Do you ever get asked the question: “What’s a typical day in the life of a rabbi?” I do, and it’s a tough one to answer. The truth is that there are no typical days. A funeral can lead us to drop everything and visit with a family. Sometimes we have multiple congregants in the hospital, or we have a community event to attend.
The fact that we do not have typical working hours makes figuring out an effective system for organizing our projects and responsibilities even more important. We could live simply from emergency to emergency, but then our rabbinate would be one of responding and managing rather than creating and building. The best systems for productivity are both simple and comprehensive. They allow us to incorporate all the different parts of our lives without becoming so intricate that we spend more time managing the system than managing ourselves.
The best system I have found for doing so is called Getting Things Done (GTD). Developed by David Allen, it is simple, effective and life-changing. Several of our colleagues have embraced it, and it is quite popular among pastors and non-profit executives. The entire system is laid out in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, but I will include a short summary here, along with a couple of ways it impacts my rabbinate.
The key principle of GTD is that we need to get everything out of our head. Our brains are meant for thinking and reflecting, not for remembering or reminding. The first step of the GTD system is doing a “mind dump,” where we write out everything that’s on our mind, from buying cat food to starting a new building project. If it’s on our mind and not in our system, it is tugging at our psychic energy, even if we do not realize it. Once we have a list of what’s on our plate, we process it.
A popular part of GTD is the “2-minute rule.” Any action that can be dispensed of in two minutes, we do right away. If it’s a phone call, email or signing papers, we just do it. If it would take more than two minutes, we have three options. We can defer it, delegate it or trash it. To defer it means to put it on a list or on our calendar. (More on lists later). To delegate it is to assign it to someone else. Trashing is self-explanatory!
After processing we organize. The organizing phase is where we decide what lists to put the action or project on. David Allen is famous for making lists, and they are at the heart of his system. The most important list is the “Projects List.” It is an inventory with every project (he defines a project as something that requires more than one action) we have in our lives. It is usually several dozen.
For me it includes “Develop a new confirmation curriculum,” “Organize Israel B’nei Mitzvah trip,” and so on. A project has to start with a verb and, very importantly, be able to be crossed off the list eventually. A project is not an ongoing responsibility, like leading worship. Rather, it is something that can be finished, like creating a new siddur.
In addition to the “Projects List,” there are next actions list. A “next action” according to GTD is a “physical visible step” we need to take. GTD organizes next actions by context. So we have a next actions lists for “@phone,” “@computer,” “@errands” or even “@Executive Director.” These are things we need to do when we have a phone, or are sitting at our computer, or have time to run errands, or are meeting with our Executive Director.
Why do we need all these lists? Because we need to free up brainpower from remembering things to thinking about and creating things. Deciding what list to put an action on also forces us to begin to think about how we will accomplish the action, giving us greater impetus to actually do it.
The next two phases of the GTD workflow are “Review” and “Do.” Review means looking over our lists and figuring out what needs our attention at the moment. The doing is the most important part, where we work through our lists.
I know this may sound both overly complicated and commonsensical at the same time. My wife, Rabbi Ari Moffic, gently chides me for my obsession with lists. Yet, it works. For example, on my projects list now is “Get CCAR Journal Book Reviews to printer.” Then on my @computer lists are notes with each of the ongoing book reviews attached to them. When I sit down at my computer, I open up my @computer list and see the book reviews I need to get done for the project. Without having to constantly worry about what I’m missing, I can focus on getting the work done.
To learn more, pick up a copy of Getting Things Done. Or give me a call and we can talk more about it, and I can refer you to other colleagues who use GTD.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.