Making time for deep work

Do you ever feel like you can’t get around to the meat of ministry because you’re chained to email, constantly interrupted when trying to write or plan, or unable to get momentum on more mentally-intense projects due to the way your schedule is broken up by meetings?

You’re not alone. Most professionals struggle with distraction, making it harder for them to tap into the fullness of their gifts and to spend as much time as they’d like on the tasks they consider most important.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor Cal Newport lays out his case for making time for uninterrupted work that pushes professionals to their cognitive limits and offers strategies for creating that space.

Newport’s suggestions have to be adjusted for ministry, because sometimes “interruptions” such as pastoral care crises turn out to be exactly what we need to focus on. But setting up a schedule and conditions for deep work will allow us to prepare sermons we feel good about with less strain, plan further out for liturgical seasons, create curricula trajectories and content, and flesh out new ministries. Without this intentionality, we’ll fill up our time with activities that are easy to cross off the to-do list and remain frustrated about all the “real” ministry we don’t have time to tackle.

Here are some approaches that might be worth mulling:

Build in and protect blocks of deep work. Set aside 1.5-4 hour blocks for bursts of undistracted work. Settle into a location that promotes good focus. Turn off your internet connection. (If you need it for your work, ensure that email and social media are off limits.) Ask your admin to come in – or allow others in – only if there is a pastoral emergency. (Be sure to clarify what constitutes an emergency, and tell your admin how this deep work enables you to minister better so that your admin can then repeat this explanation to others.)

Make a work flow. Plan for your day, assigning all of your deep and shallow work to time slots. When tasks take longer or shorter than expected or an unexpected ministry need arises, hold your schedule lightly and revise it for the rest of the day. The point is not to be rigid but to be intentional about how your time is spent.

Create start and shutdown rituals. Establish a pattern for entering your focused work time to signal your brain that it’s time to close down all the other tabs. When you are stopping work at the end of each day, go through a routine that tells your body and mind that you are bracketing work until tomorrow. (Your shutdown ritual might include a plan for completing remaining tasks so that you can rest in the confidence that everything will eventually get done.) Then honor the shutdown ritual, knowing that rest will allow you to reset fully.

Retreat for intensive planning periods. A couple of hours each day might not be enough to do medium- to long-range planning. Allow yourself to spend entire days (or multiple days) offsite for this work. Let others in your church know what you are doing and why, and be prepared to show your work. If you really want to settle in for deep focus, use study leave time and/or find pastoral care coverage.

Deep work allows us to give more fully into our calls. It also helps us remember what is important as opposed to what is urgent, and it reminds us that there are very few interruptions that cannot wait a couple of hours for our attention.

How do you build in deep work? Which of the suggestions above might you try?

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