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The Undistracted Life
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By Dan Appel

I’ve never been a real fan of Tony Robbins, the “self-help” guru. But, when a free subscription to his business newsletter came with a printer I purchased a while back, I decided to opt in and see what he had to say. I have to admit, I have learned a lot - especially in those editions devoted to “Time and Life” and how to be more effective in our professional and personal lives. I thought I would pass on a couple of helpful ideas that apply to the life of busy pastors. 

Chunking
Chunking is defined as “grouping together information into ideally sized pieces, so that they can be used effectively to produce the outcome you want without stress or shutdown” - in other words it is the process of turning more into less.

It is Robbins’ contention that the number-one skill that will allow you to succeed at anything (while minimizing stress) is the ability to take a variety of action items and group them together, focusing them and aligning them towards a coherent and cohesive result.

“A major source of stress in our lives,” he contends, “comes from the feeling that we have an impossible number of things to do” and become overwhelmed. It is like trying to eat a whale in one bite, he goes on, rather than breaking it down into bite sized pieces and then grouping those pieces into clusters of desired outcomes - each cluster having at maximum three individual elements.

For instance, and here I am adapting his business oriented example to the life of a pastor, let’s say my to-do list includes: exercise, pick up dry cleaning, prep for church board meeting, visit a shut-in member, drop by the hospital, buy new running shoes, call my son, pull together the material for the church bulletin, decide what I am preaching on and start the outline, help my wife with the dishes, run through my karate forms, do this month’s and last month’s conference reports.

If you take a minute to examine the list, it starts breaking down into chunks with clearly recognizable chunks - improve my health (karate, running shoes, exercise), administrative tasks (reports, bulletin, prep for church board), family (help with the dishes, pick up the dry cleaning, call my son) and so forth.

When you start thinking of your to-dos as clusters of desired outcomes, you’ll keep stress at bay and learn to focus on your larger goals rather than getting overwhelmed with the minutiae. The same, he goes on, can work in reverse when faced with a huge, amorphous target. Simply reverse the process, he advises, and break it down into chunks.

Being Present
One of the greatest down sides of our modern electronic world is the pressure on all of us to multi-task! We all carry phones which we feel obliged to answer anytime, anywhere. We check our email, literally dozens of dozens of times daily. In her amazing book, “Mastermind, how to think like Sherlock Holmes,” Anna Konnikova describes the devastating effect of multi-tasking on our lives. Numerous studies back up what she says.

It is becoming an accepted fact that when people try to do two or more things simultaneously they do not operate at full capacity. In fact, multi-tasking decreases your productivity by at least 40% and, according to the Harvard Business Review, lowers your IQ by 10 points (Something most of us pastors can’t afford!).

So, where can we start getting control of our distracted lives?  Here are four ideas I have adapted from Tony Robbins—

  Pay attention to how you start your day. Make a hard and fast rule not to use any electronics for at least 30 minutes after you wake up. Instead of checking your email or texts or the news (the world will really continue to spin if you don’t know what is happening for a little while), wait until you have done the really important things. Start your day with intentional, mindful prayer. Spend some quality time with God in the Bible and/or a good devotional book. Drink a big glass of water, take a few deep breaths, get some exercise, then think about all of the things you are excited about in the day ahead.

1.    Set up your schedule with clear boundaries so that the different facets of your life (work, home, personal) don’t get mixed together. Whatever you are doing, be there; be completely present; be focused; 100%. Remember the “chunks” from above.

2.    Create “electronics-free” zones in your life. Intentionally choose times in your day when you close your email, turn off your cell phone, and are 100% focused and present in the moment to experience life. Imagine for a minute how this will impact your next evening with your wife or your experience of your daughter’s soccer practice.

3.    Intentionally build blocks of “power time” into your schedule. How long has it been since you took even 10 quality minutes to go over yesterday and think about what went well and what could have been done differently. Or, how long has it been since you stopped and spent a couple of hours thinking about your life and your relationship with God, your family, etc.; or how long has it been since you thought seriously about what God created you specifically for? How long has it been since you have pondered what the bigger outcomes and priorities in your life are, how you wish to accomplish them and how you are making progress in making them a reality? Or, how long has it been since you took the time to sit by a mountain stream and just meditate?

These should be the most productive times of your day! Think about it: “Professional athletes don’t stop and check their email or attend a meeting when they are in the middle of a game. They have their pre-game routine, their game plan, and then it’s their job to go out and execute with full intensity.”    

Maybe it’s time we start emulating them!

Dan Appel is the senior pastor of the Auburn, CA Church