When I was pastoring my last congregation in the Isle of Lewis, I did most of my sermon preparation on Saturday. I know that leaving it to the last minute is not “best practice,” but congregational and part-time seminary responsibilities dictated my timetable. Besides, as my wife will confirm, pressure makes me more productive.
On Saturday I would rise at 5am, breakfast, read my Bible and pray, then work intensively (and furiously) until about 2pm. At that point, by God’s grace, I usually had two sermons 80% complete, together with a fuzzy brain, sore eyes, and repetitive strain injuries.
After a quick snack, rain or sun (usually rain), I would walk to one of the nearby beaches and spend about an hour there: padding across the sand, sitting on imposing clifftops, watching the ever-changing sea, and gazing across the Atlantic to the USA & Canada. I very rarely met anyone; just me, the ocean, the sky, the silence, and God.
Why “waste” an hour on a deserted beach when I still had two sermons to complete with zero-hour approaching? Actually, it was often the most productive hour in my whole week! Knotty exegetical problems were untied. Complex sermon structures were simplified. Gaping holes in my logic were highlighted. The “big picture” emerged from multiple smaller pictures. The fog cleared and helpful illustrations materialized. And, I hate to admit this, all without really trying!
I didn’t really understand how the beach was more productive than my desk until I read Gina Trapani’s article “Burned Out: Take a Creative Sabbatical” in the Harvard Business Review. Trapani argues convincingly that our best creative work is done in times of reflection and idleness.
Studies have shown that the wandering mind is more likely to have a “Eureka!” moment of clarity and creativity. Taking breaks and zoning out from everyday tasks gives our brains time to do a kind of long-term, big-picture thinking that immediate engagement with bosses and clients and email and meetings does not.
Or, as the Wall Street Journal commented on the same findings:
“The flypaper of an unfocused mind may trap new ideas and unexpected associations more effectively than methodical reasoning.”
So, next time you “hit the wall” and start panicking as the clock ticks towards Sunday, get out, zone out, focus out, and let your mind wander aimlessly, though fruitfully, and wait for those blessed “Eurekas!”