Escape from a Hurried Life

 

How to Escape from a Hurried Life

A friend and I talked one day about the perils of a hurried life and how hazardous it is to our souls. The more we considered how much a hurried life turns our souls into raisins and preps us to give beef jerky instead of steak to the people we love, the more we agreed, a hurried life is actually a toxic life.

Hurried is different than busy or demanding. You can carry lots of responsibility without being hurried. Hurried is: rushed, distracted, frantic, uncreative, non-present. In fact, hurried strikes me as the enemy of being fully present. It is a seductress that lures us into working alone and frantically faster. It is that state of anxiety where the next 4-5 things on your to-do list preoccupy your thoughts and make it hard to stay focused on the people or tasks of the moment.

The key to living in a different way is not primarily dictated by the quantity of things on your plate, but by how you live with that plate. Of course, it just might be that you have too much on your plate. If so, you’ll have to do some surgical downsizing.

If you are driven and compulsive and have your identity all wrapped up in your work, you probably have tougher issues that I can help with in this post. There are no ego strokes to be gained by living as a harried lunatic. However, I can tell you that, the leader who lives an unhurried and unharried life offers a beacon of hope to everyone who is buried by the endless demands of a 24/7 world.

If you are open to new ideas that might inject breathing space — the influx of fresh air — into your daily workload, I have four keys to help you get started.

#1 KEY = Linger in the Seams

The seams are those moments between appointments, that short breather right after putting one task to bed, the gap created by someone who is late, or the cup of coffee before opening your computer at the beginning of the day.

If you pay attention to them, you will find you have lots of little seams in the ebb and flow of your day. You have lots of little cracks in your day, just stop and linger in them. Embrace the shift without rushing forward. Take a walk. Don’t rush into the next thing. Take a moment to mentally and emotionally put to bed whatever you just finished doing. Before plowing forward, stop and reflect, “what matters most in the appointment or project that comes next?” And, while you are at it, pray for the person or project you are stepping away from as well as the one you are about to move into. The world will wait.

#2 KEY = Practice Being Fully Present with People

This is not hard. Every time you are with someone, adopt the posture of extreme curiosity. Ask them questions. See if you can discover something new to learn. Hold your tongue from delivering that witty repartee and instead seek to ferret out the complexities of emotions they face.

Being fully present with people will demolish the feeling of “another appointment” and take you into a life filled with meaningful relationships.

#3 KEY = Set Aside Time for Follow Up

It seems that every appointment or meeting I have requires some level of follow-up work afterward. It might just be entering a few notes into my computer for future reference. Or, it might be specific assignments that came during the course of the meeting. When I forget about this reality and don’t plan time to address the follow-up work that happens, I find that it jambs up my schedule and contributes to a feeling of hurriedness–too much work, too little time.

The solution is rather simple. When entering an appointment into my calendar, I simultaneously enter another block of time (usually 50% as long as the initial appointment) during which I can get the follow-up work completed. Once in a while I need longer than anticipated, but I am still way ahead of the game with much less schedule stress.

#4 KEY = Say NO to Something Everyday

I actually think that learning to say no is a leadership muscle that needs regular exercise in order to stay in shape. Try it. Say no to one request every day. Say no to an urgent “need” of someone who has a wonderful plan for your life. Say no to that temptation to squeeze in one more thing before wrapping things up for the day. Say no to a request to do something out of obligation that you honestly wouldn’t find much fun.

This tip may sound crazy or even selfish, but there is something powerful about exercising this muscle everyday. Try it. You have plenty of opportunities to say no to things you should never have said yes to. As you do, you will tangibly remind yourself that you are not a victim. Your life and your schedule is populated by your choices.

 

These are only four practices, I’d bet you have others.
What have you tried that actually works?
Make a comment, extend the conversation.

Besides, today is Memorial Day. Do something besides work.

Lord, Teach Me to Number My Days

Yesterday, we had a normal text conversation with a really close friend of ours about the custody hearing of his daughter regarding her child. Then at 7:14 this morning my phone rang and I learned that this same friend and daughter were shot and killed by her ex-husband last evening.

Emotionally I’ve spent the day vacillating between shock, sorrow, anger, and indignation. This was a good friend and truly a fine caring man. He was a loving generous grandfather who gave himself in sacrificial ways to his family. He and his wife had hopes and dreams about their retirement years. There are many things I could say about Russ, but since you don’t know him I need to write about the personal reflections I cannot escape.

In the words of David, the great song writer, “Lord, teach us to number our days.” (Ps 90:12)  In my own words, “Lord, help me put today in perspective, by attending to the fact that each day is a sacred gift, a limited commodity. Help me live aware of the fact that I will never know how many days I have ahead of me.”

The truth is, in my entire life, all I ever have at my disposal is one day: today! Yesterday is a memory I can celebrate, treasure, learn from, etc. Tomorrow is a day I can plan for. But, the only day within my grasp, the only day where my purpose and priorities and values can be actively lived out, is today. In a tangible way, the real number of our days is ONE.

“Lord, teach us to number our days aright, that we might gain a heart of wisdom.” Wisdom, not drivenness. Drivenness would be the American way–run faster, do more, strive harder, live in a panic. On the contrary, embracing the reality that only one day lies within our grasp should lead us to depth, direction, and the de-cluttering of our lives.

I think this is one of the core messages of my life: the power of one day. When I live in the light of one day, it keeps me sensitive to the sacred nature of my own life and the people who populate it. It focuses my attention on the direction of my life and how I might lived connected to the Kingdom. It keeps me passionate about living in intimacy with Jesus as I seek to follow him. Today is the day when I get to live out my convictions, give my life away serving the potential of others, participate in the redemptive work of the Gospel. Today–every day–is pregnant and holy and fragile.

In all my life, I only have one day at my disposal. So, Lord, as I lean into the sorrow and loss of my friend, show me more about how I might live into the sacred trust of life called “today.”

———————-

p.s. I have touched on this theme of life as fragile and sacred before. Here are a links to some of those posts:

Life is Sacred:

http://aboutleading.com/2009/03/13/life-is-fragileand-sacred/

– Grieving and the Health of my Soul:

http://aboutleading.com/2009/10/07/grieving-and-the-health-of-my-soul/

– Life is Long and Fragile:

http://aboutleading.com/2008/03/20/life-is-longand-fragile/

Defying Gravity

I know, it sounds like the language of a circus barker, “Come see the Flying Zucchini Brothers as they defy gravity.” However, I am talking about much more than entertaining circus talk. “Defying gravity,” is a terrific description of the way effective leadership teams learn to operate.

If you sit on an elder board at your church, the board of directors for an organization, or even the leadership team of a business, I am going to guess that you find yourself frustrated at times. We have all been there in those meetings when we thought, “are we really spending our time talking about this? Why are we mired in such small stuff when there are really big and strategic issues that need to be addressed?”

You see, the natural path of any organization is downhill. Leadership teams feel the downward pull of gravity through press of the urgent, the reality of fatigue, the desire to feel in control of something, or the relentless demands of the crowd. Gravity draws us toward the path of least resistance, away from altitude-giving perspective, and down into the miry clay of micro details. It is hard to resist gravity.

In contrast, effective leadership teams execute the dance of leadership in a way that defies the gravity plaguing most organizations. It not easy. In fact, defying gravity demands disciplined attention to four courageous behavior patterns.

As you read a summary of these four disciplines, ask yourself, how are you shaping the work and focus of the Board or leadership team you are part of? Is your team plowing the mud at ground level or have you found a way to lead at perspective-giving altitude? For each of the disciplines below, what kind of a grade would you give yourself?

1. STAY ABOVE

Maintain enough altitude to connect the dots between where you have been, where you are, and where you need to be going. “Staying above” means attending to the important more than the urgent. It requires all out war against the desire to exert control through the self-important posture of micro-management.

2. STAY BEYOND

One of the core entrustments of a senior leadership team or governing board is the long range direction of the organization. “Staying beyond” means courageously choosing to resist the lazy posture of perpetual reactivity. Instead of drilling down into the present or simply reporting on the past, conversations and decisions are focused 2-5 years out. Gravity defying teams discipline themselves to think and act on the preferred future.

3. STAY TOGETHER

Human nature is profoundly self-centered and self-protective. However, strong leadership teams go a different direction and choose to fight for one another. They stay honest, open, trusting, and emotionally current with each other. They approach problems and challenges by staying on the same side of the table relationally while the issue lives on the other side to the table. The result? High EQ and the release of collaborative effectiveness, a team where 1+1=100.

4. STAY DEEP

It is easy for a leadership team to become consumed by the responsibilities they carry and the demanding tasks they face at the expense of their souls. My leadership world is primarily the church and Christian ministry organizations, so perhaps I am especially attuned to the cost leadership teams pay for not traveling deep spiritually. However, believing that we were made for lives of intimacy with our Creator through Jesus Christ, it is obvious to me that effective leadership teams learn to practice spiritually forming rhythms together. They are unafraid of unfinished agenda work believing that time in prayer, time spent in God’s Word, and time exploring issues of the soul are matters of greatest priority. Staying deep spiritually releases to defy the gravity of anxiety and drivenness over the demands of everything crying for attention.

What are your thoughts? … Your observations?

I would love your comments.

Gary

March 30, 2011

p.s. Thanks Todd, (my pastor) for throwing out a couple comments this past weekend about how our elders work. Thanks too, for leading in these ways. Your comments and your example unlocked the insights in this article.

Law of the Pencil and Stone

I want to talk about having goals and plans. I think they really matter. I am not compulsive about them and don’t let them rule my life, but for me they are essential to living an intentional life. I hold life as a gift to be stewarded, an entrustment to be handled with care.  Setting goals for my personal development and for the things I believe God wants me to work on is one key to intentional focus.

However, there are some complicating factors. How do you balance having goals with being sensitive to the ongoing leading and direction of the Spirit? How do you align yourself with goals and pursue them intentionally without becoming driven?  How do you live in that dynamic tension that calls for daily dependence on God and his direction at yet at the same time align your behavior, decisions, and priorities to what you believe you are supposed to be working on?

In other words, how does a leader live by and provide focused direction while simultaneously remaining responsive to the dynamic leadership of Christ?

I would like to suggest a principle that I believe serves individual leaders, families, churches, and ministry organizations of any size. I call it, the “law of the pencil and the stone.

It works like this.  Knowing that circumstances are always changing, at any given moment all I have to go on is my best understanding to date. I never know every detail or nuance that is important. At any moment God may break in to to redirect, clarify, or interrupt what I understood I should be doing. Therefore, I imagine my goals and plans are written on that elementary-school paper with the really wide lines by one of those finger-thick pencils. They aren’t fancy or polished, just my best understanding to date, and therefore I hold them with a loose grip. Anytime God has a new assignment, I am ready to relinquish those goals for another sheet of penciled writing on elementary school paper.

At the same time, because they are indeed my best understanding of God’s priorities, plans, and direction for my life I need to live in obedience to those goals as if they were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone. Yes, they might change, but until they do they are the best I know. In fact, during my entire life all I will ever have is my best understanding to date. I need to align my life to that understanding and live in obedience to it.

That’s it: holding onto your goals as if they are written in pencil while living them out as if they were written by God on a tablet of stone unlocks the potential for responsive but focused obedience.

It’s Not hard to understand, however I need to address what might be the issue beneath the issue. A great many people and organizations resist setting goals. Something in us likes keeping our options open. We dislike the feeling of having limits. We like the freedom of going with the flow and dislike being accountable to stay on task. And we are really good at masking this personal resistance in some lofty language. In the Christian community, we talk about being Spirit-led — as if the Spirit can only lead in the spontaneity of the moment.

One final thought: When it comes to a group of people, be it a family, a ministry team, or a church, clear agreed upon goals and plans are the way a group of people lives in obedience as a community. The law of the pencil and the stone is a powerful posture for a group that longs to follow Christ together.

So, I have to ask, how has God been directing you?  Isn’t it time to take those good intentions and put them into action?

— Gary

P.S.  By the way, in a changing world and changing marketplace, the law of the pencil and the stone has great value as a corporate posture as well.

The Relationship Between Focus and Impact

the clutter of busyness

Here’s the problem, my brain is always thinking about possibilities. What else could be done? What new projects could we tackle? What new goals? What improvements?

However, impact is directly related to focus and focus is about doing fewer things not more. Impact is not the result of doing a lot more. Focus is a process of saying no – so that you have the time and energy to say yes to the right stuff.

In a culture where habitual drivenness is the water we swim in, there is an invisible pull to say yes to more. And if your wiring is at all like mine, some of those possibilities and projects dangling before you are so alluring that it is easy to be deeply invested in far too many commitments to make a focused impact.

Wise leaders are constantly clarifying and focusing their personal “DO and DON’T DO LIST.” That is, they continually focus their activities and commitments so that maximum energy can be directed for greatest focus. They are clear about when they should say yes and when they must say no.

I think there are at least three major areas of vulnerability that lure us into an over-committed out-of-focused life. These are the areas where saying no does not come naturally.

Passion:
Leaders are generally people of passion. They long to make a difference, to leave the world a better place. Charlatans masquerade as leaders, but are actually concerned about recognition, self-advancement, and the like. True leaders seek to give themselves away. And this is where the trouble lies. When you are passionate about making a difference, it is easy to yes to that one more responsibility.

Competency:
Over time every one of us develops some legitimate competencies. Some of them were developed at a great price–with great pain and effort. When opportunities arise to leverage some of your core competencies it is easy to feel needed and valued. It is seductive to say yes when you get to use what you have learned to do well.

Relationships:
You know how this one works. A friend asks you to take on a new responsibility because your abilities would meet a need they have. You know you are already overly committed, but it is just one more thing and this relationship is important to you.

My point: Less really is more. There is a direct correlation between the narrowness of a leader’s focus and the depth of their impact. The key to focus is to say no to more so that you might say yes to the right stuff.

Two suggestions:

1.) Define your DO and DON’T DO list. In light of the focus of your life – the one thing that is most important for you to give yourself to – make a list of the responsibilities and behaviors you must do and a second list of those things you must (even painfully) say no to.

2.) Schedule a monthly review where you pull up a few thousand feet to review what has climbed onto your plate that you shouldn’t be doing and the things that have slipped off your plate which you must be doing. Then plan your schedule forward accordingly.

Legacy of My Life

Hi my name is Gary and I am an achievement-aholic. I was weaned by a success-crazed culture and have refined the trend with my goals and projects. We all joke about it, but there is part of us that still believes, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” We are seduced by the illusion that the legacy of our lives will be measured by the cumulative value of the stuff we create-acquire-build-plan-say-do.

What if the true legacy of our lives is something completely different?

A few weeks ago I was in the Chicago area-my old stomping grounds.  While there I spent a nearly perfect afternoon at a reunion of old friends for whom I had once been their Youth Pastor. We told stories, we laughed, we gagged over how old our children are, and we caught up on different ways God has been at work in our lives. The fact that these “former kids” are now in their 40’s is more than a little frightening. Their age says more than I’d like to admit about my own.

At one point in the afternoon, I was standing off to the side watching these old friends interact with each other. I couldn’t stop thinking about what quality people they had become. Lost in my thoughts, I failed to notice when another friend came up beside me. He put his arm around me and said, “these ‘kids’ are the legacy of your life-it must make you feel proud.” It does.

I think about all the things that we did together back in the day. The camps, retreats, mission projects, outreach efforts, etc. it was all terrific stuff, but none of it was the stuff that lasts. My legacy is not in all the stuff I have done, it is the people God allows me to do stuff with.

In the 21 years since I moved from that town I have been a privileged man. I have had the chance to lead and serve people in a huge variety of contexts in a number of states and a host of foreign countries. I have created programs, designed curriculums, written books, and spoken at a host of gatherings. It has always felt meaningful. It has usually been challenging. And, while there have been some very forgettable efforts, most of what I have done has had some level of influence.

But the legacy of my life is not in all that activity. It is the people of my life who go on to touch and shape the world beyond my reach.

As a leader I have to remember this lesson. It creates breathing room when I am under pressure. It gives perspective when I feel driven by a big project. It reminds me that the things I do actually create the context in which I get to share my life with someone else. It helps me pull up when I am preoccupied with details and demands, because it reminds me that what really matters in all of this is people.

The imprint of my life lives in the people of my life. The same is true for you. And that is our real legacy.

Snowed In for a Sabbath

For a kid who grew up in Southern California, the notion of a ‘snow day’ may seem like a foreign concept. But, the eleven years we lived in the Chicago area taught us something pretty amazing. On those unique days when snowstorms overwhelm the city and life comes to a halt, the unplanned respite from work and regular ritual does something powerful for your soul and your relationships.

A snow day is like a spontaneous vacation. Because you can’t go anywhere, most people hole up at home with their kids. They play cards. They build puzzles. They start reading a new book. The bake cookies. And they wonder, “how come we don’t do this more often?”

What if God intended for us to enjoy days like this on a regular basis? What if human beings weren’t designed to work 24/7? What if the well-being of our souls called for time to pull-back from the drivenness of our normal life for a chance to replenish and refresh in relationship with those we love on a frequent basis?

What if God’s design of a weekly Sabbath was just such a plan?

Pete Scazzero, suggested the correlation of Sabbath and snow day in his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and I find it powerful. In the ministry world in which I live, there seems to be no real boundaries between when work starts and when it stops. Email is sent and waiting 24/7. People I work with live across multiple time zones. My cell phone is accessible in every state and almost every country at any time.

Yet, without a Sabbath break, my soul starts to run thin. So, I am trying to do a few things differently these days. Much as possible, I try to shut down from email and phone calls on Friday afternoon and let things sit until Monday. I try to get in some kind of extended exercise-usually a long bike ride. Church services are not something I squeeze in, but a relaxed place of worship and renewal. And, along the way, I try to enjoy extra time with Margaret and Tiffany.

I have to admit that at times, these Sabbath breaks create a backlog of work I have to dig out from the next week, but they leave me so much more refreshed.

It’s almost like a rhythm we were made for.