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Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life

The need for zonesCommunications technologies have revolutionised the way we work and play. Many of us own devices that are constantly connected to the internet. That means our work is no longer limited by our location. This technological revolution, of course, has great benefits. But it also creates big challenges, especially when it comes to the potential for stress and burnout. The natural physical boundaries that once regulated our lives—for example, the boundaries between “work” and “home”—are far more fuzzy than they used to be. A generation ago, when someone left their place of work, they also left behind their actual work. Now, through our devices, our work follows us around wherever we go.

City ZonesThis situation is especially challenging for Christian ministers. Our whole lives should be lives of service and sacrifice, and yet we must also rest. There are infinite needs, but we are finite creatures. So we need limits and ways to regulate life. A generation ago, we could rely on external factors such as physical location to regulate our lives. But not any more. Now, we need to be deliberate about regulating what we do and when we do it. Otherwise, we risk being overwhelmed. In the face of this challenge, I’ve created demarcated “zones” in my life. Living life in these zones help me to live a life of sustainable sacrifice in service of God and others.


(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.)


What is a zone?

The original Getting Things Done methodology talked about the idea of contexts. Contexts are the various places you find yourself in and people you find yourself with during a typical week. The GTD methodology suggests that, for each context, you should keep a list of tasks you can do in that context. For example, you should keep a list of the tasks that you can do when you’re at work (@Work), another lists of the tasks you can do at home (@Home), and other lists for other contexts (e.g. @Computer, @Errands, @StaffMeeting, etc.). In the past, most tasks were limited to a single context. Today however, due to communications technology, our tasks tend not to be limited to individual contexts. The “context” concept needs to be modified to deal with these new circumstances.

RunningSo instead of contexts, I think in terms of zones (here I’ve adapted another idea from David Allen). Zones are normally based on my personal energy levels rather than my physical location (although some are still based on physical location). The term zone comes from the world of exercise. When you start exercising, the first few minutes are really hard. But if you press ahead, you end up getting into “the zone”. When you’re in the zone, the exercise comes more naturally and you can keep going for much longer.

This idea can be applied to life in general. I find I have different kinds of energy and/or states of mind for different kinds of tasks. So in my day / week, I try to group similar tasks together into zones, and then decide at the start of each week what zones I plan to be in at various times during the week. That way, I can work with with my energy levels, rather than against them. And I can also ensure that essentials–like prayer, rest and time with my family–are included in the week.

My zones

Here are the “zones” that work for me in my particular circumstances:

Zones for my morning routine each day

  • Bible and prayer
  • Gym
  • Morning review: i.e. looking over the day to see what’s coming up.

Zones related to home and rest

  • Family
  • Rest
  • Personal Admin
  • Church

Zones for my general work on the faculty at Moore College

Moore College

  • Pastoral: Tasks relating to sharing God’s word in personal relationships, preaching sermons, etc.
  • Teaching: Includes all aspects of “formal” teaching, e.g. classes, preparation, marking, answering emails, syllabus revision, etc.
  • Supervision of research students
  • Research: reading and writing at the academic level
  • Resourcing: I.e. resourcing other Christians. E.g. speaking at conferences, writing at more popular levels
  • Partnership: Partnership with various people and organisations to promote the gospel
  • Governance: Preparing for formal meetings, reviewing policies, etc.

Zones specific to certain places or people

These two zones are more like classic “contexts” because they are limited to certain places or people:

  • Errands
  • Meetings

Workflow zones

These are zones for tasks that involve reviewing my workflow (more about these in future posts):

  • Waiting on…
  • Someday / maybe
  • Weekly review (personal)
  • Weekly review (with Bron)

What I do with these zones

In my trusted system, I use Omnifocus to keep track of my tasks. Since Omnifocus is based on the GTD methodology, it already has the concept of contexts built into it. This is great for my purposes: I simply use the “contexts” feature of Omnifocus. However, I think in terms of zones rather than physical contexts.

What do I do day to day with these zones? This will be the subject of future posts. Here’s a very brief summary:

For more details, stay tuned for future posts.

The posts in the series so far

  1. Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice
  2. Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications
  3. Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place
  4. Building blocks of a trusted system
  5. Capturing wild commitments
  6. Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life
  7. Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.
  8. Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work
  9. The weekly review: Planning for sustainable sacrifice
  10. The trusted system: a week in the life

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