Christian ministry, like many modern occupations, involves constantly asking: “What should I be doing right now?”. There are infinite needs, and since I’m not God, I can’t fulfil them all. But I still have to decide how to use my gifts responsibly within the limitations God has given me. That means I need to keep track of my responsibilities. I need to make decisions about when and where to discharge my responsibilities. And for the sake of my own stress, I need to be confident that, under God, the person I’m with right now, or the thing I’m doing right now, is right. Whenever I’m doing something–whether it’s working or resting or just trying to sleep–I need to not be worrying about the many, many things I’m not doing right now. I need to be confident that there is a time and a place for these other things. Plus, I need to be pretty sure that there’s nothing significant I’ve forgotten. This is where my “trusted system” is incredibly useful to me. It’s not perfect, and it’s no substitute for faith in God. But it really helps me to be wise and faithful, and to avoid getting overly stressed about everything.
(This blog series is about habits and personal organisation structures I’ve developed over the years for “sustainable sacrifice” in Christian ministry. They’re specific to my own situation, so if you think any of them are worthwhile you may have to adapt them. For more information about the purpose of this series see the first post: Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice.)
My “trusted system” (GTD jargon) is a system where I store things (inputs, tasks, information, etc.) so I don’t have to keep them in my brain. It’s called a “trusted” system because I have organised it so I can be confident that the things (inputs, tasks, information) will be there for me where and when I need them. In this post, I’ll introduce the basic building blocks of my trusted system. In future posts, I’ll go into detail about how I use these building blocks.
Trusting God first
But there’s something that can’t be left unsaid: Trust in my “trusted system” is no substitute for trust in God. God is completely trustworthy. But my system is fallible and imperfect. And my system only contains my plans, which are not necessarily God’s: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9). So I have to remember never to trust my trusted system totally. My trusted system is, in the end, just a thing that helps me to be wise and avoid being over-stressed. It’s pretty good. But it’s not God.
Trusted habits: the foundation of a trusted system
In a moment, I’m going to spell out the various building blocks of my trusted system. Many of them are computer/phone apps or physical organisational tools. But they don’t work by themselves. They only work in tandem with various organisational habits I’ve developed.
Ultimately, the habits are more fundamental than the tools. But I have to describe the tools first (in this post), so you know what I’m talking about when I describe the habits (in future posts).
Any trusted system needs ways to keep track of projects and tasks. There are three elements in my system that enable me to do this:
Firstly, I have a task / project management app called Omnifocus. This is probably the most important tool of all. I have it on my computer and my phone (synced between the two). I use it constantly throughout the day, every day. It’s easy to use and it’s designed specifically with best practice task management in mind. Unfortunately it’s only available for Macs, and it’s pretty expensive. So it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s worth it.
In tandem with Omnifocus, I use Apple Calendar (synced between computer and iPhone). The calendar is for time-bound tasks. That is, the calendar keeps track of things that must happen at certain times (and in certain locations). Omnifocus, by contrast, is useful for all those tasks which are not time-bound (which, in Christian ministry, is most tasks). Omnifocus interfaces seamlessly with the calendar, which is great.
I don’t take my phone into the bedroom, because it’s a terrible distraction. So I have an alarm clock to wake me up in the morning.
The next set of building blocks involves storing information–i.e. “filing” (in the broadest sense).
I’ve installed Dropbox, and I have a folder in it called “workbench”. My workbench includes all the notes and files I’m currently working on, especially the notes and files I’m currently modifying or adding to. It works well because it follows a traditional “folder and file” based system. I have it installed on both my computer and my phone, and sync between them. It’s also good for collaborative file sharing.
I use Evernote to store (almost) all the notes and files I don’t need to change. Evernote is a brilliant system for just storing stuff. It has a simple, flat storage structure, but you can tag, search and link notes to Omnifocus, which makes them easy to retrieve later.
There are some notes and files that are either too big for Evernote (e.g. long videos), or that need to have their file structure preserved (e.g. complex research projects). For this, I use Google Drive.
There are some notes and files that can’t be digitised and so have to remain as a “physical” item (e.g. forms that need to be signed). For this, I have an A4 folder in my bag with 5 pockets. I use two of these pockets (called “pending” and “errands”) for physical pieces of paper and other small physical items that I need to carry with me.
There are other notes and files that can’t be digitised but which I don’t need to carry around with me (e.g. certificates, expense receipts). I have two filing cabinets to store these: one at work, and another at home. They’re pretty small filing cabinets, because I trust to digitise whatever I can (see below).
Filing (specific structures)
Some of the things I need to store using specific structures. I have custom apps and structures for this.
PrayerMate stores my prayer points on my phone. I have set it up to remind me of people to pray for each day. It’s custom-made for this job, and it’s very useful.
Zotero on my computer stores references to books and articles that I need for teaching, writing and research.
MoneyWiz on my computer and my phone helps me keep track of finances.
And, of course, I have some bookshelves for my real books.
My trusted system is always in a state of flux. That’s because new inputs constantly come in to it. There are inputs from other people, and there inputs from my own mind as I think of new ideas. So I need ways to collect and efficiently process all these inputs. With these inbox processing tools, I can keep the system up to date, every day.
At the moment I use Airmail on my computer and my phone to process my email. I like it because it connects well with Omnifocus and Evernote. I can simply swipe left or right to send links to these other apps. This makes for very efficient inbox processing and easy daily “inbox zero”. Unfortunately, Airmail has a few little bugs still, which I’m hoping they’ll iron out soon.
To keep track of online blogs and feeds, I use Feedly.
When I get a receipt, I put it in a special pocket in my wallet.
Scannable (on my phone) is a wonderful little app that convert paper to electronic form quickly. I point the phone camera at the page (or multiple pages) and it does all the image processing necessary to turn it into a nice little PDF and send it to Evernote. Then, if I don’t need to keep the piece of paper, I shred it.
Since I don’t have my phone near me when I’m in bed (as I said above, it’s a terrible distraction), I have a notepad and pen beside my bed. I use this when I have an idea or remember something I’ve forgotten while I’m in bed. I need to get that thought out of my head so I can sleep.
If you want to try this at home
If you want to use any of the apps I mentioned above, remember two things:
- Make sure that you set up proper security. E.g. use secure passwords, never use the same password for the same app, and change the passwords when you need to. If you find it hard to keep track of all your passwords, you might want to use 1Password.
- Make sure that you set up the apps to sync between whatever devices you use. You need them to be accessible in multiple locations
And that’s all the building blocks I currently use (and need) for my trusted system. In future posts I’ll talk about the habits I’ve developed to actually use these building blocks.
The posts in the series so far
- Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice
- Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications
- Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place
- Building blocks of a trusted system
- Capturing wild commitments
- Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life
- Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.
- Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work
- The weekly review: Planning for sustainable sacrifice
- The trusted system: a week in the life