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Porn-Free Family
December 18, 2014

This Christmas a lot of children will receive porn from under the tree. It not what they wanted, and not what their parents intended for them to have. But they will get it anyway.

The first iPod, the first tablet, the first laptop—these are today’s coming of age rituals. We give our daughter her first iPod and she responds with joy. While we know there is lots of bad stuff out there on the Internet, we never imagine that she—our little girl—would ever want to see it or ever go anywhere she is likely to find it. We give our teen his first laptop, warn him about the responsibility that is now his, and send him on his way. We make a mental note to follow up in a couple of weeks, but are sure that he will do just fine. “He will talk to me if he has any questions or temptations, right?”

The statistics don’t lie. According to recent research, 52% of pornography is now viewed through mobile devices, and 1 in 5 searches from a mobile device is for porn. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 12. Nine out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls will be exposed to pornography before the age of 18. 71% of teens hide online behavior from their parents. 28% of 16-17 year olds have been unintentionally exposed to online pornography. (source)

The fact is, giving your children computers, iPods, tablets—any of these devices—gives them access to the major gateway to pornography.

The statistics are intimidating, but not inevitable. There are things you can do to protect your family. If you choose to give your kids digital devices for Christmas, be sure to take measures to protect them.

You will need to have at least 3 goals.

Your first goal will have to be teaching and training. You need to teach and train your children to use their devices responsibly. This kind of training is an indispensable part of responsible parenting in a world like this one. Train your children to use these devices well, and as they prove themselves, allow them freer access and more responsibility.

Your second goal will have to be guarding your children from seeing or experiencing what they do not know exists. The innocent ought to remain innocent without being unintentionally exposed to pornography or dangerous situations before their parents have been able to teach and train them.

Your third goal will have to be preventing your children from seeing or experiencing what they may desire once they learn that it exists. Children and teenagers are insatiably curious and are taught from a young age to use the Internet to find answers to their questions. This is a dangerous combination when it comes to adult matters, and especially matters of sexuality. The concerned parent will want to make it as difficult as possible for his children to access dangerous or pornographic material, even if they want to.

There are different ways to achieve these three goals, but as a starting point, why don’t you consult my Porn-Free Family Plan. It is not a perfect solution (There is no perfect solution!) but it is a good one, and will at least get you on your way.

Read: The Porn-Free Family Plan.

December 17, 2014

George Clooney loses sleep over bad reviews of his movies. Angelina Jolie is a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” Tom Hanks checks into hotels as Johnny Madrid. You know by now, I’m sure, that a group calling themselves Guardians of Peace hacked Sony’s computers, obtained a massive amount of private and internal data, and released it to the public. The media has had a field day sorting through it, digging up the dirt, and sending it out to an eager public.

The majority of this information is mundane, of course. But then there are the few pieces that are downright incendiary. I guess it is somehow entertaining to read about the foibles of the big stars and satisfying to see a massive corporation take a hit. But this hack should cause us all to pause and consider.

Sony’s nightmare proves one thing beyond any doubt: There is an imbalance between our ability to create digital information and our ability to protect it. We create digital data all day and every day. Every email, every Facebook update, every Tweet, every photo, every Google doc—it’s all out there, and it all remains out there. But there’s far more than that. Every Google search, every phone call, every Facebook profile search, every place you take your mobile phone, every purchase you make, every scan of your loyalty card—every bit of it is collected and stored somewhere. We trust that it is all stored safely. But what happens when it’s not?

When I think about all of this information from Sony, it is not the megastar temper tantrums that stand out, and it is not the details of new movies. What intimidates me most is the very ordinary people whose lives have suddenly been exposed. An article at Gizmodo (language warning) says it well: 

The most painful stuff in the Sony cache is a doctor shopping for Ritalin. It’s an email about trying to get pregnant. It’s shit-talking coworkers behind their backs, and people’s credit card log-ins. It’s literally thousands of Social Security numbers laid bare. It’s even the harmless, mundane, trivial stuff that makes up any day’s email load that suddenly feels ugly and raw out in the open, a digital Babadook brought to life by a scorched earth cyberattack.

And that’s just it. The biggest victims here are the ordinary, low-level employees who represent the collateral damage—people who were doing normal things in the normal way, but who suddenly had it all laid bare. People who are just like you and me. Their shame has become our entertainment.

This digital world brings us some amazing new capabilities, but every big technological shift also brings us serious risks and vulnerabilities. You can see those vulnerabilities all over the headlines today. We need to decide whether information that has been made public should really be considered public. We need to decide what it means to think and behave as Christians in this area. Is it okay to declare open season on public information?

I have no skeletons in my closet. I have no deep and dark secrets that would ruin me if they leaked out. But still, the thought of my emails being made public, and the thought of you combing through them looking for dirt (because you sure wouldn’t go combing through them looking for grace, would you?) is terrifying. Too-quick comments, private jokes, thoughtless replies, unformed thoughts, out-of-context humor, romantic sweet nothings, bad days and ugly words—they would all be there, I’m sure. It is all there in the mundane day-to-day emails that receive little more than a moment’s thought and are immediately erased from my memory. I can barely imagine the sense of dread and the vulnerability that would come, knowing that people were clicking through one after the other after the other. I don’t need to have deep and dark secrets—buried in these tens of thousands of mundane messages would be more than enough to expose things I don’t even know about myself, and things you have no right to know about me.

It is only a matter of time before something like this happens to someone you know. At some point you may well be faced with the opportunity to go rooting through another person’s emails after they have been hacked and made public. So let me ask: Will you read those emails? Will you read your pastor’s emails if they are suddenly available to the public? Will you read your favorite celebrity preacher’s emails if they are just a click or two away? Will you read your least-favorite Christian celebrity’s emails if they are there for the taking? Will they read your emails?

The time to decide is right now, not in that moment. At that moment it may already be too late.

Photo credit: 360b / Shutterstock.com

December 15, 2014

You’ve got to be careful what you share online. Over the weekend Facebook and Twitter were suddenly inundated with links to a new recording of the Christmas hymn “Angels From the Realms of Glory” mashed up with “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It was recorded by The Piano Guys and features David Archuleta, a one-time runner up on American Idol. It is a creative recording that intersperses shots of the musicians with video taken to record the world’s largest nativity scene. The song is beautifully sung and the music is rich; it is no surprise that it quickly gained over one million views. Well and good, right? Well, except for one thing: Its purpose is to separate you from Jesus Christ.

This video was produced as a key part of a huge social media campaign called #ShareTheGift—a Mormon evangelistic social media campaign. This campaign is meant to reclaim Christmas as a religious holiday but also to serve as a gateway into Mormonism. At the end of the video is a brief testimony by Steven Sharp Nelson of The Piano Guys who shares what Christmas means to him and who points to a second video titled “He Is the Gift.” This video, in turn, leads to a page at Mormon.org that shares why you, too, ought to become Mormon.

As I said, you’ve got to be careful what you share online. What looks good at a glance may harbor some deep concerns.

I thought a lot about this video over the weekend and want to offer a few reflections on its significance.

This video reminds us that Christians—true Christians who hold to the true gospel of the Bible—are not the only ones who use biblical language and who sing the great hymns of the Christian faith. Mormons sing many of the same hymns as we do, though they often change the lyrics to remove any references to the Trinity or to otherwise make them palatable with Mormon theology. (e.g. Where in “Holy, Holy, Holy” we sing “God in three persons blessed Trinity” they sing “God in his glory, blessed Deity.”) Mormons claim to be Christians and to honor the Bible; they speak of Jesus as their Savior and Redeemer and claim that he is the only begotten son of the Father; they proclaim a gospel of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit, and persevering to the end. But they also deny the doctrine of the Trinity, they deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, and they deny justification by grace alone through faith alone. Though they proclaim that they are Christians, in reality they are Christ-deniers. We do not need to apologize for this and cannot over-emphasize it: Mormons are not Christians. Yet they share just enough of our beliefs that they can masquerade as Christians if we do not look deeper than the surface.

December 08, 2014

We live in a world that is full of temptation. There is no rest from sin and no rest from temptation to sin. There is not a single moment when we can relax our vigilance. As John Owen says, we can leave sin alone when sin leaves us alone, and that will not be until we are on the far side of the grave.

Temptations can be like the waves of the sea as they break along the beach—they rise and fall, they ebb and flow. Yet temptations are not entirely unpredictable, and there are certain times in life in which they are more likely to press hard than in others. Here are 4 times or seasons in which you need to be especially vigilant against temptation.

A Season of Prosperity

Prosperity and temptation so often go hand-in-hand. It is not that prosperity is a curse or that you ought to dread it. Rather, you need to have an awareness that prosperity carries with it the food and fuel for so much temptation. Agur knew this, writing in Proverbs, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” Guard yourself in those times of abundance, and prepare yourself for an onslaught of temptation—temptation to deny that this prosperity is a gift of God’s good grace (ingratitude!), temptation to hoard those good gifts (greed!), temptation to believe that God prefers you over those who have less (pride!). Your prosperity may be the smokescreen that masks a great temptation.

A Season of Spiritual Formality

There are inevitably times in life when your delight in God grows lukewarm. There are times when your heart longs for satisfaction in something—anything—other than God and his riches. In these times your worship is marked by formality, your time in prayer and God’s Word become cold duty, you look with dread at the times of fellowship with other Christians. You may neglect the pursuit of communion with God, and instead treat your relationship with him as just another of life’s joyless duties. In these times you may be sure that Satan is close at hand to tempt you, to draw you even farther from God and even deeper into lesser pleasures. Your heart is already marked by coldness, and he longs to make it colder still. Fight! Fight to restore the joy of your salvation.

A Season of Spiritual Bliss

Just as temptation may be close behind your spiritual doldrums, it may also be lurking close behind your spiritual heights. You can observe this very thing in the life of Paul, who received the great gift of being caught up to the third heaven and seeing Christ there, but who was immediately visited by Satan (2 Cor. 12:7). God loves to bless us with those times of freedom and pleasure, but temptation may be close at hand. In those times of great spiritual enjoyment you may be tempted to neglect the means of grace. So satisfied are you in the current state that you stop fighting sin and accept this grace as your due. You may even brag about the heights you have reached, and all but beg God to chasten and humble you. Enjoy soaring to those spiritual heights, but do not cease from guarding your heart, mind, and soul.

A Season of Self-Confidence

You will inevitably enter into sore temptation in those times when you are full of self-confidence. This was exactly the case with Peter who, on the final night of Jesus’ life, bragged that he would never desert his Savior. Yet within hours he had not only abandoned him but denied him not once, not twice, but three times. His self-confidence allowed him to compare himself with others and boast, “Though they may forsake you, I will not.” And still he fell gravely at the very first opportunity. This world is full of temptations that range from sins of lust to sins of anger and sins of false belief. The greater your confidence in your ability to overcome these sins in your own strength, the greater your confidence that these sins cannot sway you, the greater the likelihood you will be tempted with them, and the greater the likelihood you will fall into them. Beware self-confidence and flee from its first awakenings.

Temptation will come. Temptation may well come in those times of prosperity, those times of formality, those times of bliss, and those times of self-confidence. But even when temptation is inevitable, succumbing to the temptation is not. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). You must, and you can, endure.

To learn more about these seasons of temptation, read John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (pages 197-202). 

Image credit: Shutterstock

December 01, 2014

It is tragic but undeniable: There are many, many people in positions of church leadership who should not be in positions of church leadership. There are many pastors who should not be pastors, many elders who have no business being elders.

This is not a new problem. In the pages of the New Testament both Paul and Peter labor to describe the man who is qualified to the office of elder. It is noteworthy that almost all of these qualifications are related to character. Where we are drawn to outward skill, God cares far more for inward character. There are millions of men who are great teachers and great leaders and great C.E.O.’s, but still completely unsuited to leadership in the church. God’s standards are very, very different.

In the book of Titus, Paul writes to a young man and charges him to appoint elders in every church in Crete. He tells him what kind of man to look for and as he does this he gives a glimpse of the anti-elder, the kind of man who may seek the office but who is absolutely unsuited to it. Paul offers 5 anti-qualifications, 5 things an elder must not be. He may not display all of these traits, but he will display at least some of them.

Here are the 5 qualities of the anti-elder:

The anti-elder is a dictator. Paul says, “He must not be arrogant.” The anti-elder is marked by arrogance and aggression, and therefore he makes decisions that are to his own advantage rather than to the advantage of the people in his care. He has a kind of unrestrained ambition that causes him to run over people rather than care for them. Instead of listening carefully and leading gently, he cuts people off and demands that he have his own way. The anti-elder is a dictator over his own little dominion.

The anti-elder is short-fused. “He must not be … quick-tempered.” The anti-elder has a hot temper and a quick temper. He lives by his passions, and refuses to exhibit any kind of mastery over his anger. Instead of leading in love, he leads through fear and when people get in his way, he explodes at them. All the while he justifies his anger by his ambition or his sense of calling, convincing himself that anyone who hinders him is actually hindering the Lord.

The anti-elder is an addict. “He must not be … a drunkard.” The anti-elder is addicted to alcohol or other addicting substances. He has surrendered control of his life to some kind of substance, over-using it, and eventually becoming dependent upon it. But as an arrogant and quick-tempered man, he will not allow others to speak to his sin or curb him from his sin. He is addicted, but still considers himself suited to ministry.

November 26, 2014

The trouble with a series on productivity is that it can just keep going forever. Our work is never complete and we never fully master the best use of our time and opportunities. Our God-given calling to do good to others does not end until our lives end. Until we take that final breath, we will never run out of opportunities to bring glory to God by doing good to others. We are always learning to do this better, and always learning to make better use of the tools that promote it.

I am going to close this series today, and do so with a few thoughts on the day-by-day battle of right priorities. Already you have looked at planning and daily workflow and the best way to use your various tools. And this is all well and good until life happens. And then suddenly there are interruptions all around—emergencies to respond to, children who need attention, bosses who make their demands, clients who need your response at this very second. It’s like the whole world now conspires to mock your attempts to bring order to your life. You planned to clean your house today, but your friends are hurting today and seeking your counsel; you planned to prepare the sermon this morning but a member of the congregation called and said, “I really need to talk;” you had the day blocked off to catch up with clients, but the boss asked you to attend a meeting.

How can you deal with all of these interruptions?

Dealing with interruptions requires an awareness of your own limitations. C.J. Mahaney says this well: Only God gets his to-do list done every day. God gets it all done every day. You, on the other hand, will go to bed tonight with your list incomplete and with little confidence that you will make it all the way through tomorrow’s. Only God can have that confidence. And that’s okay. God made you to be limited and he knows that your sin has limited you even further.

Dealing with interruptions requires an awareness that God is sovereign and you are not. When you trust a sovereign God you know that no interruption has caught God by surprise. This frees you from outbursts of anger or depths of despair. It allows you pause and to consider whether each of these interruptions has been brought by God as an opportunity to do good to someone else. It removes any right to automatically refuse them.

Yet you cannot do good to everyone all the time. Greg McKeown says it well: “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” Randy Alcorn echoes him: “The key to a productive and content life is ‘planned neglect’—knowing what NOT to do, and being content with saying no to truly good, sometimes fantastic, opportunities. This happens only when you realize how truly limited you are, and that you must steward your little life, and that of the best things to do on the planet, God wants you to do only a miniscule number.” How, then, do you know what to respond to and what to refuse? 

Dealing with day-to-day distractions involves evaluating each of them and determining whether you will be rigid or malleable, whether you will refuse or respond. The tricky thing is that sin lurks on both sides of the equation.

November 19, 2014

This series on productivity is beginning to reach its end. But before it winds down, I have just a couple more topics to cover, and one of them is the all-important weekly review. I have written at length about the value of a system. Systems are wonderful and powerful, but require some maintenance in order to continue functioning smoothly. The weekly review is one of the primarily means through which you can maintain your system. Today I will tell you about my weekly review, and also tell you about some of the unique features of my system.

A Weekly Review

If the daily review [part 6] is tactical, the weekly review is more strategic. The purpose of this review is to set new plans into motion, to restart projects that have stalled, and to course-correct plans that are drifting. Where the daily coram deo takes only a couple of minutes, the weekly review requires a little bit more time—I find that I need to block off around 30 minutes for it. I schedule it for each Friday afternoon so that when a new week begins on Sunday, the week is already set and organized.

This weekly review is a work in progress and I occasionally add a step or remove a step. But on the whole it is comprised of these actions:

  • [Get Focused] Pray
  • [Get Clear] Bring: Email Inbox to 0
  • [Get Clear] Bring: Evernote Inbox to 0
  • [Get Clear] Bring: OmniFocus Inbox to 0
  • [Get Clear] Tidy: Desk
  • [Get Clear] Tidy: Desktop
  • [Get Current] Review: Calendar for Next 30 Days
  • [Get Current] Review: OmniFocus Forecast for Next 7 Days
  • [Get Current] Review: Evernote Notebooks
  • [Get Current] Review: All Projects
  • [Get Set] Review: Mission & Principles
  • [Get Going] Decide: Next Week’s Deadlines, Deliverables, and Priorities

I will give you a brief overview of what I do in each step.

[Get Focused] Pray. I pause to pray, asking wisdom to know what I ought to do, and for grace to do it well.

[Get Clear] Bring: Email Inbox to 0. [Get Clear] Bring: Evernote Inbox to 0. [Get Clear] Bring: OmniFocus Inbox to 0. I tidy up all 3 inboxes to ensure that my system is clean and running smoothly. All emails are replied to or filed, all information in Evernote is placed in its proper notebook, and all my tasks are filed in their appropriate projects.

[Get Clear] Tidy: Desk. I clean up my physical workspace, filing any papers, putting away any books, and so on. This step actually extends a little beyond my desk to any other place that paper, books or other bits and pieces tend to accumulate. It is not a total cleaning of my office, but a gathering of anything that could contain information I may need when looking ahead.

[Get Clear] Tidy: Desktop. I clear up any files that have ended up on my computer’s desktop.

By the time all my [Get Clear] steps are complete, everything is where it ought to be as per the familar maxim a home for everything, and like goes with like. Now that I am clear, I can get current—I am going to look at my tools to familiarize myself with all the items I could take action on in the week ahead.

[Get Current] Review: Calendar for Next 30 Days. I look over my calendar to see if there are any major events coming up that I ought to be aware of. I rarely need to take action on things that are more than 30 days ahead, so a month is plenty of time for me.

[Get Current] Review: Evernote Notebooks. There are certain notebooks in Evernote that contain crucial information and that need to regularly reviewed. Let me give you an example. If I am an account manager, I might have a notebook in Evernote that contains information about each of my clients. At the end of the week I would go through that notebook and see if there are any notes that have not been updated in a long time (which would indicate that I have not been in touch with that client for a long time). Where I see that kind of information, I can create tasks to check in with those clients or to take other appropriate actions. To be clear, I do not review all of my notebooks—only the few that contain especially important and actionable information.

[Get Current] Review: All Projects. Now it is time to review every single one of the projects in my task management system. One of the best features of OmniFocus is its automated review functionality which automatically prompts me to review each of my projects on a regular basis. At this time I have it set so I review each of my projects on Friday afternoon. Depending on the software you use, you may need to do this step manually. It involves little more than a glance at each project to ensure I have a next action assigned to each, to ensure items have due dates, to see if I have missed or overlooked anything, or to see if I completed anything but neglected to mark it as complete. I will also see if any of these projects has a pending deadline. If I see anything that needs to be adjusted or prioritized, I can set an appropriate due date. I can’t overstate the importance of this step to the functioning of the system.

[Get Current] Review: OmniFocus Forecast for Next 7 Days. I open the forecast perspective in OmniFocus and run through the next 7 days, reminding myself of any pending deadlines.

At the end of these [Get Current] steps I have gathered all the information I need and I know which of my tasks I could take action on in the week ahead. But I still need to decide which I actually will take action on. However, there is one step I need to complete before that.

[Get Set] Review: Mission & Principles. I go to Evernote where I keep a note containing my mission statements for each of my areas of responsibility, and where I keep a list of productivity principles I attempt to live by. I read my mission statements and principles every single week. Where my mission statements tend to stay static, I often find myself making minor adjustment to my principles. (See below for more on these principles.)

At the end of [Get Set] I have put everything in its place. I have gotten all the information I need. I have considered my mission and principles. Now, at last, I can get going.

[Get Going] Decide: Next Week’s Deadlines, Deliverables, and Priorities. At the end of it all, I decide what I mean to focus on in the next week or weeks, and assign due or defer dates as appropriate. Example: In my review of the Evening Service project I see that I will be preaching the next part of my series on the following Sunday evening. Therefore I set the due date on that task for the Friday, and the defer date for Tuesday. Next week Tuesday, when I do my daily coram deo, I will see it as an option for that day and flag it as one of that day’s top tasks. And on Friday I will receive a reminder that it needs to be complete before I leave the office for the day.

And that is my weekly review. It takes about a half hour at most, but offers a very important reset to my productivity system.

Mission and Principles

I mentioned under [Get Set] that every week I review my mission and principles. In a previous article I wrote about mission statements [part 3], so now let me tell you about principles.

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.

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