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How To Get Things Done: Deal With Interruptions

The trouble with a series on productivity is that it can just keep going forever. Our work is never complete and we never fully master the best use of our time and opportunities. Our God-given calling to do good to others does not end until our lives end. Until we take that final breath, we will never run out of opportunities to bring glory to God by doing good to others. We are always learning to do this better, and always learning to make better use of the tools that promote it.

I am going to close this series today, and do so with a few thoughts on the day-by-day battle of right priorities. Already you have looked at planning and daily workflow and the best way to use your various tools. And this is all well and good until life happens. And then suddenly there are interruptions all around—emergencies to respond to, children who need attention, bosses who make their demands, clients who need your response at this very second. It’s like the whole world now conspires to mock your attempts to bring order to your life. You planned to clean your house today, but your friends are hurting today and seeking your counsel; you planned to prepare the sermon this morning but a member of the congregation called and said, “I really need to talk;” you had the day blocked off to catch up with clients, but the boss asked you to attend a meeting.

How can you deal with all of these interruptions?

Dealing with interruptions requires an awareness of your own limitations. C.J. Mahaney says this well: Only God gets his to-do list done every day. God gets it all done every day. You, on the other hand, will go to bed tonight with your list incomplete and with little confidence that you will make it all the way through tomorrow’s. Only God can have that confidence. And that’s okay. God made you to be limited and he knows that your sin has limited you even further.

Dealing with interruptions requires an awareness that God is sovereign and you are not. When you trust a sovereign God you know that no interruption has caught God by surprise. This frees you from outbursts of anger or depths of despair. It allows you pause and to consider whether each of these interruptions has been brought by God as an opportunity to do good to someone else. It removes any right to automatically refuse them.

Yet you cannot do good to everyone all the time. Greg McKeown says it well: “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” Randy Alcorn echoes him: “The key to a productive and content life is ‘planned neglect’—knowing what NOT to do, and being content with saying no to truly good, sometimes fantastic, opportunities. This happens only when you realize how truly limited you are, and that you must steward your little life, and that of the best things to do on the planet, God wants you to do only a miniscule number.” How, then, do you know what to respond to and what to refuse?

Dealing with day-to-day distractions involves evaluating each of them and determining whether you will be rigid or malleable, whether you will refuse or respond. The tricky thing is that sin lurks on both sides of the equation.

One the one side is a rigid view of time. Here you will allow nothing to interrupt your plans. You are absolutely unmovable and will not allow even the most urgent opportunities to cause you to put aside your list of things to do. This can very easily be the product of pride. You are so sure of yourself and your own understanding of what’s best that nothing can and will sway you. Here is how I presented it in a recent presentation on productivity:


On the other side you have a malleable view of time. Here you allow everything to interrupt your plans. You are completely bendable and allow even the most fleeting and unimportant opportunities to cause you to put aside your list of things to do. This can very easily be the product of fear-of-man. You are so eager to please others and so afraid of saying “no” to them, that you always allow them to sway you. Again, here is how I presented this:


Not surprisingly, you need to live somewhere between those two extremes. There is no objective and inerrant list of criteria that can make those decisions for you, but there is a God who gives wisdom, and extends grace. Whisper a prayer for wisdom, make a decision, and do good to others. Know through it all that the deeper your understanding of your mission and the better your life is planned and organized, the easier those decisions become.

Productivity is a wonderful servant, but a wretched master.

I want to close with some wise words from C.J. Mahaney—words you will need to remember at one time or another. “My joy is not derived from the flawless execution of my goals. My joy each day is derived from the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross.” Productivity is a wonderful servant, but a wretched master. Crossing off tasks and completing projects is not your purpose and must not be your greatest joy. Your greatest joy is reveling in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and your greatest purpose is making him look great. So go and do it.

I have been collecting all of these articles and plan to fast-track it into a small book that will include at least some new content. I have hired an editor and trust he will be able to improve it all before it goes into print. So stay tuned for that. I’m very open to suggestions for a title and for other content to include in it.

Here is an overview of the series: I began the series by explaining what productivity is and why it matters [Part 1], then had you look at your life from a high-level perspective so you could divide it into areas of responsibility [Part 2]. Once you defined those areas of responsibility, you listed specific roles and projects within each of them, and worked on some brief mission statements [Part 3]. Then it was time to look at tools [Part 4], and to understand organization and systems [Part 5]. After that, I provided some basic guidance on configuring task management software [Part 6] and followed it with guidance on using an information management tool [part 7] and calendar [part 8]. Then we turned to taming the email beast [part 9] and maintaining the system [part 10]

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