Let’s face it—life happens. We all get off track at one time or another. And it’s always more difficult to get back on track the second time. Third time. Fourth time. Several weeks ago, a pastor sent me an email stating:

I have tried to set aside time for planning and review and discipline myself to keep up with it, and, for the most part, I do them fairly effectively—note the hedging words! However, being consistent in these practices has been a challenge. What have you found are the keys to your staying on task with these regular planning sessions?

The question is one we all ask occasionally. And as I drafted a response to my friend, I was energized by my review of four disciplines that get me back on track when I’ve been derailed. I’ve found that each of these disciplines can be applied to nearly every area of my life and work.

1. Life Plan

If you’re like me, you’re incredibly busy. I am a husband, father, Executive Pastor, ministry leader, small group member, blogger, and a member of several community and non-profit boards. I’m sure your list of roles is similar.

We’re busy people! And while many leaders plan work projects or launch new programs, initiatives, vacations, entertainment plans, careers, or build new facilities, sadly, I’ve met very few people who have a plan for their lives.

As a result, many come to the realization that a major portion of their lives have slipped away, and, discouraged and disillusioned, they try to figure out why they’ve not been more effective.

We all want our life and work to matter. I have a conviction that every person is valuable and every life is worth developing. In short, your life matters!

Yet the harsh reality is—how you live determines how much your life will matter. And if your life is going to matter, you will have to be intentional with how you live it.

So I wrote a new life plan using the step-by-step guide from Michael Hyatt entitled, Creating Your Life Plan. This experience has resulted in dramatic improvements in my life, work, home and relationships. I explain why this is important and how you can do it in my post, Your Life Matters.

The improvements I’ve experienced in my life and ministry are unquestionably due to the fact that I made significant commitments to a healthy lifestyle, growing relationships at home, work, and with friends, weekly, quarterly, and annual reviews, and more. Each of these commitments are part of my life plan. I invested an enormous amount of time and energy into writing out my life plan.

If you have not written out your life plan, you’ll want to start there. A life plan regularly brings you back to what’s most important. So, start the adventure today! And experience the power of living and growing on purpose.

If you do have a written life plan, then the second discipline will also help you gain momentum quickly.

2. Get More Specific

I have found that when I am not getting the results I desire in any area of my life or work, there is nothing that works better than getting more specific. For example, if you struggle with planning disciplines (like many of us), the principle can be applied to your regular planning sessions. Here’s how.

Let’s assume you have set aside Sunday evening for your weekly review; however, you’re having trouble staying motivated and maintaining a consistent planning time. To make matters worse, you skip the review two weeks in a row. The next week, get more specific. Set a time—5:00-6:00 pm.

If for some reason you miss it again, get more specific. Ask a friend or spouse to call you fifteen minutes before the scheduled time to hold you accountable.

If you are still having trouble, get more specific. Have someone meet with you at the scheduled time for a few weeks until you get the time and setting tweaked to fit you.

Do whatever is necessary to get so specific that you consistently nail the discipline.

Is there an area of your life or work that you’ve just not been able to get the results you desire—the results that you know are possible?

What about your team? Do you have a team member that, no matter what they’ve tried, just can’t seem to improve productivity or efficiency?

I Threw it Away!

I mentioned earlier that I wrote a life plan. What I didn’t tell you was that I struggled to gain traction with my initial life plan. For seven years this went on—making progress, then falling back into a rut. Yes, I know, seven years is a long time!

So, in April 2011, I gave up. I threw away my life plan!

Okay, I didn’t really throw it away, but I did start all over. I rewrote my entire life plan. I used the steps outlined by Michael Hyatt in the book I mentioned earlier.

And this one decision has made all the difference in the world! Since I rewrote my life plan, I have seen dramatic results at home, in my career, in my leadership, in my relationships and in my health! What changed?

The Big Difference

The primary difference between my old life plan and my new life plan was that I got specific with the commitments (or disciplines) in each area of my life. I got so specific that I can now plug them right into my calendar.

For example, in my old life plan, I wrote about my relationship with my wife, Sarah:

I will regularly communicate my unconditional love to her by always thinking of her first, valuing our differences, caring about her feelings, respecting her opinions, sharing my most intimate thoughts, and by expressing appreciation and care.

Sounds pretty good, huh? I’m a romantic!

Now, here are the specific commitments for Sarah in my new plan:

  • Spend time with Sarah at the end of every day, communicating with her with no interruptions. (9:00-10:00 pm)
  • Go on a lunch date with her every Thursday at noon. Leave our phones in the car.
  • Take her on two weekend getaways each year—one before May 30 and the other before November 30. Unplug from technology.

What’s the difference? I got way more specific.

Guess which one has had better results! Yep, the new one! Here’s why …

Specificity produces a higher level of accountability. And accountability yields more consistent results.

Don’t miss that—read it again. Specificity produces a higher level of accountability. And accountability yields more consistent results.

So if you’re working yourself to death and still not getting the results that you anticipated, then you’re probably not being specific enough. To get better results, get more specific. Get more specific with what you want to accomplish. Get more specific with when you want to accomplish it. Get more specific with how you’re going to do it. Get more specific about the help you need. Get more specific about who you need help from. Break the project into smaller, more specific tasks. Block out specific time on your calendar. Whatever the project is, get more specific!

When you do, you’ll experience greater productivity and efficiency!

I now use this principle on a daily basis; it has become a habit! When I’m not getting the results I desire, I ask, “How can I get more specific?” When a team member is struggling to get momentum, we look at how we can get more specific. When we get more specific, we always get better results!

So, what is it that you need to get more specific about today? 

3. Make It Fun

This is important. I say often, “If it’s not fun, I’m not doing it.”

Attach the problem area to something you enjoy doing—Starbucks if you like coffee, the library if you like books, or a park if you like the outdoors. This will motivate you to look forward to the event rather than seeing it as an inconvenience to your already busy schedule.

When you’re running on empty, unplug. Take a sabbatical. Go on vacation.

We all know we need to take a break occasionally—to unplug and recharge (those two don’t usually go together.)

It’s easy to neglect rest and reflection. Life and work just get in the way. And before we know it, another month is gone. Another year is gone. Time gets away from us. And we continue pushing ourselves and our teams to the point of burnout.

A couple of years ago, I was leaving town for a week-long vacation with my wife and our daughter, Madison, who was seven years old at the time.

On the way out of town, I stopped briefly to meet a client. We spoke for a few minutes, and, as I turned to leave, I promised to email some information later that day.

Sitting in the car, Madison overheard my promise and, as I opened the car door, said, “Mom, Dad is NOT allowed to send any emails this week!”

It’s interesting that a 7-year-old can understand the importance of taking a break when so many leaders struggle with maintaining energy and focus.

It’s time we admit it—this is poor behavior. And this behavior is not sustainable. It’s time to take a break!

No phone. No email. No social network.

Here are three ideas I’ve experimented with when I needed to take a break!

  • Be all there. This is what Madison was trying to communicate to me and her mom—“There’s no way Dad will be able to relax if he’s thinking about email.” As it turned out, getting away and disconnecting was exactly what I needed. It allowed me to be fully engaged in the experience with them, without the temptation to be somewhere else mentally.
  • Engage in deep conversation. Getting away from the busyness of home, school, ministry, and work offers an opportune time to catch up with family and friends. It’s too easy to pass time in shallow conversation and activities. While we were away, I spent hours just listening to my girls. Walking with them—for miles. Laughing. And we were all refreshed and energized by our time together.
  • Spend time alone. Although I am naturally outgoing in my work, I am more reclusive at home and with friends. When I’m not working, I generally like being alone or working on projects in seclusion. And that’s okay! Sometimes the best way to recharge is by getting away—alone.

4. Mess Up

You will probably have to experiment many times. Like most things, it’s unlikely you’ll get it perfect the first time. And that’s fine. Focus on making progress—and you will.

Let’s face it, we’ve all ended up in a colossal mess at one time or another. Life is unpredictable and full of difficult circumstances and painful situations.

We don’t create messes on purpose; they just happen, right?

Okay, maybe there are times when painful experiences result from our own poor judgment. Occasionally, the mess is our own fault. And your mess makes you unique. It allows you to connect on a personal level with others in a way that success does not.

Here are a couple things I’ve learned from my derailments:

1. Avoid them

That’s not hard to grasp, is it?

Well, if it’s that easy, why are so many facing incredibly difficult problems? Avoiding painful situations really comes down to consistently making good decisions.

Many leaders, teams, and organizations collapse under the weight of fundamentally flawed decisions. Effective leaders must make decisions based on proven principles. For more on making better decisions, check out my post on 3 Ways to Guarantee Your Success.

When you live intentionally, you’ll avoid many derailments.

2. Make them part of your story

Think about this—your derailments help you become a better person. They provide opportunities to grow.

The huge mess you are enduring right now will one day be something that you look back on as a life-changing, learning experience. Life’s most challenging moments and deepest hurts can become the very stories that later encourage others on their journey.

Several years ago, I attended a public speaking workshop in Atlanta. During one of the sessions, Dr. Robert Rohm made this statement: My mess is my message.

Who are we kidding? No one wants to hear about how smart, great, or perfect we are. They’re more likely to listen to (and learn from) our personal struggles and failures.

So, quit trying to hide your pain. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month—when it all falls apart, embrace it. Learn from it. Allow Christ to walk into your woundedness with you and heal it. Then share it with someone. It’s likely they are experiencing something very similar.

To be honest, I don’t consciously think about these four disciplines much anymore …

  1. Life plan.
  2. Get more specific.
  3. Make it fun.
  4. Mess up.

…because they are part of my thinking and behavior now … which wasn’t always the case.

When I get derailed, these four disciplines get me back on track in nearly every area of my life and work. And they’ll work for you too.