It's a paradox.
Often, limits actually enhance creativity. Here are 20 tips to find and take advantage of your creativity/deadline "sweet spot."
1. Discover your Patterns: Keep a Journal.
Each time you plan to do your sermon prep, track how much you accomplish and how focused you were.. What aided your focus? What blocked it? What insights are gained? Use these discoveries to become more strategic in planning your sermon prep time.
2. Know your "sweet spot" for adrenaline.
Most of us need a certain amount of adrenaline to help us focus—but not so much we feel paralyzed by fear. How much do you need? When does it occur? Plan for that time and use it to your advantage.
3. Focus on the next one step in the process, not the end product.
What's the next one necessary step in your sermon prep process? To read the scripture? To dig into some history? To sketch some ideas? Focus on only the one, next thing to stay in the present moment...where the Spirit is meeting you.
4. Create a calendar with sermon deadlines for each day, finishing on the day you choose.
What day do you want your sermon finished? Friday? Thursday? Wednesday? Then plan for what you can do in each day without giving yourself wiggle room to allow your prep to spill over. (For example, when you have to preach at a funeral on Thursday, don't you get the sermon done by Thursday?) Adjust the rest of your weekly appointments.
5. Don't wait on the Spirit. trust the Spirit will meet you when you make yourself available.
The jazz composer Duke Ellington is reported to have said, "I don't need time. I need a deadline." Many of us will fill our prep with all the time we give it. Trust the Spirit will show up when you do.
6. Give yourself a fake deadline.
Along the lines of the above, what would "trick" you into feeling like your true deadline is on the day you want your sermon finished? For example, pretend worship is on Saturday morning instead of Sunday morning to ensure it's done by Friday.
7. Pause. Breathe. Take a walk.
Take frequent creativity breaks to refuel your system. Set a timer to pause, take deep breaths, and walk away from your books or computer for ten minutes.
8. Forget perfectionism.
No one is perfect. No sermon is perfect. Taking time away from other equally important activities to perfect a sermon arises from pride.
9. Reward yourself.
Consider some of your favorite distractions, like checking email, your news feed, or looking at pictures of loved ones. Set a goal to do a segment of your prep; then reward yourself with favorite distractions.
10. Be realistic about the amount of time available in a day.
Have an hour for prep today? Then that's as much as you have to work with. Make the most of it by establishing two questions to answer in the time you've got. It'll keep you focused and help you feel you accomplished something.
11. Set a timer for half the time you think you need for the next one task.
Instead of starting with the amount of time you have, start with the next task. Think it'll take an hour? Then set a timer for thirty minutes to push yourself to be super focused.
12. Write five questions you want to ask a scripture character, the author of the book, or God pertaining to the lessons...with your non-dominant hand.
This will free up creative juices and get your mojo flowing.
13. Start and end when you say you will.
Schedule your sermon prep at the beginning of the week; then stick to it. Just as you would respect others who attend a meeting by starting and ending on time, respect yourself by starting and ending when you say you will.
14. Get hyperselective about the amount of text you'll preach from.
What if the lectionary were three lessons instead of four? Would you still be able to find a sermon? What if it were two lessons instead of three? One instead of two? A paragraph instead of an entire lesson? Rather than get pulled in too many directions for sermon possibilities, read through all the lessons once, choose one—or a portion of one—that most intrigues you, then use the remainder for exegesis.
15. Reframe the "deadline" to a "lifeline."
Have you thought about that word, "deadline"? It's enough to increase anxiety in and of itself! Reframe Sunday morning into the "lifeline" of Good News to be offered to your listeners.
16. Don't censor your sermon ideas.
Collect them all. Free write or start talking into your smart phone.
17. Add low to moderate ambient noise to your atmosphere.
"Library quiet" can be too quiet. For many, a low level of ambient noise or music helps keep our minds sharp and on task.
18. Sketch a picture of an object in front of you or in your mind.
Get your creativity flowing. Before starting any aspect of your prep, spend five minutes sketching. It gets the blood flowing to the right side of your brain to open the possibilities.
19. Know your creativity:deadline ratio
Check out this graphic representation of project pacing, created by three researchers in the Netherlands. Think of it as a focus and adrenaline map. Which style works best for you? (Cited from Psychology Today's "Our Innovating Minds" column):
steady and even, with a moderate but constant level of activity and effort from the beginning of the project until the deadline; like this: —
a deadline style, with little initial activity but a steep and intense increase in activity near the deadline; like this: /
an early style (the opposite of the deadline style), with steep and intense activity at the outset of the project, but tapering to little activity near the deadline; like this: \
a U-shaped style, combines portions of both the early and deadline styles, involving steep and intense activity at the outset of the project, followed by a creative lull, with renewed intense activity near the deadline; like this: U
20. Start early in the day.
Our willpower gets depleted throughout the day. If procrastination is an unwelcome part of your sermon prep, you're most likely to jump your biggest hurdles first thing in the day and more likely to put things off as the day goes on. Get a piece of it done first thing.
What works for you to prepare your sermon on your "lifeline?"
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