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November 17, 2014

Like so many other people, I have a love-hate relationship with money. I love what money can do and accomplish, and I hate how money is so fleeting. It seems like every dollar is hard-earned and easily-spent. Every dollar can be used in a million different ways and so much of life’s anxiety comes from determining how to use too little money to address too many possibilities.

When Aileen and I got married we were just twenty-one (me) and twenty-two (she) years old and earning less than $30,000 between the two of us—and this in one of the most expensive cities in North America. Since then, like most families, we have seen slow but steady increases to our income. Of course, our expenses have increased at just about the same pace as we have gone from renting a home to buying, from driving compact sedans to minivans, and from having no kids to three kids. As I look back on my life and financial history, I see a long list of mistakes Aileen and I made and a list of mistakes we managed to avoid. Here are a few of each.

Mistake Avoided: Credit Cards

There is always someone willing to extend credit to the young and foolish. Thankfully Aileen and I avoided using credit cards when we were young, and for many years either paid cash or debit for all of our purchases. Recently we have taken the opposite approach: We now buy everything on credit cards in order to maximize our points and cash-back. However, we are careful to always pay off the full balance every month. What we did well was migrating to using credit cards only when we had the finances and the self-discipline to avoid high-interest debt. We’ve never once carried a balance on our cards. Impact: Major. Advice: Avoid credit card debt at all costs.

Mistake Made: Learned Too Late

I was never formally taught how to budget or how to manage money. No school I attended offered courses or even classes on financial management. No one ever sat down with me and showed me how to draw up a budget. I had to learn it on my own. Eventually I read books by Dave Ramsey and Randy Alcorn and developed both a theology and theory of finances. Unfortunately, we had already been married for several years and had made more than a few sloppy and ignorant mistakes. Impact: Moderate. Advice: Develop that theory and theology of money as early in life as you can.

Mistake Avoided: Small House

When we were first married we spent several years renting houses while waiting for my career to advance and my salary to reach a level that would allow us to think about a mortgage (Canada has more stringent borrowing and lending standards than in the USA). Eventually we got to the point where we could think about buying a house of our own. We bought the cheapest starter home we could find in a good neighborhood in a great town—a 1,000 square-foot townhouse. At the time the location was ideal because I was working just down the road and we attended a neighborhood church. However, shortly after we bought that house I was laid off and began working much farther afield; around that same time we found a church almost a half hour away. But we have decided to stay put, even though it means a longer commute to work and church. We have owned only this one house and at this point have no plans to leave, even though it is quite crowded at times (and we haven’t yet dealt with the drama of three teenagers and only one shower). Our mortgage payments are low and we should have the house paid off years early. Impact: Major. Advice: Do not buy more house than you need, and once you buy, stay there as long as possible.

November 12, 2014

Today I am continuing this series on Christians and productivity. I have said that productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God, and to this point I have suggested many different ways of doing that (You can see a series round-up at the bottom of this article). Our topic for this article is taming the email beast.

I think we all have a love-hate relationship with email. On the one hand email brings many good things—it delivers exciting news, encouragement from friends, and fun little notes from family members. It also has immense practical value—it delivers confirmation that the ticket order went through, or that the book we want is on sale. But, of course, there is a dark side as well—the endless spam, the email discussions that go on for far too long, the newsletters we didn’t sign up for, the chain letters promising bad luck if we don’t forward it to twenty more people. Email has become a mess of function and dysfunction. We need it, and yet we hate it.

Doing Email Badly

To better understand why so many of us do email so badly, let’s draw a comparison to a real-world object: your mailbox. Imagine if you treated your actual, physical mailbox like you treat your email. Here’s how it would go:

You walk outside to check your mail and reach into your mailbox. Sure enough, you’ve got some new mail. You take out one of your letters, open it up and begin to read it. You get about halfway through, realize it is not that interesting, stuff it back inside the envelope, and put it back in the mailbox. “I’ll deal with this one later.” You open the next letter and find that it is a little bit more interesting, but you do the same thing—stuff it back into the envelope and put it back inside the mailbox. Other mail you pull out and don’t even bother reading—it just goes straight back inside the mailbox. And sure enough, your mailbox is soon crammed full of a combination of hundreds of unopened and unread letters plus hundreds of opened and read or partially-read letters.

But it gets worse. You don’t just use your mailbox to receive and hold letters, but also to track your calendar items. You reach in deep and pull out a handful of papers with important dates and events written on them, including a few that have come and gone without you even noticing or remembering. And, of course, you also use your mailbox as a task list, so you’ve got all kinds of post-it notes in there with your to-do items scrawled all over them.

But we aren’t done yet. Even though you feel guilty and kind of sick every time you open your mailbox, you still find yourself checking your mail constantly. Fifty or sixty times a day you stop whatever else you are doing, you venture down the driveway, and reach your hand inside to see if there is anything new.

It is absurd, right? Your life would be total chaos. And yet that is exactly how most people treat their email. It is chaotic with no rules or procedures to control it. What do you need? You need a system.

Taming Your Email

We once again need to consider our foundational principle of organization: A home for everything, and like goes with like. On a high level, we now know that events, meetings and appointments belong in our calendar; tasks and projects belong in our task management software; and information belongs in our information management tool. That leaves email as the place for communication—communication and nothing else. Email is an abysmal task management tool and a woefully poor scheduling tool. It is tolerable only if we make it do the one that it does passably well: communications.

We can also use that principle of organization on a more granular level. Here it tells us that our email inbox is the place for unprocessed email and for nothing else. The inbox is not the proper home for archived email or for email that is awaiting our reply.

So let’s build a simple system that will allow you to tame your inbox. Your email system can be as simple or as complex as you want it, but the simplest method of all involves just three locations: A place to receive new email, a place to hold email you will reply to at a later time, and a place to hold email you need to keep for archive purposes. It really can be that simple.

The inbox is the place to receive email. No matter what email program you use, your inbox will be built-in and probably already full of email. You also need a place to temporarily hold email as it waits for your reply, so go ahead and create a folder or label called Reply. And then you need a place to hold email that you will be keeping for archive purposes. Most email programs already have this functionality as well. If your program does not, create a folder or label called Archive.

With our folders in place, let’s put together a workflow.

November 10, 2014

My neighbor is a public nuisance. It’s official, actually. She has been declared a nuisance which means the police are no longer obligated to respond to her phone calls. And she calls them a lot.

I first encountered Elizabeth a few years ago when I saw her propped up on crutches, trying to sweep several centimeters of snow off her very long driveway. I grabbed a shovel, cleared off her drive, and have been doing it ever since (see here). She is a fascinating woman who has lived in this neighborhood since before I was even born. She is well advanced in years and full of fascinating stories. But, sadly, she is losing her grip on reality. Through a long history of belligerent behavior and a shorter history of paranoia, she has alienated herself from every other neighbor. She has a reputation in this neighborhood and is the butt of many jokes. Most people just know to keep their distance.

Elizabeth recently called me over to her home to have me replace a lightbulb in her basement. While I was there, sorting through a box of many, many long-dead lightbulbs, she explained her most recent crisis. She had awoken from a nap just a few minutes earlier to find that someone had snuck into her house and varnished half of her coffee table while she slept. She was beside herself with concern and was planning to call the police. I looked around and saw every evidence that she had varnished half of her table, taken a nap, and, upon awaking, forgotten that she had ever begun. But I couldn’t exactly tell her that, could I? She called the police who opted not to respond.

This is just the most recent in a long series of similar incidents. Last year she accused local politicians of sneaking into her carport and dumping oil underneath her [very old] car as come kind of retaliation. She was upset and perplexed that the police didn’t believe her and refused to write up a report. Before that she accused local garden center workers of prowling her garden at night, splitting her hostas, and carrying away half of each plant. And before that she was convinced that the mayor had sent a team to break into her house and spray her furniture with a clear coat. Again, the police did not buy her story.

Our neighbors find this all hilarious, but I find it sad. It is sad to see her descending into paranoia and living on the edge of reality. She lives on her own, her sons have little to do with her, and she is steadily growing worse. But despite it all, she maintains her independence and walks to the grocery store just about every day, summer or winter, rain or snow. She tells me she is a medical test-case who has refused every medication doctors have offered her, and she just keeps going. Every Halloween she hands out grapes and bananas to the few children who will brave her driveway, every Christmas she brings my kids a little gift of hot chocolate, every summer she leaves her garden wild and untouched and considers it her pride and joy. And almost every week she finds another reason to call the police or to write another letter to the local newspaper. As eccentric as she is, I consider it a privilege to know her.

I have another neighbor who is quite a lot younger than Elizabeth. He is advanced and successful in his career. He makes lots of money and is quickly climbing the corporate ladder. He drives a nice car and speaks highly of himself and his accomplishments. He engages in banter with all the neighbors (except Elizabeth) and is well-known, well-liked and much admired. But he is also proudly atheistic, boldly denying the very existence of God.

Of these two neighbors, which is more to be pitied? Which of the two lives under the greater delusion? Is it the neighbor who can’t remember that she began to varnish her coffee table, or the neighbor who denies the very existence of his Creator? The Bible tells us “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 14:1).” Romans 1 insists “[W]hat can be known about God is plain to [all humanity], because God has shown it to them (v. 19).” One of my neigbhors is succumbing to age and infirmity and living in a sad fantasy. The other is willfully blinding himself to the most obvious reality in the world—that he and all that he sees and experiences have been made and formed by the Creator. He, by far, is most to be pitied because he, by far, is in the most perilous condition.

Image credit: Shutterstock

November 07, 2014

I may not know you, but I think one thing is safe to say: You do not have as much natural revulsion as I do toward a stand and greet time during a church service. You don’t feel a greater measure of inward terror when you hear a service leader command, “Stand up and greet a few of the people around you.” I am naturally shy, introverted, and easily intimidated, and can always feel the fear rising when I hear those words. And yet I am involved in planning our church’s services and often advocate for a stand and greet time. Let me tell you why I believe in this time of greeting one another, even though it is completely contrary to my natural desires.

Why are you part of a church community? Why are you a member of a church? Why do you go to the public gatherings of the church on Sunday morning? Broadly speaking there can be two reasons: You go for the good of yourself, or you go for the good of others. There is a world of difference between the two.

When I go to church for the good of me, I am free to be shy and introverted, free to keep to myself and free to be consistent with who and what I naturally am. I can hide in a corner or bury myself in a book. I can hope that others will come to me and pay attention to me. I can come for the service, sing some songs, hear a sermon, and slip out seconds after the final amen. I can do whatever is good and comfortable for me. I can hate that stand and greet time because of how it makes me feel, because of how it forces me shake hands with people who have colds, because of how it prompts me to judge others as less sincere than myself.

When I go to church for the good of others, I have no right to be shy and introverted, and no right to keep to myself. I have to die to myself and so much of who and what I naturally am. I can’t hide in a corner or bury myself in a book, but I need to seek out others and pay attention to them. I can come for the service, sing some songs, hear a sermon, and enjoy it all. But when I hear that final amen, I am right back to seeking out others and looking for ways to serve them.

I believe in the second option, and I try to practice it. When I walk into Grace Fellowship Church eager to do good for others, I am guarding myself against those ways that my natural introversion leads me to sin—especially the sin of selfishness. One of these ways is running away from other people, rather than loving and greeting them. That selfishness can even manifest itself in grumbling and complaining about that time of forced fellowship when we all stand and greet each other.

The stand and greet time still terrifies me if I allow it to, but I have learned to embrace it as another opportunity to serve others. I can meet people I haven’t met. I can find a visitor I didn’t catch on the way in and greet him. I can talk to people I don’t otherwise tend to talk to. We sometimes do “Name Amnesty Sundays” where we tell everyone they are free to say, without embarrassment, “I know you’ve been here for a while, but we still haven’t met,” or, “I know I’ve met you before but I just can’t remember your name.” This time pushes me outside of myself and forces me to do something uncomfortable but good. I believe in it.

Here’s what I’ve come to see: My natural desires and fears are completely irrelevant when it comes to what is right and wrong, and what is wise and unwise. If this time of greeting is an opportunity to serve others, I need to learn to love it. I just plain need to get over myself, because that’s what the Christian life is all about.

Let me close with a few considerations for a good and meaningful stand and greet time.

Church is for Christians. Though unbelievers should be welcome to attend, the service is primarily for the growth and refreshment of believers. If unbelievers do not like the stand and greet time, that may be a consideration, but it should not be a major consideration. What we do in church we do primarily for the good and growth of those who profess faith in Christ. Make the greeting time something that benefits Christians.

Make it meaningful. Every element in a worship service should be carefully planned to ensure that it has a purpose. A stand and greet time can be meaningful, but only if the leaders know why it exists and what it means to accomplish. Don’t do it if it is merely habitual and serves no clear purpose within the flow of your service. Begin it with clear instructions and close it with a clear transition to the next element of the service.

Don’t make it dumb. Many people hate the stand and greet time because they are forced to do or say something silly. Don’t make people say a particular phrase or repeat a little mantra to one another. Don’t force people to exchange hugs. Just allow people to naturally greet others in a way that is comfortable to them. Allow them to be sincere, not forced.

Christians love. The New Testament has a lot to say about greeting one another and expressing love to one another which means there are good, biblical reasons to include greeting as an element of a service. The church is probably the only place you will ever be told, “Stand and greet one another.” You will attend many events in the course of your life where you will be alone together, just one person in a big and impersonal crowd. By having people stand and greet one another during a church service, we are proclaiming that there is something different about this crowd and about this gathering. That alone makes it valuable and powerfully counter-cultural.

So do it! Do it well, do it wisely, and do it out of love for others.

(This article was inspired by Thom Rainer’s recent articles on the subject.)

Image credit: Shutterstock

November 05, 2014

Today I am continuing my series of articles that is looking at productivity from a biblical perspective. Thanks to all who have kept reading through what has become quite a long series.

I want to offer special thanks to all those who have provided feedback. I have been encouraged to hear from people who are beginning to explore productivity (many for the first time) and who are attempting to use new tools and implement new procedures. I am particularly interested in receiving feedback from women. I write from a male perspective and am necessarily limited in my understanding of the particular challenges women face as they pursue productivity. So if you are a woman and have been reading along and implementing some of these things, please do leave any feedback that you think I may find helpful. That is especially true if you are mom who is trying to pursue productivity amid all the hustle and bustle of household management.

Much earlier in the series I said that productivity depends upon four tools: information tools, scheduling tools, task management tools, and communication tools. Today I want to focus on the scheduling tool. It is time to consider calendars.

What Goes on Your Calendar

We need to begin by once again turning to the controlling principle of organization: A home for everything, and like goes with like. The calendar is the proper home for something, but for what? Let’s talk about that.

We have already found a home for information—an information management tool—, and a home for tasks—a task management tool. This leaves the calendar as the proper home for events, meetings, and appointments. If you need to remember something that happens at a certain time and at a certain place, it is an ideal candidate for the calendar. These are the only things that belong on your calendar.

This may mark a significant shift for you. It’s quite likely that in the past you have relied on your calendar as the home for your deadlines and tasks. However, I trust the previous articles have shown you the value of task management software and have demonstrated how it offers a more effective solution. Once you have moved deadlines and tasks into their proper home, your calendar will be left with all of those events, meetings and appointments, and hopefully nothing else.

If this is your first experience using both a calendar and task management software, you are likely to experience some tension at first. Unless you are careful, these two tools will infringe on one another’s territory.

Let’s consider a few different items and see whether they belong on the calendar or in task management:

  • Doctor’s appointment Monday at 9 AM. This goes on your calendar because it is an appointment that requires you to be at a specific place at a specific time.
  • Buy new socks. This goes in task management because it is an action, not an event, meeting, or appointment.
  • Open new bank account. This goes in task management because it is an action; though there may eventually be a meeting associated with the action, for the time being it is a task.
  • Conference call Wednesday at 4 PM. This goes on your calendar because it is a meeting and requires you to be at a specific place at a specific time.
  • Book manuscript due. This goes in task management because it is a task or project, not an event, meeting, or appointment.

Those examples are all quite straightforward. Sometimes, though, you will need to create appointments on your calendar and tasks or projects in your task management software. Consider these examples:

Bible Study. You attend a weekly Bible study and are expected to lead the study once each month. Create an event on your calendar called “Bible Study” for every Wednesday at 7 PM. This reminds you that you need to be at a certain place at a specific time. Also create a task in your task management software called “Prepare Bible Study.” This reminds you that you need to prepare for that Bible study. The calendar ensures that you have marked off the time, and the task ensures you will remember to prepare for it.

Preparing Taxes. You are responsible for mailing in your tax information. To do this you need to prepare material and then meet with your accountant. Create an event on your calendar called “Meeting with Accountant” for Thursday at 3 PM. This reminds you that you need to be at a certain place at a specific time. Create a task in your task management software called “Prepare Taxes.” The calendar ensures that you have reserved the time to meet with the accountant, and the task ensures that you will be adequately prepared.

November 03, 2014

For several months now Aileen and I have been pursuing physical fitness. While neither of us was horribly out of shape, neither were we nearly as fit and healthy as we wanted to be. This summer we made the decision that we would join a health club and, for at least a time, would recruit a trainer to help us. We were so ignorant about fitness that we knew we would need someone to guide and instruct us in this unfamiliar territory. I don’t think it’s too early to say that these two decisions—to get fit and to hire help in getting there—have changed our lives for the better.

The main benefit of working with a trainer has been growing in fitness, but there has been an unexpected secondary benefit as well: Our trainer has taught us so much about discipleship and mentoring. In the Bible we often see Paul comparing the Christian life to physical training, and I now better understand the metaphor. There is a sense in which my trainer and I are in parallel fields: He, as a trainer, is in the business of helping people grow physically fit; I, as a Christian and pastor, am in the business of helping people grow spiritually fit.

Let me share a few lessons I have learned about discipleship by working with our personal trainer.

Training takes assessment. Before we began our program, our trainer did a thorough assessment of our current physical condition and learned about our goals. He put us through our paces to gage our capabilities. He did this because everyone who walks through those doors is at a different starting place and means to achieve a different goal. He can train us best when he knows our strengths and weaknesses and when he helps us work toward our specific goals. And in the same way, every Christian is at a different place in his spiritual growth, and different Christians have different goals—some mean to be pastors, some mean to be theologians, some mean to be godly husbands or wives. We disciple best when we disciple people specifically, with a right assessment of who they are and what they mean to achieve.

Training takes a plan. After our trainer assessed our fitness and learned our goals, he put together a plan that would get us where we wanted to go. He had complete confidence in this plan and assured us that the results would come if we simply stuck to it. Spiritual training also thrives with a plan. A mature Christian is able to speak with authority about how to grow in godliness by taking advantage of the God-given means of grace.

A trainer models and calls for imitation. The world of fitness was completely new to Aileen and me and we needed coaching on even the most basic exercises and movements. Our trainer modeled each one, patiently showing us how to do each of the exercises and how to use each piece of equipment. But he did not only show us our exercises and then walk away—he watched us as we imitated him, making adjustments and corrections to ensure we were doing it all just right. Christian discipleship works best when we can call upon others to imitate us. We call on others to imitate us in life, in relationships, or in spiritual disciplines, and then we watch them, and make corrections and adjustments as necessary.

Training looks for weakness. As we have progressed through weeks and then months of training, our trainer spotted certain weaknesses and adapted the program to meet them. Through all my life I have struggled with posture—my shoulders like to collapse forward. I didn’t know it, but this was because certain muscles in my back and neck are far too weak. Our trainer halted parts of the program to work on building strength that would correct posture. In our discipleship we also inevitably encounter weaknesses of knowledge and character, and need to adapt to meet those and deal with them before progressing any farther.

Training thrives with encouragement. Through all the hard work of training, our trainer has been a source of encouragement, motivating us to lift that weight just one more time, or assuring us that we are progressing in our program. When we feel ready to give up, he calls on us to persist. A good spiritual mentor does the same, offering specific and timely encouragement to press on, to do those things that seem so difficult, to build the right habits and to pursue the right patterns.

October 31, 2014

The Christian faith is comprised of both nouns and verbs. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the content of the Christian faith is comprised of both nouns and verbs. Michael Horton says it well:

All of our faith and practice arise out of the drama of Scripture, the ‘big story’ that traces the plot of history from creation to consummation, with Christ as its Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. And out of the throbbing verbs of this unfolding drama God reveals stable nouns—doctrines. From what God does in history we are taught certain things about who he is and what it means to be created in his image, [what it means to be] fallen, and redeemed, renewed, and glorified in union with Christ.

So drama describes the actions, the verbs, or what God is doing. Doctrine describes the facts, the nouns, of who God is and what it means that he made us in his image. If you put the two together, you have the content of the Christian faith. I was thinking recently about the great “throbbing verbs of this unfolding drama,” and about this universe as the stage in which God is displaying himself and his glory. I was convicted that I think of the world this way too seldom, and was convicted that there is a lot of value in making this shift in thinking. After all, if this world is a stage, there are many implications. Here are 4 of them:

First, if there is a story, there is a play-wright or story-teller. This means that when events happen, when good things or bad things unfold around us, we do not look to fate or chance as if they are responsible. Instead we look to the play-wright, the story-teller, to see what he means to accomplish. Think of the great words of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That only makes sense if there is authorship, if someone is scripting and controlling the story.

If there is a story, there is purpose. If history is unfolding in a deliberate and controlled way, we know that what happens in the world is not just a series of isolated, disconnected, purposeless events. We know there is a purpose for everything. There is even a purpose behind even those events we would never have chosen. This story never runs off-script, but continues deliberately and perfectly toward its closing scene.

If there is a story, there is a plot, a storyline. This means there is a plot to our lives. Our lives are not meaningless. Instead, we are actors in this story. We are making real decisions and taking significant actions, and through it all, playing a role in this great drama.

Finally, if there is a story, and if we understand that story, we realize our proper place. The world is not about us. We are not the heroes of the story. We are not the writers of the story. We are merely actors in it. We are important to the story, but we are not indispensable since it really isn’t about us at all.

There really is a drama unfolding around us, and as Christians we get to see what it is all about, we get to interpret what is happening around us, and we get to see how we fit in. This is an immeasurable blessing.

Image credit: Shutterstock

October 29, 2014

For millennia, human beings have looked to the night skies and grappled with their own insignificance. It is difficult to feel big and important when looking at thousands and millions of stars stretching far beyond our gaze and far beyond our comprehension. King David’s experience is one most of us have shared. 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8:3-4 ESV)

The Bible tells us that the splendor and magnitude of the universe is meant to force us to acknowledge the existence of a Creator and to force us to acknowledge his infinite power. We, too, are meant to echo David: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

DeGrasseFamous astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has dedicated much of his life to looking to the skies, but has found a way to feel big. He was once asked by a reader of TIME magazine, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” Here is his answer:

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, when unstable in their later years, collapse and explode, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense and collapse, form the next generation of solar systems—stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So when I look up at the night sky I know that, yes, we are part of this universe. We are in the universe. But perhaps, more important, that the universe is in us. When I reflect on the fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they are small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms come from those stars. There is a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, want to feel relevant, want to feel like a participant in the goings on and the activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are just by being alive.

He is right in some ways. We all want to feel connected, we all want to feel relevant, we all want to feel like participants in what is going on around us. Ultimately, we all want assurance that we matter precisely because we have an innate understanding of our insignificance.

Tyson says our significance comes when we understand that we are made of the same stuff as the stars—we are one with the universe and part of the big picture of the universe because our bodies are composed of the building-blocks of the universe. That may seem compelling and it may seem encouraging, but if this is the most astounding fact he can come up with, he is a fool. He is a brilliant fool, a man who uses his intellectual gifts to express folly.

The Bible has far better news.

The Bible assures us of two facts that are in no way contradictory: We are very, very small, and we are very, very significant. We are small in comparison to the infinite and eternal God who created us, but we have the utmost significance because we are created in his image. We are microscopic when compared to God, but an integral part of his plan for this universe. We are mere dust, but the Son of God saw fit to clothe himself in this dust. The most astounding fact is not that we are made of the same stuff as the stars, but that God chose to be made of the same stuff as us.

Image credit: Shutterstock

October 28, 2014

Today I am continuing my series on productivity, and I am going to start with a short recap. I began the series by explaining what productivity is and why it matters [Part 1], then had you look at your life from a high-level perspective so you could divide it into areas of responsibility [Part 2]. Once you defined those areas of responsibility, you listed specific roles and projects within each of them, and worked on some brief mission statements [Part 3]. Then it was time to look at tools [Part 4], and to understand organization and systems [Part 5]. In the last article I provided some basic guidance on configuring task management software [Part 6]. Today I want to advance just one short step to information management.

An information management tool is used to collect, manage and access important information. If you will need to remember or access information in the future, it goes into this tool. If the task management tool is the heart of a productivity system, the information management tool is the brain—the memory. If it requires action, it goes into task management; if it is information you will need in the future, it goes into information management. Task management is for life’s verbs while information management is for life’s nouns.

I recommend Evernote as a powerful tool for information management. Evernote is available for nearly every platform and every mobile device. It is free, but with a premium option for those who are looking for a few extra abilities.

Notebooks

If you read and implemented the article on tools, you should already have installed Evernote and performed a basic setup. I recommend that you organize Evernote according to your areas of responsibility. In my case this means that the basic organizational structure of Evernote is this: Personal, Family, Social, GFC [church], and Business. I have a notebook stack for each of those areas. Each notebook stack contains what Evernote calls notebooks and I have a notebook for each of my roles, duties and projects. Within each of these notebooks I have one or more notes. Here are some examples of this hierarchy of area of notebook stack → notebook → note.

Notebook Stack: Family

  • Notebook: Finance
    • September Credit card statement (a PDF file I downloaded from my bank)
    • How to Get Maximum Value from Air Canada’s Aeroplan (an article I clipped from a web site)
    • Credit Report (a PDF containing my most recent credit score and report)
  • Notebook: Vacation
    • The Best Day to Buy Airline Tickets (an article I clipped from a web site)
    • Hotel Reservation (copy of the hotel confirmation)
    • 2015 Ligonier National Pre-Conference (Information about my duties at the Ligonier conference that gave us the excuse to go to Florida)

Notebook Stack: GFC

  • Notebook: Pregnancy Care Centre
    • PCC Board Meeting Minutes (a Word document sent by the board secretary)
    • Complying with Anti-Spam Legislation (an article I clipped from a web site)
    • 2014 Budget (an Excel spreadsheet)
  • Notebook: Sunday Service Planning
    • November 2, 2014 (a note shared between the pastors and worship leader in which we share ideas and plans for this Sunday’s service)

Again, the Evernote structure is simple and intuitive: notes combine to make notebooks, and notebooks combine to make notebook stacks. In many cases my Evernote notebooks match my OmniFocus projects. I have an OmniFocus projected called Young Adults that contains any actions I need to take related to the Young Adults Ministry; I also have an Evernote notebook called Young Adults that contains any information I need to retain related to the Young Adults Ministry.

Organizing Evernote

Evernote is very adaptable and you can use it in different ways while gaining a lot of benefit from it. There are two broad philosophies on organizing information—using tags or using notebooks and notebook stacks. Neither one is wrong and both have their strengths. Notebooks allow you to find information by clicking through your hierarchy of notebook stacks, notebooks, and notes. Tags, on the other hand, specialize in allowing you to find information by searching. It is important to note that while each note can be in only one notebook, it can contain multiple tags.

I prefer the first approach and rely on notebooks. However, I also add tags as supplementary data where that makes sense. 

If you setup Evernote the way I do, you will want to ensure you add at least a small amount of information to each note you create. You must: Put each note inside a notebook. You may: Add a tag to each note. Whatever else you do with your notes, make sure you file each of them in an appropriate notebook following the familiar dictum, A home for everything, and like goes with like. If you have 20 notes about that new car you are researching, put them all in the same notebook; if you have 5 notes about a forthcoming vacation, put them all in the same notebook.

There is nothing wrong with starting small, starting slow, and building a system that works well for you. Try notebooks and try tags and see what fits best with your life and your mind. The only rule you absolutely need to follow is do something with everything. There ought to be some way that every bit of information has a home and that every bit of information is stored with similar information.

October 27, 2014

I rank it as probably the funniest little off-the-cuff comment I’ve made while public speaking. During a Q&A at a conference the moderator mentioned that I had blogged every day for a decade and then asked, “Is there anything else you’ve done so consistently?” I fired back, “The only other thing I’ve done every day for ten years is not exercise.” It was funny at the time, but a couple of days later I began to feel that the punchline revealed something that wasn’t too flattering.

In the weeks that followed I thought about my little comment and realized it revealed a problem—I had drawn too bold a line between mind and matter or soul and matter. I was all about caring for my soul and tending my mind, but all the while was rashly neglecting the body that is inextricably connected to mind and soul. In this way I was living as a pagan, not a Christian. This is gnosticism which says that the immaterial is intrinsically good while the material is instrinsically evil. Or perhaps it is dualism which inserts a chasm between body and soul. But it isn’t Christian.

As Christians we know that body and soul are both good and are both meant to be cared for. We know that God created humanity body, mind and soul and declared it all good and very good. We know that who we are is not so easily divided into neat little parts; it is easier to develop Christian character and easier to have a well-trained mind in a fit body than in a neglected body. We are a cohesive whole.

I knew I needed to do something, but what? I thought of the health club just up the road from us. I had seen their banners outside and mocked the red-faced, sweat-stained people walking out of it. “You know, if they could even just look a little bit like they had fun I might be tempted to try it.”

I recruited Aileen to the cause and said, “We need to get fit.” She loves me enough to play along. Neither of us had ever been to a gym or health club before. We did not know what to expect when we walked through those doors, but we steeled our nerve, took courage from one another, walked in, and asked to speak to someone. Our conversation went something like this:

“What are your fitness goals?”

“I want to not die for now.”

“Hmm. Could I say, ‘general health?’”

“I guess that sounds about right.”

“What do you want your body to look like?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, do you want lines? Do you want definition? Do you want a six-pack?”

“I don’t even know what you mean by all that. You’re the expert—You tell me what I ought to want and what’s realistic for thirty-eight.”

“Alright, we’ll just stick with general health then.”

He took us for a tour of the facility, showing us the studios where they do Zumba (Confession: I still have no idea what that is), the room where they do cycling classes, and the rooms stuffed full of strange-looking machines that look like they are straight out of the middle ages. I told him not to even bother showing us the hot yoga room.

“Have you ever been a member at a health club before?”

[Laughter]. “Let me explain. I am a pastor and I think, for the first time, I understand what an atheist feels like when he walks into church. I know that everyone is looking at me now and thinking, ‘That guy doesn’t belong!’ I don’t know what the expectations are here, I don’t know how anything works, and I feel like a total outsider.”

Despite the ignorance and the awkwardness, he convinced us to give the club a try. Aileen and I stipulated that whatever we were going to do, we intended to do together. He recommended we hire a personal trainer to help us, at least in the early days as we learned how to use the equipment and to build a program that could get us from inactive to some degree of fitness. And then we got to work.

It has been several months now, and both Aileen and I agree it is one of the best decisions we have made. We aren’t exactly ready to set out on a triathlon, but we’re actually fit and growing in fitness. Fat is melting away and stamina is growing. Perhaps best of all, we feel better. We feel better mentally knowing that we are doing the right thing; we feel better spiritually knowing that we are faithfully caring for the bodies God has given us; we feel better physically as our bodies adjust to being used and stretched and strengthened. Perhaps best of all, we know that we addressed a problem far more spiritual than physical.

I can’t say that we love exercise now, or that we look forward to holding two-minute planks and doing an endless success of squats while clutching twenty-pound weights. We don’t love lifting heavy objects, and lunging all over the club, and working tiny little muscles we didn’t know we had. I can’t say that we’ve discovered the runner’s high as we jog our way toward a twenty-five-minute 5K. But I can say we’ve built the habit, love the results, and are even beginning to enjoy the process.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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