Juggling Sheep
Welcome to Juggling Sheep, Jay Perry's blog about time management and personal productivity for pastors. Learn to balance work, life, family, and personal spirituality.

Share your best practices, tips and tricks, processes, sermon planning ideas, and resources. Feel free to email me: jaylperry[at]gmail[dot]com.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Why "To Do" Lists Didn't Work Until GTD

So now comes the inevitable question: GTD is just keeping lists?

Um… Yes. And no.

Before I started using David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology for personal productivity, I had made plenty of “to do” lists. And they didn’t really help. And, in some cases, the “to do” lists even sank me deeper into paralysis and procrastination. What was wrong with my “to do” lists?

The first problem with my previous “to do” lists was how incomplete they were.

I would only list 5-10 priorities I needed to do. Obviously there was a ton more of stuff that I needed to (or could) get done. But the lists weren’t based on a ubiquitous capture - everything in my life on lists.

The first major genius of GTD Lists is that they’re based on a ubiquitous capture.

The second problem with my previous “to do” lists was that they weren’t “Next Action Lists.” My list would look like this:

  • Train Bob on CD Process
  • Sermon
  • Pick up dry cleaning
  • Repair Roof
  • Call babysitter

As you can see, a couple of these are Next Actions (”pick up dry cleaning” and “call babysitter”). But most of them are Projects (multi-step processes). And strictly speaking, you can’t do a Project. You can only do a Next Action related to the Project (edging that project toward completion).

So my list says “Sermon.” And I think I know what that means… But if I haven’t defined what my next physical action is, I think of the whole blessed thing that has to get done. And I’m paralyzed by the sheer magnitude. If I haven’t defined a next action, I can’t take a next action.

I need to repair my roof. But where do I start? If I haven’t defined a next action, I don’t know how to repair my roof. So I spend 30 seconds thinking… What is the next action I need to take to move this Project along? I guess I need to get a roofer recommendation from my friend Harold. So calling Harold is my next step.

So keeping your Project List separate from your Next Action List is the second major genius of GTD Lists.

The third problem with my previous “to do” lists was that I never looked at my list at the right time.

I would have home things and work things and store things and phone things and computer things all on the same list.

GTD teaches us to keep “contextualized” Next Action Lists. This way, I only look at the lists that are relevant to the context I find myself in. So I keep several different lists:

Waiting For
Lent Out

Believe it or not, I actually have things on every one of these lists. My entire life is on lists. Some of the lists (waiting for, borrowing, lent out, someday/maybe) I only look at during the weekly review. If I’m at the office, I just keep out my @Office list, my @Call list, and my @Computer list and work off of them. But if I’m at home, I have my @Home, my @Computer, and my @Call list out. If I’m out and about, I have my @Errands list out.

Contextualized Lists are the third major genius of GTD Lists.

The fourth problem with my previous “to do” lists was how I decided what to do. I used to try to decide based on “priority,” whether that priority was realistic or not.

GTD teaches a 4 step process to decide what to do at any given time, ever. Decide what to do right now based on the following criteria (in rank order):

  1. Context
  2. Time Available
  3. Energy Available
  4. Priority

You look at the contextualized lists appropriate to where you are.

You look at your calendar and say, “How much time do I have available right now?“ Depending on your answer, there are just some Next Actions you don’t have time to do now.

Then you ask, “How much (emotional/mental/spiritual/physical) energy do I have right now?“ Maybe you have enough mental energy right now to shoot off a few emails, but not enough to write that newsletter article. Maybe you have enough emotional energy right now to deal with that insurance claim, but not enough to deal with that cranky member.

When you’ve figured out how much time and energy you have, ask, “What’s left on my list that will give me the biggest payoff for my time (for God’s kingdom) right now?“ Do that next action.

And if you go through this process, you can be fairly certain all of the time that the thing you’re doing right now is exactly the thing that you need to be doing right now.

Deciding what to do and when to do it is the fourth major genius of GTD lists.

I’m sure there are more, but I don’t have enough mental energy to keep writing…


Jay Perry wishes his wife would come home from that professional conference she’s at.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

GTD Workflow - What to Do with What I Have

The secret to being organized and efficient (in anything we do) is to have an established workflow. Think about it: You probably shower the exact same way every morning. Don’t you? And then when you get out of the shower, you probably dry off in exactly the same way you dried off yesterday - face first, hair, wrap the towel around your back, etc. And because it’s so routine, you don’t even think about it.

The core of Getting Things Done is establishing a workflow. How do you deal with everything you need to do (or think about or plan)? Unfortunately, many of us are trying to make it up on the fly. Someone hands me a piece of paper. What do I do with it? - pocket, notebook, drawer, desk, backpack, file, trash? A church member wants me to send him that article about fasting. Do I think I’ll just remember to do it? Do I make a note to myself? What do I do with that note?

The Getting Things Done workflow will teach you how to deal with everything in your inbox. There are several GTD workflow charts that you can print out to help you learn to process and organize all of the stuff you’ve collected. I put one up on the wall right next to my desk before I even tried to tackle my overflowing inbox. I really like David Allen’s original workflow diagram. The D*I*Y Planner website also has a diagram that I like (especially because it includes some detail on the ubiquitous capture and a checklist for the weekly review).

Currently, I have a desktop wallpaper from anabubula.com on my laptop. Now, every time I open my computer, I see a lovely GTD reference flowchart. Here’s a sample:

Getting Things Done Workflow

Let’s just talk through the GTD workflow using this diagram, shall we?

Every idea, article, appointment request, piece of mail starts out in your inbox.

You pick it up. You ask, “What is this? Is it actionable?

If it’s not something you can or should act on right now, you have three options - 1) throw it away, 2) save it for future reference (file it), or 3) decide to maybe deal with it some other time (write it on your someday/maybe list or throw it in your tickler file). Literally 75% of my first ubiquitous capture was unactionable. I either threw it away or filed it. Hurray!

If it is actionable, ask yourself, “Can I do this in two minutes or less?“ If you can, do it now (p.s. phone calls usually take more than two minutes if you have to speak with a human being).

If it will take more than two minutes, ask yourself, “Is this a project or a task?“ A task means it will take only one physical action to complete it. A project means it will take two or more physical actions to complete it (look up the phone number and then call - two steps).

If it’s a task write it on your Next Action List.

If it’s a project, write it on your Project List. Then ask, “What’s the next action?“ Write that next action on your Next Action List.

Can you do that Next Action within two minutes? If you can, do it.

If you can’t do that Next Action in less than two minutes, ask, “Am I the best person to do this?“ If you’re not, figure out who is and delegate it. Write a reminder on your Waiting For List.

If you are the best person to do it, ask, “Does this *have* to be done at or by a certain time?“ If the answer is yes, write it on your calendar.

If the answer is no, just leave it on your Next Action List to do whenever you can.

And that’s the GTD Workflow. Now you know how to deal with absolutely everything life throws at you. The process will take a little getting used to on the front end, but after you do it for a while, it will be as natural as toweling off after your morning shower.


Jay Perry likes to say foreign words that he hears on NPR. Jalalabad! He writes Juggling Sheep, a blog about time management and personal productivity for pastors. Juggling Sheep receives several hits every week by people looking for actual information about how to actually care for actual sheep. Um, no.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

GTD Quick Start-up Guide

Here’s my quick startup guide to Getting Things Done:

1. Buy David Allen’s Getting Things Done - You will need your own copy. You can’t just check this out from the library and read it once. It will become a reference work that you will go back to several times as you implement and hone your organizational workflow.

2. Set Up a Working Work Area - This means having a trash can, an inbox, a file cabinet, file folders, a labeler, a stapler, scratch paper, binder clips, paper clips, scissors, tape, etc. You will be processing paper. Make sure you are set up to deal well with paper. (Shameless plug: you can buy all of those items at the Juggling Sheep bookstore.)

3. Do a “Ubiquitous Capture” - Capture everything that needs to be processed. This is a daunting and scary project. It means collecting everything in your home or office that needs to be dealt with - books to return or read or throw away, receipts, articles, tapes, DVDs, notes, magazines, board minutes, junk, mail, junkmail, etc. And that’s just the physical stuff. Then you capture everything in your brain (one thought per piece of paper) - ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, unfinished business, appointments, commitments, responsibilities, etc. Put all of these collected things into your “inbox” (note: when I was done with the capture, I literally had two four-foot tall stacks that needed to be processed - 8 feet of junk and stuff and ideas - no wonder I had felt like I was drowning). To read more about my initial ubiquitous capture, click here.

4. Process Your “Inbox” - This is a dauntinger and scarier project. Take everything out of your inbox, one item at a time. Figure out what it is. Decide what to do with it. (I will write more about how to process your inbox later this week.) Eventually it will end up in one of 8 places:

1) Trash
2) Someday/Maybe List
3) Reference (filing cabinet or bookshelf)
4) Project List
5) Project Plan (file or paper)
6) Waiting List (if you’ve delegated it or have to wait for someone else to act)
7) Calendar
8) Contextualized Next Action Lists (the very next physical action for each project)

5. Crank Widgets - Work the system. Keep the appointments on your calendar. Write multi-step projects on your project list. Put next actions on your contextualized next action lists. Do your next actions. Process your inbox every day. Follow up on your “waiting” list. Get Things Done.

6. Do a Full System Review Once a Week - Look at your calendar. Look at your projects and make sure you have a next action for each one. Make sure your next actions are up to date. Do another mini-ubiquitous capture. Empty your brain onto paper again. Do bigger-picture thinking (roles and goals). As a pastor (working toward the weekend), I do my weekly review on Monday.

And those are the very basics of Getting Things Done. It doesn’t need to be complicated. It just needs to be leak-proof so you will learn to trust it. That’s why you quit using every other time management system you’ve ever tried. You didn’t trust it because 1) it didn’t contain everything, 2) you didn’t review it enough to make it leak-proof. Now you know.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mind Like Water

Mind Like Water

As pastors, we should be caring mostly about higher-level stuff - seeing God’s vision for our churches, understanding our unique calling, roles and goals, balance, priorities, meaning, and purpose. We should be reaching our communities with the undeniably attractive gospel and a unique message for these last days.

But I think a huge barrier to understanding and implementing the “higher-level” stuff is the clutter we carry around in our heads every day. I was once told that pastors basically get paid to carry the details and needs of the church around in their heads 24/7/365. That made sense to me. It made sense because it resonated with my experience.

David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, talks about all of the little things we have to do every day as the “runway” things. They are the current reality of things on the ground. Most of us never see things from “10,000 feet,” “20,000 feet,” or “30,000 feet” because we have so much clutter on the runway that we can never really take off.

That clutter on the runway is the same clutter in your brain that you carry around 24/7/365. You reason, “if I don’t think about it all the time, who will?”

The beauty of the Getting Things Done process is that it captures all of those things - duties, expectations, goals, appointments, plans, projects, tasks, hopes and dreams - into a leak-proof organizational system that you can trust completely.

If you know the organizational system will remind you of everything you need to know exactly when you need to know it, you can take it out of your brain and stop worrying about it all the time. Your stress level (and blood pressure) will go down. You’ll quit being constantly overwhelmed by all of the “stuff” you have to deal with. And you’ll be able to think about the more important, “higher-level” things.

David Allen (borrowing a zen image) refers to this sense of peace as having a “mind like water.” Just like water in a pond, your mind should be at peace most of the time. And it should only react when something is thrown into it. Water reacts exactly in proportion to the object thrown into it - with a big splash for a big rock, or a little ripple for a small pebble. And when the reaction is over, it goes back to a state of peace.

If we all had a “mind like water,” I believe we would be better able to listen for God’s voice, discern His leading, do better strategic planning, truly enter into a Sabbath rest, and ultimately become the pastors God wants us to be. So before you can really get into the “higher-level” stuff, you need to really learn to manage all of the “runway” stuff.

You do that by getting all of your open loops out of your head and onto lists, where you can see, analyze, plan, and do them.


This week I'm guest blogging over at JustPastors.com. They've asked me to write about Time Management for Clergy - specifically GTD. This entry is from that series (even though some of the information is a repeat of what I've written here previously).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Guest Blogging on JustPastors.com

This week I'll be guest blogging over at JustPastors.com. They've asked me to write about Time Management for Clergy - specifically GTD. And I thought... hmm, that's what I do...

I'll also be posting those same entries over here (even though some of the information will be a repeat of what I've done here previously).


Today's Post - Finally Getting Things Done

Yesterday, as I was flying back from Minneapolis, the guy in the seat next to me was telling me how he was on the pastor search committee at his church and they were having a very difficult time finding just the right pastor. Everyone on that committee had a different idea of what the pastor’s job description should be.

And pastors are caught in the middle. There’s no agreed-upon job description for a pastor. So some pastors hide out and don’t do anything. Other pastors work so hard to please everyone that they end up losing their family, their sanity, or their sobriety.
A pastor has a lot of things to juggle - meetings, sermons, strategic planning, administration, training, evangelism, family, prayer, study, visitation, sudoku… Who has time for everything??!

The pastor needs to become an expert in time management and workflow, in order to get the low-level things done and make room for the more important things in ministry. Here’s a bit of my time management journey.

My supervising pastor (when I was an intern) had me keep all of my appointments in a calendar I kept with me all the time. I really think that was my first step to becoming organized.

Then I read Stephen Covey’s Personal Management Classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and realized that I needed to do the important things instead of just the urgent things. I picked up some tips and tricks about designing weekly roles and goals. And that helped me to say “yes” to the best things by saying “no” to other good things.

I read all of Kenneth Blanchard’s One Minute Manager books, finding The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey to be particularly helpful for empowering others, delegating tasks, and not micromanaging. I developed a set of “One Minute Goals” to keep me on track with my real priorities. All of these things helped me to focus more energy and time on mission-critical concerns.

Even though I had read some major personal productivity books, used a calendar and a day planner system, I was still disorganized.

A new PalmPilot helped me for a while (because it would beep at me, telling me when I needed to do the next thing). But frankly, I quit paying attention to the beeps and then I quit using it. And important ministry needs still slipped through the cracks.

My office was a mess. I had a paper inbox that was piled 8 inches high with articles, board minutes, mail, catalogs, etc. And I didn’t have a working filing system.

I constantly felt guilty. I was stressed out. It seemed like I couldn’t even keep up with myself, let alone the 50 or 60 families I was supposed to be shepherding spiritually. Every time the phone would ring, I’d get a sinking feeling of paranoia - just hoping it wasn’t someone I’d forgotten an appointment with (or someone asking me to help with something else). And the overload paralyzed me.

So we created ministry teams in the church and started writing procedures for everything the church did on a regular basis (thanks to 18 months of personalized coaching from the the Ministry Advantage Pastor’s Coaching System). It freed up my time, but it turns out “needing more time” wasn’t really the problem. I still felt guilty and paranoid about the things falling through the cracks in my ministry.

I turned a major corner about nine months ago when my wife gave me David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done (GTD). It is subtitled “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” It promised a “mind like water.” Before reading “Getting Things Done,” I had never been able to successfully use a productivity system (lists, PalmPilot, calendar, roles & goals, etc.) for more than a month or so before everything fell apart.

This book has truly revolutionized my ministry. GTD is not some expensive program or difficult new skill set. It’s merely a set of principles that integrate skills you already have (filing, making appointments, writing lists, etc.) into a seamless workflow of personal productivity and organization. You can use it at work or at home. You can use it with hi-tech PDAs or lo-tech paper planners.

Now I’m stress-free. Really. I remember all of my appointments. I turn in my worker’s reports on time (much to the amazement of my conference officials). I am productive when I’m at work. I’m doing better at making time for the important things like family and spiritual development. And I have a better sense of balance and priorities, helping me to see the big picture and do more effective strategic planning.

Over this next week, I’ll be writing about “Getting Things Done” for pastors. I’ve really come to see this as a major stewardship issue. Pastors must learn to master time just to keep up with mundane ministry tasks. If you’re not doing that, you can’t even begin to be faithful to the bigger picture visions and plans that God has in store for you.