I once heard a conference speaker tell the story about a certain "Jane" who came to him for counseling. Jane arrived for her first counseling appointment forty-five minutes late and in a fluster. After promising to do better, she arrived just as late the second time. And the third time. And on and on. Jane didn't mean to be late, just as she didn't mean for her whole life to feel like an undisciplined failure. She had every intention of being on time and even planned carefully to do so. But something would always come up. She'd stop to pray for someone or pull over to run an errand or say yes to a new request. Jane lives a priority-less life. Whatever was right in front of her became her new number-one priority. The speaker called her a wonderful woman you'd never want to hire.
It's taken me a while to see this, but now I do. And I absolutely believe it: I can't serve others effectively without setting priorities. If I respond to every e-mail, show up at every possible meeting, and have coffee with every person asking for "just a few minutes," I won't have time to adequately prepare for my sermon. I may help several people during the week, but I won't faithfully serve the many more who come on Sunday. If I attend every possible church function, I won't be there for my son's basketball game. Stewarding my time is not about selfishly pursuing only the things I like to do. It's about effectively serving others in the ways I'm best able to serve and in the way I am most uniquely called to serve.
This means, in addition to setting priorities, I must establish posteriorities. This is Drucker's word for the things that should be at the end (posterior) of our to-do list. These are the things we decide not to do for the sake of doing the things we ought to do. Making goals is not enough. We must establish what tasks and troubles we will not tackle at all. Several years ago my elders made a rule that I couldn't do any more premarital counseling. They didn't fear for my own marriage. They weren't trying to "protect" me from interacting with people. I still am very involved in day-to-day pastoral ministry. They had simply concluded, with my input, that this was not the best use of my time. In order to have time for my priorities, they made this activity a posteriority for me.
One reason we never tame the busyness beast is because we are unwilling to kill anything. We rearrange our schedule and tighten up our breaks, but nothing improves because we haven't pruned anything. We haven't established what we won't do any longer. Setting priorities is an expression of love for others and for God. "Unseized" time tends to flow toward our weakness, get swallowed up by dominant people, and surrender to the demands of emergencies. So unless God intends for us to serve only the loudest, neediest, most intimidating people, we need to plan ahead, set ...