How to build enduring habits

Think about the last time you felt seriously unproductive.

Not the casual “I feel like going to the beach and taking a day off”, but the “I don’t want to get out of bed and reply to dreaded e-mails” kind of unproductive.

Now, let me ask: Did you brush your teeth?

If you said “yes”, then you’ve experienced the remarkable resilience of ingrained habits. However stressful or depressed we may feel, they stubbornly keep us going. Like building relational redundancy, enduring habits are an effective way to stay productive in times of distress.

So how do you build a habit that lasts?

In this post, I want to use the prayer app Ceaseless as a case study for habit formation. For deeper insight, check out books like The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business (affiliate link) and Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

Case Study: Ceaseless Prayer

In one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16 NIV). While there are several ways to interpret this verse in context, all of those ways include the notion of habitual prayer.

And therein lies a unique problem.

Despite the best of intentions, I know many Christians who struggle with prayer. Jesus characterized the problem as intrinsic to human nature with the famous words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38b NIV)

Can we apply science and technology to these spiritual problems?

I believe the answer is yes. Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. This overlap is precisely where technology can make a difference.

One common insight from the science of habit formation is the habit loop, a virtuous cycle characterized by Reminder, Routine and Reward.

Ceaseless helps people “pray continually” by nudging each part of this cycle forward.

Step 1: Reminder – Daily Notifications

Ceaseless prayer reminderThe first step to build a new habit is to connect it to an existing one.

Ceaseless does so by showing a daily reminder in your smartphone’s notifications. Since you’re already in the habit of checking and acting on your notifications, you’ll also remember to pray for others. Tapping on the notification opens the app.

Step 2: Routine – Praying for Others

Ceaseless pray for a friendKeep the habit simple.

When you open the app you see a person’s face, name and story (notes you’ve written to help you remember how to pray for them). Note: the very first screen is an inspiring picture and Scripture to help you focus.

You see everything you need and nothing distracting. The app has chosen three people from your contacts and all you do is take a moment to pray for each of them.

Step 3: Reward – See your Progress

Ceaseless prayer progress

Feel rewarded for completing the habit.

After you swipe through the people to pray for, you get a short-term reward: a progress bar shows how many people you’ve prayed for so far. You also see the number of days you’ve prayed for others.

The long-term reward is of course the joy of loving others and watching God graciously respond to your prayers for their lives.

The Result: A Habit is Born

After using Ceaseless for over a year, my prayer life has never been more consistent. I’ve been through some very difficult ongoing trials and to my surprise God has used the app to keep me from drowning in the seas of self-pity and despair. The daily nudge God-ward and out-ward to others has helped me press on in my calling.

For Christians: God has not left us powerless. While our flesh may be weak, we have been given the Spirit. Effective habit formation does not undermine grace, but is a good use of the grace God has already given us in order to obey Him.

Conclusion

Here are some ideas you can apply to your habit-formation endeavors:

  1. What existing habits can you use to start new ones?
  2. How can you simplify the habitual action so that it becomes sustainable?
  3. What short-term reward can keep you motivated until you start enjoying the long-term benefits?

There remains of course one important set of questions lurking in the background:

  • What habits are worth adopting?
  • What am I being productive for?
  • What’s the point?

These are the questions I plan on exploring in my next post.

How to stay productive in times of distress.

While getting my inbox to zero, I noticed a pattern in the messages I failed to reply to. Most were dated around seasons of emotional distress. The pressures of life had drained my capacity to respond to even the simplest messages.

So I had to ask: How do you stick to your productivity process in seasons of distress? How do you keep your momentum and commitments when you feel down?

Most techniques I’ve tried fail this test because I inevitably encounter a difficult trial that throws me in the gutter, which ironically seems to be what productivity is supposed to be about (bringing meaningful order to the chaos of life).

I’ve written before about 3 steps for getting things done and my next post is going to be about building enduring habits. This post is about one way to sustain productivity in seasons of distress.

Redundancy

There is a term in IT called uptime or availability. It refers to the amount of time a service is available in a year, typically expressed as the number of “nines” in the percentage.

For example, Amazon’s storage service S3 promises four “nines” (99.99%) of availability, meaning that for a full 365 days it will only be down for ~53 minutes. Since physical hardware fails all the time, S3 achieves high availability through redundancy–putting your files in multiple places around the world so that if anything goes wrong in one place you can seamlessly get it from elsewhere.

The idea of achieving high availability despite unreliable components is actually an ancient practice, observed by the author of Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NIV)

We see this wisdom applied in many spheres of life: pilots fly with co-pilots, climbers go with spotters, soldiers train with buddies, businesses are started by co-founders, etc.  What if we apply it to personal productivity?

Individual ≠ Personal productivity.

When a relationship fails, a deal goes bad, you get sick, your car breaks down or someone lets you down, your individual productivity will inevitably suffer, but this doesn’t mean your personal mission has to go offline. You can ask for help! (cliche, but insightful right?! 🙂 )

Going it alone is dangerous NOT because you aren’t capable, but because you can lose your capability at any time.

Elaborating on the IT/web services metaphor:

When you visit a website you’re likely connecting to a load-balancer designed to handle tens of thousands of concurrent connections for the entire site. What happens if the load balancer goes down? Many companies use hot failover (redundancy!) where another machine is on stand-by, ready to take over if the main one dies.

These two load balancers share a “heart beat”, saying to each other every few seconds, “I’m alive!” The moment one fails to respond, the other takes over (this is admittedly an oversimplification).

People aren’t machines, but preparing backup relationships for specific tasks is one powerful way to sustain productivity in times of distress.

Who can be your “hot failover,” bearing the load of your most important tasks when you’re down? Who can help you up and carry things forward when you cannot?

Different parts of life will require different people.

If you’re married, your spouse will be a natural “hot failover” in fulfilling your family’s responsibilities. If it’s a business goal, you may turn to your partners or a mastermind group. If it’s an athletic goal, you have your teammates. Just be intentional.

You don’t have to share your entire life with each person forever. Whoever you choose needs to simply agree to cover for you in that specific part of your life. Just make sure that you’re ready to be there for others too.

Application Ideas

  1. Failover: Go through your list of tasks. For each critical task ask someone you trust to help you in case you falter.
  2. Heartbeat: Add a recurring event on your calendar to message each other confirming your ability/inability to complete the task(s) until it is finished.
  3. Queue (optional): If you’re actually working together (not just being a backup), create a shared to-do list where both of you can add new sub-tasks and remove completed ones.

Building redundancy into your life requires time, attention and relational investment, but IT’s WORTH IT if your purpose is bigger than yourself.

My next post will be about a second way to sustain productivity in down times: Building Enduring Habits.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Achievement Unlocked: Zero Inbox…and You Can Too!

I recently reached my long desired goal of an empty inbox. That’s right, I went from over 2,000 messages to this:

Reaching 0 inbox in GMail Mobile

Why thank you Gmail Sunshine Face, I think I will enjoy my day! 🙂

It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

Aside from cleaning up the visual & mental clutter of a crowded inbox, this exercise helped me:

  1. Feel organized and on top of things for the first time in 3 years.
  2. Feel grateful for the relationships and events that happened in those years.
  3. Reconnect with old friends and acquaintances.
  4. Discover my deeper problem with sticking to any productivity system.

I think I’ve found my productive alternative to Pokemon Go: “Gotta clear ’em all”

Here’s how I did it and how you can too (just take 5 minutes to try out each step once as you’re reading this).

Note: While writing this post, I found out that the original Inbox Zero concept was created by Merlin Mann and presented at Google in 2007 in this talk.

The Goal

I use GMail, which has a helpful email counter that served as my scoreboard. The goal is to make it disappear (get it to zero).inbox-scoreboard

Note: I use keyboard shortcuts for GMail which you can enable by clicking on the Gear icon => Settings. Select the “Keyboard shortcuts on” option under the “General” tab. You can also just use your mouse 🙂

 

Triaging Messages

Step 1: Bulk purge.

Delete all those old mailing list updates, promotional e-mails and other irrelevant messages that have been building up.

If you enable keyboard shortcuts, you can use ‘k’ and ‘j’ to go up/down your messages and ‘x’ to select the ones you want to delete. Then press ‘#’ to delete. This will save your hand & wrist some mouse pain.

Step 2: Label and archive.

After skimming through your messages, you may notice some patterns emerging. Create a label to group content that you don’t need to take action on (e.g. messages you want to save for history or nostalgia), label those messages and archive them.

Shortcut: Select a message(s), press ‘l’ to open the label menu, start typing the name of the label and press ‘enter’ (or “Create new” if it doesn’t exist yet). Then press ‘e’ to archive.

Step 3: Reply and archive.

Reply to any conversation you can push forward or resolve with a quick message. Then archive it (in case you didn’t know, the conversation comes back to your inbox when someone replies to you).

If you go to settings, there is a “Send and Archive” button you can enable that makes this one-click.

BIG WIN ====> Step 4: Create Tasks, link to the conversation(s) and archive.

Your inbox is probably crowded with messages that remind you of things you need to do. Why not use a tool designed for the job like a to-do list instead?

Go to your to-do list. Create a task for the message, then copy and paste a link to the email in the description (since Gmail doesn’t have a “share” button for the message, just copy the url in the address bar to get the link).

Here is an example task I created for Ceaseless with links to the relevant messages in the description:

sample-todo
This message-to-task conversion lets you:

  1. Write a better title than the e-mail subject line so you know what really needs to be accomplished.
  2. Remember the details for the task.
  3. Have a quick link to take the next step on the task (e.g. reply to the message after you’ve made a decision).
  4. Combine multiple related conversations under a single task.

Don’t forget to archive the message (shortcut: ‘e’) when you’re done.

Kudos to my friend Elijah Elkins for this tip (copying a link to the e-mail in the task description) and his recommendation of the Plan app, which I’m starting to use to actually block out time on my calendar to complete tasks in my list.

Step 5: Take notes and archive/delete.

If you subscribe to any e-mail newsletters, e-mail courses or mailing lists there are probably a lot of messages you wanted to carefully read, but never got around to. For example, I had about 20 unread messages from the community building site Feverbee waiting for me.

feverbee-learnings.png

Open your note-taking app (I use Evernote) and work through those messages, writing down interesting insights along the way. If the e-mail is so substantial that it is worth saving, copy its link into the note and archive the e-mail. Otherwise, delete the message after you’ve gained the insight you wanted.

Step 6: Pick off the stragglers and enjoy!

After a few passes through your inbox doing steps 1-6 you’ll probably still have a couple of stragglers. Pick them off one by one and gleefully watch your inbox counter go down to zero.

The nice thing about these steps is that you can do them in any order and in multiple passes.

Maybe one weekend you do a purge while going for a walk in the park. Next you read and take notes on your backlog of learning e-mails and the following day you finish converting all outstanding e-mails into tasks.

All in all, it took me about 3 days of scattered time to knock my inbox down from ~2,000 to zero.

Now I’m greeted with this beautiful page (until tomorrow’s round of whack-an-e-mail begins…):

Reaching 0 inbox in GMail

Conclusion

Did these steps work for you? Share your experiences, struggles and tips with managing your inbox in the comments below!

Next I plan to write about “Why productivity systems (even the one I just described) don’t seem to work for long”.

 

3 Learnings from Life After a Break-in

We were gone for only two hours. My sister and I came home from lunch when I noticed my laptop was missing.

“I think we’ve been robbed.”

My sister thought I was joking until she noticed her laptop was missing too. I ran downstairs to my room. The thieves had rifled through my drawers and taken cash.

I dialed 911.

Two hours later an officer showed up and walked through the house with me trying to figure out what happened. It wasn’t obvious how the thieves entered and escaped–every door and window seemed locked and undamaged.

Then we walked to the back porch and he pushed on a pair of french doors. Deadbolted, locked and yet they swung open.

“The wind could blow open that door!”

The locked deadbolt gave us a false sense of security since the second door was supposed to be pinned to the door frame, but had no visible affordance to indicate if it was pinned or not.wp-1458607587406.jpg

My sister and I immediately got to work.

We asked friends for prayer and help, filed a police report, called insurance, reset passwords, activated Find/Erase My iPhone through iCloud, placed watches on credit cards, the whole 9 yards. We installed new security countermeasures and did a long overdue spring cleaning cleansing.

I didn’t want to sleep that night. My room felt unsafe, unclean and violated so I ended up dozing off at 3am in the living room.

My sister and I had just been discussing forgiveness over lunch that day and the irony of being simultaneously robbed was not lost on me. God was up to something good in all this, but what?

Here are three things I’ve learned in the short time since the incident and I’m sure there’s still more wisdom to gain with time.

Learning #1: Theft deals far more damage than the loss of goods.

The burglary makes me feel angry and anxious. It makes my home feel unsafe. The thieves took the tools my sister and I need to do our work. We spent several days dealing with the fallout of their actions. We have to deal with the risk that people will steal the private information on our devices and use it for nefarious purposes.

The thieves may have thought they were simply taking valuables to get easy money from an unsuspecting home, but the actual cost of their actions is far greater than the value of what they took.

To generalize/personalize, I’m beginning to pay more attention to how even my minor irresponsibilities have an outsized impact on others. I can’t isolate my irresponsibilities to myself. None of us can.

Learning #2: Cash flow can’t be stolen and heaven is the only place to accumulate assets.

As a young entrepreneur, I’ve often heard the phrase “cash is king” and now I’ve learned a new reason why.

Thieves can steal assets. They can steal goods in a warehouse, a package on the curb, office supplies, laptops, money in the bank, etc.

But they cannot steal real, healthy customer relationships resulting in ongoing revenue and a continuous in-flow of cash going forward. Cash flow is resilient to theft.

I think this correlates with Jesus’ major point about treasure:

“Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NET, emphasis mine)

The Kingdom of Heaven is the only completely safe place to store your assets. Your earthly assets can be destroyed, corrupted, compromised and stolen. Setting your heart on earthly asset accumulation means putting your heart at serious risk because it is only a matter of time before your treasure will go away.

Alternatively, if you spend life on earth maximizing Free Cash Flow for the Kingdom and transfer as much wealth as possible to the Kingdom of Heaven, you win forever. Luke records one explicit mechanism for this value transfer:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34 ESV, emphasis mine)

What does this mean for us? It means this life is the time to take risks, not play it safe. Now is the time to vigorously and generously labor for Kingdom cash flow, not comfortably sit on your assets. Now is the time to sow and reap (and give), not store up excess grain in a barn and take it easy for the rest of your days and lose your soul in the process (cf Luke 12:13-21).

Learning #3: Vigilance, Diligence and Aggressive Security Measures Apply to Spirituality.

This experience snapped me out of my complacency.

I cleaned up my house and put long overdue things in order, increased the privacy and security of my home, conducted a security review and improved everything we could think of.

And then I took a break and enjoyed having an orderly home and more orderly life. For all the grief and loss suffered, we received an even greater outpouring of sympathy, concern and kindness from family, friends and neighbors. Thank God!

Then while joyfully meditating on these things, I realized something.

This is exactly what I should be doing in my spiritual life.

Jesus said:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10 ESV)

Abundant life must be guarded with greater vigilance than my home. It’s way more valuable.

Before, I assumed my house was safe. Now I assume it’s always being scouted, tested and targeted. Instead of letting thieves have their way, I prepare by mitigating risks with controls and respond by neutralizing threats.

The same applies to my spiritual life. Satan is a cunning and menacing adversary, constantly casing, canvassing, and prowling around like a lion waiting to strike (1 Peter 5:8-10).

The gift of faith that gets me in on Jesus’ life is the supremely precious asset for life on this earth. So when it comes under attack, I shouldn’t give in. I shouldn’t succumb to feelings of self-pity, doubt, surrender, fear and depression. I should fight.

I should take precautions and install countermeasures to mitigate the risk of these infinitely precious assets from being stolen or damaged or compromised. I should fight for joy and protect it with greater vigilance, diligence and aggressiveness than anything else.

Here’s to praying that I will!

Question: When was the last time you did a security review of your life (physical & spiritual)? What security mechanisms did you put in place to protect it?


PS, here are two Christian books that I read a long time ago, which have newfound relevance. One delves into “heavenly asset accumulation” and the other discusses “spiritual asset protection” (affiliate links):

PPS, I get this verse better now. The first few days after the burglary I wanted to stay home all day with a frying pan in hand to wait for the thieves to return :).

But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:39-40 ESV)

“Kryptonite or Sunshine” and 2 other V-day poems

Ah Valentine’s Day, the one day in the year when all the silly, sappy and serious poetry of the past is socially acceptable to share. Here are three poems for your pleasure (read lyrically aloud for maximum effect).

Kryptonite or Sunshine

Girls are kryptonite
Or sunshine, it depends on…
I don’t have a clue…

#haiku

Longing for “At Last”

Until that time
When you are mine
I beg for grace
To endure
The anxious race
For love so pure
That it will bring
Only joy
And will sing
Bright and coy.

Through the sorrows
Each tomorrow
Leads to hope,
Faith and love.
So let’s elope
From earth above,
A taste of heaven,
That others will see,
And crave to get in
on Holy Trinity.

For They made man
And They made land
From which there came
Someone special
Not quite the same
But with differential
Glory, beauty,
winsome smile
Evoking holy
Relief and–
“At last”.

A Poem Can’t Make You Love Me

A poem can’t make you love me
But still it’s worth a try
To speak honestly and freely,
To let you hear my cry.

Why do feelings come and go,
Fleeting as they please?
I thought loving kindness would
Be enough to please.

“Give it time”
Will tell what exactly?
One day we’re fine,
Suddenly anxiety.

I’m here for you no matter what
But still it makes me sad
To hear that you don’t feel the same
As if I have been bad.

Then again I feel confused,
Sometimes you seem happy
With true delight, affection, joy,
Feeling like we’re lucky.

But other days you seem so scared
Of problems overwhelming
And want to hide inside your bed
From dangers that are felling

Your joy and peace
Both day and night
Pushing you to
Fight or flight.

But pillows make
For sorry shields–
To knightly strength
Does danger yield.

I mean of course
Your Mighty Friend.
I’m a lowly
Squire hand,

Holding up the shield of faith,
Slashing with the Word.
More at stake than chemistry,
Your joy in Christ, the Lord.

If that you have,
But romance hides,
I’ll be content
And stand aside.

But if Satan seeks to steal
Your happiness in Christ,
I will fight with all my strength
For your abundant life.

A poem can’t make you love me,
But love can make a way
To wait and speak and act and give
Grace for another day.

Succeeding as a Christian at Amazon and in the Marketplace

Are marketplace values compatible with God’s Kingdom?

Does succeeding according to corporate values and principles help us grow into the likeness of Christ?

Does following Jesus faithfully enable us to succeed in the corporate world?

In this talk (audio below), we’ll see one example of comparing Scripture with Amazon’s leadership principles to thoughtfully answer these questions. Chris will walk through a method for examining the values of your workplace and finding the alignments with the Kingdom of God and he will close with some thoughts on the recent press Amazon has received for its work culture.

Outline

Manuscript

Good morning friends, it’s a pleasure to join you today. My name is Chris Lim and as a former Amazon engineer for 3.5 years, let me be the first to admit that:

Work is Hard.

I know what it’s like to stay in the office past 11pm on Halloween in order to clean up a workflow database for the next day. I know what it’s like to see people burn out from slavish pressure and poor management. I’ve seen politics kill good products, ruin careers and frustrate entire organizations.

But for all these problems let me also be the first to say that:

Work is Fun.

I love the thrill of seeing customers light up with joy the first time they use my product. I love the relief of getting to the bottom of a ridiculously complicated problem that was stressing out my team for weeks and solving it once and for all. I enjoy the pleasure of mastering new technologies and getting better and better at what I do. I also appreciate the good-natured whining that happened while hanging out with my team past 11pm on Halloween to get a job done since nobody really wanted to go home anyway.

I open with these anecdotes because I realize that my goal this morning is not to teach you something you don’t already know. Rather, my goal is to encourage you by giving a perspective on how God may be using the pressures and values of the marketplace to make you like Jesus. I hope that coming out of this talk you will feel gratitude for the way God has united our marketplace work and the work of his kingdom. And I pray that you will be unleashed to do good with the grace God has given you by making the most of everything you have to give the world a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

As Al Erisman, founding board member of Kiros likes to say, “You can serve God wherever he has placed you. You don’t have to be a pastor to serve God. God has a great purpose for work in a secular environment.” And today I want to show you an example of one way this plays out in the marketplace.

I’m going to share with you three Amazon leadership principles, compare them with Scripture and close with some practical steps you can follow to proclaim God’s Kingdom in your context.

When I started at Amazon, I was a young, naive, insecure software engineer. I knew how to program, but I didn’t know how to engineer production quality software that could serve millions of customers. I didn’t know all the tools I needed to use, much less why I needed to use them. And although I knew how to get good grades in school and finish projects, work was a completely different game. Setting SMART goals and writing up peer reviews and waiting for the results of an opaque performance review process always left me questioning if I was doing well or just a waiting to be exposed as a disappointment.

In the software world, we often follow a project management process called scrum. A part of this is something called the “Daily stand-up”. At the appointed time, everyone on the team gathers around a whiteboard that shows what needs to be done in order of priority and progress. Each member shares what they did yesterday, what they’re working on today and anything they need help with. Once everyone has given an update, the meeting is over. These daily stand-up meetings were a simple, but powerful tool for accountability.

It was after one of these stand-ups that a senior engineer on my team pulled me aside and asked me if I knew Amazon’s leadership principles. I remembered hearing about them during my new hire orientation, but I hadn’t paid very close attention. He told me:

Chris these leadership principles are very important. I know other companies might just put them on posters, but at Amazon they go into your performance reviews. It really defines what it means to be a leader at Amazon. You should memorize them.

I immediately looked up the principles, printed them out, went to a whiteboard and spent the rest of my day memorizing all 14:

  • Customer Obsession
  • Ownership
  • Invent & Simplify
  • Bias for Action
  • Dive Deep
  • Hire and Develop the Best
  • Frugality
  • Vocally Self-Critical
  • Are Right A Lot
  • Insists on Highest Standards
  • Think Big
  • Has Backbone; Disagree & Commit
  • Earns Trust of Others
  • Delivers Results.

I felt like my colleague had given me the secret playbook to succeeding at Amazon and I was going to make the most of it. Before I wasn’t sure of how well I was doing, but now I felt like I knew how to play to win.

And to a small degree, I did win.

In my second year I received an Outstanding performance review rating and a Role Model leadership rating–these are the highest marks a person can receive. I was honored with an “Above and Beyond Award” in my organization for driving the adoption of the product my team built within the company–this required taking on the responsibilities of a technical program manager while still fulfilling my role as a software engineer.

I share this not to boast–I believe everything is grace; every achievement is a sheer gift from my heavenly Father–but I share this to highlight my discovery of the power of the performance review system and the leadership principles.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You get what you pay for”.

I would like to add a new, but similar saying: “You get more of what you pay for”.

For example, if you reward people for being vocally self-critical, more people will be forthcoming with their mistakes. If on the other hand you punish people for having backbone and standing up for what they believe is right, more people will silently comply.

To put it simply: I realized that the Amazon’s leadership principles and performance review system rewarded me for conforming to Amazon’s image of leadership.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you may hear echoes of Romans 12:2 in what I just said:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Instead of conforming to the world, we know that God’s vision for humanity is to conform us to the image of Jesus as written in Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

As a Christian, as someone who professes a desire to be like Jesus more than anyone else–more than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg I want to be like Jesus–this led me to ask:

“Does conforming to Amazon’s leadership principles help me conform to the image of Christ?”

If it doesn’t, then I risk being glorified by the world while missing out on the supremely important glory that comes from God. I risk playing the wrong game and losing everything in the end.

If it does then those leadership principles and rewards are actually very powerful tools that God is using to fulfill his promise to make me share the glory of his Son.

In order to explore this question, I decided to compare the Amazon leadership principles with Scripture and I invited the christians-interest mailing list at Amazon to join me. Together we spent several weeks over lunch carefully studying and discussing each principle.

So without further ado, let’s dive into three of the fourteen principles and see what the Bible has to say about them. For each principle, we’re going to:

  1. Define the principle
  2. Ask a few clarifying questions and
  3. Find answers from relevant scriptures.

It’s a really simple method that I hope you can take with you and apply to your own companies.

Principle #1: Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

Question number 1: “What does it mean to be an owner?”

Can anyone think of a relevant scripture?

The one we discussed is from Matthew 25:23:

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

This verse implies that as an owner, you share in the long term risks and rewards of the things that belong to you.

Now this verse refers to a servant-master relationships, which led to the next question: “How is ownership different than stewardship?”

Any thoughts?

Although they are different, a good steward always acts in the best interests of the owner, so that the actual behavior is similar.

In John 10:11-14 Jesus describes the degenerate case where the behavior is different:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

Jesus distinguishes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep versus hired hands who don’t really care for the sheep and run away when endangered. They are unfaithful stewards exactly because they are not acting like owners. Their long term well-being is not aligned with the well-being of the sheep.

Tying this back to the workplace, we then asked the difficult question: “Can you act like an owner even when you don’t feel like one? What are some reasons why you may not feel like an owner?”

Any thoughts?

These are some reasons why it can be hard to act like an owner:

One, you really may not be an owner, or you may not have the influence to affect change and benefit from the outcome of your decision.

Two, you may be driven by selfish ambition, using what you have to get ahead in the short term instead of doing what is right in the long term for others. For example, as an engineer you may design a system for the short term, expecting to get promoted and switching to another team so that you don’t have to deal with the long-term consequences.

Three, you may not want to benefit your bosses because you feel like they aren’t looking out for your best interests. You may have disagreements with those in authority that make you feel disempowered because you have to take on the consequences and responsibilities of ownership without having the freedom and rewards of it.

Now, despite these difficult situations, as Christians we believe that God is the ultimate owner. He has entrusted a stewardship to us and our reward is guaranteed by him, even if we cannot trace out the connection between the responsibilities we fulfill today and the rewards that will come in the future.

In Psalm 24:1 it is written, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;”

God is in fact the owner of all things and his incredible promise is that we are not merely stewards, but also heirs (owners!) of all things in Christ:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)

So to summarize: God owns everything and will one day give everything to us. This means that growing in ownership actually prepares us to receive the kingdom of God. Growing as an Amazonian means growing as a Christian. And the reverse is also true, growing as a Christian means being the kind of leader Amazon values.

As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

So to adapt Amazon’s definition:

Christians are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire Kingdom of God, beyond just their immediate interests. They never say “that’s not my job”.

How does that sound?

How does realizing that God owns everything and that we will one day inherit all things affect how we approach our work and our life?

Let’s go to the next principle

Principle #2: Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Question number 1: Why is it difficult to have a bias for action?

Any thoughts?

I think it’s tempting to delay decisions until they are made for us because it’s scary to take responsibility for an unknown outcome.

But let me ask, what story from the Bible comes to mind when you think of bias for action?

I think of the time shortly after Saul was anointed king.

He was supposed to attack the Philistines, but instead faithlessly cowered with his 600 men. His son Jonathan on the other hand demonstrated a bias for action that achieved a great victory for Israel. Let me read a snippet from 1 Samuel 14:

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

“Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” …

Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre. (see full story at 1 Samuel 14:1-14)

How is that for bias for action?

And what was the secret to Jonathan’s bias for action?

I think it was simply, faith in God. And growing in faith is exactly growing in Christ.

Question number 2: How does a bias for action fit with waiting on the Lord?

This is a very deep and tricky theological topic and in our discussions at Amazon it was hard to come to a conclusive summary. We ended up discussing what a bias for action and waiting for the Lord are not.

For example, we should not confuse procrastination or avoiding responsibility with waiting on the Lord—sometimes we already know what God wants us to do, but haven’t accepted his answer. Like the faithless Israelites who refused to enter Canaan when the Lord told them to go and then tried to invade when he told them “no” (Deuteronomy 1).

On the other hand, many Scriptures that speak of waiting on the Lord connote a stillness while he acts on our behalf:

Psalm 40 begins with “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”

Psalm 37:5-7 says:

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

So it seems that biblically speaking there is a place for action and stillness, but at the root of both of them is complete trust in the Lord.

Let’s make decisions, act and take calculated risks by faith in God instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis or anxious toil. Growing as a person of faith and courage will result in a bias for action as well as the wisdom to know when to wait on the Lord.

And now we come to Amazon’s first and foremost leadership principle: Customer Obsession.

Principle #3: Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Do any of you know Amazon’s mission statement?

It’s “To be earth’s most customer centric company.”

Many companies start with business goals and what they already have and work forward to figure out how to capture the market and profit. Amazon wants to begin with customers–their values, needs, desires–and work backwards to invent things that will benefit them.

I’m going to share shortly how this one principle changed my whole perspective on business, but first let’s ask some clarifying questions:

What are the limits of customer obsession?

Can the customer ever be wrong?

What is the difference between giving the customer what they want versus what they need or ought to want?

I think it’s funny that lines like this are in the Bible–Proverbs 20:14 says, “It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—then goes off and boasts about the purchase.”

Have you ever experienced that? Maybe after buying a car?

We can’t always take what customers say at face value, can we?

But what we can do is commit to loving our customers and doing what is right for them.

I’d like to recommend a book that goes into this distinction more thoroughly titled The Gift of Work: Spiritual Disciplines for the Workplace (affiliate link) by Bill Heatley. He writes, “One way of thinking about service is, ‘I love you and I’ll serve you by doing what you want me to do.’ That’s perhaps one of the most common ideas today. The other idea is, ‘I love you and I will serve you by doing what is good for you, whether you want it or not.’”

True customer obsession focuses on what is truly good for customers, not simply satisfying their felt needs and desires.

Question 2: What happens when we lose customer obsession?

If you aren’t obsessed about your customers, who are you obsessed about?

Probably yourself. Or perhaps fearing or envying competitors.

Customer obsession is one way we fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. It protects us from the perils of envy and worshiping money.

Obsessing over customers is obsessing over God’s second greatest commandment.

And this leads me to the question that changed everything for me.

What if God is the customer?

What would it look like to create earth’s most God-centered company?

Could we empathize with what God values and desires and work backwards to invent products and services that deliver the outcomes he wants?

Could we intentionally align all of our labor to create foretastes of his Kingdom?

This is actually why I left Amazon and started my company TheoTech. I’m testing that hypothesis. I want to see if we can create a prosperous business by explicitly serving the interests of God as our customer. Can we be earth’s most God-centered company?

Now, the truth is, you don’t have to quit your job and do a crazy startup to do this. You can make God your ultimate customer where you are right now. And I think he wants you to.

He wants you to deeply empathize with what he values. He wants you to obsess over his desires. He wants you to work backwards from his Kingdom vision to help others experience the glory of the new creation he promised to everyone that trusts in Jesus Christ.

And not only does God want you to make him your customer, but I believe he is already equipping, growing and discipling you to do so through your marketplace experiences by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time at Amazon was that discipleship doesn’t really happen through church programs–it happens anywhere and everywhere because the Holy Spirit is with me, guiding, correcting, teaching, prodding, encouraging and growing me.

When Scripture is applied by the Spirit in the circumstances God has arranged for my life, everything ends up molding me into the likeness of Jesus. The joys and trials of the workplace, the incentives and values of the marketplace, the successes and the failures, everything converge to grow me as a follower of Jesus. Discipleship happens in place.

What happens when things go wrong?

Now I’d like to briefly address what happens when things go wrong. Amazon may have some good leadership principles that in many ways align with Scripture, but what happens when people don’t live up to those principles? Or what if some of the principles are lacking or simply wrong?

I think the recent New York Times expose on Amazon is an example of this.

The article described the experiences of several former employees who faced hardships like being put on a performance improvement plan after returning from a pregnancy, being brought tears through bruising disagreements and unsustainably long hours.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent an internal e-mail in response to the article, which was published online and some of my friends asked for my opinion on the matter. I wrote a post titled, “Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Fear and Other Thoughts on the NYT’s Amazon Expose”, which you can read on my blog at www.meritandgrace.com, but let me give you the gist of it here.  

At every all hands company meeting I attended, someone would inevitably ask, “What is the biggest risk for Amazon?”

And in every meeting, Jeff would say something to the effect of:

The biggest risk is that we will value social cohesion instead of truth. Truth seeking is exhausting, finding the right answer, compromising with someone is easier…seeking the truth and the right answer is critical, don’t fall victim to the social cohesion mentality to compromise for pragmatic reasons.

In other words, the biggest threat to Amazon is internal politics. Jeff is afraid that the company will succumb to the game of power rather than submitting to the power of the truth. People will get tired of figuring out what is true and choose to do what is convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the terrible stories outlined in the New York Times article seem to be cases where Amazon’s leadership principles were disregarded in favor of corporate politics and bad management.

Instead of using their power to serve those under them as good leaders do, managers and individual contributors can “manage up” by trying to please their bosses for their own protection and advancement. Those bosses in turn are trying to please their bosses and so on and so forth. Rigor, reviews, goals, spreadsheets and data in this political system turn into tools for enforcing social cohesion rather than seeking truth.

For anyone with experience in office politics, this isn’t unique to Amazon. Whether people are being “nice” or “rigorous”, when everyone is looking out only for their own interests, it does “create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

It creates a culture of fear, selfishness and oppression–the exact opposite of the Kingdom of God.

In response to the article, Jeff Bezos invited any employee who witnessed the abuse of power to report it directly to him, saying, “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

However, I know from experience that most people who are undergoing oppression are too shy or afraid to take him up on his invitation. Many victims will prefer leaving to causing a ruckus or fighting those in power over them. Many will belittle problems as minor offenses or personal differences. Many will commiserate with peers, try to give feedback to a skip-level and then give up when nothing changes.

I have seen the HR process work for a friend who spoke up and got transferred to a different team. I have seen the performance improvement process abused by a manager to get rid of a competent developer. I have seen a friend get quickly promoted twice and given a large raise in a short time. I have a seen another friend exhausted and burnt out after several years of poor leadership. I have seen managers make data-driven decisions as well as expedient ones.

My point is that business as usual is not going to work.

I think that Jeff needs to go further to ensure his entire company embodies the culture of joyful invention he experiences everyday. God has given him immense authority and holds him responsible to use it justly and kindly for the good of those under his authority.

With such a large workforce and many layers of management, mismanagement and politics are inevitable. By applying the Dive Deep leadership principle to get at the truth about why these dysfunctions are happening in his company and correcting the errors, he will not only protect his company from the threat of subtly valuing social cohesion over truth, but he would also embody a new principle:

Do What’s Right: Leaders do what is right even when it means sacrificing their own interests. They use their power to serve others instead of using others for their own ends. They commend those who do likewise and correct those who do not.

In preparing for this talk, I asked a friend who was with Amazon for three years,  “What would be the most encouraging thing I could say to you if you were still at Amazon?”

She told me, “I’ve spoken with the people at the top and we’re making changes to make things better.”

Now I haven’t actually spoken with Jeff Bezos or his team of senior vice presidents, but I have been speaking with God and listening to his Word and I think that we can safely say, “We’ve spoken with the top and we are making things better.”

This is exactly why we’re here. This is exactly why Christians are in the marketplace. To make things better. To fulfill the mandate from the top.

To proclaim God’s Kingdom and invite people to submit to God’s leadership in every sphere. To show people how good things are when God is in charge.

As Christians, we not only benefit from marketplace values and economics, but we also raise the bar on the marketplace, as salt and light, so that it better reflects the justice, righteousness and peace of the Kingdom of God.

So to summarize: today I walked you through three Amazon leadership principles. For each principle, we compared its definition with relevant Scriptures to see how conforming to that principle helps us conform to Christ.

First, Ownership: Since God will give us a completely renewed creation as our inheritance, taking long term responsibility and growing as an owner prepares us for the day when the Universe will be ours to govern.

Second, Bias for Action: God wants us to act by faith today on the promises he has made for our future. Growing in faith means growing in a bias for action, which is important for success in business as well as advancing God’s purposes.

Third, Customer Obsession: God wants us to obsess over his will and apply all the best we have to offer to fulfill it. This is nothing less than loving God with our entire being and our neighbors as ourselves.

I hope that these examples make it clear that when we excel in these principles, we not only succeed in great companies like Amazon, but we also grow up to maturity in Christ. Our work and conduct become foretastes of God’s Kingdom, an invitation for people to trust in Jesus because they’ve seen for themselves how good his ways really are and that his promises are what they’ve been really hoping for all along. And I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of success that makes my heart smile.

Practical Steps

So here are two practical steps you can take today:

The first is to simply take your company’s values and leadership principles and examine them in light of Scripture. Figure out the points of alignment with God’s Kingdom and your character. Maximize your pursuit of growth in those areas. It’s all win.

The second step is related to something I’m currently working on.

How many of you pray?

How many of you feel like your prayers tend to be self-centered?

What if there was an easy way to remember to pray for others? Not only Christians or your family, but everyone–colleagues, bosses, employees, clients, vendors, etc.?

If this piques your interest, I’d like to invite you to try a smartphone app my team has been working on called Ceaseless. If we want to see lives transformed in the marketplace, I believe it will begin with regular, earnest and personal prayer.

Ceaseless integrates with the address book on your phone and shows you three people to pray for each day. One day it may show you the love of your life and the next it may show you the annoying coworker you wish would quit already.

The point is that God urges us to pray for all people because he wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV). We invented Ceaseless to help people do what God wants them to do and if just 1% of the earth’s population prayed for 3 friends each day, we could theoretically personally pray for everyone on earth in less than a year. You can be a part of this movement. Learn more at www.ceaselessprayer.com

Thank you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe one situation you are facing at work and how God maybe discipling you through it.
  2. What would it look like to deliver foretastes of God’s kingdom in your marketplace milieu?
  3. How does growing in the values/leadership principles of your business help you grow in Christlikeness?

Why Code for the Kingdom?

For the recent Global Code for the Kingdom Hackathon, I had the privilege of sharing “Why Code for the Kingdom?” This is a video and manuscript of the talk.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to Code for the Kingdom! My name is Chris Lim, I’m co-organizer of the Seattle hackathon and creator of Ceaseless, an app that helps you pray for three friends each day so that together we can personally pray for everyone on earth.

Having been an organizer and participant, the founder of Code for the Kingdom, Chris Armas, asked me to share my thoughts on “Why Code for the Kingdom?” What does it mean to Code for the Kingdom?

If you’re like me, you love to build, to explore, to invent. You love making awesome products and sharing them with the world. You love seeing the future and making it real for others to experience. You love tackling seemingly intractable problems with ingenious solutions. You love crafting delightful experiences that bring a smile to people’s eyes. You love seeing your ideas come to life and benefit lots and lots of people.

But for all these loves, most of all you love Jesus. You want to combine your passion for technology with your love for Christ. But there aren’t many opportunities to do that in a meaningful way with like-minded people.

That’s what Code for the Kingdom is about.

It’s an event and a movement convening bright technologists and entrepreneurs to use their gifts to advance the Gospel together. It’s a place where we take seriously the idea that God is our ultimate customer. He is the one we’re seeking to please and delight with our work. We deeply empathize with what he values, pay attention to his specifications, and apply all of our creativity, thoughtfulness and skill to deliver products, services and experiences that will make him happy and bless the world. And we do this, not alone, but in a community of people who share the same God-obsessed passion.

So as an event, Code for the Kingdom, is designed to be an inspiring foretaste of God’s Kingdom where people work together to use their gifts in technology, design, entrepreneurship, and every other discipline to deliver amazing and creative solutions that demonstrate the love of Christ for the world.

Now this happens in both large and small ways.

When you see a stranger struggling to debug his code at 3am in the morning before his pitch and step in to help him out, you’re creating a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

When you forgo your idea in order to serve someone who needs a team and help them succeed you’re creating a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

When you boldly stand up and share your idea for advancing the Gospel even though you feel scared or unqualified, you’re creating a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

And of course, when you sacrifice your weekend and beyond in order to create solutions that will help release the oppressed, teach God’s Word, heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, support the church, build up the body of Christ, and bless the world, you’re creating foretaste of God’s kingdom.

So as a movement, Code for the Kingdom is about activating and unleashing people to do good with the grace God has given them; to use their gifts to advance the gospel. We are a community of people from around the world on mission together, serving one another, doing what we love and contributing our creativity, our skill, our inventiveness, our focus, our drive, our curiosity and all the best we have to offer for a common cause that matters: the Kingdom of God.

You see, there are many good causes in the world and we will be addressing several of them during our hackathons. But as Christians, what gives these causes significance is that they are delivering foretastes of God’s promise. We build things to help us enjoy and share with others our dream of a new creation, our hope of the day when God will make all things right in His kingdom forever. Through the things we build we invite the world experience the joy of having Jesus Christ as Lord, and to believe in Him so that they will also receive the marvelous new world he longs to give us.

Code for the Kingdom is an opportunity for you to carry on Jesus’ mission with the specific gifts, skills and passions he has given you. There are still people around the world who need to hear and experience the gospel of the Kingdom. You still have brothers and sisters who need to hear and believe the promises Jesus has made so that we can finally receive them together.

Could this be in part what your technical, entrepreneurial, artistic and other gifts are for?

When Jesus began his ministry, he quoted Isaiah saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” ‭‭(Luke 4:18-19, 21 ESV)

And Jesus has gifted us and given us His Spirit to carry out these and many other good works in his Name.

Do you love the poor as Jesus loves the poor? They are all around us–across the street and around the world. Why not use your technological privilege to serve them, to show and tell them about the kingdom Jesus wants to give them? Perhaps beginning with something as simple as feeding them and giving them access to clean water.

Do you hurt when you see people taken captive by physical or spiritual powers? Do you ache for those who are physically or spiritually blind or deaf? Why not use your gifts to help them hear and see and set them free? What can you invent to encourage people when they are down and overcome the strongholds that bind them?

Are you broken and angered when you see oppression, corruption and injustice? Why not use your gifts to help bear witness to the truth, to mitigate the abuse of power, to give a voice to the voiceless, to protect the vulnerable and strengthen the weak?

Then as we proclaim the message of God’s kingdom and invite people to trust in Jesus, they will know what we mean because they will have experienced a foretaste of it for themselves.

So why Code for the Kingdom?

First, because we love the King…
Second, because we love His people…
Third, because we love His world.
And fourth, yes, because we love to code…

Thank you for being here, to God be the glory and have fun at Code for the Kingdom!