…and Other People with Too Much to Do

It is 6 pm.
Do you send that group email?
Do you check your chapter’s Facebook page?
Do you settle a dispute between siblings?
Or do you spend 15 quiet minutes with your husband?

What should be your priority?

What keeps us from setting priorities; what happens when we don’t set priorities; and what can skew the priorities we do set? I hope to help you wade through some of these important questions that can plague busy leaders.

The word “Priority” is defined as “something given or meriting attention before competing alternatives”. [Merriam Webster’s]

As leaders, you will always have competing alternatives. You want to do a good job giving leadership to your support group and that takes time. So where do you squeeze the time from? Do you set your kids in front of a screen so you have time to plan and promote the next field trip? Do you use up an evening that could be spent with your spouse to book speakers and topics for your “parents’ encouragement nights”? Do you give up sleep to finish the laundry and menu planning that didn’t get done during the day? We need wisdom to determine the ranking of attention each one should have.

I admit that it can be a real challenge to figure out what should be the priority in any given hour or moment. I will also admit that I did not always get this right. But now that I am at the other end of the homeschooling leadership path, I have learned a few tips and tricks of the trade. Of course we know that hind sight is 20/20 but hopefully my hindsight can be of assistance to those of you still looking ahead.

I want to start by asking two important questions. Please stop and consider them and write your answers down somewhere. Don’t continue reading until you have answered.

First question: What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

Second question: What one thing in the leadership of your support group (or other area of leadership you are involved in) would bring similar results?

Did you answer the questions? Hang on to these answers you will need them later.

If you were to watch a video of your life for, let’s say a week, keeping track of the number of hours devoted to specific actions, what would your conclusion be about what is most important in your life? “Action expresses priorities.” [Mahatma Gandhi] What would an outsider assume was a priority if they note that you spend 60 minutes a day checking Face Book, Pinterest and twitter and five minutes a day in meaningful conversation or time with your spouse? Do you routinely turn down a child’s request to play so you can make calls about an activity your support group is hosting? Sorry if I am stepping on toes – mine have been bruised as well!

Biblical model for setting priorities.
I would expect most of us would readily agree that putting God first in our lives is essential for a Christian. But when you actually look at your life and how you spend your time, does the action of your life reflect placing God in the place of highest priority?

Here are some scripture verses that can guide us in making the decision to really put God first in our lives:

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Matt 6:33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Luke 10:27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.
Deut 6:5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Note the number of times the word “all” is used in these verses. If I trust the LORD with all my heart, submit to Him in all my ways, love Him with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind, then He will be my first thought in every situation and challenging circumstance, in every “competing alternative”. His ways will speak to any action I need to take and any decision I need to make.

Secondly, I would suggest that your marriage be a priority. After your relationship with God, your marriage is your next most important relationship. A good marriage doesn’t just happen, you have to invest in it, work at it and make it a priority.

We read in Ephesians 5:33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Neither of these directives will come naturally to us so we must make it a priority to surrender our natural self-interest and invest in what is best for the other. What our children need most from us is to see that Mom and Dad love each other and are committed to God and to each other. That is the bedrock of their development.

This topic would require much more time and space to deal with adequately. So I will make a couple book suggestions for further reading if you would like to explore this priority further: Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, Love and Respect by Emmerson Eggerich.

The third priority I would suggest in this order is your own family and homeschool. Some of what we do as leaders is to enhance our family’s educational experience. It can be great to involve your family in group learning and serving others. But sometimes it is actually a detriment. The group that I was involved in leading some years back completely dropped our co-op for a time for this reason. The co-op was taking away too much time and attention from our own families and homeschooling so we made the decision to stop the highly demanding, well organized program. In its place we went with a field trip model in which if a family wanted a field trip, they would organize it and let everyone else know. Those who wanted to be involved could be and those who needed time at home could pass on that particular outing. This gave the leaders a break and the whole group time to reorient priorities and responsibilities.

So now we come to your support group. While it should not be your first priority, it is still on the list of priorities and you do need to devote time to doing leadership well. I am becoming less and less a fan of the idea of multi-tasking. I would rather do two or three things well and thoroughly than a dozen things in a strung out incomplete manner. If you choose leadership, please make sure you have the time and resources to do it well. Don’t be victim of thinking, “If I don’t do, it won’t get done.” If you can’t do it, don’t! Maybe if it doesn’t get done that would be a good thing for now. Not every good idea is something that needs to be done now.

Having said all that, I am not saying don’t give your support group attention, just make sure that first things come first.

Time Management Tool
Here is a time management tool or matrix that may be of help when you are trying to organize your tasks in your role as leader. It is from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

You will note the titles on the borders of the chart (see page 9). Across the top are “urgent” and “not urgent” and down the side you see “important” and “not important”. As we cross match each title we see that Quadrant I is “important/urgent”. This would include things like important deadlines (newsletter, lesson prep for co-op class), crises (illness of a child, loss of job, death in the family), emergencies (co-op teacher absent for today’s co-op, vehicle breakdown, a disgruntled co-op family causing disruption) and other pressing items that noisily call your attention. Obviously these things need attention.

Quadrant II handles the “important/not urgent” items that focus on relationship building and preventative measures. Personal development (podcasts of other leaders, good books on leadership, attending conferences or listening to the recordings, exercise and health), relationship building (communication with those you love, notes & cards of thanks or appreciation to co-workers, attend the funeral of another person’s loved one even if you didn’t know the deceased), prevention and planning (financial planning and saving, set goals for the future, plan the year ahead so there are fewer surprises, communicate clearly and don’t assume things).

This is the quadrant that we should be focussing on. Although things in quadrant I call loudly to us and we tend to run to them first, if we intentionally spent more time in quadrant II activities, there would likely be fewer crises and emergencies from quadrant I.

Quadrant III is the “not important/urgent” category which includes certain types of emails and phone calls (today only deals, online quizzes, phone surveys, “this will amaze you” posts), interruptions (sales people at your door, whining children, even the beeper on your dryer), some popular activities (movies, concerts, sales) and even some meetings. Be discerning with these things and ask yourself if this “urgent” thing is really “important” or not. For example, I had a recorded phone call today from a particular retailer telling me that tomorrow only they are offering 40% off all in stock items. The caller communicated urgency for this big deal and my initial reaction was to put this down on tomorrow’s “to-do” list. But when I actually stepped back and looked at our overall priorities, saving money is a quadrant II concern right now. So I deleted the message and remained content with last year’s wardrobe.

Quadrant IV contains the not “important/not urgent” activities that we allow to consume our time. This is partly the reason why we have so little time for the Quadrant II priorities. I will let you define your own “time wasters” since you already know what they are. The next time you have five minutes to spare think about this time management model. Come up with a productive, quadrant II thing you could do with that five minutes (wipe the stove top, cuddle a toddler, send your spouse an encouraging email, address a birthday card, brush your teeth, plan menus for the week or check the grocery flyer, take a picture of your kids playing together or reading on the couch, change the battery in that clock or smoke detector).

Remember the questions I asked at the beginning of the article? Look at your answers again. Where would those things fit in this model? My guess would be they most likely fit in Quadrant II. The things that are really important to you both now and in the future are what should be your priorities.

When I gave this talk at an OCHEC Chapter Leaders’ Workshop, we had some group discussion around four questions about priorities. I want to share those discussion questions and the answers our leaders came up with.

Q: What keeps us from setting and following priorities?
A: – fear, lack of wisdom or know-how
trying to follow someone else’s goals
not allowing time to plan and set goals in the first place
not being real about our problems
making homeschooling a goal above spiritual/relational personal goal
living by default not design. We let the urgent take over
not scheduling our priorities like we schedule our activities

Q: What can skew our priorities?
A: – the urgent things that come up
lose focus on God’s way (the big picture)
lose focus on our vision
some things are just unpleasant and we don’t want to do them
get side-tracked by poor choices or things that seem important

Q: What happens when you don’t set priorities?
A: – conflict within yourself and with others
distraction [“SQUIRREL!”]
scheduling conflicts
too much going on and none of it gets done well. When priorities are not set and you are pulled in too many directions, it is easier to allow time-wasters to become “urgent”, wasting valuable time. So, time for yourself should be a priority as well.
Everything becomes “urgent”
Boundaries can be crossed that should not be crossed
“No” is not said when it should be
Priorities can change with situations and life changes but if you don’t set them in the first place you have less ability to cope with changes

Q: How does a group determine its priorities?
A: – determine what the purpose of the group is
-develop a mission statement

  • Consider the demographics of your group
  • Consider the time commitment of the leaders
  • Consider the commitment of involvement of the group members
  • Seek communication and consensus on these points

Stephen Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

When your life in leadership seems to be a mess of conflicts and frustrations begin by praying that God would help you see clearly where your priorities have been misplaced. You will need to get quiet and still before Him to be able to think clearly and honestly. Don’t let the world be your model and definer of what is important. Let God direct your path. Prioritize the important/not urgent things and be disciplined in your efforts to dramatically reduce the not important/not urgent things. Then be sure to schedule your priorities.

Beth Rockwell, wife of Jeff since 1985 and mother of three wonderful children, has homeschooled from 1991to 2010. She has been involved in leadership of a local support group, leadership training, public speaking and province wide support of homeschooling through OCHEC.