Article Feb 17, 2016

Is scheduling a spiritual discipline?

Could your calendar app be part of faithfulness in the Christian life?

In some respects the question seems ridiculous, but it points to one of the most helpful realizations I have come to over the last several years when it comes to loving my family and leading at my job. What I’ve realized is that far too many of us put a great deal of forethought into what we do at our jobs, but we put far less thought into the other areas of responsibility in our lives.

This is a problem, first of all, because our life is a stewardship, and being faithfully on mission in the world requires strategy and planning. As Christians, our lives and livelihoods are gifts of grace for which we will account, but we’re not merely responsible in life for those duties listed in our job description. I am an employee but I’m also a Christian, church member, husband, and father, among other things, and God has called me to faithfulness in all these areas.

Secondly, we’re fallen creatures, and we must be aggressive in combating our own sinful hearts. This means being strategic with our time across all of our areas of responsibility and guarding against lethargy and selfishness. Many of us take this kind of strategic approach with respect to our work lives: plan your day, or others’ needs will plan it for you. And yet even if we are diligent in planning our work it can be easy to fail to bring that same intentionality to bear in other areas of our lives. It’s easy to think that since we have to be “on” at work, we get to be “off” at home and don’t have to be as focused. But husbands, what are we saying to our wives if we are hyper-conscientious about how we plan our workdays but not our date nights? Parents, what are we expressing to our children when our work gets undivided attention, but we’re distant at home, glued to a television or phone because we need time to “decompress”?

This is not to say life should be devoid of spontaneity. But we must remember that the Christian life is a life of warfare. We are called to wage war against sin and must resist the temptation towards passivity. Strategic planning, then, is one concrete way we can fight sin and serve Christ more effectively. Here’s how I accomplish this.

1. Plan your week, not your day.

I take 30 minutes with my wife every Sunday night and make a plan for the week ahead, considering what I want my life to look like by the same time next week. The list is simple. It’s just a basic to do list in which I list out anything I want to accomplish that week over and above what’s already on my calendar. The important element here is that it is the week that I plan and not just the next day. This is because, for one, I tend to be overambitious about what I think I can accomplish in a given day, and making a plan for the week frees me from growing discouraged when enough boxes aren’t checked at the end of a day; it also offers margin so when the unexpected arises and my day takes an unexpected turn I don’t feel like everything is lost. More than that, having a week in view rather than just a day allows me to think about what kind of progress I want to make on big goals and projects. It’s easy to overestimate how much you can do in a day, but it’s also easy to underestimate how much you can accomplish in a week. Make the week your basic unit of measurement and you spare yourself the unnecessary effort of making endless lists; you also naturally begin to think in broader categories of long-term effectiveness rather than short-term requirements.

2. Review your roles.

This weekly planning starts with a quick review of my roles. I have a simple list saved on my computer that has listed across it every area in my life in which the Lord has entrusted me responsibilities—to name a few, Christian, Church member, Husband, Father, Employee, Boss, Friend, etc. I try to make sure I’m thinking through these categories when I put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and I’m writing out a list. The point in this is simply to make sure I’m attending to everything the Lord has called me to. Every week looks different, and I’m not trying to devote equal time to each of these categories. Faithfulness is the goal, not some elusive quest for “balance.” What this review does is simply help me keep my entire life in view and not just what seems most pressing at the moment.

3. Draft your list.

Start making your weekly list by asking yourself the question, “What do I know I need to do this week?” Think through your week, and take a look at your calendar to remind you of what you’re already committed to that week (e.g., meetings, conference calls, church events, family activities, etc.). Then list what else you know you need to do that week—whether tasks, conversations, or reminders. Make sure these items are concrete, next-step actions: “Talk to Tom about communications budget needs,” never just “Budget.” Use whatever tool you like but keep it simple and accessible. If it’s complicated to use or access you’re less likely to stick with it.

4. Plan your investments.

The most important step in the planning is the answer to the question, “Where can I invest myself this week?” This is when I make the move from getting stuff done to making sure I’m living my life well. Up until this point I’m just listing out tasks, but here I’m moving from details to the big picture. For work, I look at my list of things I need to do and ask myself, “What else is there I need to do to make the biggest difference?” or “How can I get these things done most efficiently?” At this point I will often take a look at my task list and block off certain times on the calendar so I can focus on high-yield work projects, or create space to where I can bundle several things together and get things done more quickly. But, more importantly, I’m also thinking about other areas of my life, and I ask myself questions like, “How can I surprise my wife this week?” or “What is something special this week I can do for my daughters that will create a lasting memory?” As I think through the answers to these questions I build in and protect time in the week to make sure I carry through. This step, more than any other, makes sure the urgent in one area of my life does not overtake all the others.

In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the elder demon Screwtape counsels his demon nephew Wormwood in the art of distraction. He comments that one of the “patients” he successfully led to destruction commented upon entering Hell, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” For those of us in Christ, living our lives faithfully and investing our time for maximum kingdom effectiveness is at the core of our mission. So we must be on guard against an Enemy who will seek to lull and to distract, and we should be diligent to use whatever means necessary to remain focused on all the fields of ministry the Lord has given us access to. In some respects, then, the pathway into spiritual warfare may start with something as simple as opening your to do list.