One of the things I’ve had to do over and over in my coaching of pastors is to remind them to focus on the major issues we’ve talked about instead of getting distracted time and time again.  Pastors appear to be extremely vulnerable to distractions due to their high desire to please people.  Often pastors have a high mercy gift which drives them more than the desire to be productive. So they will allow almost anyone in or out of the congregation to be a regular distraction from the things they really need to do in order to grow their church and their people.  Opps, there went the ding telling me I have a new email.  Will I answer it? If I do, I will break my train of thought and this article will take twice as long to write.  Opps, my dog just laid her chin on my leg in an effort to get some petting. What’s a guy to do- ignore his dog?

You see how difficult it is to remain focused on the task long enough to finish it in a timely fashion so you can go on to the next project.  But if you’re like me you will see the email first and pet the dog and by that time you have to re-focus on the task at hand which often means starting over.

Years ago when I first started consulting I was coaching a guy to fulfill the recommendations I had left the church after my consultation with them. I remember there were six or seven major recommendations but I told them that one recommendation was so important that if they didn’t do it first nothing else mattered.  A year later the pastor sent me a letter (before email) and said they had done all the recommendations except the first one and the church hadn’t grown. Of course, the first one was the recommendation that if they didn’t do it nothing else mattered. So I sent him a full page letter that had one word written over and over until the last sentence.  Imagine a letter with the word FOCUS written over and over until it ended “FOCUS on the first recommendation or nothing else matters”. He finally did and the church went from 300 to 500 over the next two years and then to 1100 within five more years. All he had to do was focus on the main thing.

So how does one remain focused on the major issues?

The first thing you must do is to decide what you can’t afford to not accomplish today, this week, and this month.  Most people have a “to do” list. Nothing wrong with that.  The problem begins when people start scratching off the easiest things on their list first as if the more they remove from the list the more productive they are. But nothing could be farther from the truth. What about that one item that is urgent and important? What about that one thing that if you don’t do nothing else matters.

I always had a “to do” list but I would rate each item 1 to 4 with 1 being urgent and important; 2 being important but not urgent; 3 urgent but not important; and 4 being not important and not urgent. And I tried to never have more than six or seven things on my “to do” list at any one time.

Second, you will get more done if you work on one thing at a time.  I know. People talk about kids multi-tasking.  However, the school grades of that generation are some of the lowest in our history. A British study shows that “Workers distracted by phone calls, e-mails and text messages suffer a greater loss of IQ than persons smoking marijuana.”The constant interruptions reduce productivity and leave people feeling tired and lethargic, according to a survey carried out by TNS Research and commissioned by Hewlett Packard.

Third, tackle the most important and urgent issues at the time of day that you are the most productive.  Some people think better in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some during the night. I know many a time I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night and worked on a project.

Fourth, set your own agenda each day and stick to it unless you face a real emergency. This recommendation is especially important for pastors since it’s not uncommon for every lay person in a church, especially a small church, to feel as if their agenda should also be the pastor’s agenda. When working on a major project such as your sermon, shut your office door; tell your secretary to tell people you are in conference with someone; go home; or find a quiet spot like a library. Do whatever it takes to give you an hour and half uninterrupted time.  Then take a short break – walk around the room, get a drink, anything to make your body move and your brain disengage for a short time. Numerous studies suggest that working at a project longer than an hour and half makes a person less effective.

Fifth, never work beyond 50 hours a week – unless it’s one of those times when you just can’t keep it under 50 hours, but don’t have more than two or three of those times a year. Working beyond 50 hours a week actually drops a person’s IQ not to mention greatly increases their risk of alcohol abuse. So take some time off and spend time at home with the family or on the golf course or whatever floats your boat.

Sixth, learn the fine art of saying “No.” Of all the recommendations this may be the hardest one of all.  Because of our desire to help or our need to be needed many pastors find it almost impossible to say “No.”  But every time you say “Yes” to something that you know isn’t important you are diluting your ability to focus on the main issues.

Seventh, slow down your pace of life.  Researchers at the University of Virginia found that fast-paced cartoons like Sponge-Bob affect a child’s short-term attention span. It also affects their ability to solve problems and exercise self-control.  The authors say slower-paced cartoons help teach children to focus. Whereas there hasn’t been any such study on adults, the odds are it will cause the same problem with adults. I know. Adults don’t watch Sponge-Bob, or at least I hope they don’t, but some of us do tend to watch fast paced movies and dare I say it – play video games.

Eighth, reduce or eliminate the clutter in your life (now I’ve gone to meddle with how I keep my office). Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published the results of a study they conducted in the January issue of The Journal of Neuroscience that says in laymen’s terms that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. They go on to say that clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, “candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy …” Even though you might be able to focus a little, you’re still aware that a screaming toddler is also vying for your attention. So clean up your office.

This is the hardest advice for me to swallow because my office is always a mess. I tell my wife that even though it is a mess I know exactly where everything is in the mess (I’ve found that to be a small lie several times as I rummaged through stacks of paper to find that one document I can’t live without finding).

These are just some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years to increase my own ability to focus. Opps, there goes that ding again.

Now where was I?