80/20: following the rules of the Pareto Principle

If you have ever looked to improve your time management, you’ve most likely come across the 80/20 rule (more officially known as the Pareto Principle). The Pareto Principle states that frequently, the majority of effects (roughly 80 percent) come from a minority of causes (roughly 20 percent). You will most often find this principle applied in business and economics—it’s not uncommon for 80 percent of a business’s revenue to come from 20 percent of its customers, or for 80 percent of a company’s profitable work to be done by 20 percent of its employees, etc.

Pareto Principle (courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)
Pareto Principle (courtesy of iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)

The application-to-time management is obvious. It would not be strange to find, according to this principle, that 80 percent of the benefits you receive in life come from about 20 percent of your time, or that 80 percent of the meaningful work you do in your job comes from about 20 percent of your tasks. So the way to optimize your time and your life would be to focus on that meaningful 20 percent and expand it, and to find out what is useless in that other 80 percent and reduce or eliminate it.

I will say that I have used the Pareto Principle to some great effect with some of my lesser habits. In terms of browsing the web I have eliminated (well, lessened) time on sites that I find unenjoyable and which add no value to my life, and increased time reading articles that are interesting or useful. On a day off I spend less time puttering around and doing menial, tedious, and frequently unnecessary tasks and more time tackling big projects or doing things I really enjoy. I’m not sure how true the Pareto Principle is in its business applications but I, at least, have found some personal value in it.

pull quoteRecently, I turned the lens of this principle to my youth ministry program. And lo and behold, I was shocked to find out how true it appeared to be! With a bunch of my different programs, I found that 80 percent of my time was spent on about 20 percent of my participants. It was always the same 20 percent who called because they forgot the calendar, lost their book, forgot their permission slip, couldn’t get a ride. It was always the same 20 percent of parents who had a problem or a concern or a question or an angry comment.

It was true on the positive side of things too—it was about 20 percent of the parents who stepped up and took a role in the program, who would help teach and chaperone and lead small groups and bring snacks; and it was about 20 percent of the kids who could be counted on through thick and thin to show up on time, come prepared, and lead their peers.

I was reflecting on all this rather militantly as I walked from my office to daily Mass. I thought, I’m going to hack and slash! If you’re a kid and you can’t figure out how to get your permission slip in on time, then you’re not coming! If you’re a flaky helper, then you’re not going to get to be a part of the program anymore! I’m going to expand the role of my good 20 percent and eliminate my bad 20 percent! Optimization! Efficiency! My program will flourish as I begin to focus on the kids and families that really matter!

I thought about it throughout the opening procession and introductory rites; all through the first and second readings. Right up to the beginning of the Gospel for the day:

“What man among you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

A slap across the face from the Lord. I recovered my senses.

The Church is not the world. And we are called to differ from the world in many ways. This is no more true than the insistence that every life, every person, every kid matters. In fact, the one who is difficult, the one costing all the time and energy, the one you struggle with—that is the one who really matters. In youth ministry and in every ministry, we are here for all. That is the Gospel.

I walked back to my office after Mass very humbled. The Pareto Principle is great for optimizing my Internet browsing and useful when I need to balance my budget … but terrible in deciding which kid needs attention. In that case, I am called to the 99/1 principle. So I sat down, picked up the phone, looked up the first number on my “permission slip missing” list, and dialed. “Hello, this is Steven from Church. How are you? Are you still planning on coming on the retreat? That’s great. Do you have your permission slip? No worries, I can get you another copy. You need a ride? No problem, we can make that happen.

“Whatever you need.”

 

Recycled Lenten lessons

So far this Lent, I have already encountered the parts of me I don’t like.

As I try to stay dedicated to my Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, I seem to keep catching a glance of myself in the mirror: I see that I am a sinner, I am weak, I am broken. Over and over again I face the truth: I must be totally dependent on God and God’s mercy.

I’ve been talking to God through prayer about this familiar cycle that I go through every Lent (and during ordinary time too.)

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that my struggles repeat because I’m consistently dealing with the same person: me.

And then I thought about some Lenten Messy Jesus Business posts from the past that remain meaningful to me. I’d like to share them with you!

Here are 5 of my favorite Messy Jesus Business posts about Lent:

1.) “This is HARD” by Jerica Arents, April 8, 2011,  is a reflection on how the inconvenient fasts from plastic, sugar and electricity ultimately brought her closer to her community.

2.) “The weirdness of witnessing,” February 28, 2012.  The season of Lent freed me to be real about how I don’t always like to be “out there” and share my faith for many reasons, but one is because when I sin then it can reflect badly on all Christians. Bonus: “What if I stumble?” (a song by DC Talk) is mixed in!

3.) “Lent: Divorcing our bad habits,” March 3, 2013.  A British indie pop band Autoheart has a really catchy song called “Lent” and it inspired me to think about which bad habits I might need to “divorce” in order to gain true freedom in Christ.

4.) “Becoming a new fruit and fertilizer by Amy Nee, March 21, 2013.  Amy writes how compost became her Lenten mantra as she worked to get back to the basics of her faith. Some wisdom from the 13th century mystic and poet, Rumi, is incorporated beautifully.

5.) “Ashy Remembering,” March 7, 2014, is a poem about distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday and remembering my own mortality and need to repent as I touch other human faces.

What Lenten reflections and prayers speak to you during your time fasting in the desert this year?

Photo credit: http://fccgreensboro.org/2014/through-the-desert-lent-2014/

in a cave, prepping for sunrise

I am a slow learner. I hear the sacred invitations of Lent and I still move toward the darkness.  My life is busy right now and I wonder if my time with God in the desert is caving in on itself.  Is it true that I need to understand darkness to be a child of the Light? Are all my examinations of the truth really helping me get ready for the sunrise? Or, am I making things harder for myself?

Together we’re in a Lenten desert where things aren’t too comfortable.  God seems to have turned up the heat and hallowed out cool caves of confusion for us to take refuge.  Our explorations of the caves of truth cause us to wonder.  Is there a reason why we want to examine the rock formations within the dark?  Can it also be our nature to stand and face the horizon, waiting to watch the glory of the sunrise?  As light emerges can we listen to the songs of creation getting ready for a New Day?

I ponder these scenes in my heart when I remember to pause during my busy days.  God is certainly using the local, natural beauty to ground me as I run around. I have to pay attention while I try to serve, teach, help and love.   Every day is full of the Truth that can bring me closer to God.  Truth can be rocky, heavy and hard.

This week daylight savings time has warped my routine some.  My alarm clock becomes part of my dreams and I tune it out but the singing birds stir me out of slumber.  Then, in a daze, I watch the sunrise over Lake Michigan and read psalms.  I bow, blow out candles and say the Eucharistic prayer that my sisters say in our adoration chapel every hour with me while I am away on mission:  “Sacrament most holy, Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine. Eucharistic heart of Jesus, furnace of Divine love, grant peace to the world.”

I gather my stuff and rush to work. On the way I encounter the needs of the world, hoping to bring the peace I pray for. Every child needs positive attention, every person needs to know that she is loved.  I can’t keep up with the demands of being a teacher, no matter how much sleep I sacrifice or prayers I pray.  It seems that I have to remain real. It’s more true to admit that I am doing my best but I would like to do better.  A stone of truth in the cave is named: I must be humble.

I read the news and check my email.  Awareness of injustices layer upon more demands.  The freshness of the signs of spring stir worries and unrest.  I am worried about the safety of the city, the garbage wrapping around fences and coating the land.  I get crabby and annoyed that other people are messing up the world, but I fail to look in the mirror.  Yet I am getting used to violent and cruel language. Along with other sufferings and wrong-doings, I tune things out instead of caring.  Another rocky truth in the cave is named: I could be more loving and passionate about injustice.

When evening arrives I am exhausted but still spinning in restlessness.  I realize I survived another day of mean misunderstandings and heavy work, but my guilt is stronger than gratitude.  I feel like I need to keep working as long as I can or I won’t be ready for tomorrow.  God stirs in my heart, asking me to sabbath. Come, rest in me.  I shrug off God’s desert invitations and turn instead to shame and sorrow;  I think I need to work harder.  A boulder of truth in the cave is named:  I need to trust in God.

I am glad that Lent is longer than a month because I seem to be a slow learner.  I am getting it though, little by little, and with each new awareness my relationship with God is being restored and renewed.  Eventually I’ll be able to leave the cool cave and re-encounter the heat of the furnace of Divine Love.  Eventually all this Lenten work will ready me for the best sunrise ever: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the true Light of the world.

"thorns in the desert" by Julia Walsh FSPA

And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.  -John 3:19-20

the weirdness of witnessing

It’s not easy living a public life. Sometimes I’d rather be anonymous or just completely unnoticed.  It’s a lot of pressure because those who know that I am a Franciscan sister, a Christian and a modern follower of Jesus are paying attention to my moves.  What type of picture am I painting about what radical Christian living looks like?

When I was a teen in the 90’s I listened to a lot of DC Talk.  On some recorded versions of their song “What if I Stumble?”  there is a really profound and challenging statement for all Christians to heed:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door and deny Him with their lifestyle.  That is what a unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” 

It’s lent now.  I am going to be honest with you, because lent helps me feel like I can be.

I stumble as I try to follow Jesus.  I am concerned about what my lifestyle says about Christians.  I am totally aware that I am a sinner.  When I am really honest about who I am I can quickly see that I am just as messed up as everyone else, in my own Julia sort of way.  I can be mean, selfish, lazy, rude, and prideful.  I have bad moods and don’t always show up to serve with a joyful spring in my step.  Just because I am a sister doesn’t mean I am better at living a Christian life than any other Christian.  Maybe God called me to be a sister because this lifestyle personally helps me do a little better job at being a Christian that other life options would.

One of the criticisms I receive about this blog is that it is too much about me.  If I were really dedicated to the poor and the suffering maybe I’d tell more stories about them.  Do I think that I am so great that I need to show off what I am up to?  I am not a journalist and it is not appropriate for me to tell the stories of other people.  My job is to be true to who I am.

No, this blog isn’t all about me.  It’s about Jesus and how Jesus is living today.  This blog is supposed to be about how young Christians follow Jesus in today’s world.  I suppose my life is an example.  I hope that it’s a good one.  I am really not that great and my message isn’t original.  I am one voice in a big, beautiful, diverse community of disciples.  I am one woman who is trying to be faithful and is struggling on my walk with God just like everyone else.

The thing is, I feel called to witness.  For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with God and I am eager to share my Love.  I believe Christians are supposed to act and live differently than the rest of the world.  I feel called to live a more public life of faith that shows others an alternative Gospel lifestyle.  I feel like I need to give a testimony about the greatness of God with my life.  St. Francis directed his earliest brothers to “preach the gospel at all times but only use words when necessary.”  I’ve been taught that the boldness of testimony is part of Christian living.

It’s a big job to be bold and put myself out there all the time.  I can’t say I love it.  God and I get into little arguments about it sometimes.  I complain that I want to be a “normal” woman and I am sick of the standards that attention gives me.  Sometimes I cry about it and sometimes I get really crabby.  (See?! I told you I am not that great! A holy woman would serve her Love with pure joy!)

God keeps inviting me and encouraging me.  God shows me that the world is hungry for people who are being alternative and radical with their faith and devotion.  Jesus is like a coach who brushes the dust of my sin off my uniform and shoves me back in the game.  He seems to believe in me and totally fills me with the graces I need to keep going.  I gotta try to keep loving.

I am so grateful that I am not in this alone. I couldn’t be and that’s the whole point.  Christians are community people. We have to be. If we weren’t community we wouldn’t be anything.  We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and cry out to God and one another for help.  Even when the worst of us comes out, we’re still one body.  It’s the life of community that helps shine us up- like jewels- so we can be more beautiful.  Rough edges get worn down and we help each other be holy.

So, if I do stumble and mess up, I am sorry.  I pray that this season of Lent helps convert me- and all of us- a little closer to Christ. I pray that my time in the desert helps me become more enlightened about what my growing edges are.  Once I am enlightened, I trust God that I will grow.  I pray that I can be a good sister to others who are struggling in their discipleship.  I pray that how I live helps Christians look good in this world and inspires belief.  And, I am so thankful that we’re all in this together. Let’s pray for each other. With God’s grace, we’ll move the right way.

"desert way" by Julia Walsh, FSPA

hot desert heartache

"Dry Land" by Julia Walsh, FSPA

It’s confusing in this lenten desert. It’s not my home, but yet here I am.  It’s hot, bare and dirty.  My desire for lenten thirst and contemplation drew me here, but now I don’t know what to do with myself.  The creatures are unfamiliar, the thorns scare me.  I don’t even know how to sit comfortably.  How can I know God in this strange place?

I try to listen to God in the strange seeming stillness. But, really, I find that I can’t sit still.  My gaze and my movement is away from God in the quiet. Or, is it?

I find that it’s impossible to contemplate God’s presence and ignore the cries of the world.  I worry about the destruction and despair in Japan.  I learn of more bombings and gunfire in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and between gangs in the USA.  I know too many young people whose dreams are and growth is  impacted by instability within their homes.  I am flooded with prayer requests for people’s health, relationships, job-searches and economics.  I know that many people are desperately struggling for their survival.  I feel overwhelmed with the truth of injustice, suffering and pain. Tension flares within me as I hear that our government is about to shut down.  How can this be okay? How many people will suffer even more just because our elected leaders can’t come to some sort of compassionate compromise?

What caused us to get into this great big mess?  What has happened to our global interdependence and national unity?  I’ve studied the causes of social problems and I can’t say that the fact that we are driven by fear, greed and power-struggles gives me any hope.

I’m getting kind of grumpy in this desert.  In prayer I whine about how the lenten challenge of facing the ugly can help me gain faith.  It doesn’t make sense and the confusion gets thicker.  I listen a bit more.  Then God reminds me of the Word.

Will not the day of the LORD be darkness and not light, gloom without any brightness?  I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings.   Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me holocausts,  then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream-Amos 5: 20-24

Oh yeah!  This desert is a place of remembering, and I finally am.  We do all this- all this tough Gospel stuff- because our message shall shower the land with freedom.  Streams of great water flow through the land and renew and restore all.

I feel like I am trying to see in the dark but the sun is shining.  It’s not really that gloomy and ugly, it’s just not my ordinary.  I begin to notice the life that is blooming through the dusty landscape.  With God, the darkness and the light are one.

I am not to drown out the pain with cheerful music or simple sacrifice, Amos said.  Instead, I am to dance in the dark to the beautiful songs of justice and goodness and let those waters wash me clean.  The sacred desert is engaged with the world, all my actions there matter.  This desert is my home, after all.

freely united lenten grumbling

In those days, in their thirst for water,
the people grumbled against Moses,
saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?
Was it just to have us die here of thirst
with our children and our livestock?”
So Moses cried out to the LORD,
“What shall I do with this people?
a little more and they will stone me!”
The LORD answered Moses,
“Go over there in front of the people,
along with some of the elders of Israel,
holding in your hand, as you go,
the staff with which you struck the river.
I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb.
Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it
for the people to drink.”
This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel.
The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there
and tested the LORD, saying,
“Is the LORD in our midst or not?”    –Ex 17:3-7

They’re full of doubt, confusion and despair.  Many are thirsty for the meeting of basic needs and justice: the Israelites in the desert, Christians in our modern world, and all of humanity who has been impacted by oppression, natural disasters, war, violence, greed and all sin.

I wonder who is thirsty today?  Who may feel abandoned and doubt if God is in their midst?   I remember the union workers in Wisconsin.  Their story and struggle has been swept behind Japan and Libya in the news headlines, but still has great meaning.  If you haven’t heard, the law that prevents the Wisconsin civil workers from maintaining their bargaining rights was due to go into effect last weekend.  Instead, the law is stalled in the courts, creating confusion about whether it has been enacted or not.

Madison Wisconsin Protest
Scene from Wisconsin's Capitol

Like the Israelites, the unions of history were able to escape from slavery.  We’ve all been liberated by God and unions for fair pay and hours, safe working conditions and proper benefits.  I am so thankful for the justice that we have inherited from our union grandparents. The heroes and saints who freed us are not individuals, but entire communities.

Now our generation is wandering in the desert, not really sure what God is up to. The union story is not unlike our faith story.  Although it sometimes takes a long time for things to be as they should, it doesn’t take long for us to take things for granted.  It doesn’t take long for us to grumble against our leaders.

It’s easy to do this in political life and it’s very tempting to do this in faith life.  When we’re faithful citizens, the messes mix together.  The history of the union struggle reminds me I am proud to be Christian, specifically a Catholic.  Sure our Church is a community diseased by our human sinfulness. But we are also a community of saints.  I feel very grateful for the service and leadership of our bishops, especially in the labor struggle.  I am delighted by the statements that have been made against oppression.  And, in regard to the ongoing struggle in Wisconsin, my favorite part of the story is that the Catholic bishops made a public statement in support of the unions.

Madison Protest
Inside Wisconsin's Capitol

The Lenten season challenges us all. We realize our need for redemption, for Jesus and justice. We look in the mirror and read the news and then thirst for clarity, strong faith and strength.  Our social sins are just as ugly as our personal ones.

In community we approach our dark struggles with actions of prayer, fasting and alms-giving.  In our politics and faith, we wake up and notice that we have much to be grateful for, and this feeds us with hope.  We thirst for justice and then we remember we’ve been redeemed before, so we trust.  The ugly shall turn into Alleluias, and we’ll have joy all around.

A version of this post was previously published on the Young Adult Catholics blog.

Photo credit: Inside Wisconsin’s Capitol http://www.flickr.com/photos/52421717@N00/5454861442/