Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tricking Yourself To Be Disciplined

Some people have the discipline to focus their energies on getting things done with relative ease. They don’t get side tracked easily, or find themselves wandering down an unexplored rabbit hole that leads to no where after two hours. It seems almost innate. I know it’s not, but some folks seem to have an easier time with this than others.

I’m not one of these people. I have to trick myself to be disciplined. I have to put my alarm clock on the other side of the room so that I’ll actually get out of bed to shut it off. I have schedule my prayers as daily service just to ensure that I do it. I have to write my sermon rough draft longhand just to overcome my perfectionist tendencies to procrastinate. (I’m an only child--so think first-born tendencies on steroids). Nothing that I do just comes about without planning it or tricking myself into doing it. It’s really annoying but it’s the only way I can get stuff done.

So if you find that you have similar difficulties, here’s a couple of resources that I found immensely helpful on getting things done.

First, the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. Reading this book made me feel like Mel Gibson in Braveheart: “FREEEEEDOMMMMM.” GTD helps put everything into perspective and tells you why there are things on the To Do list that never get off. There are two main premises to his book.

The first premise is to get everything out of your head and down on paper so that you can free up your brain for real thinking. Since more and more of our work is brain work not physical work, we need to a method for keeping it all straight. Starting, maintaining, and finishing multiple projects at a time can overload your brain and make you feel like completely overwhelmed. But with the GTD method you get that out of your head so that you can devote your brain to thinking that will actually get things done instead of spinning your wheels. But it also let you enjoy your days off because you know that you’re not forgetting anything because it’s all written down in the GTD format.

The second premise is that when you are making Task/To Do lists, you must do enough thinking to write down what the action is. Don’t write down the abstract, overarching project, but write down the very next thing you must do to get you one step closer to getting it done. So, for example, if I had to get an oil change for my car, I wouldn’t write down “Get oil change for Accord.” I would write “Call dealership to make Friday appointment for Accord’s oil change.” The difference between the two is that I’ll look at a Task List with “Get oil change for Accord” on it and think: “I don’t have time to do that now.” And so I won’t move any closer to getting it done. But if I see “Call dealership . . . .” I’ll think to myself, “Oh, I’ve got a minute that I can do that while I drive to my next homebound visit. You must do just enough thinking to write down the next action to DO. I know it seems silly, but it’s immensely helpful.

Here’s the Getting Things Done website for more information (

The other resource is helpful in managing bigger blocks of time. If you’ve ever gone home, thinking “what did spend all day doing?” This is for you. The resource is called The Pomodoro Technique ( Here’s how it works.

Look at your day to identify your available time. Determine how many 25-minute time blocks ("pomodoros") will fit in the time. Then assign work to those blocks. No single task can take more than 3-5 pomodoros. (If it does, you need to break the task into subtasks.) Between most pomodoros plan a short 2-3 minute break. Every few hours plan a longer break. Then during the day, time every pomodoro with a timer. Record the work, including changes to your plan, plus any problems keeping focused on the task for the full 25 minutes.

I know it sounds silly and really simple but it’s really helpful. It tricks you into getting things done. And this why: It provides a physical support structure that helps you execute several crucial mental processes: making a commitment, resisting interruptions, focusing on finishing, and monitoring progress.

Setting the timer helps you make the commitment to the work. You write down what you'll do during the pomodoro, and then you turn on the timer. That simple existential action embodies your choice to commit.

The running timer inoculates you against interruptions, because you are supposed to stop the timer if you stop work. That makes the choice to stop--to be interrupted--an active, conscious choice instead of a passive reaction. Plus, you know that you will have a short break soon, when you can deal with the interruption. All this motivates you to resist interruptions.

The running timer also helps you focus on achieving the goal. The mini-deadline every 25 minutes is a natural incentive to finish. You are more aware of how much time you are taking, and you are motivated to beat the clock, if you can.

Taking a short break to record what you did and clear your head helps you monitor the work and consider whether or not you are making the best use of your time. You become much more aware of how long a task is taking, and can stop yourself from going down the slippery slope, using up all your discretionary time for email or some other low-value task. The small breaks give you a chance to adjust your plan to meet the realities of the work.

Both these methods help you to be disciplined but offers some flexibility at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds for pastor types because sometimes you don’t have the mental stamina to write, but you can make phone calls. Or sometimes you don’t feel like talking to people but you are able to do reading or internet research for project X or Y or Z. They offer those tricks that help you stay focused so that you can unplug and be Dad or Son or Husband when you’re not at work.


  1. Thanks Jason. I'm one of these guys too, which drives my wife a little batty sometimes. I'll check out the book.

  2. Excellent. I especially like the pomodoro.

    Without fail I find that hauling my butt out of bed at 5:30 is what really makes the difference for me. If I can be alone for those morning hours its amazing what I can get done. But if I sleep in, my morning is kaput. For example, I got up a little after 7 today and here it is 8:30 and I'm just settling in. . .


  3. I can vouch for Getting Things Done (GTD). It's the only way I can relax at home because I know everything that must be done and whether it can wait or not. Otherwise I'd be freaking out all the time (which, as a new pastor, is my default state.)

  4. I have also found reading schedules to be very helpful. Thinking of reading a whole book, say, the Bible or Confessions, and it gets put off. But following a schedule with a few chapters or paragraphs a day, and that's doable. I recommend the daily lectionary in LW, and the reading schedule in Concordia: Reader's Edition. The best way I've found to keep my wandering mind in each of those places daily.

  5. I also second Getting Things Done. I've been following it for a little over a year and it has both helped me get more done and with a lot less stress. Thanks for the post Jason.


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