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Christian Living

Suggestions for Creating Structure In an Unstructured Week

Pastors, young mothers, and plenty of others face a common challenge. How do we create structure in an unstructured week?

The more unstructured time you have, the more you need to manage yourself. As a pastor for twenty-five years and an author/speaker for ten years I have had to think about this plenty. As I talk with families, I am burdened by the number of stay-at-home moms who have difficulty bringing structure to their week.

Yes, I do think this topic is related to family discipleship. As a parent we have multiple pressures and limited time. Not only that, but our children will remember the atmosphere of our home. Psychologists tell us that the number one high-school problem is stress from over-scheduled children. We are packing in too much. In addition, younger children love routine and order. They don’t naturally create is but it brings security to their world. Routine, rhythm, and peace reflect the nature of God.

So although there are many ways to approach it, this weekly schedule has helped me out for many years. I find myself explaining it to young pastors (and young moms) regularly. I do not claim a moral imperative behind it – I am not claiming you SHOULD do it this way, only that you could. It has worked well for me for a number of years. With some hesitancy, I pull back the curtain and get very practical with what I try to do in a week.

What Are My Roles and Goals?
There are two main sections: Roles/Goals and Time Blocks. Sometimes I will just fill in the Time Block section and work off another weekly to do list. Other times, I will discipline myself to fill in the Roles and Goals also.

In the first column I would write in the roles that God has currently called me to. Under those I would write tasks that I wanted to do that were associated with those roles.

The idea of roles comes from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, In it, Covey argues that none of us can handle more than 7 roles in life at one time. For example, as a full-time pastor, my role or categories at one time were: child of God, family leader, preacher/teacher, discipler/counselor, leader/administrator, speaker/writer. My larger goals in each of these categories came from times of reflection.

It is beyond the scope of this sheet to think through whether I actually should be doing these things. This timesheet is tactical not strategic.

Four Ways to Use the Schedule
It is the time blocks throughout the week that I find is helpful in disciplining my mind and thoughts. I use the time blocks in four different ways.

1. My Real Schedule When I Am Out of Control – When I feel out of control and don’t know where my time is going, it very helpful to record what I actually did. Without filling in the goals on the left side, I can see what my functional goals are by how I actually spent my time. It also helps me see how long tasks really take. Or how much time I am giving to leisure.

2. My Real Schedule When I Am Seeking to Be Productive – This is the most common way I use the schedule. It is similar to use #1 except now I am actually working off a weekly or daily to-do list. I can record what I am doing throughout the day. This turns my unstructured day into a number of little segments. For example, I want to write every day. I can see that I did that between 8 am and 9 am. Perhaps there are some errands or emails to return. I will batch those together and see if I can fit them in from 1 pm to 2:30. This batching helps me with interruptions from others or in my own head. Email from someone? I will respond in my batched admin time later this morning. Text? I will wait until I take a five minute stretch break at the end of this hour.

With large projects that feel discouraging, whacking at it a few hours every day helps motivate me. I know that with enough hours the task will eventually get done. In addition, when I look at tasks that I strongly dislike and tend to procrastinate, I think to myself, “I can do that for 15 minutes.”

Reviewing what I really did in a week can help me evaluate my functional goals with what I believe God is calling me to do. If I need to fit something else in then when will I do it? What will it replace? As a Type-A person, I need to remind myself I only have limited resources. I may want to do a project God is not calling me to do right now. After all, what will working on it replace?

3. My Ideal Schedule – A more fundamental way to use this form is to create an idealized schedule. In other words, given my priorities, what are the big blocks in my schedule? When I study the life of Jesus I get the sense that he accomplished the large tasks he had been given from the Father and yet also had time for interruptions. Putting those few big rocks in allowed me to know when I was going to do something. I always had the right to change it but at least I realized what I was doing. For example, at one point as a pastor with young children, sermon prep was Tues am, Thurs am, and Fri am. Monday night was family night/coffee date night. Friday morning was a donut date with one of the children, Tuesday am and Wedneday am might be discipleship breakfast, etc.

Coming up with an ideal schedule is helpful because now, in the cool of the moment, I can ask myself questions like, When am I reading? When will I meet with elders or men? When am I exercising? When someone asks to get together, I know what time slots I can offer them. And if I chose to impose on something that has a slot (like a coffee date night) then I can deliberately change rather than being tossed by the wind.

4. My Schedule for Next Week – Each week as I looked ahead at the week I might look back and forth between tasks and schedule. For example, I prepared a sermon every week. I studied for that Tuesday through Thursday morning and Friday morning was when I typed it out. Therefore I would fill in (automatically) those times for sermon prep and put that as my first task under preacher/teacher.

Often times with nonstructured tasks, I would ask, “When am I going to do this task? If not what time, at least what day?”

Vitally important is that I not overschedule my time, having no room for interruptions. Again, to study Jesus is to see one on task and yet with margin to minister to others. So my task list on the left and my daily list on the right also had tasks that could be delayed. They were not as immovable as others. Part of love for others is being available for interruptions.

Other Schedules
Finally, these same principles apply to planning the year, the quarter, the month. Are there important but not urgent tasks that we need to schedule in? An obvious one is a family vacation. But there are others as well such as a reading retreat, anniversary getaway, prayer retreat, writing time, etc. These bigger rocks then trump your smaller weekly schedule.

Final Thoughts
When we study Jesus, we see that he completed the work the Father gave him to do (John 17:4). Paul was able to give a similar command to Archippus, “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord” (Colossians 4:17). My heart aches for pastors and young moms whose lack of understanding of time management contributes to ineffectiveness. Could this be one reason we are experiencing increased anxiety and depression? God is at work. He is never in hurried or harried. May our time and priority management reflect him!