By Eddie Pipkin

My adult son is back home for a few short weeks before he heads off to the Northeast for a couple of years for graduate school.  He has been kind enough to help me with various house projects, and we collaborated on a list we’ve been steadily working through – things for which his gifts are better suited than mine are.  One recent morning, we had been working in separate spaces in different parts of the house, and we hadn’t seen each other for a few hours.  I came up for air, and found him sitting with his laptop, and I asked how the project for the day was going, to which he replied, “You know, I have been steadily busy all morning, and I would have told you that I had gotten a lot of done, but if you asked me to list what the actual things are that I’ve accomplished, I’d have to say not much.”  To which I responded, “Ha!  Me too!” Exactly the same thing!  I feel like I’ve been busy, busy, busy, but if somebody asked me to prove it, I’d be in trouble.”

At which point we created a new phrase: Faux Busy.

Faux Busy is when you feel like you’re working hard and being productive, but it’s all an illusion.  You’ve been researching, checking out websites, typing up a storm, sending forth texts, etc., but when it’s time to write down the official “tasks completed,” it’s a painfully short list.

We all suffer from this malaise, at least from time to time, and I would be the very last person to advocate for 24-7 efficiency.  There is a time for “mental rambling,” and such downshifting is healthy and valuable, especially for creative types.  But functioning in that mode as a basic work state is not healthy.  It’s wheel-spinning that is ultimately detrimental to work, relationships, and personal fulfillment.  So, how do we bridge the gap from spinning wheels to gaining traction up the mount of productivity?

Let’s start with some general observations and then focus on some ministry specific fauxductivity (we made that one up, too – a mashup of faux and productivity).

Fast Company offers a great listicle of five specific ways we end up wasting time while creating the illusion of productivity:

  • You’re a firefighter. We can’t stay centered on a deep-focus task because we are too busy putting out fires.  We keep getting distracted trying to solve every detail of every issue, and we’re trying to solve every glitch in real time (the instant we are made aware of them by text, email, call, or somebody sticking their head in the door to get us worked up about  the latest crisis).  Learn to tell a real emergency from a perceived emergency.  Most things will wait till later, leaving you time to focus clearly on one important task at a time.
  • You’re a perfectionist. We can’t leave well enough alone.  We make ‘the perfect’ the enemy of ‘the good.’  We keep tinkering and tinkering when it’s time to move on to the next slightly-less-than-perfect thing.  Embrace the axiom that “Done is better than perfect.”
  • You’re feeling guilty. Because you keep procrastinating.  This has got to be the least helpful emotion in the history of emotions: we can’t get things done because we are bogged down in remorse about putting off getting things done.  Name this useless feeling!  Kick it to the curb.  Pick something, anything, and get to doing.
  • You’re neurotic. About being productive in exactly the way that someone else has prescribed as the secret to productivity.  Somebody wrote that having a ‘zero inbox’ is the key to all success, so even though that is a totally unnatural style to you, you force yourself to clean out that inbox every single day.  Another guru has a productivity app they swear by (even though you really like making lists on napkins): now you feel obligated to use that app too!  Find your own path, friend.  Figure out the style that works for you and hold yourself true to that, not anyone else’s vision of what productivity looks like.
  • You’re a super hero. You don’t feel like your accomplishments are legitimate unless you do them all on your own.  You won’t ask for help or seek out expertise.  You won’t phone a friend.  Real super heroes (even Batman, that infamous, brooding loner) come to understand the importance of teamwork and leaning on the expertise of others.  This is a far more efficient (productive) strategy than constantly reinventing the wheel.  You know good and well that you, yourself, are more than happy to employ your superpowers in service to your friends when they need a little extra help: don’t deprive them of the same opportunity to be there for you.

Of course, the key to daily productivity comes down to mindfulness about what you are setting out to accomplish for the day.  For years I fought the simple strategy of list-making.  It seemed like such a responsible, boring, old person thing to do.  But we must name our priorities and give them the permanence of the written word in order that they may be tackled and subdued.

Writer and productivity expert Lisa Vankerkam points out that every human has the same 168 hours a week to use, and that most of us aren’t as busy as we think we are.  We’re just not honest with ourselves about how we allocate those precious hours.  She talks about the essence of understanding what truly matters to us so that we sharpen our focus on the things that truly matters to us – rather than spending time on the things that other people tell us should matter to us:

Getting what matters to you done is awesome. I think that is entirely compatible with having open space in your life where you don’t have to be on your phone every minute.  It’s about filling your time with what matters and leaving open space for opportunity. If that is     productivity, that’s great.  If it’s about emails you delete or how many meetings you can cram into one day, that is a different matter.

Likewise, Darius Faroux reminds us that we confuse a high state of busyness with happiness as part of our basic misunderstanding of what happiness is.  His premise is that deep, sustained happiness (what we Christians would commonly characterize as joy) is the natural outcome of our usefulness.  We are made to be useful.  When we get caught up in the pursuit of cool stuff or exciting activities or work goals as the be-all-and-end-all goal of existence (and at the expense of our usefulness), we set ourselves up for failure:

Those things should make you happy, right? But they are not useful. You’re not creating anything. You’re just consuming or doing something.  And that’s great.  Don’t get me wrong. I love to go on holiday, or go shopping sometimes.  But to be honest, it’s not what gives meaning to life.

What really makes me happy is when I’m useful.  When I create something that others can use. Or even when I create something I can use.

For the longest time I found it difficult to explain the concept of usefulness and happiness.  But when I recently ran into a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the dots finally connected.  Emerson says: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

So, take the time to reflect on priorities (long-term and short-term) and have a practical strategy for chipping away at those priorities.  Develop a healthy workflow every day of checking off some short-term projects, as well as making progress on long-term projects.

And since you are a ministry leader, in addition to the five warnings listed earlier, pay special attention to these ministry time-sucks (and Tony Robbins has his own list if you don’t like mine):

  • Looking at notifications on your phone constantly. Everybody struggles with this, whether they are in ministry or not (and its demanding cousins, social media surfing and internet wormholing).  I mention it here specifically because there is a pathology among ministry leaders that we can’t unplug, that we are morally required to be instantly available and responsive at all times.  This is not healthy (and not even Jesus practiced it).  It definitely is a time killer. Every time we pull out of a task to deal with a notification, phone call, etc., it takes precious minutes to get re-oriented back to that task.  It’s better to complete the thing you’re working on, then have a clear time frame for getting back to people and their issues.
  • Spending too much time with too few people. Conversations are essential for effective ministry.  It is, however, very easy to fall into a pattern in which we know we are racking up conversational hours doing meaningful relationship work, but an honest reflection reveals that we are doing the bulk of that work with the same core group of people.  They dominate hours and hours of our time, and we never get around to others who could benefit from interacting with us.  (This is sometimes known as “having favorites,” but it’s not usually so nefarious.  It’s natural.)  The remedy is to be careful to ration our time more thoughtfully, and ask good questions like, “What new person have I spent time in conversation with this week?” “ What person have I not checked in with in a while?”
  • Participating in conversations, meetings, or email chains with no clear agenda or resulting action points. We should begin every conversation and meeting with an outcome in mind: a goal to be accomplished by time spent together. (And it’s fine to have soft goals like “getting to know someone better.”)  Time limits can be key (allowing for the occasional moments when conversations truly need to be extended).  These should be the exception rather than the rule.
  • As leaders, our greatest calling is to develop other leaders.  That means giving people responsibility and trusting them to follow through on projects.  That means staying out of their way and letting them be in charge rather than hovering over them and questioning every decision they make.  There are appropriate times for updates, reviews, and feedback, but these should be scheduled.  If we aren’t trying to manage every detail of everyone else’s time, we can be far more productive with our own.
  • Stressing over past problems or potential future problems. Here’s my favorite recent quote: “Depression lives in the past, and anxiety lives in the future.  Live instead in the now.”  We waste way too much mental energy stressing over things that are over and done with and way too much mental energy worrying about things that aren’t even problems yet.  Do good work every day, managing what you can manage with energy and goodwill.  That’s the healthiest strategy.
  • Calling anything and everything research! Okay, creative friends, it’s true that every book we read, every show we watch, podcast we absorb, and new neighborhood we visit will eventually be fodder for the creative efforts we produce (as is, seriously, every brain-resetting nap we take in the backyard hammock), but let’s be honest: the line between smart, creative people nobody ever heard of and famous household names is the grit and determination to convert ideas to tangible outcomes.  So, absolutely do your research.  But do it mindfully, with an end in mind, a willingness to shift as the Spirit leads, and always with the commitment that research time should result in some real-world, useful product: an article, a play, a dialogue with other leaders, a program, a white paper, a memo, a song, a poem, an outreach, or something you build with your hands.

What are the ways you stay focused and get things done (while keeping a healthy work-life balance)?  What tricks have you picked up over the years?  What time sucks are you most guilty of falling into?  Share your own stories, so we can read them, call them research, and make something useful out of them!