Thursday, April 11, 2013

Laying Waste to "Time-Wasters."

While I don't normally write about the specifics of administrative matters, I want to talk a bit this week about making the most of a busy schedule.  More particularly, I want to address that co-worker, parishioner, or small group member who seems to do nothing more than waste your time.

It sounds heartless I know.  But its reality.  I'm responsible for an organization that collaborates with more than 60 churches in the Baltimore-Washington area.  More than 10,000 evangelical Christians worship in those churches every Sunday.  I have to keep this Association moving in the right direction, and I can't do it if I grant every meeting requested, or if I spend all my time responding and reacting to others' requests instead of being a proactive leader.  And if you lead in any capacity, this is true of you as well.  

You simply cannot allow your time--possibly the most precious commodity you have to give--to be stolen by people and events that will keep you from doing what you know God has called you to do.  It may seem cold, but the fact is that the world is full of time-wasters--people who will suck the life out of you, and the effectiveness out of your work, or your ministry.  When you allow that to happen, everyone you serve suffers for it.  Conversely, when you refuse to give in, it may seem at first like the time-waster is suffering.  But in reality, maybe he or she will learn as lesson as well.

In my experience, there are three predominant types of time wasters:

The Clueless:  These tend to be the most innocent of the bunch, mostly because they never seem able to nail down a specific purpose for wanting your attention.  "I need to have a meeting with you," is their very simple and typical approach.  When you ask them what they want to address, the best they can usually come up with is something general.  "Oh, I just want to talk with you about what's happening in my ministry."  Usually, its less specific than this, which means when you finally meet, you will likely talk about nothing substantive.

While you may think yourself compassionate for enabling their ambiguity, the reality is that by granting said meeting, you are feeding the myth that your mere presence and casual conversation will actually accomplish something for this person.

Be forewarned:  Once you start to draw tighter lines around when you grant a meeting, the clueless will be offended.  Usually, this is due to their perception that you are there to "be their friend." Truth is, I have many friends in the organization I work for.  But I'm not paid for my friendship.  I'm paid to run the organization, and this same principle is true regardless of your field of employment.  Don't fall prey to the clueless time-waster.  Instead, keep on course with what you are called to do.  And in the process, you might help them more than you or they realize--mostly by helping them get a clue.

The Unmotivated:  I've had many coaching relationships over the years.  Most I look back on with fondness and thankfulness.  But a few I simply look back on in frustration, because they did not use MY time wisely.

I remember one young man who would ask to meet with me every couple of weeks.  We mapped out a "life plan" for his twenties that included the completion of his wedding plans with his fiance, eliminating his student loan debt, buying a home, and securing a church family for he and his new bride.  A year later, he had accomplished precisely none of this, yet still wanted to meet with me to "talk about the plan."

Unmotivated people are in many ways like Bob Wiley from the movie "What About Bob?"  As portrayed by Bill Murray, Wiley was an agoraphobic and hypochondriac who never left his home--except to see his therapist!  For Bob Wiley, the therapist visit WAS the end game!  He never intended to improve his own life or get better.  As a result, he brought his therapists down with him.

Don't let the guy from "What About Bob" steal your time.  If there is no forward progress, stop taking meetings with them!

The Anthropocentric:  For most of human history we believed that we lived in a "geocentric" universe, where the Earth was at the center, and everything revolved around it.  Then the 17th century came along and with it, the Copernican revolution.  Because of our observations of space, we now know that we live in a "heliocentric" solar system, with the Sun at the center, and the Earth being merely one of nine planets that revolve around it.

The universe is a big place, and the earth now has more than 7 billion people on it.  And occasionally, you will meet someone in your work or ministry who thinks all those people revolve around them--including you!  This is the anthropocentric time-waster.

This is the caustic, self-centered individual who expects you to drop whatever you are doing whenever he or she calls.  My work load includes roughly 150 emails daily (those are just the ones that make it past my staff, who get hundreds more!), many, many phone conversations, and a professional calendar that tends to stay booked solid at least two weeks out.  If I abandon the routine that allows me to address all of this simply because of the demands of one person, I'm not being fair to others in our network.

This is the person who doesn't blink when you tell them "I'm unavailable at that time."  Its the person who responds to your list of availability with an "alternate" choice you haven't given them.

Anthropocentric time-wasters get you off track, and off mission, primarily by their constant demands for you to compromise your schedule, and constantly react to others as opposed to being intentional about moving forward and doing your job.  Don't let these people hijack your life.

I'm sure there are other categories of time-wasters that could be given here, but the three above broadly describe the various kinds of people you will encounter who can get you off track.  Once you have identified them, how do you deal with them?

Principle 1:  Written confirmation of meetings and their purpose.  Don't ever, ever set a meeting with someone without confirming what it is you hope to accomplish.  Agree together on the agenda and goals, and do it in writing!

Principle 2: Expectations as to meeting outcomes. This is simple mutual accountability.  At the end of every staff meeting, those who work for me take away assignments, and so does their boss!  We all walk away knowing there is an expectation on each of us that those assignments will be completed before our next meeting.  

To be a good steward of time, you can't just know what you want to get done during the meeting.  You must also know what actions are expected to be generated as a result of the meeting.

Principle 3:  Refusal of subsequent meetings until prior commitments have been met.  Don't let Bob Wiley get away with coming to you over and over again while he accomplishes nothing.  If after a limited number of times together, it appears the other party is intentionally spinning their wheels, turn them loose in the ditch!  Just because they have no desire to get out of it doesn't mean you must be stuck there with them.

This doesn't mean that you don't leave the door open for them to come back.  But it does mean you are putting expectations on them BEFORE they can come back.  Several times in response to requesting a meeting I have asked "Have you accomplished X and Y since we last met?"  If the answer is no, then my response is simple.  "Well, once you get that accomplished, give my office a call and I'll be glad to meet with you about the next steps."

Principle 4:  Don't let it get to you.  Ever been pulled over by a police officer?  I have, and I don't remember a single time when that officer threw himself across the hood of my car in a fit of emotion, or yelled at me, or abused me in any way simply because I was breaking the speed limit.  In every situation, he calmly walked up to my window with his ticket book opened, and asked for my drivers license.

Why?  Because in those situations, the officer had the authority and power.  And when you have authority and power, you don't need to spend your emotions.

Developing a habit to saying "no" to time-wasters so you can say "yes" more often to the organization as a whole will inevitably tick some people off.  They will be annoyed with you.  Some will get upset with you.  In those moments when the nasty emails come accusing you of "not thinking I'm important," don't give in to the guilt trip.  And a sure-fire way to know if you have given in to guilt is if you allow your emotions to get the better of you.

You have the authority over the time God has given you to steward on this earth.  You cannot cede that to people who are demanding, and you don't have to get angry or otherwise emotional with them.  Just be the officer with the ticket book.  Don't be afraid to calmly say "I'm unavailable"  or "we can't meet until you have......" or "we need to clarify our purpose for getting together."

I work primarily with pastors, and though I love them, pastors are the worst at allowing others to hijack the time God has given them.  Of course there are emergencies, and when those emergencies happen, you respond to your people with the pastoral care and concern that they need.  But you also need to know how to define "emergency."  Many pastors have no clue, and as a result, fall prey to the time-wasters, who subsequently restrain them from serving the entire church well.  Your church does not revolve around the most demanding congregants.  It revolves around Jesus.  Make sure you behave accordingly, and you will model Christ-centered time management for your people.

What about you?  Who are the "time-wasters" in your professional life that you have to watch out for, and how are you ensuring that you aren't allowing them to divert your attention and turn you into a time-waster too?

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