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.”


The backwards blessings of being busy

A little bit after my Christmas break began a couple weeks ago, I realized something was wrong with me.

Here I was, entering into days that were meant for rest and rejuvenation, and I totally felt stressed out about all I had to do. Sure, it made sense. The end of the year and the holidays are a busy time for most of us. Maybe procrastination had gotten the best of me. I do know that during those hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and the start of my Christmas vacation, I moved several things on my to-do list into those big gaps of “free time” on my calendar around Christmas.

But even though it may have made sense that I felt stressed, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t actually relax and just take pleasure in the things I needed and wanted to do. I even found it difficult to actually focus on the work, because my anxiety about it all felt so intense. A sudden abundance of “free time” strangely seemed to put extra pressure on me to achieve, accomplish, produce. Whew.

I couldn’t help but to wonder: Am I addicted to being busy? 

My heart was deeply pondering that uncomfortable question. My body was desiring some real rest. And, my mind was longing to actually accomplish some necessary tasks. So, I couldn’t help but to pause and immediately read this article when it came across my Twitter feed:

Why is everyone so busy? The Economist

I took a break from the anxiety about the work and delved right in. Then, I totally calmed down. It was an incredible and interesting read, not something I could skim. In fact, the article actually stirred up some good personal reflection for me. The article contained particular insights that I found to be so striking that they lingered with me during the rest of my break (especially whenever I was tempted to feel shame for not being productive.) Here’s a few quotes:

  • Nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. 
  • Lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.
  • The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.
  • The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.
  • The struggle to “have it all” may be a fairly privileged modern challenge. 
  • The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
  • Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier.

It wasn’t news for me to know that I am an experience junky and that I am over-ambitious. And, I know I have some bad habits. I’ve been aware for a while that more mindfulness and intentionality about how I use my time would benefit me. But the real striking and fascinating, thing I learned from the article is that part of the reason I feel such a pressure to be productive is that I am a well-educated and privileged American. There’s a backwards blessing in being busy mixed into all this.

As a Franciscan Sister, I find that my life really is an awkward dance of service and contemplation, of solitude and community. I have chosen this lifestyle/God gave me this vocation, because the life really does offer much potential for balance. With balance comes health and happiness.

As a disciple of Jesus, I continue to learn and re-learn that what matters most is not what we do after all. God doesn’t necessarily call us to be productive, but to be present. (I recently came across another brilliant piece of writing that deeply explores this dynamic of our busy lives.) The kingdom of God is build through relationships and love, not goals and accomplishments. What matters most is how we are with each other.

In the end, I did have a restful and rejuvenating Christmas break, with a good balance of leisure and work. I’ve been back to teaching for a couple days now and in the classroom with my students I feel lighter and more grounded than when my vacation began. The balance of my break has had healthy impacts. I am so thankful that I was able to fill my time with stronger doses of human connection and celebration, contemplation and rest, as all of it helped me be a better teacher and servant.

Now, the question that I felt challenged to confront at the beginning of my Christmas break lingers: Why do I allow myself to be so busy? I am not sure what the answer is. But, I don’t think I am addicted to being busy after all. My new years resolution is to remain balanced, intentional, to move slow. Then, maybe, I can enjoy the blessings of being busy.

In Its Time

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” (Eccl 3:11)

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

I am sorry to disappoint everyone but this beautiful passage, spoken ages ago, passing the test of time to get here today, was written just for me. I am sure of it. For the past few years, I’ve been a student of journeys. I’ve walked with others, and I’ve certainly been on my own. You learn a few things when you’re the witness of some deep suffering and exalted joys.

1: You can often feel bipolar because huge climactic changes can happen in the flip of a switch. These moments cause you to reflect on the moment before and freeze that emotion, whether it was calm, peaceful and excited, or moody, dark, and anxious.

2: There is an immediate reactionary building period to those changes. It’s where you set your resolve, your personal priorities and rudimentary boundaries. This event might change you as a person and you want to make sure you have the inherent qualities you like about yourself.

3: In between those moments of change come big expansive times of anxious doubt (Why hasn’t anything good happened in a while? Am I chasing the wrong dream?) and envious comparison (Everyone seems to be happy and have their desires. Sigh).

4: Peppered in that anxious doubt are moments of excited clarity. I can feel something is about to happen, but what? How do I prepare for this?

5: And then BOOM another change, another moment, and you start the process all over again.

It’s exciting stuff, change. Life. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the unfolding of it. Six years ago I started my awareness of infertility. Three years ago I was suddenly notified of my impending divorce. Since then I’ve been focused on healthy healing and patient waiting with quiet, such quiet anxious hopes. It’s so hard to trust. It is. But I can firmly say that I have definitely tried my best at it. And wouldn’t you know? I’m getting married this Saturday.

Indeed, He has made everything beautiful, in its own time.

stewardship and balancing acts

The start of the new school year is energizing, exciting, and quickly approaching. Yet before I can start preparing my classroom and my curriculum for a fresh batch of 9th graders, I’m frantically trying to finish my summer projects.

When I see all the unmet goals on my “Summer List,” I feel sad as the reality sinks in: a lot of those things will have to be put off until the fall. I know the start of a new school year will mean bracing myself for a faster pace and more jammed-packed days ahead.

Transitions cause feelings to emerge and the work of getting ready can be exhausting. Some of my attitudes and hopes about the transition are typical. I want to start off the new school year with good organization and clear structure in place for myself and my students. Certainly, great plans and routines are good ideas for balance, health and student learning. It’s so obvious, but it’s not easy for me.

This time, however, my motives have shifted. I have new reasons for wanting better structure and balance in my life.

Here’s something that is a guide for my desires:

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. – Luke 12: 48b

This reminds me of the responsibility I have to be a good steward and to respond to God’s call. Yes, I’m called to be a wonderful teacher for my students and that includes offering them structure and clearly-defined plans. I’ve learned that I have a responsibility to be a steward of the gifts God has given me. I used to associate stewardship with caring for physical things, like the earth or the vehicle I share with my community. My life is more than the material world, so why did I think stewardship would only include that?

Now, though, I desire balance and structure in my life because I want to take better care of ALL the gifts I have–time, energy passion and talent–along with the material stuff.

So, as the summer winds down, I’m in a period of evaluating what I’m doing with my time and abilities. I’ve learned that if God gives a gift–a talent– it comes with a responsibility to develop it, learn all you can about it and be the best you can be at it. Then you can give your gift back to God in the best way possible. Even if it’s hard work. Whew, not a fun lesson for me because sometimes I just want things to be easy.

Photo by Fritz Liedtke
Photo by Fritz Liedtke

I met great artists this summer who wowed me with their practical advice about balance. It feels a bit embarrassing to admit I’m learning this adult lesson right now, but I really am marveling in them.  I gained a lot from hearing professional artists like Fritz Liedtke speak about balancing their “day job” with art-making. Fritz really seemed to love and value his day job. He spoke about how his money earning informs his art. Because he works at balance, his day job allows him to develop the skills, freedom, time and funds he needs in order to do what matters most to him. Old lesson, new spin: we must balance!

The goals of balance now feel like they apply to me in a new way.  I have come to realize–and to accept–that I have gifts, passions, and struggles I wasn’t attending to before. So, I’m challenged to grow: to be better, to be healthy and to still serve with joy. I need to take care of myself and the gifts I’ve been given so I can be the woman God needs me to be. Good intentions, but easier said than done, of course.

By the grace of God, may the stewardship and balancing acts be good going! Amen!

Advent is drawing to a close

By guest blogger: Amy Nee

Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us.  Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly.  I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.

How often this is the case!  I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time.  So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it.  Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment.  Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.

But it’s not too late!  Advent is not over yet!  And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen.  I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table.  An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.

Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”  Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt.  Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his).  Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1

And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph.  Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting.  Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.”  Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.

“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements.  Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered.  Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity).  He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.

The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today.  That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.

Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season.  The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present.  The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”

So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place.  And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”?  What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision?  Where am I blinded by lack of imagination?  What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?

This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.

Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.

in God’s time

We can’t really know what God is up to.

But we can wonder, and we do.  Wondering about what God is doing makes me feel like I am the size of an ant in an expansive universe.   Actually, I am, in a way.

Somehow, though, I am part of it all.

Paradigms of planet, church, religion and humanity are shifting all around us.  Sometimes, these shifts are gradual and gentle, like water flowing silently downstream  Other times, though, the societal changes are so bold we almost feel damaged.  We collapse on crosswalks and sprint down the streets of tomorrow while the statues of our ancestors laugh at our blindness.  Can we see the beauty that surrounds us today?

But, it’s hard to know beauty when there is a lot of clutter.  As we listen to the news and hold it up to what we’re working for, we quickly become discouraged.  The mess is confusing and we’re worried. What’s happening to our democracy? What’s going on in Christianity? Passions and power quake the church and government and we wonder what to have faith in.

Could it be ourselves?  Or shall we, can we, have faith in God?

A week ago I was a participant in a wonderfully strange conference.  Giving Voice, a national organization for young women religious, sponsored an inter-generational conference in Chicago to discuss what is happening in this life of ours, religious life.  We came with a sense that God is up to something new and different.  Together we wondered what that was.  The wondering was strange because we were talking about something that we didn’t know.

In Madeleine L’Engle‘s book  A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tries to answer the questions of children.  “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”  I desire to explain what I’ve experienced and sensed, but what is emerging seems to be beyond anything we have ever known.

I know it though, God is up to something. Paradigms are shifting; the world is changing right under our feet.  When the earth moves, it can feel dangerous.  We don’t know what will break around us.  We grip to reactions based in fear and power and doubt survival.  We crash and forget what we most need to move on: eachother.  As tumultuous as all the crashing and changing may feel, we can trust God and have hope.  God is in control and shifts can be good.

At the “young nun” conference we sought to contemplate the goodness that vibrates through the groans.  The process was deep and profound.  We listened, prayed, shared, played, questioned, connected and organized.  We learned too.  We were blessed to be with Sandra Schneiders, who is a great historian and theologian.  She’s pretty much the expert on religious life and what is has been, is, and could be.  In other words, Schneiders is a woman who can speak quite well about how God has worked with people throughout time.

We pondered what it means to be religious women in this time of unknowing.  We leaned in, all 150 women religious seemingly stuck in 2011. We felt connected to the deep roots of our ancient tradition and movements toward the future.  In these moments, I pondered how our human minds limit understanding what time really is.  Science agrees with what my spirit senses, too.  Time, as we know it, is an illusion.

So, we’re a part of this illusive time and God needs us to work.  Schneiders’ analysis of this Kairos was based in her insights that the signs of these times are globalization, secularization, pluralization, and de-traditionalization.  We are called to respond to what’s going on and how it impacts spirituality, politics, service and poverty.  As I listened, I felt relieved, actually.  We can commune in the struggles together.

Through it all I kept wondering.  What are we supposed to do?  If the needs of this time are so great- and they are- then how are we supposed to be present?  What actions do we need to take to birth a new paradigm and way of being?

As we ponder the power of Now, we get to listen to the whispers of the Spirit who always compels us to grow and change.  At the end of the conference, consciousness brought forth the art of poetry.  We peacefully walked through the shift and blessed the words of wonder.  There was silence as we gazed at what the time had emerged.

In art there are answers.  We need not worry about how to bring forth a new paradigm, after all.  We can just focus on living the reign of God.  After we do this for some time, then we’ll be able to look around and be awed that God has used us to help create something new.  Thanks be to God!