Tag Archives: productivity

do something concrete.

Yesterday a friend said to me,

“I’m busy. I’m gone all day and it takes an hour each way to get to work. But I’d like to do something that’s ministry.”

Ministry is a church word. It means that a person wants to do something around church, related to church. It usually means being a Sunday school teacher or being an usher or shoveling the driveway or being on a committee.

I don’t like that meaning. I like to push people out of the building, help them work in lives.

I said, “What delights you? What do you love to do?”

“Sleep,” my friend said, smiling. She’s got good reason. She works hard and has much on her heart.

“If we ever start a nap ministry, I’ll call you,” I said. “Do you like to send cards?”

“I used to.”

“Send cards to two people this week and then ask me the question again next week.”

We agreed on two names of people who could benefit from her touch and I walked away.

In the past I would have said, “let me think about it and get back to you.” In the past I would have said, “let’s look at a brochure.” In the past I would have taken the burden of involvement on my shoulders.

But the most important thing for her to do is to actually do something. This week. That will help someone else. In her timeframe.

I think that having written about Switch the day before helped. Scripting the critical moves in this case meant helping my friend move from a vague “I want to do something” to “here’s what I can do this week.”

Make it clear. Make it simple. Make it doable.

Then help someone do something.


Also see Put it on the list


put it on paper

Last weekend, my friend Paul gave me a pencil. It’s a great pencil. It’s an expensive pencil, at least as pencils go.

It is tempting to leave my new, cool, sentimental, expensive pencil on the desk. It will remind me of a growing friendship. It would be good stewardship.

It would be dumb.

levenger pencil resting on a pad of paperPencils are not made to look at. They are made to write. In fact, given the choice between a really cool pencil on the shelf and a stubby little golf pencil in someone’s hand creating a metaphor that is going to give some young woman freedom to change the world, a smart person would choose the stubby little golf pencil.

On the other hand, if you decide to actually use the cool pencil, amazing things can happen. You can write more words with the cool pencil. You can write more comfortably with the cool pencil. If you have such a pencil and decide to take it everywhere and take notes and write notes to be sent and generate lists of relationships, lists of metaphors, lists of hope–that would really be good stewardship.

Because, Chris and Julien said last week, you have to put it on paper. The great idea, the helpful thought, the business concept, the picture that will help someone understand their business process or their family structure–you have to put it on paper.

It’s Saturday morning. I’m preaching tomorrow morning, something I do two or three times a year. I have great ideas for tomorrow, some ideas that will, I hope, give some moms feeling great pressure to be perfect some hope.

But thinking I have great ideas, writing about those great ideas, that won’t help anyone.

To make a difference I have to take that cool pencil (or this old laptop) and the idea, and put it on paper.

I’ll talk to you later. Go change the world in the meantime. One pencil mark at a time.

focus is picking

I have a stack of books to read. I have deadlines for some of them. I have personal learning needs for others of them.

I read several books at a time. I have them in every space I occupy. I carry them in my briefcase. I always have.

My problem is that by reading many, I seldom finish any. I sample and browse and skim and and lose track.

I’m realizing this week that if I want to meet my deadlines, I have to focus. I have to pick one book and finish it. And then pick another book. I’m trying to limit how many I carry with me.

I’m considering changing how I “always work” for the sake of getting something done.

So I’ll be reading The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller.

Then I’ll be reading Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them by Ed Stetzer (not published yet. That’s why I have it).

Then I’ll be reading … other books.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

And I’m curious, does focus always mean one thing at a time?


Mark Forster describes the AutoFocus system which lists everything and has you pick one thing at a time. Feels friendlier to me, and less complicated, than David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Monday list.

A couple weeks ago, I discovered that there are 3×5 cards with squares instead of lines. More accurately, they are printed as graph paper rather than notebook paper.

I was thrilled.

I think in pictures, in charts, in drawings on napkins. Ideas are related to each other as blocks rather than as lines. These cards let me capture that.

What they don’t let me capture is what needs to be done.

That isn’t the fault of the cards, that is the “fault” of the card creator, the thinker, me. I’ve been jotting notes and lists and blocks of information on cards for the past two weeks and none of it was getting onto a coherent list of tasks.

So I took my pile of cards, of scraps, of notes (lower left in the picture) and they are all in a google documents file called “list for may 11 week.” (If you really want to see that list to find out if YOUR project is on MY list, email me and I’ll share the file with you). I’m starting to work through the list in my usual non-linear manner.


1. Find the way to capture thinking that suits how your brain thinks. If pictures, use picture capturing paper. If mindmaps, then use mindmapping software. If lists, use lists. If on a really big white board, then have Matthew hang your new whiteboard on the wall of your office. (Wait. Sorry. That was something on MY list).

2. Find the way to interface that capture technology with kind and timing of output the rest of the world needs. Some of my thinking needs to be available in the form of emails, posts, summaries. Some of it needs to be available in the form of answers for other people. Some of it needs to be available in the form of gifts and affirmations. Some of it needs to be available in the form of timeliness. I need to process that through to how THEY/YOU need the information.

3. Make the list isn’t doing the work. I’m going to try the “change the world in an hour” technique I used last week one day. Enough hours will get something significant done.

4. Writing the post about the process isn’t doing the process.

Oops. Okay. Bye.

8 ways to change the world in an hour

I had an hour today.

Like most days, I had 24 hours today. But in the middle of the afternoon I realized that there was nothing scheduled for the next while. As I thought about that hour–coming with a messy desk, headache-medicine clouded brain, no immediately pressing tasks–I began to wonder whether I could think about changing the world in that hour.

Some people can, by virtue of their proximity to cataclysmic technology, can change the world in seconds. That’s not me. Some people can, by virtue of their proximity to communicative networks, can change the world in minutes. (A truth or a lie can travel quickly, shaping markets). I, having none of those at hand, am left with hours or more for my changes.

I let twitter know what I was doing and turned to my hour.

1. Decide to not wait for information. I can spend an hour checking email, twitter, RSS readers and back again. By not doing that for an hour, I am changing my personal time world. I’m having the opportunity to not react. Total time: 0.

2. Fix a projector. One of our video projectors was not working properly. I searched on-line for the manual, found the fix, and went upstairs to fix it. Total time: 7 minutes. World-changing potential? It simplifies life for the teacher using that projector. What he is teaching will change the world of the people in that class. [The obvious application is to look for something simple to repair that can ease someone else’s life.]

3. Rewrite a letter. I’m working on some material for an information packet, letting people know what we are about as a church. I did a draft last night, got comments from Nancy, and took time to rewrite it today. Total time: 15 minutes. World-changing potential? It helps people interested in us know what we are about. The clearer the statement, the quicker they and we discover whether we fit. That saves all of us time, not for the sake of time, but for the sake of helping people grow well.

4. Finish reminder cards for staff. In our staff meeting today we talked about 50 ways to say thank you to volunteers for less than $5. After our listing process, our boss said, “How do we move from information to application.” I took a picture of the board, put it on a card, printed copies for everyone with a message about following up. Time spent: 5 minutes of my hour. World changing potential? First, I finished something. That always rocks my world. Second, as our staff look at them and then follow-through by thanking volunteers specifically, the work being done to change lives will be fostered. Third, the behavior we are modeling will cascade.

5. Send three emails. Short emails clarifying information. 1 answered a question allowing someone to follow-up. 1 took care of a scheduling question. 1 allowed 2 people to stop worrying about a problem. Time spent: 4 minutes.

6. Make a list of next projects. Write a thank you note, rearrange your desk so you can find things, identify tomorrow’s tasks. These aren’t things that get DONE in the hour, but they change how I plan to interact with the world after the hour is over.

7. Make a list of several ways to change the world in an hour. Teaching people is always a way to help. By documenting what I did, I can help you figure out incremental ways to change your world.

8. Discover that by making the announcement on twitter, I started conversations with people around the country. @paulswansen, @beckymccray, @stumark all were checking on me. Stepping away made stepping back feel good. And talking to them changed my world.


If you read closely through that list, a number of things aren’t done. Things are revised but not finished, not distributed, not available. Tasks are planned but not done. Equipment is fixed, but not in use. In a sense, the world didn’t change at all in that hour. In fact, unless I follow-through, I run the risk of being worse off than before because I THINK I got something done.

Or that’s what a productivity cynic would say.

I think I did pretty well. And so can you…if you take an hour and try to change the world…rather than just spending that hour at work.

Warning lights

My morning commute takes about twenty minutes these days, slightly more if you include the time it takes to take our daughter to school. I was on that drive this morning, lost in thought, when I looked down and saw a warning light: “Service Engine Soon.”

From looking in the manual in the past, I know that this means that there is something about the “breathing system” of the car that needs attention sometime.

Buried in that last sentence is an important note to insightful readers.

“How do you know what it says in the manual?”

I know because I looked the last time this warning light came on.

“So, what was wrong with the car that time?”

I don’t know.


Because I didn’t take it in. The light went out by itself.

“How long ago was that?”

Um, maybe a couple months.

“So, could we safely assume that the ‘soon’ referred to in the light has passed?

Well, I suppose so. But the light went out. I figured that it was okay.

“Do you really believe that cars fix themselves?”


Ironically–or not–at the time I was driving I was thinking about the walk that I wasn’t having with Nancy at that moment. I wanted to get to work so I had some time before staff meeting, to work on….something or other. Of course, tonight I won’t be able to walk because it is Wednesday and I have responsibilities at church. And tomorrow morning I can’t walk because I have an appointment. And Monday night I couldn’t walk because I had a meeting.

But last night, and tomorrow night, and yesterday morning…..

The point of our walking is to provide both fitness and relationship, to maintain balance between work and the rest of life. I, along with many people around me, have the capacity to pour enormous amounts of attention into being at work, regardless of our productivity while there (this post, for example, is being written…at work.) The unfortunate reality is that the only person making me come in this morning, the only person saying that I had to be in significantly before staff meeting, the only person telling me that drivenness is okay is…me. Not the people around me. Not God.


In fact, at a meeting earlier this week, someone asked God to help a couple of us to know stillness, to not be so consumed by doing that we have nothing to say, nothing to give, nothing to be.

If I were a meddling sort, I’d ask you whether you have an ignored “service engine soon” light shining on the dashboard of your life. However, I have to take care of my own warning lights first. The good thing, however, about a light that says “soon” is that if offers hope, far more hope than you have when the engine suddenly stops. I take both the warning on my heart and my car seriously right now.

Excuse me while I make a couple of phone calls.

Significant dirt

Three starting observations:

  • I’ve had two brief conversations in the last couple of days with friends who are struggling with motivation, who are drifting Both have recently finished times of preparation, each have had significant changes in their lives during the past months.
  • I heard that today is the most depressed day of the year, with a convergence of Christmas bills coming due, the weather proving that it is in fact winter (and Groundhog Day itself is still a couple weeks off), and the demise of many of our resolutions, even those made half-heartedly.
  • Many friends, whether I see them online or offline, want to live lives of significance, lives that matter. We look at productivity and time-management and planning as ways to function more more efficiently (doing things right) and effectively (doing the right things). And still, even as we get the methods working right, we still have a deep longing to matter.

The jar in the picture holds dirt. It is, in fact, red clay from Georgia, not unlike the red hills of Georgia dreamed of by Dr. King.

Several years ago, we were passing through Atlanta on our way to Indiana from Florida. We realized that we could stop at the King historical site. We went to the museum, or visitor center, or whatever it was called. We looked at exhibits. We walked across the street to the Ebenezer Baptist Church (it wasn’t much different from First Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, not much bigger, about the same age, pretty functional). We walked to the library, looked at the fountain, bought a t-shirt. And then we walked back to the car to start driving again.

As we got near the car, we walked past a couple construction sawhorses, protecting us from a sidewalk construction site. Next to the hole was a pile of dirt. Red dirt. Red clay of Georgia.

(And so I now confess to the world that I stole three clods of red Georgia clay from a National Park system-operated visitor center parking area.)

The pickle jar of dirt sits in my office to remind me that significance lies not in the substance. This jar of clay means nothing by itself. However, when it reminds me of the words

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

this jar reminds me that I am in the same battle, the same challenge, the same dream. My life, my passion, my dream is about that reconciliation, the bringing people together with each other and with God.

What it also reminds me, however, is that there are parts of that process that are not covered in the visitor center, in the carefully curated version of biography. Dr. King’s life is only partially captured in the pictures and words we see in the displays. A walk through the church doesn’t show the hours he spent in study, in prayer, in wrestling with God and with himself. The”Letter from Birmingham Jail” shows only the fruit, not the drudgery and ridicule. The crew building the sidewalk was made up of individual people who were working together to help bring people safely to the visitor center, but they have no plaque.

The hours we spend drifting, the days we spend wondering what we are supposed to do, the years we spend on significance, are, in fact, significant. HOW we spend that time, how we talk with others, whether we talk with God, how quickly we respond when we know clearly what to do, how often we deaden our senses rather than using them, how much time we justify rather than redeem, I think these things matter.

As soon as I finish this post, I’m turning to that evaluation. I’m planning to look at how much time I spent here in my office last week, and then to turn to the question of how much of that time was invested…not in productivity but in purpose. I may tell you the result, I may not. What I will tell you is this: since my body will one day return to dust, like this red clay, I want my life to remind people of my dream, of God’s desire, of reconciliation to Himself.

I want to be significant dirt.

8 ways to waste your blogging time.

Yes, I know that blogging is never a waste of time. But we can waste the time we spend on blogging.

1. Never tell anyone how your posts are connected to each other.
Liz Straus wrote a wonderful post about internal links which changed my posts…and changed my traffic. Go read it and then come back. And to see an example, look at the bottom of this post.

2. Write a draft and then never publish it because it isn’t ‘perfect’.
This is a conversation, after all. Invite our conversation rather than waiting to wow us with a work of art.

3. Try to figure out how to attract more people to your blog.
Shouldn’t you be spending your time writing, thinking, and living life so that you have something to actually say?

4. Check your statistics incessantly.

5. Decide that blogging isn’t real writing.
For many of us, writing is how we think, how we find out what we know and who we are and whether we believe what we say we believe. A blog is a perfect place for all of those things to be true. But if it merely is a place to rant, to vent, to blather, to spout…then you are missing a perfect opportunity…to write.

6. Spend months searching for your voice.
If you just write and live, your voice will find you. I promise.

7. Assume that people will be able to find you again in the equally random way they found you the first time.
Use tags. Make a subscription link. Send emails to the people who comment. Build a relationship with as many people as you can. And don’t worry about making your community bigger than you can relate to.

8. Decide that just because the title is 8 ways, that you have to spend hours finding that perfect last point.
Maybe it is staring you in the face.


I’m writing a series of 8 ways posts. Here are some of them:

To ruin your day
To be thanked
To increase your stress

To explain 2.0 friends to 0.0 parents
To lose your faith
To make yourself angry
To make yourself jealous
To make yourself depressed
To ruin your marriage

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