysfunctional families and situations, and runs a Mothers and Toddlers group with food, games and an ability to listen and signpost people to ways that bring hope.
In each of these ministries we have been able to write an Action Plan for improvement, some parts of which are quite radical involving scaling up, changes of staff, new premises and so on.
As we move forward I believe that each of these ministries will become models of good practice to which people from other churches and the ‘world’ will come to seek advice and be trained to reproduce the benefits which will become evident.
Over the next few weeks I will share some of the principles and processes that I use.
In the coming weeks I will share how I believe churches can carry out excellent ministries with the poor. I believe that is on God’s heart.
It is good
At creation we repeatedly read that God looked on all that he had made and declared it to be good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12 etc). Sadly, when the world looks at the church today it expects to find irrelevance or second-rate performance. The media often ridicule the church and Christians. That should not be!
On my business card I have as a tag line ‘Pursuing Excellence’. If we are to be witnesses to Him and all that He has done we should expect the world to look at us and all that we do, and be impressed – not by us but by what they see of Him in us.
The Poor Deserve the Best
I have worked for many years with churches as they have sought to express God’s love for the poor in their communities in a tangible and compassionate way. My desire has always been to do this to the highest standard, hence my book ‘The Poor deserve the Best’ (now out of print but available from me in photocopied form – see side panel). There is much good work done by aid agencies and others but I look for the day when the world comes to the church to learn how to love and care for the poor. After all, we have the ‘secret ingredient’ of the gospel, the message of eternal hope that no secular agency, however, good, can lay its hands on.
As I have had the great privilege of travelling among many churches in India, Africa, Russia, Latvia, Mexico and so on I have repeatedly seen ministries that have impressed me. The selfless love and care that has been demonstrated by the staff, many of whom give of their time freely and willingly, is challenging.
Strategic Task Team
Some years ago I was asked to partake in a Strategic Task Team to look at ministry with the poor within the Newfrontiers family of churches, serving under my good friend Steve Oliver. Having lived for many years in South Africa he knew poverty first hand in a way that I had never experienced; poverty In Africa is ‘in your face’. He asked me to lead an initiative within that team to develop ‘good practice’ in ministry.
In Search of Excellence
As I considered how to do this I was mindful of work I became aware in the secular field in the ‘80s when two management consultants, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, carried out research on businesses and services that people generally judged to be good. Their thesis was that if they could identify what it was that allowed such a judgement to be made they could teach others and raise the standard in other businesses.
Ministry Health Check
I liked the philosophy! What was it that I was seeing when I visited ministries in different parts of the world that allowed me to return home and extol their virtues? I set out to identify the Key Indicators of Good Practice that I often observed in successful and ‘excellent’ ministries. These became the foundation of two tools I developed: The Ministry Health Check, and Planning Foundations. By taking these 20 Indicators and using them as reference points it became possible to evaluate ministries and help the ministry teams to identify ways in which they could bring about improvement to the benefit of those they were seeking to serve.
Next time I will describe some of the ministries which have taken part in such evaluations.
I thought I had concluded this series but then received a helpful article from ‘Boomerang for Gmail’. I referred to this service last time. You can join here. The article made interesting reading so I am adding an appendix to my series.
How to get a response
They provided some interesting statistics which are well worth reading. On the basis of analysing millions of emails (I think) they have produced a list of 7 useful points about how to get a response to your emails. Being statistical these are not rules and may not apply to you, but they are worth considering.
I give the summary here but suggest you look at the full article:
- Use shorter sentences with simpler words. 3rd grade reading level works best. Gave 53% response; higher than other levels, whether more or less intellectual language usage.
- Include 1-3 questions in your email. 60% response.
- Make sure you use a subject line. Aim for 3-4 words. 48% response.
- Use a slightly positive or slightly negative tone. Both outperform a completely neutral tone. 5-15% better responses than to ‘neutral’ email.
- Take a stand! Opinionated messages receive higher response rates than objective ones. 42-50% response.
- Write enough but not too much. Try to keep messages between 50-125 words. 51% response.
- Send emails during lunch time or early mornings for a better response rate. (Nb This point is not in their summary list but is revealed in the comments submitted)
That really does end this series I think! I am encouraged by the number of people who have found this series useful. We all face the same challenges it seems!
Next time I shall look at the Ministry Health Check I am using to help teams evaluate their ministries with the poor. This is proving to be an effective tool as I help local teams to develop an Action Plan to improve their ministries.
Last time we saw the importance of being in control, not letting emails dictate your priorities. On reading it a friend kindly sent me details of Boomerang (for Gmail), which allows you to schedule messages to be sent or returned at a later date. This looks a really helpful app and may be particularly applicable to what follows in this posting. I have not yet had the chance to explore it thoroughly so you will have to do your own discovery!
So, in this final part we are considering how to order emails.
9. How full is your inbox?
Many people’s inboxes contain hundreds of emails. Some are awaiting a response, others are there because you cannot decide how to respond. Yet others have just been left there and not filed.
Having a ‘full’ inbox leads to inefficiency as you repeatedly read the topic line and reopen the same email without finalising any action that is needed, including filing it. So you need to make your inbox as empty as possible at the end of every session. How?
There are three options for any particular email
1. Leave it.
If there is ‘unfinished business’ that will need further attention you may wish to leave the emails temporarily in the inbox as ‘unread’, or it can be moved to a pending file. Then plan in your diary when you will deal with it.
2. Delete it.
This happens when it has no further value – either it was sent to you unrequested (advertising etc) or you have responded and do not need to keep a record.
3. File it.
Transfer the email using the traditional method of filing with folders and files. Most of my folders and files are titled either with names of people (Surname, First Name) and with the topic.
One of my folders is ‘Future Appointments’ with sub-folders/files for the specific event. These sub-folders are titled first with the date in international format ie YYMMDD followed by the person or meeting eg ‘160225 Joe Bloggs’. This is for an appointment with Joe on 25th Feb 2016. Using this technique ensures the subfolders are in chronological order, the next appointment being at the top of the list. Once the meeting has taken place I move it to ‘Bloggs, Joe’, or other appropriate place.
Keep you inbox ‘empty’, having only emails that still require your attention – new ones or ones that you need to deal with later
File by name (surname first) or topic
Gather future appointments in one folder, labelling them YYMMDD followed by the person or event
And so we come to the end of this short series. I am sure there is much more that could be said about emails and different people would have other tips. But the ones I have shared work for me.
The two most important messages to take away are:
1. Remember that emailing is only a vehicle for communication. Make sure emails reflect you as a person, as if you were face-to-face with the reader.
2. Take control. Do not allow the vehicle to force itself upon you and cause you to change your priorities in the use of your time.
Finally, a Plea!
Often we allow communication tools to inhibit actual face-to-face communication. If you are with others please avoid ‘checking your emails’ on your smart phone or tablet. It is very discourteous and also robs you of the privilege and richness of interacting with a real person!