I have a long to-do list. I bet you do too.

As a creative person with a large imagination and a raging case of ADHD, who is mostly introverted and moderately depressed, I often don’t get everything done I want to get done. And at the end of the day, when I am looking at that long to-do list with the things not yet done on it, it is easy to get overwhelmed, which only makes it more likely that I will get less done tomorrow.

So I have a simple hack I use to get stuff done: Make sure I have one “win” every day. I identify a win as anything that moves me closer to any degree to my goals. So, since I want to eat healthily, eating a healthy breakfast would be a win. I want to have strong relationships, so writing an emotionally hard email would be a win. Or maybe I ran today, or maybe I sat on the couch and took the day off, but read that book that has been on my to-read pile forever.

The point is, at the end of the day to be able to look at what you have done and realize you had at least one win. Now, you probably had more than one, and that’s great, but you only need one, and you need to recognize it.

If you only had one a day, that is nearly 400 times you made positive moves toward the future you want in a given year, and that is pretty amazing and powerful by itself. But also, going to bed while not being frustrated with yourself is life-giving.

Using units to structure your time

Those of us who are in the helping professions seldom end up having 40 hour, structured workweeks. Instead, we are often responsible for creating our own schedule, which always involves other people’s schedules, which can lead to long, unstructured days.

For instance, I have an office, but am only in it three to four hours a day, with the rest being nighttime meetings, breakfast meetings, coffeeshop meetings, or time spent out in the field. And I still have paperwork to do and writing to do, and all the other sorts of things people expect me to do.

If I’m not careful, I can end up having a day where I have a breakfast meeting at 7:30, get to the office at 9:00, have a lunch meeting at 1:00 PM, spend time in the field until 6:00, where I grab something in the drive thru on my way to a seminar I am supposed to teach at 7:30 PM, and finally get home at 10:00, exhausted.

And for many of us, this sort of thing happens all the time. It is really easy to have a workday that spans 12 or 14 hours, and we wonder why we are exhausted and burned out.

Or maybe we are really good at sticking to eight hour days, but we end up giving up our days off to “just catch up”.

A technique I have learned that has really helped planning my days and weeks. It goes like this:

Your day is split into three units: Morning, afternoon, and evening. You have two goals – don’t work more than two units any given day, and don’t work more than 12 units in a given week.

For the days, you shouldn’t work all three units in a given day. So, if you know you are going to have night meetings, schedule your day so you are not working that morning or afternoon. If you have a full day packed from 9-5, don’t schedule anything that evening.

For the weeks, if you know you have to work Saturday morning and have a presentation Tuesday night, you are already starting the week with two units filled. Throw in a Thursday night meeting and we are up to three, which means, if 12 is our goal, that we can’t work full days the rest of the week.

I find this much more helpful (and realistic) than counting hours. It is easy to wrap my head around, easy to plan around and imposes structure. It turns your calendar into more than a device for recording your appointments and meetings, but rather a framework for structuring your life.

Question: Do you have any “rules” for structuring your week?

My News Diet

One of the best things I have done for myself over the last six months is gone on an information diet. Just like a food diet, that means I have deliberately put limits on my consumption of information, and only allow myself to consume it at determined times.

Here is what that looks like:

First steps

I abandoned my Facebook account, and started a new one, with relatively few close friends on it. I belong to no affinity groups.

I quit consuming my news via Facebook or Twitter or other social media.

The diet:

I own a Kindle Fire (which is an amazing deal. For less than $50, you get a decent, fully functional Android tablet). The Washington Post has a super deal for Kindle Fire owners, where you get a six month subscription for $1, and it’s 3.99 a month after that.

I also subscribe to a couple of “news aggregation” emails, including the New York Times and Need 2 Know. They both send emails to my inbox every morning with top national headlines. (Need to Know is also good about sharing pop culture things, so I know what latest shenanigans Taylor Swift is up to.)

When I do see an article someone shared on Social Media, I save it for later. I use Pocket, which is amazing, but you could use Instapaper or just use Facebook’s saving function. The tool doesn’t matter – you just want to separate stimulus from response.

So, every morning, I get up, drink my coffee and scan headlines from many different sources, with professional editorial voices at work. I read the articles that interest me, and, wonderfully, I have no chance to argue with people I know.

Before, I would see an article someone shared and then read it right there. I might, in a 5 minute period, swing from something the president did to this weird thing a cat did to here is why you should be scared about bees.

Then you are whiplashed all over the place, and you are out of control of what you see and what you feel, and then you get angry and your blood pressure goes up and… but maybe you’ve been there?

You have to control what you allow in. If you don’t, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the weight of everything coming at you. The pace of information is maddening, and unsustainable. There is far more media created these days than we are capable of ever consuming.

So you need to go on a diet.

A helpful book for me in this was The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson

Don’t do it by yourself.

One of my favorite stories:

A salesman was driving through the country on his way to his next appointment. He took a curve too fast and ended up in the ditch.

He had no cell service to call AAA, and was cursing his luck when he looked over the field next to the road and saw an old man and a mule, plowing the field.

He walked over to the man and asked for help. The farmer unhitched his mule and together they walked to the car.

The man hitched the mule to the car, told the salesman to stand back and gave a mighty holler.

“Sam – Pull! Mikey – Pull! Davey – Pull!”

And then the mule leaned in, and pulled, and with a creak and a groan the car rolled onto the road again.

As the farmer unhitched the mule, the salesman stood there in disbelief.

“I don’t understand”, he said. “You called three names out, but you only have one mule. What was that about?”

The man smiled. “Oh, that was to trick Davey here into thinking he wasn’t trying to do it alone. If he thought he had to do it by himself, he wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

When we know we have a team of people with us, we can accomplish things we never would have dreamed of taking on by ourselves.

Don’t do it by yourself.

Plod on, brother. Plod on.

I have written about this story several times, but my blog post about it got lost in the website redesign. Because it is so important to me, I am republishing it here. – HH 

It was January of 2008. I had been doing this work for about five months or so, and I was already burnt out. I had no money. None. I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the immense amount of need I was confronted with daily. There was nothing I could do to fix any of it.

Most days, my response was to weep.

I was sinking, and fast. I had only been in Raleigh a short time and had no real network of friends or relationships. There was no one I could talk to about my work or my despair – at least, no one who had also experienced it.

There were several people whose writing had inspired me to do this work, so I figured that maybe, just maybe, they knew what I was feeling. I wrote a couple of emails, asking for help. Only one of them replied.

But his email saved my life, or at the very least, made the life I have now possible.

From his email:

I hope you are able to pace yourself and develop enough of an outside life to sustain you over a long ministry in one place. The real fruit of this stuff doesn’t start to appear for years, and too often people burn themselves out early trying to prove how committed they are. Take days off. Keep your own living area sane and comfortable. Establish boundaries. Read good books about stuff other than the inner city. Exercise.  Eat as healthy as you can. Remember, the people you are working with mostly don’t change that much, so ministering to them isn’t about ‘getting things done’ but rather accompanying people on their hard journeys, and that is an endurance sport that favors the plodder.

So plod on.

The writer was Bart Campolo, a former inner-city youth minister with a famous dad and no illusions about the difficulty of this work. And he is one of the people most responsible for my ability to continue this work.

Because his response meant so much to me, I tear up a bit when I get similar emails now from fellow pot-stirrers and justice workers. They read something I wrote once that makes them think I would understand, so they write me. The emails that say, “I am doing similar work to you, but I am struggling because no one understands the work I am doing, and no one is changing.”

Because Bart’s email meant so much to me, I almost always respond to those emails when I receive them. And like Bart’s email to me, my advice is seldom what they are looking for, but most often what they need.

I ask questions like, “Who is your team? Who are you talking about this stuff with? What do you do to enjoy yourself? Do you want to do this in 10 years? When was the last time you saw the sunset? Who does this with you? What books are you reading that have nothing to do with this work?

They want me to tell them the magic words to fix the relationships they have with people who are desperately poor, or to show them the strategy that will make bitter, jaded people have hope, or the way to get their church to embrace people who live outside. Instead, I want to tell them how to live.

Because if you want to do this work long term, you have to learn how to live. You need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. You need to learn boundaries. You need to have friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with your work, and you need friends who do the work with you.

Most importantly, you have to realize that loving people is a team sport, and that whatever positive outcome you will see as a result of that loving takes years to measure. It is, like Bart said, an endurance sport best suited to the plodder.

So plod on.