Teach us to number our days

As we continue our time management series, graduate student William Pennock shares his thoughts. Like many of the topics we publish on, time management is an area that combines opportunities for practical growth and spiritual formation. Our goal is to encourage readers to steward the gift of time God has given us, using it to love God and others and live out Christ’s Kingdom. You can click here for the rest of the time management series.

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I once attended a seminar on time management where the speaker eschewed any one time management technique in favor of the axiom that right priorities will lead to right time management. In principal, I agree: priorities are at the heart of time management, and they are the guide in choosing boundaries and sacrifices wisely. Besides that, there is no universal time management technique. Rather, you will find that each has advantages and disadvantages, and there is no shortage of techniques that people will advocate.

I ran with that axiom for a while without picking a technique. What I found was that, though I was able to be flexible and adapt my schedule quickly to changing needs, I generally didn’t have clear direction for my day. As a result, I lacked a clear definition of my priorities, and I would often give deference to urgent priorities in favor of the important ones that didn’t demand my immediate attention. This whack-a-mole approach had been quite effective in undergraduate for me, but left something to be desired in graduate school, where efforts need to be sustained over the course of months with few imposed deadlines.

What I needed to be doing was consciously and explicitly deciding on my priorities every day. It has taken me some time to develop this habit, but it has made a tremendous difference for me. The breakthrough for me came through Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In Habit 3, Put First Things First, he recommends crafting a personal mission statement and revisiting it every week at the beginning of the week. After revisiting the mission statement and revising if necessary, he advocates listing out all of the roles you will fill that week and setting goals to achieve that week. In that way, you consider your time holistically and also proactively set goals for yourself based on that understanding.

Although I had learned this strategy, it took me a long time to practically implement it. What has finally worked for me is spending time every Sunday adding tasks to each of several lists pertaining to roles I have (e.g., Servant of God, Researcher, Student). I add new goals, remove ones that no longer make sense, and add or take away deadlines depending on whether it is a priority to meet a particular goal that week. If there are any goals that need a set amount of time set aside for them, I add them to my calendar (I use iCloud Calendar). So, I start the week with an ideal plan for how the week will go and how I can best steward all of the roles God has given me.

To set my vision for each day, I start every morning revisiting and revising my calendar and to-do list so that I start the day with a vision of what I will do. I find this helps me to understand both the limitations and the possibilities of the day in a way that helps me to make wiser choices about where my time goes. I do this after devotions but before I’ve left for work, so that my priorities are hopefully set right but my day is not so far along that it has too much momentum in any one direction.

And, as you can imagine, it never goes according to plan. I use a calendar that is easy to edit so that I can simply slide around events or delete them as needed. Any to-dos that are left over, I make a decision the next day whether they take precedence for the day or if they can be put off further to make room for the day’s tasks.

So far, this system has been able to help me keep my priorities straight and live according to goals I’ve set with God’s help rather than according to impulses or the demands of others. One of the most important things it has helped me to do is to go to bed on time. I find that if I don’t go to sleep on time, my plan for the next day is off from the beginning (either tired and unfocused or getting up late and cutting into my schedule), so one of the most crucial priorities I need to set is going to bed at a regular time. I was reflecting on this recently and was reminded of Psalm 90 where Moses prays, “So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom,” (NASB). I realized that all the years I spent in undergrad and in the beginning of graduate school staying up however late I needed to finish a project, I was in a sense living as if the day didn’t have an end. It could expand to be however long I needed it to be. In Moses’ prayer, we see by implication that thinking of time that way is foolishness. If we live our days as though they will not end, it is analogous to living our lives as though they will not end, which is short-sighted. To deal with our time wisely, we need to treat it as a non-renewable resource.

As a bonus, here’s a tip I’ve found recently. An important component of the time management strategy I’ve described, and indeed any time management strategy, is the creation of good habits. I’ve found forming some habits harder than others, but a tool I’ve recently found that has helped me a lot is Habitica, an app and website that gamifies your habits, so you get rewarded for cultivating your habits and punished for neglecting them. I found role-playing games (RPGs) addictive when I was younger, and so this app takes that latent weakness and channels it as motivation to do what I’m supposed to do. At least for my psychology, it’s surprisingly effective. I’d recommend you check it out!

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William Pennock

William Pennock is a graduate student in the AguaClara Program at Cornell University, where he is pursuing his passion of researching better drinking water treatment technologies. He works with Leonard Lion and Monroe Weber-Shirk on a research project to model and improve the design of baffled hydraulic flocculators with the goal of making AguaClara treatment plants more compact and efficient. When he is not researching, William likes to climb trees, mountain bike, and carve wood.

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