Getting things done. How do vicars do it?


I’ve always been a big picture thinker. When I was an engineer, in my previous life, I loved designing steel frames for buildings but I hated detailing the connections. I moved from design to marketing and sales, and there I loved the challenge of positioning my company in the market by brand and reputation, quality of product, innovation and value, but I hated the detail of contract negotiation and fine print. And so it comes as no surprise that I love big picture thinking as a vicar but loath the detail. That is beginning to change and it is having beneficial effects on the way I feel about work.

My tiredness of last year can be attributed to a number of things, in part, my own inability to organise church life in detail. As a big picture thinker I am naturally drawn to read books on leadership, strategy, planning and vision. This blog is filled with evidence of my big picture reading habits with notes from books like Church Unique, Hit the Ground Kneeling and Mentoring Leaders, as well as attending courses like Leadership in a Changing Church. All this is well and good, but much of what I have read is intuitive to me, all the books and courses have helped achieve is a degree of extra clarity and, perhaps, fed my unrealistic expectations.

What I should have been reading, and it has taken three years for me to discover this, are books on organisation of the detail. That’s why “Getting things Done” by David Allen has been such a tonic. I’ve seen where the gaps have been in my thinking and am putting in practice what detailed thinkers do intuitively.  Simple changes have made all the difference in the world:

  1. I’ve ordered my paperwork into two folders, which makes like simpler, “paper communication which needs dealt with this week.” and “paper communication which needs dealing with after this week.”
  2. My tasks and appointments are collected on Google calendar and Google Task organiser and processed in my Filofax.  I was already doing this but now do it better. I now collect all my “stuff”, as Allen calls it, so that I have nothing in my head which I need to remember and this simple change in practice has provided the greatest stress relief.
  3. I’ve been given a label for what I already do with paper and emails etc. “Do it, defer it, delegate it, drop it.”  I recite this chatchy phrase as information comes my way.
  4. I’ve come to see that everyone struggles with organisation.
  5. I have a new model for grouping what I need to do, which works for me because it is visual, using the concept of altitude.  We need to see organisation from different levels:

over 50,000 ft: from this viewpoint we see our grand purpose.  What are we here for, what drives us and shapes our decisions?
40,000 ft: our three to five year goals. What are we doing to move in the direction of our grand purpose?
30,000 ft: our one to two year goals? What do we have to achieve this year?
20,000 ft: Areas of responsibility. Strategy, planning, leadership development, ministry review and my own personal wellbeing (spiritual, physical and emotional).
10,000 ft: Current projects. What am I working on, what needs to be done to move this project or that project along? I’ve made groups on Google Task Organisers for project management.
On the ground: What are my immediate actions? Phone calls, meetings, visits, preparation for teaching, preaching or worship, teaching and worship. And there’s one more category in current actions: interruptions. Those unplanned phone calls, drop-in visits at the vicarage and requests for my attention.

As a big thinker, lots of my mental energy is spent on potential. I naturally fly at 50,000ft to 30,000ft. Getting Things Done has helped be see the importance of doing the on the ground stuff well. I can see, more clearly than before, the need to concentrate effort, against my intuitive way of working, on current projects and on giving more time to things up to 20,000ft responsibilities. I can occasionally, or periodically, fly up to 30, 40 and 50,000 ft but I need to be more grounded.  This also helps me see the importance of the detailed thinkers in church, the organisers who hover between ground level and 20,000ft.  We need each other.

Tomorrow, I’ll post on how this has helped me redefine “success”.

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