At 18-years-old, in the midst of goofing off with friends and playing a lot of Call of Duty, I discovered that I wanted to work in ministry. After support and confirmation from pastors, mentors, friends, and family, I decided that I needed to go to seminary. Five years later, my goal was the same, but my circumstances could not have been more different. I was married with a newborn, finishing my undergraduate degree online, working a full time labor job, and I was the youth director at my home church. Before we got married, my wife and I both knew seminary was on the horizon. But even though we were confident in this trajectory of our life, it was not easy. See, I inefficiently made my way through my online undergraduate program. I did fine, but it was time consuming and extremely taxing, and if I was going to put my young family through one of the more difficult seminary curriculum in the country, something had to give regarding productivity.
Thus, my search for productivity hacks began. It wasn’t long however until I ran into a significant but not surprising problem: Most of the “productivity lit” is curated for the unmarried and childless audience. Some of the advice was just not going to cut it given my position. When I finally entered seminary and began this new stage of life, I happened to find a few work habits that helped my family and I survive what was the most difficult season of our life (thus far). To be sure, no one magic trick makes taking 16-18 units a semester, working part-time, and being a husband and dad to 2 babies easy (yes, we had another one during seminary). However, some methods and habits made it less strenuous.
Early Mornings or Late Nights?
Whether you are working on a side project, or pursuing higher education, an inevitable choice to make is whether you will do your work early in the morning or late at night. While the option is up to you, I believe early mornings are the preferred choice. Here are three reasons why:
- You can look forward to ending the day with family. If you know you have a significant amount of work to get to after the kids get to bed, you will be distracted all through your dinner and the kid’s bedtime routine. This is unavoidable at times, sure, but you do not want to give your already distracted mind anymore excuses to be absentminded. An increased workload will inevitably effect your entire family, but you are the one who should bear the most inconvenient schedule, not your family. This was honestly the least I could do given the circumstances, but in all of life, if it comes down to your family spending and exhausting themselves for your efficiency, or you doign that for them, the choice is obvious. Plus, if the work you would typically do at night is out of the way before the day begins, then you can look forward to your time with your family as the capstone to your day.
- You can start your work fresh, rather than tired. Albeit, you will be tired and groggy if you wake up at 4am, but this does not last long. The opposite is true if you stay up late, where you only grow more tired. The full range of experiences through a day is taxing, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Moreover, with kids and a spouse, their day’s experiences, good and bad, become things you bear as well. If you practice rejoicing with and weeping with your family, this is difficult to shut off only to focus on tedious or technical work.
- You need Scripture and prayer. Perhaps you think early mornings will allow you the extra time to write a blog post a day, get ahead in school assignments, or get through a week’s worth of email, or whatever. That may be, but in this life, our workload is never-ending. Your work will not naturally mitigate itself; it will take over your life if you let it. As long as there is extra time in the morning for work, there is extra time (even if it’s a small amount) for focused and intentional time spent in prayer and hearing from God’s word. I have many regrets during my time in seminary, allowing my work to overrun this part of my life more often than I care to admit is at the very top.
For myself, early mornings amount to waking up at 4am. While in seminary, this gave me at least 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work every day. The main reason, however, that I maintained this routine through seminary was that I was not willing to sacrifice Saturdays for studying. When I did study on the weekend, it was minimal. My wife and I did not look at weekends as “free time,” but a time that we needed to especially strengthen ourselves and our little ones through rest and creativity. Part and parcel to weekends is time without mandatory obligations; for the most part, there is no work, no class, no meetings, etc. I suggest taking full advantage of days like these, not to get extra work done, but to cultivate memorable and meaningful times with your kids and spouse.
Think in time, not assignments or projects.
Suffice it to say; time is of the essence when you have a young family. If you think of all you have to do to merely get through the day, from breakfast to bath and bedtime, not to mention additional work or projects, it can all feel overwhelming. What works against parents with young kids is when our work and goals are ambiguous. For instance, if our to-do list looks like this: “write paper for class,” “lose weight,” “workout,” “build dining room table,” etc., chances are when we look at this, it will feel overwhelming.
A friend in seminary helped me find a solution to the problem of ambiguity. His advice was that you want to see every single thing you have to do in one place, namely, your calendar. What this looked like was, instead of carrying around six different syllabi, I merged them all into one master list. Now that I had a master list of everything I needed to do each week to complete the entire semester, I evaluated each assignment in terms of minutes/hours. When I saw a 120-page reading assignment, I translated that to 4 hours of reading, and then I scheduled those hours in my calendar. This is easier said than done because depending on the master list of your project; this can take a day’s work by itself. While we might think we do this in our heads naturally, I advise against that. When you put something on paper, you begin to see what it’s going to take to accomplish it. An equivalent to this would be a reminder on your calendar that, instead of saying, “go to the gym,” it should contain the entire regiment of your workout over the span of 13 weeks. If you know what you need to accomplish in a specific amount of time to achieve goal or project x, it alleviates a significant amount of the stress around each task in your schedule.
The opposite of this is seen in TV shows and movies, where a character is struck with inspiration over goal or project x, and they stay up all night working on it to finish at sunrise. That’s a convenient way to move the story forward, but it is nothing to be modeled. If we wait for a sudden burst of inspiration to climb our proverbial Mt. Everest, we will get nowhere. By all means, strike when the iron is hot, but do not depend on those creative bursts of energy to propel you through our work.
Keeping a detailed and broken down to-do list also gives you feedback on your performance. If you had an hour to read 25 pages and you only read 18, you can chalk it up to being distracted or less than diligent with your time.
I cannot stress how beneficial this is for your spouse, as well. Ambiguity in your schedule equates to ambiguity and frustration in the life of your marriage. Seminary was extremely hard on my wife and I, and the hardest days were those that my wife was not qued in on what I needed to accomplish that day. While my vocation changed as a student, my wife’s work changed as well. Her workload increased immensely, not only because we had another child in seminary but because I was not always home to do the tasks that were normally mine. For the most part I did spend my time well and worked diligently, but there was also a good many lunch hours spent pontificating with my friends and classmates. Communication regarding my tasks each day created a needed sense of stability for us and gave us a “light at the end of the tunnel” to look forward to.
Do not reinvent the wheel.
Much of the advice on productivity begins with, “just do it.” This advice focuses on people’s hesitancy to start whatever they want to do: write, workout, go to school, etc. However, as I learned in seminary, having a strong work ethic is pointless if you are working in the wrong direction. For my first Greek quiz, we had to do the simple task of writing out the alphabet by memory. I memorized the alphabet alright, but I shuffled my flashcards, so when I sat down to take my first quiz, I realized I had no idea the order of the alphabet. Rookie mistake, right? That’s precisely the point. If we assume we know how to accomplish even the most straightforward task, we are likely missing out on the more efficient methods of our friends and peers. It was through friends in seminary that I learned that the bibliographies of journal articles are the best place to look for resources for my papers, that memorizing 20 pages of 10 point font is possible by memorizing the outlines of topics, and that studying for an exam also means studying with the peculiarities of each professor in mind. Reading self-help material outside of the work you are in can only take you so far. You have to find someone who has been there and done that. You won’t only need their advice, but you will need someone who can genuinely empathize with you because your spouse will not always want to commiserate about your work. They will help share the burden in other ways without having to “get it,” and that’s completely fine.
While the worksheets, schedules, and productivity hacks ultimately belong to the realm of common grace, an essential truth for Christians to remember in our work is how God is at work in us. Sanctification is a particular work, in that it is ongoing, and it employs our actions. Even though we are never told to justify ourselves, God exhorts us to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5), “purify yourselves from all unrighteousness” (2 Cor. 7:1), etc. In the work of sanctification, God treats us as human beings. That is, our humanness does not change upon being saved. As a professor of mine explained to me, we can’t flip a switch and not desire alcohol after abusing it, and we can’t flip a switch and become a concert pianist. Even though God is the guarantor and giver of sanctification, it is a long work of rehabituation, where our habits are reformed over time. I do not mean the process of ‘running the race’ and ‘fighting the good fight’ is analogous to productivity, but I do mean that when we go about our work, we must remember that God’s work in us after our decree of justification does not work like an on and off switch. Our work will be full of roadblocks and failures (Gen. 3:17), and while our plans are easily upset due to our fragile frames (Ps. 103:14), God is still working out our salvation in us to his good pleasure. So, when your plans of productivity get interrupted by your 1-year-old who is still not sleeping through the night, remember God’s promise to work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). There is not an ounce of our work that can guarantee that promise. Acknowledge and be thankful that even though our to-do lists fail, God’s work does not fail. From here, of course, adjust your goals and plans accordingly, and keep on working.