Category Archives: Productivity

Productivity and the Great Commandment

As I am becoming more able-bodied after my surgery, I’ve noticed I’ve become “less productive.”  Upon reflection, it’s really easy to be so-called productive and check tasks off a list when all you can do is sit in a chair and work on a computer, with three meals a day brought to you and your only worry being how you are going to get up and make it to the restroom.

So, I’ve had to think about this some, and I’ve been reminded of some ultimate truths.

First, only God gets everything done.  It is the nature of creatureliness to be finite.  Human beings can only do one thing at a time.  If we multitask, we are generally doing two things poorly simultaneously.  We are humans, not machines.  The nature of living in a fallen world is that there is always much more work to be done.

Productivity is always in the service of the Great Commandment. The two great duties that God has laid before us is love for God and love for others.  “Getting things done” is in the service of these two mandates.  This means that people are the reason that we seek to produce.  As one wise pastor told me, “interruptions are the ministry.”  This means that we must be open to many experiences that cannot be checked off a list.

This frees us up to jump in and help when we see a need.  We taught our children to always ask and look and volunteer to help when help is needed — to look for opportunities.   I often need to remind myself to do this.  This might not be a task I can check off my list.  But surely, this serves the greater good.  And this is what we are here to do.

Lessons from the 2008 Financial Crisis

The Great Depression was the defining event in the lives of my wife’s grandparents, and of many people in “the Greatest Generation.”  Grammy and Grampa worked hard and saved and over a lifetime, were able to achieve a comfortable lifestyle.  But even in this, they were extremely frugal.  They always lived well below their means. While they didn’t mention the Depression, this didn’t mean it was forgotten.

Skip ahead to the 2008 Financial Crisis.  I just finished Timothy Geithner’s   Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises.  While I don’t claim to understand the particulars of CDOs, Credit Default Swaps, mortgage-backed derivatives, and quantitative easing, it was interesting and informative to read a memoir of one of the main architects of the economic policies of the Obama administration.  Whether one agrees with the actions of the administration or not, it was clear that the financial world was in uncharted waters, and that the global economy hung in the balance.

Our family experienced a “voluntary recession,” in 2006.  I left the pastorate I was serving in Cincinnati to accept a call to be a missionary.  We had to raise our own financial support.  To not drain our support account too quickly, we lived on a stipend that was one-third of what I had previously made.  During much of that time, we lived with Amy’s parents, hoping to finish out our support raising.  However, as churches and individuals were feeling the financial pinch, we would lose supporters as soon as we added them.  Circumstances forced the dream of serving as overseas missionaries to die, and the job that I obtained following our departure from the missions agency barely paid more than our stipend.

This may have been the most difficult time in our life as a family.  But God was good.  He blessed us and taught us many lessons during this period that have carried forward to this day.  I’ll talk about others in succeeding posts.  We were blessed with the mission agency requirement to get out of debt, and to stay out of debt.  So, while I was not earning much, our overhead was low as well.  We still see God’s provision in this.

So, the first lesson I learned was if you keep your overhead low, you can do anything you want.  There are two ways to do what you want with your life.  Either generate enough income so that you can accomplish your dreams, or keep your overhead low enough. Most advice seems to center on generating enough income.  The problem is, most of us are not gifted in that way.  But if you can lower your overhead, if you can eliminate debt and cut spending, you are free to serve the Lord in the way that you desire.

The next lesson I learned was how to work hard.  This was a gift from God.  I recognized that in a tight labor market, I must distinguish myself.  Jobs were hard to get and harder to keep.  I knew many people who were “downsized” by the Great Recession and were never able to find professional employment again.  After serving as a professional engineer at the director level of the government agency she worked for, she was demoted to an entry level position, and soon afterwards, accepted a disability package.  The market trend was that jobs were going to younger people who could be obtained more cheaply. Working hard, making myself “indispensable” (although cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable) was going to be necessary in that labor market.

While the American economy has lower rates of unemployment than in the 2008 Financial Crisis, those statistics may be deceptive.  Once people are out of the workforce and give up on finding work, they are no longer counted in the unemployment statistics.  Some states aggressively pursue unemployed people to move them to disability benefits, because the Federal Government pays for disability benefits.

So, even though the numbers report otherwise, older professionals with extensive experience and the salary requirements commensurate with that experience, must continue to regularly justify their employment with hard work.  “Coasting until retirement” is not an option for many.  If you stop working hard, and you stop learning, you become irrelevant. Companies will still go “younger and cheaper.”

Productivity Tools

From 2006-2008, I worked at a job that I absolutely loathed.  I served with a mission board doing fund raising and recruiting.  This was also my first experience with working remotely.  I never quite got used to the nature of the work, the unstructured schedule, and the constant travel.

But this was perhaps my most educational work experience.  I had to learn how to become productive with no set schedule, no supervisor.  I had to learn to structure my time for maximal effectiveness.

This is when I became a disciple of David Allen and his book, Getting Things Done.  It’s as though I learned how to work for the first time!  Outside of the Bible, this is the most life-changing book I’ve ever read.  I’ve kept up some version of his system since then.

I started out with a loose-leaf paper planner.  With the emergence of online tools and smart phones, over time, I went to using apps instead of the paper planner.  While this removed the necessity of carrying the paper planner everywhere, it also meant that I was either on the computer or on the phone all the time.

Earlier this year, I said, “this won’t work.”  So, I searched for a tool that would combine the best of both features.  I discovered Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method.  There are many sites where you can find the particulars of using this tool.  Here is the official one.

The greatest benefit is that it is portable, flexible, and I don’t have to always be on my phone or my computer.  However, there is kind of a “cult of the bullet journal.”  I had to free myself from the pressure of making my bullet journal look like this.bujo_ar_TESSA_KOGA_AGGIE

Or like this:

bullet-journaling

So, mine is absolutely minimalistic.  It’s illegible to anyone except me.  But it’s done the trick and has gotten me back on track producing, and off the smartphone.

Yard Sale

Self-Talk-Poster-2-15-13Self Talk.  I knew it would a good day today because I slept late and woke up with an attitude!  I don’t remember the last time that I did that.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever done it.  Typically, if I wake up at 8:30, my internal taskmaster screams at me with his loud voice, “YOU’RE BEHIND!”  But today, I’m talking back.  “Behind WHAT?”  “Behind WHO?”  Generally, if I wake up with that much of an attitude, it’s going to be a great day.
Today, what gives this self-talk credibility is that I am in a good place for being ready for next week.  Grading for the week is finished and posted.  Lesson plans still needed to be done and copies of quizzes and handouts still need to be made, and the “play chart” still needs to be made, but that only takes about 2-2.5 hours.  Domestic chores need to be done too, but again, the amount of work is far from overwhelming.
Daily Run.  I ran three miles today, continuing to listen to A Year of Reading Dangerously.  It’s still a compelling listen.  I love books about books, but it will truly do its job if it spurs me on to devote greater time and effort to reading.  However, heading south down the beach into the cold, driving rain, it may have been more enjoyable to listen to the cornucopia of sound provided by nature in the crashing of the waves against the shore, the swish-swish of my feet upon the sand, and the driving wind and pelting rain I headed out into.  Close call.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll opt for immersing myself in the echoes my surroundings instead of an audiobook.
Plato’s Republic.  The detailed reread of Plato’s Republic plus taking notes and outlining it is taking its toll on other books that I want to get to.  However, it’s well worth it as I’m getting much more out this read (I think it’s my eighth) than any previous reading.  Halfway through it and still going strong!
Paradise Lost.  I still need to make it through Paradise Lost with some degree of comprehension of the plot, structure, characters, allusions, and an informed opinion about what Milton is trying to do in this epic, which is no mean feat.  Right now, I’m having to trust our Puritan forebear with this.  I’m finding it the literary equivalent of finding a 32 oz. chateaubriand on my plate and being expected to at least make a dent in it to show gratitude to my host.  It’s about the richest work I’ve ever read outside of the Scriptures.  I feel like I’m missing so much every time I pick it up.  Maybe I need to think about what I’m taking away rather than what I’m missing.
What kind of self-talk do you give to yourself so that you can get through the day with “attitude”?  What are your strategies for getting through difficult tomes like Paradise Lost?
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Momentum, Processes, Goals, and Sisyphus

I steeled my will to go to the gym and spend an hour on the elliptical machine.  It wasn’t exactly quality cardio, but I did get it done.  Probably helped me to sleep and is building momentum toward more and better training.  I seem so far removed from even being able to think about getting fit for an ultra.  However, getting out and doing something every day is the first step.  Getting momentum going is what is key at this point, rather than a state of fitness at a future date.
I’m finding this is true in other disciplines as well.  Reading.  Writing.  Counseling.  The temptation is to think in terms of goals completed.  This can be depressing, as my thinking tends to drift toward how far away I am from the goal and how much effort it will take to get there.  Unfailingly, this turns out to be an exercise in self defeat,  as I ponder the Sisyphian labor involved in reaching this milestone.  It works much better for me to hold the goal loosely, and instead, work on the process that should move me toward that outcome, and every day continue to take the steps necessary to move toward the objective.  “Success” seems to be more of an exercise in taking disciplined steps to move things along on a number of fronts rather than arriving at a “Eureka”moment.  Momentum is key to continuing to be faithful in this discipline.  What you do when no one sees is what turns your endeavors from brainstorms or ideas into reality.  When momentum accrues, the labor no longer seems Sisyphian, and the process becomes the focus rather than the outcome.   496164907155199844_338ba033584f
I still shudder to think of some of the minimum objectives I need to achieve to keep the status quo.  I don’t know why the word “goal’ is such an intimidating word, why it screams “failure!”  It’s possible that in challenging oneself, there must be a strong possibility of failure.  Otherwise, the endeavor wouldn’t really be a challenge.  However, my slothful self doesn’t quite see it that way.  Even my wife hates it that the word “goal” is such a taunt to me.  I even felt this way when I was competing in cross-country and track in high school and college,  I surpassed a significant number of seasonal goals.  It’s probably the distance from starting the process to completing the process, only to do it all over again.  It can quickly get into the mentality of “can you top this?”  Such an equation puts a person under a great deal of pressure, because there comes a point when every achievement can’t be built upon, or the point of diminishing returns for one’s effort is reached, and it is folly to go beyond this point.
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Morning Routines

818kGmg0fFL._SL1500_I thought I would share my weekly routines and get some input as to what works from you.   Monday-Thursday.  I get up, write for a half hour or 45 minutes. Then, I read the Bible and pray.  Usually, at some point I’ll do a quick check on my favorite internet sites and email to make sure that nothing life-altering has happened overnight that will change my plans  After that, I get ready to do in and teach.  M-W I teach straight from 9-3.  T-Th I have a 3 hour break when I can get some things done:  grading, work that doesn’t require quiet or sustained attention.  at 3, it’s time to go home, go run, see how I can help with dinner, and eat dinner with my family.  I generally put in an hour and a half to two hours reading, writing, or planning content to teach.
I don’t teach Fridays, so I try to get myself ready to go on Monday morning.  If there are things to be read, studied, lesson planned, work that needs to be done on a sermon, or the like, it usually takes place on Fridays.  I try to keep Saturdays open, but generally I will need to put in a couple of hours on Saturday.
Sundays, I usually have church responsibilities, so I’ll get up early to prepare to lead worship and go over what I’m teaching.  Sunday afternoon and evening are generally when we “veg.”  I’ll often do some planning for the next week.
That’s how I usually roll.  I’d love for you to share what works for you!
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Internet Audio Recommendations

I’m a heavy consumer of audio.  I’ve always enjoyed radio, and much preferred it over visual media.  With podcasting, we are living in the golden age of audio.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have a commute that is about 35 minutes each way I’ve gotten some good listening in over the past couple of years. Sometimes, I’ll listen to audio when I run, but generally not.   I listened to 11 books on Audible in the past year. As far as podcasts, I tend to  binge listen to certain podcasts rather than trying to staying up with the latest episode  Lately, it’s been Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and his series on World War I, “Blueprint for Armageddon.”  Others I listen to are:  This American Life:  Ira Glass and his cohorts are some of the best storytellers I have found.  The production is of the highest quality. When I’m in the right mood, it’s the best podcast ever!.  However, I notice the ironic, melancholy air sometimes tends to have a depressive effect, so usually switch to something else when I start to notice this.
The Christian Humanist:  Three College English professors tackle a theme each episode.  The themes are wide ranging and the discussion is edifying and enjoyable.  These guys really make you think and don’t talk down to you.
Startup:  Alex Bloomberg, formerly of Planet Money and a contributor to This American Life, narrates the story of starting up his own business.  Great storyteller.  Self depicting.  Hilarious blunders.  I’m not up to date on this but get the feeling he’s going to make it despite his mistakes.
Third Coast Audio Festival:   A podcast that curates audio from both terrestrial radio and the internet, this podcast is rather eclectic.  It has a sort of radio drama feel, and is rather eclectic.
What do you listen to?  I’d love to hear your recommendations!
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Small Things, Big Influence

The new year often brings out the belief that we ought to make sweeping changes in our lives.  Beginning a rigorous exercise regimen, losing a substantial amount of weight, living within our means, and disciplining ourselves to save for the future are common New Years Resolutions.  Some of us also serve in professions or capacities that continually pressure us to do the “new,” the “unexpected,” the “unprecedented,” and to be “innovative.”  All of these desires and expectations may seem a huge burden to us.

However, the small things, done day by day, have an incremental value that we often overlook.  We underestimate the impact of faithful habits, incorporated into our days.  Those who have deep influence are faithful in what we would consider the small tasks.  For me, one example is circulating among my students and greeting them, talking to them about how their day is going and other small talk, instead of having my head down and ignoring them because I have “significant projects.”  Will I have deeper influence in their lives because of how well I prepare my lessons, or how much I connect with my students?

There is some proportionality here as well.  We are not to ignore what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law” and be satisfied that we can check off the details.  This is the error of the Pharisees that Jesus condemns in Matthew 23,  However, Jesus is not advocating that we neglect the details and concentrate on the big picture only.

Faithful, daily tasks, as small as they may seem at the time, grow into something greater than the tasks themselves.  Consistent care of children usually results in more than a checklist completed of child care tasks, but children who are loving, well-behaved, and a pleasure to be around.  Sometimes it’s difficult to remember this.  But it’s encouraging when we do and are able to carry out this idea in specific ways.

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Why blog?

Why blog?  This is a question that I’ve been asking myself for the last couple of years.  If you follow this blog, you find out that the usual answer is, “there’s no reason to.”  And for the past several years, I’ve managed to marshal some reasons not to blog that sound like good arguments.

I don’t have anything to say.  In other words, there’s nothing that hasn’t already been said.  Now, this form of thinking is one to which I am prone.  What I’ve discovered, however, is that there are new ways of saying what has been said, and new audiences who are looking for a fresh take.

I’m not that interesting.  Blogging is a good way to become interesting.  It’s good to have a driving force that will push me to be more engaging, develop new interests, and to pursue the interests that I have more wholeheartedly.

I’m not a narcissist.  While there is more than enough shallow, self-centered banality that sounds narcissistic, it doesn’t follow that anyone who wants to put their thoughts in public is a narcissist.  There are writers whom I read who stimulate me, challenge me, and edify me.  These are results that don’t come from navel-gazing narcissists.

I don’t write that well.  My self-evaluation of my writing has deterred me from sharing most of my writing with anyone.  But the opposing point of view says, “how am I going to improve?”  The path to improvement is regular writing, revising, and sharing what I write.

I don’t care about being famous.  There are bloggers whose readerships is in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.  Developing an audience and bringing dependable content to that audience sounds like pressure.  But building an audience is not easy.  It takes effort.  At this point, I’m writing as if I have an audience, but I’m far from being famous.

I’d rather teach than write.  Fair enough.  But won’t writing and editing and revising make me a better teacher?

I’d rather while away the hours in unproductive pursuits.  This is the honest truth.  But it’s one that I want to change.

What keeps you from blogging?  Why do you blog?  What motivates you to keep sharing and publishing content?  I’d love to hear from you!

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About Changing the Script

     I read an article a couple of weeks about changing one’s internal script with writing.  It was one of those self-help things that you read and say “meh”.  However, on greater reflection it’s been surprising helpful in thinking ahed toward 2015.  The idea that stuck with me is that through reading, reflection, and writing, It’s possible to change a person’s inner thinking, and as a consequence, change their story.  It’s possible to bring the best out of yourself instead of scraping through every day unthinkingly.
     This year’s 500 word challenge turned out to be a trial run at this.  While I didn’t follow through with it for the rest of the year after the 31 days, there was something powerful about it that began to change my internal script; that is, the instinctive and reflexive governing of my life that is so influential, and often so self-limiting.
     “Change the Script” is a powerful imperative, like “Take Permission”, my theme for 2014.  While I still need to follow through with the Take Permission imperative, something deeper needs to change within me to generate the boldness to Take Permission.  That’s where Change the Script comes in.
     To begin with, there are a couple of ways I want to work toward Changing the Script:
     Internally:   I want to generate optimism, positivity, and encouragement instead of cynicism and negativity.  My default script tends to be cynical, sarcastic, negative, and a sense of smarminess that “I know better”.  I find this repulsive when I see it in others but tolerate and advance it in myself.
     Move forward to initiate new habits:  I can take charge of myself.  I can initiate change with others, I can work to lead those within my sphere of influence to a preferable future.  While my sister tells me I’m “regimented,” this regimentation can be positively used to work toward being willing to experiment, to try new things, to take risks.
     What are you thinking in terms of changing your script?  I’d love to hear about your thoughts and plans!
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