Productive By Design: The Struggle is Real

One of my great challenges in life has always been focus and productivity.  I have always had grand illusions of grand accomplishments – deep, persuasive or important articles or books that stirred people to be better than they were before reading what I wrote.  I’m sure that there is at least a spoonful of pride in there…maybe a large dose, even (which is a subject for another post!).  Still, I’ve always wanted to be a difference-maker; always wanted to contribute, to encourage, and to motivate.

People have told me from through the years, “You’ve got a book in you.”  Even plagued by years of self-doubt, I started to believe them.  Several years ago, I actually started the process of writing one.  One summer, I even dedicated an entire month to little more than writing it.  I got almost eight chapters written out of a desired ten…then the summer ended and so did my focus on the book.  It’s been the same length now for two more summers.

Recently, I’ve had the desire to pick it up again and finish it with a brand new chapter in mind.  Of course, the problem I now face is having to essentially start over in the process of reviewing what I’ve written and getting back to the place that I know where I’m going because I know where I’ve been.  Hours later, I find myself exhausted from rehashing chapters written long ago, struggling to get to where I can finally write the new material I was earlier so excited to write.

This sums up my struggle pretty well.  It has been the pattern too much of my life has followed.  Because I have always been good at “cramming,” I relied on that rather than methodically following a well-crafted plan over the course of days or weeks.  I had the ability to write an adequately resourced, twenty page paper in less than 24 hours and get as good of a grade as those who had been working for weeks (truth be told, if really pushed I could do it in eight!).  That may sound impressive at first glance, but they learned something more valuable than I ever did: the ability to develop a plan, implement a strategy, and carry it out over the course of time.  As a result, I struggle even today.

Understanding that about myself, I have tried to develop systems of disciplines to aid my climb towards balance and productivity.  I have desired to best steward my God-given time, but have so often failed.

A few days ago, I came across an article while browsing Facebook (in one of those moments of deep focus on the important!), with the tagline, “In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books.” That, alone, intrigued me since I have a great desire (and have made valiant attempts this summer) to read more books.  200, though?  I found it daunting to consider, but thought it worth checking out.  Doing the math, the author broke down the 200 books to average 417 hours of reading over the course of the year.  Still sounds like a lot until I considered the comparisons he made:  Americans spend on average 608 hours a year on social media and a whopping 1,642 hours on television.  That totals 2,250 hour spent on, as he rightly concludes, trash. Spent reading, that would be over 1,000 books per year.  Crazy!

So, that article pointed me to a book the author recommended.  It’s called Superhuman by Habit, by a guy named Tynan (don’t ask me his last name. Apparently, he doesn’t have one).  I bought it and plowed through it and must say, I was quite impressed.  Besides being well-written, it is fiercely practical.  I was able to glean basic strategies that will me move from the struggle to accomplish certain things into the category of “automated” or automatic habits.  Essentially, as you focus every day on key habits, they become a part of your lifestyle.  Common sense, yes, but if you don’t stop long enough to think it through and determine what habits you are missing, it can seem less than common.

One of the key passages that encourages me to give thought to the development of some key, positive habits is the understanding that it is difficult but possible to do just about anything important if we break it down, analyze it (importance and process), and begin moving forward:

“You can do just about anything if you break it down into habits and execute on them.  That’s not to say it’s easy, only that it’s possible.  The key is to be honest about what’s stopping you from success, take responsibility for it, and create new habits to correct it.”

I may not agree with his worldview on some things (sadly, he attributes the glory of nature to evolution), but his perspectives on overcoming barriers to growth are spot on.  Even this writing is an effort to move in a positive direction in an area I believe is important…certainly important to me.  It’s just one step, but it’s a step.  Maybe I will never be as focused or as motivated as I think I should, but I might just surprise myself and find that I can and will be more focussed than I thought I ever could for the glory of God.  That’s a journey worth taking!

General James Mattis on the Importance of Reading

I have been working hard at increasing the depth and breadth (and speed!) of my reading.  To be honest, I’ve often felt guilty for taking time in my day to read.  I always thought, “How many of my church members get the luxury of sitting down with a book in the middle of their day to read?”  I have come to realize how short-sighted and, frankly, absurd that notion is.

My whole job is to make sure that I’m learning the answers to a thousand different questions.  I have to work to understand deep, theological concepts so that I can adequately and simply communicate them to people who are struggling, hurting or confused over something that has happened in life.  For me to understand the answers, I have to continually be digging and studying which, of course, means reading.

In some way or another, you have to continue developing, too.  Whether it’s in your job, your family, or your soul, you are charged to keep growing.  We are constantly learning.  The question is whether we’re learning the hard way or doing the hard work to learn the easy way, which rarely happens without reading.

I recently came across one of the absolute best articles I’ve ever read on the subject of “professional reading” which could also apply to the area of general “developmental reading.”  It’s about the reading habits of General James Mattis who was recently tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next Secretary of Defense.  In the Business Insider article, General Mattis talks of the primary reason that carving out time for extensive reading time is so important:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

What about you?  Do you make reading a priority?  I encourage you to expand your horizons, develop a wide-range of interests (history, biography, theology, etc.), and begin carving out time whenever you can to invest in personal growth through reading.  I highly recommend you read the entire article here and check out the following extra posts for some tips and guidelines.

Additional articles on the subject:

Albert Mohler on “The Reading of Books”

My article on 7 Tips for Reading Better, Faster and Smarter

It’s Saturday. Start something

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…and so is a plan without goals. Both are necessary ingredients.

Basic steps to making change:

  1. Determine what needs to be changed (and how badly you want it changed–this is a great place for prayer!).
  2. Develop a plan of action.
  3. Set reasonable, measureable goals.
  4. Count the cost (what do you have to add/subtract in your like and is it worth it?).
  5. Tell somebody. Make yourself accountable for encouragement.
  6. Implement the plan.

Today is a great day to get started!

Is there something you would add to these steps? Let me know.

7 Tips for Reading Better, Faster and Smarter

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I have to read a lot for my job.  As a pastor, my responsibility is not to know everything, but to know as much as I can and then know where to find what I don’t know (which is plenty!).  That’s a big responsibility when you are regularly asked questions on every minutia of theology or how to handle a particular life situation or are wondering what the Bible says about _______________.

With that in mind, I’ve thinking about how I can improve my ability to absorb large amounts of information by increasing the number of books I’m able to read over the course of a year. I’ve read several good articles on the subject, asked and received some good advice, and also tried some experimentation myself.  I decided I would share some of what I’ve found to work for me here on my blog in hopes that you, too, can grow in your breadth and depth of knowledge through reading, which is of more importance than we probably give it.  

Relying on someone else to do all the learning for you doesn’t cut it.  Just listening to sermons or lectures isn’t enough.  You need to become effective in digging for yourself.  I want to encourage as many people as possible to actively begin learning how to find good resources, effectively move through them, and glean as much knowledge as they can. 

If you’ve never felt confident as a student or even as a reader, it can seem overwhelming.  When I started the process, some basic questions surfaced:  How do I do it?  Where do I find the time in my busy schedule to read or study?  Is there a way to increase my reading ability and speed because I seem to get bogged down and often don’t even make it to the end of a book (I lose interest halfway through and start another book instead)?  All of these are problems I have faced and have worked hard to overcome.  If you’re in the same boat, see if any of these 7 suggestions might help you become more proficient in accomplishing your reading goals:

1.  Pick good books.  All books are not equal and with millions to choose from, you are bound to pick some losers just because the cover was pretty or the subject interested you.  Before you ever purchase a book or even commit to reading it, check out reviews.  Go to Amazon, look up the book, read an excerpt, check out the reviews and see what other readers are saying.  There are always gong to be at least a couple of negative reviews, but if the majority really like it, you have a good chance of picking a winner.  Also, rely on people you trust who read a lot of books to provide you with suggestions.  If you’re interested in a particular subject, put it out on Facebook or Twitter or reading apps like Goodreads and see if anyone has good suggestions.  You’ll probably be surprised with how many great possibilities you get.

2.  Don’t waste your time on bad books.  If you pick a book that promised more than it could deliver, stop reading it.  If you don’t, you’ll become discouraged and begin to hate the process of reading which will only defeat the purpose.  In some books, you might need to skim through and pick out some good stuff and discard the rest.  Even some really bad books have a couple of really good chapters.  Read only those chapters and move on.  On that note, sometimes we feel obligated to read a book because we paid good money for it.  I would encourage you to only buy books that you are relatively certain are worth it.  In cases where you aren’t sure, go to a library or borrow from a friend.  If you have Amazon Prime, you already have access to a huge lending library as a part of your membership.  On top of that, there is a huge number of free books through websites like the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  If you do buy some losers, take them to a used book store and see if you can get credit for different books or sell them online.

3.  Limit distractions.  Once I have a book I really want to read, I often find that I can’t find the time to actually read it.  One of my problems is that I do a lot of my reading using ebooks, which is very convenient but can also make uninterrupted reading virtually impossible.  Because I have an iPad and an iPhone, I did what most people do and downloaded the Kindle app, not realizing that I was making a huge mistake. 

The problem I encountered with reading on a smart device is that every few minutes I would be interrupted by a “ding!” for an email alert and a “ding!” for a text message.  I got dinged for Facebook and dinged for Twitter.  Instagram would ding me and so would every other app on my phone.  Even if I chose not to look at them immediately, the distractions became maddening.  How could I avoid this?  It wasn’t until I read a suggestion in an article about ebooks by Tim Challies that I finally discovered the answer.  He recommended not reading ebooks on the same device you use for all your other interactions.  Instead, purchase an actual Kindle (or some other ebook reading device) that doesn’t come with notifications.  That was genius!  So, I found a used 6” Kindle for about $30 on Amazon and it’s made all the difference.  When it’s time to read, I put my phone and iPad in another room and dedicate whatever time I have to uninterrupted reading.  It’s great and one of the best purchases I’ve made.

This leads to the other aspect of limiting distractions:  chill out on the social media.  One of the greatest time-thieves in my life has been social media.  I wrote about it here, so I won’t rehash that post now, but since cutting out social media all-together, I have noticed a marked increase in available time for more important things.  That’s not to say I will never go back to social media as I think it can be very helpful and beneficial, but I don’t plan to re-introduce it to the level I once did. 

If you want to increase your time reading or studying, designate certain times during the day that you can check in on social media, but turn off notifications and let those special times be during your breaks.  If not, your productive times will only be during your breaks from social media.

Of course, what can be said for social media can certainly be said for television.  There are particular shows I like to watch.  I’m going to watch them and not feel guilty about it, so long as that isn’t the majority of my time.  That’s not to say I don’t have times of crashing on the sofa while the tv is on, but if most of my free time is sitting in front of the tv, I’ve got a problem.  So, if that’s you, intentionally turn off the tv and pick up a book.  If you don’t feel like getting into anything deep, grab a good fiction book and “veg-out” in that, instead.

4.  Always have a book.  I learned this tip from Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the most (if not the most) voracious readers I’ve ever known.  Dr. Mohler suggests always having a book on hand while waiting in line at the bank or supermarket, while waiting in the doctors office or even when sitting at red lights!  With my handy Kindle, that’s an easy thing to do, but you can also use these suggestions with paper books.  The point is, seize the moments you have that, strung together, are pretty large blocks of time that are otherwise wasted.

5.  Work on increasing your reading speed.  This has always been my Achilles Heel!  I’ve always been a good reader, but not a very fast one, so it would take me for.e.ver to read a single book.  Frustrating!  So, last year, I made it my goal to increase my reading speeds while not sacrificing comprehension.  I set out to find anything that could help me and was surprised at the number of speed-reading apps available.  I settled on one that has helped me tremendously called ReadQuick.  There is a free version, but for the price of a kindle book (about $9.00), you can get the full version. 

That app has helped train me to disconnect the automatic process of sounding out every word I see in my head and letting my mind rapidly pick up on the words as my eyes are quickly moving through the text.  I’ve been pretty amazed at how much speed with comprehension I’ve been able to attain over the few months I’ve been using it.  That’s only one among many options that you can choose from, but I recommend trying one of them.

6. Go for variety.  Find material that interests you.  Balance your reading between subjects that you have questions about and genres you’ve never explored before.  I try to focus on different genres on different days of the week.  For instance, on Mondays, I will generally read something related to Apologetics/Worldviews.  Tuesdays, I’ll read a book and/or articles related to leadership.  Wednesdays are for Theology and Thursdays are biography.  Friday, which is my day off, I’ll usually read some fiction and then weekends are whatever scratches my itch.  Now, that said, I’m not rigid with this.  There are some days I really don’t feel like reading from the genre I planned and so I’ll read something else, but I still want to try and maintain balance so that I grow in my breadth of knowledge as well as my depth.

7.  Set goals.  Using these suggestions, determine a goal for how much you want to read.  Think about how many books you were able to read during the last year and see if you can increase that in the current year by at least a couple of books.  Even one book more than you read last year is an improvement!  Celebrate that and build momentum!  If you’ve never finished even one large book (and don’t be too embarrassed…you’d be surprised at the number of people in that category), then set your goal for reading one book of, say, at least 200 pages this year.  You pick the number of pages, but start somewhere and determine to accomplish that goal.  Then you’ll have something to improve on next year.

The bottom line is that you’ll never grow if you aren’t intentionally trying.  The best way to grow is to read.  Start small and work your way up, but at least start! 

Happy reading.

Have additional tips that have worked for you?  Please let me know…I’m always open to trying something new!

TGC Article: 8 Lies Christians Believe About Success

Man, this is such a great article on the lies Christians believe about being successful in life.  If you are serious about being a faithful disciple of Jesus, I would highly recommend you read and re-read this from The Gospel Coalition blog.  Here is an excerpt of a few of the lies we easily fall for:

lightstock_12509_small_seth_magnuson__350_233_903. God helps those who help themselves.

When God tells us to become like a child, he doesn’t mean “become like a child emotionally but make sure you have life insurance and pension and a stocked pantry.” No, he means seek first the kingdom of heaven and all of these things—the food, the clothing, the future—will be added unto you. He wants to take care of us while we devote ourselves to him. And it will probably mean appearing foolish to the rest of the world.

4. You are what you make of yourself.

There’s a lot of pressure to speak up, to be assertive, and to make your name known lest you get lost in a sea of pixels. But Jesus says the last shall be first. Despite being God, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death—even a cursed death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–11). He trusted God to glorify him, even as he emptied himself of glory. We’re called to do the same.

5. Suffering is a sign of failure.

When did North American culture become adverse to pain? If we begin to feel uncomfortable, we pop a pill. If we struggle with depression or discouragement, or if we encounter a terrible diagnosis, we rush to therapy or the doctor instead of first going to the Father and asking him what he wants us to learn through this suffering. God uses suffering for our good, even if it should end in death. We carry around within us the death of Christ, and we will never know the power of Christ’s resurrection if we don’t enter first into suffering.

You can read the full article here.

Making Time: Learning to Invest This Precious Gift From God

TIME has been on my mind a lot lately.  As I near the end of another year, I’m analyzing what has gone well and what hasn’t gone quite as well (notice the gracious way in which I didn’t say those things bombed?)  One thing that I haven’t done so well on is managing time.  I can think back to many opportunities missed and time that I let get away from me.

On Sunday, I preached a message called “Making Time,” in which I looked at some of the characteristics of time and then what Scripture says about it.  Three important things for us to remember about time is that it is a gift, it is limited and it is progressive.  It is the only gift that God gives that we can’t receive again.  Once time is gone, it is simply gone.  It can’t be saved, paused or rewound.  It moves forward without mercy.  So the only thing we can do is manage the time we’ve been given.  The problem is that most of us have done a really bad job at this. We’ve spent so much of our lives killing time, we should probably be convicted of murder!

Look, I know that it’s virtually impossible to make every minute productive.  Frankly, I’m not saying that we should.  We’re not made to “produce” 24/7.  God built in rest and has made us to enjoy free time, having fun and re-energizing our lives.  I do, however, think that it is possible…and proper…to work towards making every moment, even free time, meaningful.  That’s the idea behind 1 Corinthians 10:31 which says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  This clearly says that everything is to be sanctified before God, taking all aspects of life, even the simple and mundane, seriously regarding the time that is dedicated to it.

So, what else does the Bible say about how we spend our time?

First, it communicates that we need to approach how we manage our time with humility.  Look at what James says about it:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

Since time is a gift that we’ve done nothing to receive, we need to humbly consider how we are going to use what we’ve been given.  We need to realize that we are mortal and, as mortals, vulnerable.  We are not, in any way, promised tomorrow, so we do well to make the most of today, grateful to God for the “then” and the “now,” without assuming the “later.”

That leads to a second thing the Bible tells us to consider in managing our time:  We must take stock of our time using the gift of wisdom (James 1:5).  This means that we need to think about how we are spending our time and what we’re using it on. Here’s how Paul put it to the Ephesians:

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  Ephesians 5:15-17

Are we using our time in accordance with our calling?  If you do not understand what God wants you to, specifically, do with your time, you will fill it up with things that waste time; things that don’t honor God or bring satisfaction or purpose to your life.

The remedy, then, once we understand where our time is going, is to invest it.  Once we take stock in our time, we can find the culprits that steal our time and re-claim or redeem it.  As we eliminate those things, we see margin being built into our lives–precious free time that can then be used for those things that are of the most value–things like family and friends, church, work and rest.

It is often very hard, but if we’re going to be healthy individuals, we have to find the balance between work and rest, the extreme of either bringing us to a state of imbalance, leaving us either workaholics or slugs!

 

5 Reasons You Should Keep A Journal

moleskineFor more than twenty years, I have kept a journal…on and off. Yeah, probably more off than on, but I have journaled and think you should, too. As a matter of fact, I have just recently purchased a new journal (my favorite is a Moleskine sketchbook, but use whatever works for you) and have enjoyed getting started on it more than at any other time in my life that I have engaged in the practice. I’ll tell you why in a minute. First I want to give you some reasons why you should do it:

    • Rarely do we stop long enough to think. If you doubt that, think of how many time people (including yourself!) have done things without thinking. That’s just in the small stuff. If we’re not careful, we can do our whole lives without thinking! Journaling gives you the opportunity and the means through which to stop and reflect on what is going on around you. Jot a thought. Write down an idea or a truth discovered. Any and all of these things prompt THINKING and that is a good thing.
    • Along with failing to take the time to think, in general, we too often fail to think about ourselves…I mean in a reflective sort of way that doesn’t involve the bathroom mirror. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” There is a lot of truth to that. Through the practice of journaling, I can examine my thoughts and actions and, over time, I can look back through my journals and find patterns of thought, attitudes and practices that I’m unhappy with (and even more than that, things in my life that don’t line up with the Scripture I claim to live according to!) Once I’ve identified those things and prayed through them, I can journal as I work through the change. It’s an incredibly cool process.
    • Journaling helps me live on purpose. I am more aware of my surroundings. I think about what I’m doing and why, especially since I will want something to write about later. When I’m actively journaling, I notice little things more. I listen more intently to conversations I’m apart of and I examine what I’m doing more carefully. In some ways, journaling is personal accountability. If I’m doing something or thinking something I wouldn’t want to see down on paper, I’m more likely to refrain.
    • I journal in order to see what God is doing in my life. Whenever I counsel someone, journaling is usually a part of the process. If someone asks for wisdom about direction for their lives, along with any hints I may provide, I encourage them to begin a journal, working out their thoughts on paper, writing out fears or hopes or dreams. If it’s marriage counseling, I will often encourage both spouse’s to journal in order to help identify the underlying issues. After a season of journaling, it often takes very little detective work to see areas of conviction, short-comings and attitudes. In my own life, I do this in order to see the results of God’s work in me as I change over time, often as a result of identifying those areas of conviction and molding.
    • Journaling is great for meditating. It’s a great time to grab a cup of coffee (though any time is a great time to grab a cup of coffee) sit for a while and be still. For the follower of Christ, it’s a great time to open the Word, read expectantly, being still and knowing He is God (Psalm 46:10) and then writing down what you hear. Jot down your prayers, your confessions (if you’re so bold), your heartache and needs. Sometimes, the journaling process helps you clarify what really is a need. There are times I look back at my requests and ask, “Would I answer that?” The answer is often a humbling “NO.”

There are probably many other reasons to journal including the simple act of chronicling a life (hopefully, well lived!). If you have some that I’ve left out, tell me. I’d love to hear them. The most important thing is to do it. It’s an incredible discipline and practice that, with a little bit of consistency, you can turn it into a lifestyle.

journalOK, I promised to tell you why I’m having so much fun with my most recent journal.  I love to travel.  Always have.  While traveling, I love to journal.  Travel journals are the most fun because you collect stuff along the way, tell about what you saw and reflect on what it meant to you.  There are pictures and ticket stubs and sketches and all sorts of little memories.  So I thought, you know, there is no greater journey than life itself.  Why not, then, take the same approach in my everyday journal that I do when I hit the road?  Now, that may not seem so radical of an approach, but it made the difference to me.

Now, every day is an adventure!

I look at it the same way I do when I’m traveling so that I have the same kind of fun which is the key.  Make it fun!  My journaling in the past has often been tedious and boring.  It doesn’t have to be.  It shouldn’t be. Make it what you want it to be, but give it a shot.  I think you’ll find yourself growing in ways you never thought imaginable.

If you decide to dive in, let me know.  I’d love to hear of your progress.

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