Friday, January 2, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #15 (The Six Über Skills of Seminary - Part 3 - Time Management)

SKILL #3 – Time Management: Mastering Your Time

Of the many things you will need to pay attention to in seminary, it’s hard to point to just one and tell you that this one is the most important. But if you forced me to do so, I would likely tell you that if you can’t get time management right, little else will work out well for you.

It’s that critical of a skill.

In order to progress in our creativity, scholarship, reading, speaking, and writing, we need to manage our time well so we can achieve progress while still maintaining a healthy balance in our lives.

But of course, you already know this anyways, right? I mean, everyone talks about how they would like to better manage their time, so it’s likely no different for you. So let’s chat about time management and see if you’re ready to manage it better. 

Time management is the art of making progress on all the things we need to achieve – in our case, the skills of seminary – while still maintaining a healthy balance in our lives. So, time management is the ability to use your time effectively or productively, especially at your work. And of course, seminary will be your work. 

It’s been my observation that many students need help developing their time management skills in seminary, so if this is an area where you lack discipline, don’t despair. You can improve with practice.

Time Audit

The skill of time management begins, like budgeting our finances, with an audit of where our resources (in this case, time) are going. 

Have you ever made a household budget? If you have, you know you need to track all your incoming and outgoing money. It’s the only way to know what you have and what you are spending. Well, you’ve heard the phrase, “time is money.” This is true. Time is the resource you are going to need to carefully and regularly track in order to spend it wisely.

It’s the same concept in our calorie intake. If a person decides to lose or gain weight, the first thing they need to know is incoming calories vs. calories burned.

But in terms of time management, you need to know how you spend your time. A time audit is a way of tracking where your time is going, i.e. what activities you are spending your time on. To begin a time audit, keep a simple record for one week’s time, of everything you do everyday, and measure this in 30-minute increments. In other words, for one week (168 hours) track how you spend your time.

Now, I’m going to assume that 49 hours a week are already committed: you need at least 7 hours of sleep a night. 7 x 7 = 49. That means 29.2% of your time is already dedicated to sleep. Now, don’t argue with me on this one – the harder you work your brain, the more you need to recuperate with sleep. Make sure you get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. You will thank me later.

So, that leaves you with 119 hours a week of wakeful time. That’s 17 hours a day to be productive within. And you’re going to track how you spend those hours. Now, once you have made a note of how you spend your time (in 15-30 minute blocks of time) for a period of one week, do an analysis – a summary of your activities.

If you need to, organize your summary like this:
  • School related activities (Class, Study, School Organizations) 
  • Work 
  • Personal (Social and recreational, entertainment, Internet, social media, Netflix, etc.) 
  • Health-related (Eating, bathing, exercise, sleep, etc.) 
  • Relationships (Marriage, dating, friends, family, pets, etc.) 
  • Travel (have a commute?) 
  • Out of school commitments 
  • Other
Try to analyze all your activities and see how they fit within the categories I’ve listed above. This is like analyzing your expenditures so that an appropriate time budget can be generated. Granted, this analysis assumes a “typical” week (and sometimes there is no such thing), so remember, we’re building a weekly planner that will serve as a guideline for you. It’s just that – a guideline.

Now, I don’t know what your time summary looks like, but I’ll bet you will notice some areas that are out of balance. So then, take a look at your summary and specifically ask yourself what changes, if any, you will need to make to bring your actual time schedule into agreement with what you think your ideal schedule should look like?

Perhaps you’ve noticed that your weekly analysis reveals a life out of balance. Too much time spent on entertainment and too little time on relationships. Guess what? You will need to shift time from that spent in the entertainment category to more time spent in the relationship category (see “The Covey Quadrant” below).

In order to keep myself on track, on the desktop of my Macbook Pro, I have a spreadsheet that I’ve created with a daily schedule – a schedule with hourly time blocks of pre-scheduled activities I know I need to get done each day so I can cross off items on my daily to-do list (more on this in a moment) and be fully productive. I maintain this schedule every day, and look at it every day – that’s how much a part of my life it is. Back when I first generated a time summary, and looked at a typical week and how I spent my time, I noticed some imbalances. Which caused me to re-evaluate how I was spending my time. The result was a daily schedule that would keep me on track. For example, right now I am writing this within the “writing time” block of 1.5 hours. I have a writing time every day of the week. The take-home point is - budgeting your time can help you be very productive. You need to budget your time daily, my friend. 

Some General Time Management Principles

Here are some time management principles that will help to get you thinking about the important skill of time management:
  1. Identify your "best time" for different activities: Everyone has high and low periods of attention and concentration. Are you a "morning person" or a "night person." Use your power times to study or write; use the down times for routines such as household chores and errands. For example, I write best first thing in the morning. Thus, my first scheduled activity each day (after making coffee) is sitting down to write. 
  2. Do difficult things earlier in the day: When you are fresh, you can process information more quickly and save time as a result. And you have more will power (a limited quantity, I can assure you). One of the classes I needed to do this with in seminary was Hebrew. I had to study Hebrew before noon or it would not happen. Figure our which stuff is hard, the kind of stuff you will want to procrastinate when trying to do it, and schedule it early in the day when your willpower is high. 
  3. Use distributed working and learning practices: Study in shorter time blocks with short breaks between. This keeps you from getting fatigued and "wasting time." This type of studying is efficient because while you are taking a break, the brain is still processing the information. You might consider the Pomodoro Technique (working in 20-30 blocks of time and taking a short break of 5 minutes after each work block). Google “Pomodoro Technique” and see if it will work for you. 
  4. Make sure you have a good workspace: This will allow you to reduce distractions that can waste time. If there are times when you know there will be noise and commotion in your workspace, use that time for mindless tasks. I recommend finding a workspace and using it consistently. That way your mind knows when you are there, you are there to work! 
  5. Make Room for entertainment, relaxation, and relationships: Life is more than studying, reading, writing, etc. for seminary. You need to have a social life and you need to have balance in your life.  
  6. Make sure you have time to sleep and eat properly: Sleep is often an activity (or lack of activity) that students use as their time management "bank." When they need a few extra hours for studying or socializing, they withdraw a few hours of sleep. Doing this makes the time they spend studying less effective because they will need a couple hours of clock time to get an hour of productive time. This is not a good way to manage yourself in relation to time. I repeat, this is not a good way to manage yourself in relation to time! Sleep at least 7 hours a day, no matter what.  
  7. Try to combine activities: Use the "Twofer" concept. If you are spending time at the Laundromat, bring your Greek vocabulary cards to study. If you are waiting in line at the grocery story, bring your NT Theology notes to look over. If you are cleaning and vacuuming the house, listen to a class lecture you have recorded. If you have a commute, listen to an iTunesU lecture that will help you prep for a course next semester. Double up and reap the productivity!

Choosing How You Spend Your Time

So we’ve talked about tracking how you spend your time. We’ve talked about some basic time management principles that will help you spend your time (which is always a limited commodity) in more effective ways. Now, let’s talk about how you choose what to spend your time upon.

One of the great revelations in many people’s lives is that there are more things of value in this world that you can spend your time doing. There are more things than you can possibly do in a given day. For example, I would enjoy spending about two hours a day listening to lectures on iTunesU. There are so many remarkable lectures available that would vastly improve my mind that it would be easy to justify doing that. And when you think about it, this would be a good way to spend my time. Except for the fact that if I choose to spend two hours on iTunesU lectures each day, then I am not spending two hours on something else which might be more appropriate or valuable for me to be doing.

Time is like a box of finite size and there are only so many activities you can put in the box. In our case, if we sleep 7 hours a night, we only have a box with 17 hours in it in a given day, so we have to fill it wisely.

Simply put: you have to choose the essential priorities that you are going to spend your time upon so you know how to fill your box. 

The great paradox about priorities though is that if you have too many priorities then they are no longer really priorities. So, you need to sit down and take a day to figure out what is important to you and make a limited number of things your priorities. If you don’t do this, other forces outside you are going to decide how you spend your time. And by outside forces, I mean anything that you are not in control of – entertainment options, work, too many church activities, committee work, even the consumer manipulative ad execs on Madison Avenue, etc. You will easily lose control without priorities.

Priorities will also help you decide what you are going to spend your time doing. How do I make the value judgment about which activities are important? Which things should you choose to spend your time upon?

Well, that depends on you. What are your priorities? What are your dreams? What is your vision for your life?

Though the following list is not exhaustive, these are some of the areas that many people list as priorities:
  • Family
  • Spiritual growth
  • Career growth
  • Intellectual growth
  • Wealth management
  • Health and well-being
  • Community involvement
I would add one other “category” to this list, one that should be obvious if it isn’t already from the title of this section:
  • The Six Über Skills of Seminary
Yes, the Six Über Skills of Seminary are themselves major priorities for you in seminary.

Let me explain how these priority areas have shaped my to-do list for today so you can begin to see how priorities can help you decide how your spend your time each day. As I peruse my calendar today, I see I have about a dozen different activities listed.
  • Morning writing
  • Prayer and daily bible reading.
  • Study for a seminary class.
  • Write some on a book review.
  • Work through some of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (~20 pages) and write a blog summary of the reading for the day.
  • Read about 20 pages of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.
  • Ministry work (return calls and email, finish sermon, prep bible class for Sunday, make PowerPoint slides for bible class, print bulletins for Sunday, clean church building)
  • Afternoon meeting with local ministry alliance.
  • Be done with ministry/academic work so I can be home in time for dinner at 6:30pm.
  • Spend time with my family in the evening (family worship after dinner, perhaps playing a board game after that, etc). 
  • Once children have finished their bedtime routines, read the newspaper.
  • Read some of the biography on Charles Hodge that is my bedtime reading right now.
If you look closely at my day’s schedule you can start to see my priorities emerge. You can see how the Six Über Skills of Seminary are being served. There is family and spiritual growth represented in my calendar. My work and ministry are priorities. My academic work and writing are represented, too. I have a little community involvement represented in the minister’s meeting this afternoon. Lots of reading and study represents my intellectual growth. In other words, the day’s activities serve to further the priorities that I have identified as being important for my life. 

What do your priorities look like? What is on your to-do list today because of it? Do some work on this and figure it out.
The Covey Quadrant

Which brings me to a final point. One useful way of thinking about managing your time and generating the right priorities is from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In his book, Covey gives us the “Covey Quadrant” or the “Time Management Matrix.” The Quadrant is a way of structuring your daily activities based on your priorities. It uses four variables. Our daily tasks are classified by their urgency and their importance to furthering our goals (goals which are articulated once we have set our priorities). Presumably because of the priorities of the Six Über Skills of Seminary, you now already have priorities, right? Now you just need to balance it out with some personal and relational priorities and you are set. So, here is the Covey Quadrant

Here’s how the Covey Quadrant works. 

Group I – includes crises and deadline driven activities (for example, you’ve procrastinated and have a final paper to write for a class that is due in three days).

Group II – includes your long-term incremental goals (like, for example, being more creative, a better writer, a better communicator, a better scholar, etc. – you know, the Six Über Skills of Seminary).

Group III – are interruptions you have to deal with (your phone rings or a friend who interrupts your writing or studying, etc.)

Group IV – busy work and things that can waste your time, even if they are pleasant.

The great contribution of the Covey Quadrant is that we should maximize our time spent in Quadrant II (important but non-urgent tasks). The Quadrant II tasks are those that will have the greatest long-term benefits to you professionally, spiritually, and relationally. Q2 activities result from proper planning. 

Many of the activities I listed above are the result of Q2 planning in my own day.
  • Morning writing (Q2)
  • Prayer and daily bible reading (Q2)
  • Study (not cramming) for a seminary class (Q2)
  • Write some on a book review (Q2)
  • Work through some of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (~20 pages) and write a blog summary of the reading for the day (Q2)
  • Read about 20 pages of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (Q2)
  • Ministry work (return calls and email, finish sermon, prep bible class for Sunday, make PowerPoint slides for bible class, print bulletins for Sunday, clean church building) (Q2 – these things are not happening on Saturday night)
  • Afternoon meeting with local ministry alliance (Q2)
  • Be done with ministry/academic work so I can be home in time for dinner at 6:30pm (Q2)
  • Spend time with my family in the evening (family worship after dinner, perhaps playing a board game after that, etc). (Q2)
  • Once children have finished their bedtime routines, read the newspaper (Q4, but a pleasant time waster)
  • Read some of the biography on Charles Hodge that is my bedtime reading right now. (Q4, but a pleasant time waster before bed)
How do you maximize the amount of time you spend each day on Quadrant II activities? We do three things:
  • Minimize as much as possible Quadrant IV activities (non-urgent, non-important tasks). 
  • Deal as quickly and deliberately as we can with Quadrant III activities (get the phone done expeditiously, get the conversation with the friend during the work day done in a timely fashion, etc.).
  • Plan deliberately in a disciplined fashion our Quadrant II activities so we don’t face the urgent deadlines that throw everything out of kilter. 
In my opinion, many people treat seminary like it is a Quadrant I activity. Everything seems important and urgent. But I think this is deceiving. Seminary becomes a Q1 activity because too often, too many people spend junk time on Q4 activities, such that, their seminary work waits until it becomes a Q1 activity. This is basically a function of poor planning. As much as possible make seminary work (and work in general) a Q2 activity. Don't let excuses and rationalizing (“but I need the pressure to get things done!”) cause seminary to be a Q1 experience all the time.

Be better than that. Manage your time. It’s one of the essential skills of seminary for a reason. Now, go to the library and pick up a good book or two on time management. Better yet, read David Allen's excellent Getting Things Done or Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. You'll thank me later.