To Infinity…and Beyond!

The quixotic mantra of Buzz Lightyear is playfully inspiring and funny at the same time. Its represents our finest aspirations, at the same time, revealing our tendency to overreach.

It’s why I am employing it to title the last blog article of South of God this year. It was just over a year ago, in the glow of a Thanksgiving feast, I made a resolve to write a blog “once a week for the next year”. I did the necessary work of setting up the blog with WordPress, launching it into the darkness of cyberspace. A year later, I celebrate the fact that I, in fact, did it!

I know I work best under deadlines, immediate ones, that set boundaries on my illusion of infinite time. Sunday sermons were a perfect form for my work as they were coming, regardless. The structure, the pressure was a good way to squeeze out my thoughts and reflections. I don’t miss climbing into the pulpit, delivering a sermon in front of a congregation, shaking hands at the conclusion. I do miss the process, which I find myself coaching younger colleagues as they take on this bucking bronco called preaching. I find myself grateful for the time I “get” to spend writing South of God, as it has taken the place of such sport.

On this last week of the decade, I thought I would encourage you, as I do myself, to get ready for the new year: To infinity…and beyond…. but let’s do it week by week, day by day.

When I got the assignment from the Dean of the Cathedral to organize the pastoral care of 5000 people, give or take a thousand, I knew that I needed to get organized. I attended a productivity seminar sponsored by a calendar company, aligned with Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. I learned a bunch of principles of time management that have served me well. In fact, I wound up teaching the method to the young clergy of the Diocese of Texas that were moving from the rarefied air of the seminary into their first parish work, a tornadic change of pace that tends to overwhelm, even swamp the best of intentions.

The basic premise is to set goals and then to commit to blocks of time to advance progress towards those goals. Pretty simple, huh? They used a powerful example of taking a large Pyrex beaker, the kind you used in lab experiments, only larger. The teacher would then show a collection of rocks, asking the class to predict how many rocks could fit into the beaker. Let’s say “seven” to follow the Covey line, and they were placed in the beaker. Then comes the trick question: Is it full? Unsuspecting, we say “yes”.

The teacher takes out stone gravel, proceeds to pour into the remaining space. The question is asked again, “Is it full?”. Smart people, like me, are only fooled once. Ahead of the game, and with knowing confidence, I answer emphatically, NO!.

The teacher smiles, takes out a bag of sand, begins to pour it into the beaker, filling it to the brim. “Full?” I may have been born at night, but not last night. NO!

The teacher takes out a jug of water and begins to pour the liquid into the beaker, all the way to the top. Full? the rhetorical question posed, and at last, the slower students confidently state: that sucker is full! And they were finally correct, just like a broken clock.

I loved this example, a scientific parable, if you will. It has stayed with me for forty years, a long damn time.

There are lots of lessons to be inferred from this example, one being to think through your answer before blurting it out. But the point that is relevant to time management is that if you didn’t put in the big rocks first, you could not have fit them in. Lesson: start your week off by scheduling the “big rocks” or projects into your week so that they have a better chance of getting done.

I have refined that insight in a methodology that I have used to schedule my life over the years but the insight has remained the same: plan in blocks.

With that in mind, what are the big projects you want to tackle in this coming year?

I want to suggest you take some time to reflect and think about that before the new year kicks off. I always take a solitary day in which to reflect and then to write down my goals for the coming year. You might want to start out with a dedicated hour, a half of a day. Anything is better than nothing. And in the aftermath of Christmas, it might be in the first month of January before you get to it. But as I continue to champion in this blog, it is your gift to decide, the human distinctive, within limits, how you are going to spend your time and your energy.

Why not start this new year with a simple decision to decide to decide?

If you do, I would encourage you to begin with a look back over the past year, noting the accomplishments of the past year. This begins the planning process with a positive momentum. It also respects the fact that our new beginnings are tied to the endings of the past. This is the nature of reality. So take a moment to name where you have been by looking over the past year.

Then, begin to set the goals for the coming year. My style is to go free-form, just allowing the possible goals to surface as they will, in a kind of popcorn fashion. After a time of brain storming, begin to cluster similar projects together and clarify. I literally draw a map, clustering the ideas, the hopes, the dreams. I draw them, use colors and shapes to give me a picture of my coming year. That must be my mother coming through, the artist I have never been. Finally, channeling my analytic father, I narrow the list to eight to twelve projects for the coming year. Write them formally on a list that will stay in front of you in the year 2020.

However, you are not finished. After the list for the year, specify THREE projects for the coming quarter. My colleague and teacher, Robert Miles, who wrote Big Idea, Big Result, has studied the process of change, namely what makes for success and failure, and pushes for a limitation of only three initiatives for a person or an organization in order to focus and align the resources to be successful. The resistance to limit your view to three is massive. I have fought boards and staffs across the country on this simple point. You must FOCUS, align, on the most important three. I have seen this principle work over and over. I commend it for you consideration and experimentation. The operative word is “focus”.

So, here you are, at the end of a decade, about to begin another. I hope you will take the time and invest the energy in planning for this next year. Decide how you desire to be spent in the year ahead, in the quarter, in the week. These decisions come together to form a life. Where do you want to be in 2030? Time to get started. Now.

How many rocks do you think will fit in this container?

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