Four Lessons in Fruitful Time-Management
Acts of love don’t just happen.
At times we may experience the power of the Spirit in such a way that some good deed seems to flow naturally from our heart, through our hands, to the benefit of others. But plucking a ripe raspberry from the bush in a moment doesn’t mean that it just appeared. Weeks and months of sunlight and rain, proper nutrients and right conditions, went into the slow daily growth of good fruit. And so it is with our acts of love for the good of others.
There is a process to the production of love, as the apostle Paul counsels his protégé Titus: “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14). Good works don’t just happen. Meeting the needs of others doesn’t appear out of thin air. There is a process — a learning — to devote ourselves to good.
And one significant “spiritual discipline” is learning to manage our time in the mission of love, both in terms of proactive scheduling and planned flexibility. Previously, we suggested “fairly rigid blocks for our proactive labors, along with generous margin and planned flexibility to regularly meet the unplanned needs of others.” Now to the tune of making that more specific, here are four lessons in fruitful time-management, for the mission of love.
1. Consider your calling.
God has gifted each of us for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). He empowers a variety of gifts, services, and activities among his people (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). In terms of our professional “calling,” often we find it easier to identify what it is God might be moving us toward in the future, rather than what he has presently called us to today. For instance, it can be difficult for the business student, sensing a “call” to one day do business for the glory of God, to realize that his present calling is that of a student, even as he moves toward his perceived future call in business.
Our professional calling — that regular endeavor for which God has designed our head, heart, and hands for some particular season of life — flows not only from our own aspirations and the affirmations of others, but also from a tangible opportunity. One of us might feel the call to some new profession, and have the happy approval of those who know us best, but until some specific door swings open, and we have the live opportunity to begin operating in that field, that calling remains future — and we neglect our previous charge to the detriment of our joy and the good of others.
2. Plan with big stones.
Next, in light of God’s calling on us today, identify the key priorities that make up that calling. Typically, these priorities will be considerably compromised, if not abandoned altogether, if we don’t plan for them with some intentionality.
Some have called these “the big stones” (Manage Your Day-to-Day, 197). Our little pebbles are the smaller things to which we regularly give time but don’t contribute directly to the main priorities of our calling. If we put the big stones first into the jar of our schedule, we’ll be able to fill the cracks with a good many pebbles. But if we put the pebbles in first, the big stones likely will not fit.
3. Make the most of your mornings.
Learn a lesson from the psalmists (Psalm 5:3; 30:5; 46:5; 59:16; 88:13; 90:5–6, 14; 92:2; 143:8), and from Jesus himself (Mark 1:35), and from that often quoted section in George Muller’s autobiography, and make the most of your mornings.
Study after study confirms the importance of the first hours of the day for fulfilling the most important (and often most intensive) aspects of our calling. In the morning, we’re typically our sharpest, and have the largest store of energy to work creatively and proactively. Also, in the mornings, we’re less likely to be sidelined by interruptions and the urgencies that arise as the day wears on.
How we regularly invest our mornings can be telling. How many of us have found it true that where our morning is, there our heart will be also? When our top priority each day is reorienting toward Jesus and hearing his voice in the Scriptures, we’ll be more likely to create space for that early, and less likely to leave it to chance that something won’t drown it out later in the day.
Then, vocationally, how we spend those first few hours on the clock can be critical. As difficult as it can be to resist procrastinating on our most intensive and demanding tasks (“the big stones”), the most strategic time to tackle them is first thing in the morning. As to how guarding our mornings like this might be driven by love, think of it this way: In defending the light of our early mornings from trifles, we free ourselves to go on the offensive to beat back the darkness with flexibility for unscheduled acts of love. Which leads to a fourth and final lesson.
4. Create flexibility for meeting others’ needs.
So far, we’ve been mostly implicit about how these broad time-management lessons function in the service of love. Now let’s get explicit.
On the one hand, all our careful consideration of calling, and planning in light of key priorities, and making the most of the day’s first hours — all these function in the service of love as the proactive output of our vocation to serve and bless others. This is, after all, what our calling is in its truest and deepest sense: how God has prepared for us, with our particular abilities, in a certain season of life, to regularly expend time and energy for the good of others. That’s the proactive dimension to our calling.
But on the other hand, knowing our giftings and attending to our priorities and tackling them first thing in the morning also unleashes us to be reactive as the day unfolds, able to respond to the unplanned needs of others, whether big or small, obvious or subtle. Love both plans for fixed blocks to push forward our proactive labors of love as well as margin and flexibility to attend to others’ unplanned needs as they arise.
Remember Jesus’s Words
It’s a Christian Hedonistic way to parcel your time for those who remember the words of Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The greatest joys come not from time squandered, hoarded, or selfishly spent, but from self-sacrificial love for others to the glory of God, when we pour out our time and energy for the good of others, and find our joy in theirs.
After all, acts of love don’t just happen.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway, 2016).