Prayer is the greatest personal management technique ever devised. It’s more than that, of course; it’s real-time communication with a real God. But the act of prayer provides a habitualized, holy zone in which we can plan our days, arrange our priorities, declutter our to-dos, put first things first, and synchronize with the sacred. I’ve been doing this for decades, and to my mind not even the wisest contributors of, say, Harvard Business Review, could devise a better tool for gaining mastery over the daily grind.
I confess I’m no expert in prayer. According to one of my mentors, none of us ever gets beyond kindergarten in the school of prayer. But as we’re sometimes reminded, we can learn all we need to know in kindergarten if we’ll just pay attention. Our prayer habits are individual and unique — and I’m not suggesting you adopt my plan per se, but as one kindergartener to another, here’s how I’m helped by prayer:
Every morning after showering and dressing, I make my way to an old desk in a spare bedroom. There I have a summit meeting with the Lord, in keeping with the examples of biblical characters like David, Isaiah, and Jesus (see Psalm 5:3, Isaiah 50:4, and Mark 1:35). There I open a little notebook containing my journal, calendar, to-do lists, and prayer lists (you can do this electronically, but I’m old-fashioned about it).
Admittedly, prayer lists are as bland as grocery lists when used perfunctorily. But employed sensibly, they provide a useful agenda for prayer.
It’s helpful to journal a bit — not too much, but as needed. I jot down what happened yesterday, what’s anticipated today, what’s bothering me, what’s encouraging me. Then I note the reference of my regular daily Bible reading. Prayer, after all, is two-way communication, God speaking to me through the scripture as I speak to him in praise and petition. Today my reading brought me to the Old Testament book of Zephaniah, which so intrigued me I read it through twice (it’s short). Then in my journal I made a brief note or two after reading and meditating a bit on the texts.
I next turn to the prayer section of my journal. Admittedly, prayer lists are as bland as grocery lists when used perfunctorily. But employed sensibly, they provide a useful agenda for prayer. Moses spoke to God face to face “as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11), and our lists mustn’t overshadow our Lord. Still, if I had a meeting with the Queen of England, I’d surely go into it with some sort of agenda to make sure I didn’t waste the time. Being awed and being efficient are not mutually exclusive.
My opening page is a thanksgiving list, and I add an item to it every morning. This morning it was: “Thank you, Lord, that I’m seldom bored.”
The next page contains a series of words reminding me to offer the following: prayers of confession (this is a great time to correct unhealthy patterns in life); prayers for my own needs and those of others; petitions for family members (I’m blessed with a dozen grandkids for whom I pray daily by name); and for a wide range of miscellaneous requests.
In just two or three minutes, or five at most, I can devise a plan to scaffold the hours before me.
I have an open-ended docket stretching back through the years. Many of these items have been checked off as the Lord answered them. Some are pending, and I add other items to the list often. They range from small concerns to global issues. I pray about politics. I pray for the president of the United States. I pray for the collapse of evil despots in Asia and for the recovery of drug-addicted kids in Nashville. I don’t pray over every item every day, but I want to persevere in prayer over the things that matter in my life and world.
Now here’s what most people leave out. After meditating and praying, while I still have a conscious awareness of being in the Lord’s audience, while the glow lingers and before I’ve left my desk, I turn the page and look at my calendar. I study the day ahead, double-check my appointments, and consult my to-do lists. I scan my short-range projects and long-range plans. Whispering a prayer for guidance — “Lord, what do you want me to do today?” — I compose a plan for the day on a little card.
Believing that God assigns our work in one-day increments, I long to launch into the day with a plan that includes a handful of things I want to accomplish. In just two or three minutes, or five at most, I can devise a plan to scaffold the hours before me. This is in keeping with Psalm 143:8, which says, “Lord, this morning remind me of your love and show me your agenda for today” (my paraphrase).
For me, [prayer is] the gyroscope that steadies my hours and the principle behind the work I seek to do.
My morning prayers don’t involve inordinate amounts of time. I’m usually at my desk between 15 and 45 minutes. But whatever time I invest there is more than made up by the energy and efficiency it gives the rest of the day.
These patterns aren’t original with me. Hugh Blair, an old Scottish preacher, said over a century ago, “He who every morning plans the transaction of the day and follows out the plan, carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.”
I believe this is best done in prayer, and that’s why prayer is the greatest personal management system ever devised. For me, it’s the gyroscope that steadies my hours and the principle behind the work I seek to do. It’s the key to the morning, the door to the day, the bolt of the evening, and the secret to the encircling years.
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