3 Ways to do your Best Sermon Prep and Have a Better Week
What if you had two hours every day to be your most productive and do your best work?
Imagine peak sermon writing productivity, or powering through your best thinking and planning.
Here’s what I’m finding: two hours a day of peak creative work might be all you need.
And it’s probably more than you’re getting now.
Three simple techniques are the secret. They are:
- Choose the right thing to do at the right time.
- Steward your mental energy.
- Work with distractions.
We heard it first in Proverbs:
“The prudent give thought to their steps.” Proverbs 14:15b
Here’s how you can do awesome sermon prep and have a better week. Take a second to ask God to show you what He wants you to learn as you skim through this article.
Be aware of your daily decision points.
A decision point, according to Josh Davis, PH.D., author of Two Awesome Hours is anytime you transition from one task to another.
We’re all inclined to be lazy thinkers, so it’s easier when we finish a call, or a meeting, or an email, to go immediately into the next task: another email, a quick to-do from the phone call, a text to your wife.
Just doing what comes naturally.
We don’t think about what we’re doing. We just keep moving because it feels good to get things done. We don’t think about what makes the most sense to do. In fact, we reflexively do what takes the least resistance.
Read that again: When we get through with one task, we reflexively do next whatever takes the least resistance to do next.
Each transition from one thing to another in the course of a day is called a decision point.
Decision Points are easy to miss.
When you make the easy choice, but not necessarily the best choice for your time and energy, you might try to do something that can’t get done in the amount of time you have. Or you force yourself to do something that takes clear thinking when you’re not at your best. What happens? Frustration. Muddy thinking. Taking longer than it should.
Lately I’ve been intentional to recognize that each time I finish something, it’s time to consciously make the wise choice about what to do next.
Instead of trying to do as much as possible from that endless list that never gets done, I’ve been practicing choosing the most important thing that fits in the time and energy I have.
Here’s how to use Decision Points:
When you finish a task, or get interrupted, don’t let yourself just do the next convenient thing. Say to yourself, “This is a decision point. What’s the best thing for me to do now?”
To make this decision, I ask myself three quick questions:
- How much time do I have for this next task?
- How much mental and emotional energy do I have right now?
- What’s the most important thing that fits this time slot and my emotional energy level right now?
I’ve tried to cheat. If I had 20 minutes before my next meeting, and needed 15 minutes to get there, I would try to sneak in a ten minute task and arrive 5 minutes late.
But recently I’ve been saying, “This is a decision point. I’m going to think through my next move before jumping ahead.” Then, I’ll spend just 60 seconds thinking through not any next task, but the best next task.
I’m finding myself better prepared for whatever is next on my calendar, because I’m taking time to think through what I need to do to prepare for it instead of cramming one last task in before I run for that appointment.
For instance, if I have twenty minutes before my next meeting, I’m utilizing my drive time to that meeting by taking two minutes to get a phone number to call during the drive. I may even take a minute to look up the names of my appointment’s children, so I can ask about them. Or I’ll grab a book I can read if the appointment is late.
On the drive, I’ll spend five minutes praying for the person I’ll be meeting with and thinking through questions I can ask that help him to know I care about him. A collateral benefit is that I tend to get to my meetings a few minutes early now, which allows me to clear my mind and be able to fully engage once the meeting begins.
When you are aware of your decision points – and you’ll have about 10 a day – you live at a higher level because you are consciously choosing your best use of time and best use of energy. Time and energy you’re stewarding to use for the most important assignments of your day.
Manage your mental energy.
When you’re at a decision point and considering what to do next, the most important part of your decision is “how much mental energy do I have right now, and how much of it should I spend on this next task?”
We all get a finite amount of mental energy every day. And it wanes as the day goes along. You can fool yourself into thinking that if you keep pushing you’ll get more done, but in fact, it’s likely that you’ll actually get less done… and worse, get less done poorly.
Take a dog for a walk sometime and let them off the leash. The dog will sprint towards whatever interests him, and then he’ll stop and sniff it before moving on. Dogs know something about energy expenditure that can help us. They know they will go farther and enjoy their walk more if they sprint and then rest, sprint and then rest, rather than jogging along at one steady pace the whole time.
Science has found that our minds get fatigued when we’re creating, or planning, or making decisions. Or remembering. Or exercising self-control.
Just like our bodies get fatigued when we work out.
Here’s a few things to remember about mental energy:
- We have a finite amount of it each day.
- It gets depleted as the day goes along.
- We’re mentally fatigued after we use it.
But you already knew all that from your experience, right?
Here are 4 ways to manage your mental energy each day:
1. Recognize the tasks that mentally fatigue you.
Typically things like switching tasks, making small talk, sitting still for hours, phone calls, planning, and challenging meetings are mentally tiring.
Surprisingly, activities we think of as relaxing are actually mentally taxing: answering email, watching the news, and scanning social media.
Why? Answering email requires decision making – should I answer now or later, what should I say, and how should I say it?
Watching the news or scanning social media are not chill-out activities because of the emotions all the controversies and the tragedies stir up. And oh, the decision making – do I like it, do I share it, do I scroll past it?
So when should you do those little things that use up your mental energy?
2. Limit your mental fatigue before you want to be at your best.
Don’t be like I’ve been and answer email before you do your sermon prep. Save your best mental powers for your most important work. The email comes afterward, not before!
Don’t do draining work right before an important meeting.
Last night I had a vital report to deliver at our monthly Leadership Board meeting. I finished preparing the report by noon. Next, I attended our weekly staff prayer meeting, followed by our weekly staff planning meeting. Both of those are wonderful, but they drain mental energy.
So instead of jumping into something else strenuous, like sermon preparation, I drove my grandson to the park and played with him for a half hour. After that, I spent 15 minutes reviewing my report to the Board. Driving home after the Board meeting, I rejoiced at how well the presentation had gone. If I had walked into that meeting tired or unfocused, New Song might be heading in a completely different direction today. But I managed my mental energy well, communicated clearly, and we’re going where I believe we need to go.
3. Do your most important work first thing in the day.
If you’re like me, you spend fifteen to twenty hours on message prep. But how many of those hours are good hours?
Every morning, you’ve got about two productive hours of energy to invest first thing. For us pastors, that’s our best time to work on our sermons, or on strategy, planning and decision-making.
Jumping on message prep with my first two good hours is not only making my sermons better, it’s making my sermon prep shorter, and more enjoyable.
Invest those first hours well, then fill in your day with meetings and phone calls, etc.
What would happen in your life if you scheduled sermon prep before any appointments, emails, or social media?
4. Plan ahead and schedule tasks to maximize your effectiveness.
I’ve noticed that I don’t like too many meetings back-to-back. I used to do five in a row on Tuesday afternoons. I liked every person I was meeting with, but I didn’t like how I felt afterwards.
Now I recognize that it’s mental fatigue that gets to me when I fall into the too-many-meetings-in-a-row routine.
On a similar note, you may want to try limiting your email work to one hour in the afternoon.
5. Try these three tricks if you find yourself mentally fatigued:
- Breathe deeply and slowly.
- Have a good laugh.
- Take a 10 minute nap. No longer.
Here’s the third strategy for having two awesome hours of productive sermon prep. This is going to sound odd, but…
Work with the Distractions
Just like it’s normal to overlook decision points, it’s normal to get distracted.
You’re sitting in your favorite sermon writing spot with a fresh mind and good intentions, and a butterfly goes past your window. You catch yourself thinking about that meeting yesterday, or what’s in the fridge for lunch. You slap yourself, and get your eyes back on your sermon, until you see…the next distraction.
To be distractible is a survival strategy. Our forefathers were distracted by the wild beasts or the approaching storm. And that served them well.
What will serve us well, now that the greatest danger is spilled coffee, is to accept that distractions happen.
Go with your train of thought for just a minute to see if it leads anywhere. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit leading you to an illustration. Creative thoughts are often out-of-the-box thoughts.
Or if it’s a truly random distraction, jot a note about it if it deserves following up. Or just let it flit away like that butterfly and refocus without recrimination on your research or writing or thinking or deciding.
Some of my best thinking and praying comes from following the distracting thoughts that flit into my brain.
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to implement these three simple strategies to carve out two hours of awesome work each day:
- Recognize decision points
- Manage mental energy
- Work with your distractions.
I made a cheat sheet so you can keep these strategies in front of you for awhile until they become second nature. I’ve got them above my desk in my home office — where I write my sermons.
We have a resource called the “2 Awesome Hours of Sermon Prep”. You can find it in the Pastor’s Personal Toolbox. It’s a library of our best tools and resources — all in one place. Tap below to learn all about it, and get this cheat sheet to use when you do your sermon prep.
And if you’ve got a strategy for doing your best sermon prep work, please tell me about it in the Comments below!
Hal Seed is the founding and Lead Pastor of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, CA. He mentors pastors who want to lead healthy, growing churches with resources at www.pastormentor.com.
Start Here to learn more about the resources available for you at PastorMentor.
Jimmy Chaney says
Thanks Hal! Good stuff!