App Review: Accordance Bible Software

At TheoTech, we have three Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) that exemplify the need for technology entrepreneurship for the Gospel:

  1. Personal prayer for everyone on earth
  2. Thriving, Ubiquitous Multilingual Churches
  3. Worldwide Biblical Literacy

Each goal stems from a Biblical mandate with a contemporary flair rooted in technology’s leverage and scale. We’re pursuing BHAGs #1 and #2 through Ceaseless and spf.io, but haven’t done as much for #3.

So when my friend David Sanford at Accordance Bible Software gave me a free review copy of their English Learner Collection, I was delighted to give it a try and see what’s already happening in this space.

My Bible Study Background

I got hooked on the Bible as a pre-teen, putting the book on my nightstand to remind me to read a passage before going to bed. In middle school I got a Dell Axim PDA and discovered the useful Pocket e-Sword app. This got me reading on the bus. My favorite feature was seeing different translations like the ESV and The Message in parallel.

During my college days I devoured podcasts from Ravi Zacharias, John Piper, RC Sproul and Chuck Swindoll, listening to their teaching during the long commutes. And as a student leader in Cru at the University of Washington, I often referred to Blue Letter Bible and BibleGateway to prepare Bible studies.

Then came the Bible app. By this time I had switched to an Android phone which didn’t have Pocket e-Sword, so I tried the Bible app and stuck to it for two reasons: 1) my notes were synced to the cloud, 2) the daily reading plans were built-in. To this day, I miss viewing translations in parallel and having quick access to commentary resources. I don’t care much for the activity feed/social features.

Which leads to this review of my first real experience with professional Bible software.

Review: Accordance Bible Software

I have a confession to make: It’s been a long time since I’ve done an in-depth Bible study of a text. Though I read for personal and devotional reasons nearly every day, I rarely need to prepare a Bible study, sermon or paper. Most of my recent talks have been focused on the intersection of God’s Kingdom and technology and hence, I’ve leaned away from word studies to working with passages and themes.
Accordance Bible Software

So without further ado, here’s my experience using Accordance as a complete novice.

Installation

I received a link to download the English Learner Collection, entered my key and was greeted with this installer. 705MB of resources! Not too shabby, but I had to wait awhile before I could start using it.

Installation was simple, but it took awhile to download all the resources.

First Impressions

I looked up Ecclesiastes 4 and researched the word “toil”. The Research panel opened on the right showing me the definition. So many words are hyperlinked, which makes it convenient to look up related materials, but I also found my curiosity taking over and leading me down Wikipedia-like rabbit trails. I suppose getting lost in the Bible isn’t a bad thing :).

Looking up the word “toil”.
Diving into “toil” in the original language.
Worship leaders could find this hymn lyrics search useful.

After poking around for a few minutes, two things came up on my wishlist:

  1. I wish I could hear the original language words spoken in Hebrew/Greek by tapping on it.
  2. I wish I could have this on my mobile phone since that’s where I do most of my Bible study nowadays.

 

Word Study

I decided to dive deep into the word “reward”. First stop, the Hebrew lexicon. First discovery: the name Issachar means “there is reward”.

While taking a screenshot on my mac, I discovered that holding the command key while hovering over a word conveniently shows details in the instant detail view.

I clicked on the scripture reference and the instant detail view gave the context for the use of “Issachar”.

Average hits for the word “reward” in each book of the Bible.

Next I tried the “Simple Construct” workspace and stumbled on an analysis view that gave several visualizations to see where words appear in Scripture.

I was surprised to find that “reward” occurs relatively frequently in 2 John, but it turned out to be an anomaly because the book is so short.

A sophisticated analysis tool, which I need more training to understand how to use.

Parallel View

Next I looked up 1 John 5:6 to see if comparing different translations would shed light on the tricky passage.

Unfortunately, my English Learner Collection didn’t come with the translations I wanted to compare, so this view may not be useful unless you buy additional translations.

Also, the comparison view begins as a diff (showing you what words were added/removed between each translation), which makes it hard to read.

The parallel view was difficult to read by default because it shows the differences between each translation. Unchecking “Compare” makes it more readable.

Readability

Speaking of readability, it turns out that the app has a nifty reading mode (shortcut ^R) which makes the text fill the screen.


You can also pop out the instant details widget and put it close to the words you are looking up.

Note Taking

The last thing I tried was creating a note based on my study of the text.

This step is where I realized that although jumping from resource to resource satisfied my curiosity, I needed to pause and simply meditate on the text. The application puts a lot of information at your fingertips, but you still need to stop and think to make something of it.

 

Conclusion

After using Accordance for an hour, I noticed that the tool was leading me to pay closer attention to words, to ask questions about syntax and grammar, to explore inter-textual relationships and to probe. I found myself slowing down and trying to pronounce Hebrew words while reading verses in English. And I found the interface to be easy to explore with many features discoverable by simply clicking around.

I think people seeking an intuitive way to explore the Bible in its original languages will find Accordance very accessible and useful.

However, not being a biblical scholar or pastor by profession, I’m not sure how often I would turn to these tools and resources for personal devotions. Oftentimes the rich resources resulted in more questions than I had time to research.

This curiosity-driven exegesis was enjoyable, but I didn’t reach the point where the app helped me interpret the text and synthesize its implications for my life or others. Perhaps I simply need to spend more time learning the relative value of the different resources and how to use them effectively.

With regard to the goal of Worldwide Biblical Literacy, I think the biggest win would be having the Instant Detail View on my phone (Accordance has an iOS app, but I use Android) along with Strong’s numbers linked to foreign language translations.

The ability to tap on a word and study the underlying Greek or Hebrew and see where else it is used can go a long way to understanding the Bible more precisely. Having it widely available for the majority world (in their language!) on mobile devices would be transformative (Note: it seems like Accordance hosted several seminars in Asia in 2011 2016, see links in comments).

Of course, ultimately Biblical literacy means going beyond understanding Scripture accurately to believing and obeying it and for that we must rely on the Holy Spirit :).

You can learn more about Accordance at accordance.bible and thanks to David for the review copy of the software.

Marathon Faith

Marathon faith takes blood, sweat and tears,
But those who give up cannot master their fears.

For the twisting and turning,
the bruising and burning
Sensations all mean that your training
Is gaining the traction you need
To make it, not fake it, to finish the race.

Milestones are there to keep your head high,
Eyes fixed on the prize though it’s still out of sight.
They don’t seem like much, but point to your hope–
A benchmark, a pacer so your heart won’t grow cold
While you still have the power to fight, not to fold.

And what of the pain and injuries too?
Keep walking or crawling and moving on through.
Your joints will heal if you do what is right.
They’ll get straighter and stronger, turn your weakness to might.

And what of the burdens that weigh your heart down?
In casting them off your solution is found.
You don’t need to carry these things from the past,
Keep your eyes on the prize and move–fast fast fast!

And when disappointment leads to hopeless despair,
just lift up your gaze–
See? You are almost there!

Where thousands of faces are cheering you on,
They knew that you’d make it, since they’d already gone.

As the judge, the true champion, crowns you with honor,
He speaks holy words prepared for that hour:

“This child of mine has finished his race.
I crown him with life in my holy place.

This glory I give to all of my own,
So all of Creation will finally know
The fullness of splendor it has only glimpsed,
In seed and in sorrow, a few humble hints,
While his life seemed failed and far far below
Standards of living and standards of wealth,
A foolish exchange that cost him his health–
Or so it would seem to those who don’t know
That one day everyone will reap what they sow.

My child you have sown with all of your might
And gave your life for the Kingdom of Light.
So my grace sustained you through fear and through foe
Until this day on which I will show
Why it was worth it,
Why it was so.”

He lifts his gaze a burnishing beam,
Brighter than your happiest dreams–
“My beloved son, my holy one:
Job well done!
Race well won!
Enter my joy, my boy.
Enter my joy.”

Faith and the Tech Sector

How can we support, activate and unleash technologists to use their gifts to advance God’s Kingdom?

In this talk I share the massive opportunity for the Church (especially in the Pacific Northwest)–so massive it would be irresponsible not to pursue–as well as 4 methods and 6 models for doing so.

This talk was delivered at the Christ and Cascadia 2016 conference. A recording, manuscript and slides are below.

Overview

The Opportunity

Good morning, my name is Chris Lim, and I’m Founder and CEO of TheoTech. Today I’m going to share some thoughts on Faith and the Cascadian Tech Sector.

Whether you are a pastor, a business person, a technologist, or simply a follower of Jesus, my aim is to inspire you with what God could do in our local technology industry to advance his Kingdom. I want to show you examples of what has already been happening and how you can get involved in advancing God’s Kingdom with technology.

In February 2015, the Washington Technology Industry Association released the “Information and Communication Technology Economic and Fiscal Impact Study”, which revealed some surprising facts about the Cascadian Tech industry. Here are some highlights:

There are 238,900 workers in the Washington tech sector spread across more than 8600 companies. Of these, about 90,000 are coders and each coder generates 7 additional jobs.

In 2013, the industry paid $22 billion in wages contributing more than $2 billion in taxes. The total market value of the Washington state technology industry exceeds $1 trillion dollars.

That’s some pretty heady stuff. Globally renowned companies like Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon have infused Cascadia with a tech culture and their outsized impact means that whether we like it or not Cascadian values and cultural exports have significant influence around the world.

So point number 1: the Tech Sector is hugely important.

I cross referenced these statistics with the Pew Forum’s religion research for Washington in 2014. I was surprised to learn that about 60% of Washingtonians identify as Christian. 32% identify as religious “nones”.

Now if you’ve been in the tech sector for awhile, you probably feel like these statistics should be reversed. At first you might feel lonely. You may be the only follower of Jesus on your team at work. In a company of 25,000 maybe only 10 people show up to a weekly prayer gathering.

In an industry full of extremely intelligent and successful people who largely think they don’t need faith or Jesus, you may feel like simply minding your own business and keeping quiet about the Kingdom of God.

But I think you’d be mistaken to do so. God has placed you in this powerful industry for a reason and gifted you with technological acumen so that you can bear witness to his Kingdom. Don’t be afraid, you are not alone. God is with you. In fact, in many ways, I think He is presenting you with an enormous Blue Ocean opportunity.

Instead of 60%, let’s assume 20% of the Washington tech industry identifies as Christian. That would mean 18,000 coders who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ. Wow, 18,000? What could God do with 18,000 coders? I’m going to share some ideas shortly, but let’s briefly consider the financial power of the industry.

Assuming the 20% ratio holds, we would expect Christians to earn about 20% of $22 billion or $4.4 billion. If they allocated 10% of those wages to funding work that explicitly advances God’s Kingdom, there would be about $440 million in annual revenue available to make disciples of all nations.

To give you some perspective, $440 million is comparable to all of Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, and it is larger than InterVarsity. It is about half of World Vision’s annual revenue. This global work could be supported by the giving of the tech sector of just Washington state.

I believe many Cascadians are already very generous, but imagine what could happen if we saw this kind of generosity coming from the tech sector? What would be possible if more than 20% of the tech industry became followers of Jesus?

I did the math with these assumptions and every time someone in the technology industry becomes a follower of Jesus and invests 10% of their wages explicitly in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom gains almost $10,000 in free cash flow annually.

So one hundred new tech disciples unlock $1 million of free cash flow for the Kingdom of God.

Now like any other technologist, I don’t like being viewed as simply a dollar sign for this or that cause. But I wanted to call out the immense influence of the Cascadian technology sector and with it the immense responsibility of the Cascadian Church to make disciples of people in the industry.

And for those of us in the industry, perhaps the words of Paul to the wealthy Corinthian church apply:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich…

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.

As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”…

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (excerpts from 2 Cor 8, 9)

Now, I think this generosity goes far deeper than money. God has entrusted technologists with gifts and skills and wisdom that, like the craftsman who constructed the Tabernacle, can be explicitly applied to advancing God’s Kingdom. And I think the Cascadian Church must support these software craftsman in using those skills to create foretastes of the Kingdom.

4 Ways to Unleash Coders for the Kingdom

Here are four ways it can do so:

First, theological instruction, second kingdom witness, third technological activation, fourth eschatological entrepreneurship. Let’s briefly survey all four and give special attention to number 3.

So number one, Theological Instruction.

When John the Baptist and Jesus started proclaiming the Gospel, they said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” John in particular was approached by tax collectors and soldiers asking what it meant for them to repent and he said, they should collect no more than owed and to stop abusing their power to extort money.

In our present day we often speak of how business and the marketplace advance the common good. This is good. People need to understand intimately how their work reflects and advances God’s Kingdom and they need to be instructed and helped in the process of discovering how their vocation explicitly glorifies Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t happen automatically, so we must preach and teach life in the Kingdom of God. We must proclaim God’s vision and show the correspondence between present reality and the trajectory of history with the prophetic word.

Then by breaking it down into the nitty gritty details of daily work from code reviews, debugging, performance reviews, human-centered design, artificial intelligence and everything else we equip and release believers to use their gifts to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom in every sphere of life.

Theological instruction is therefore intimately connected to Kingdom Witness.

Not everything in the tech sector is good and not everything is bad. By thinking deeply about Scripture and being led by the Spirit in the royal law of love, Christians have a special discernment about what can be affirmed in the industry and what must be corrected. With boldness we must speak up for what is pleasing to God in technology and call for repentance in the areas that are contrary to God’s design.

And the interesting thing is that much of the industry is open to listening.

You might find that surprising, but I want to call out some recent things that have been coming out of the industry with respect to artificial intelligence. With one voice, all industry leaders from Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos believe AI is going to disrupt and reshape society.

On the one hand, it has great potential to make our lives healthier, more convenient and connected. But it also has great potential to cause massive job loss, it poses ethical dilemmas in cases like accidents between self driving cars and it brings up deeply spiritual questions about the nature of intelligence, consciousness, and what it means to be human.

Recently industry giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google formed a “Partnership on AI to benefit people and society”. They want it to be an open platform for engaging the public about AI and society, which means that it is an ideal forum to bear witness about God’s Kingdom as the industry navigates really difficult questions about AI and the ways technology can be used to benefit humanity instead of destroying it.

6 Models for Technological Activation

Now I’d like to dive into the third way the Cascadian Church can unleash coders for the Kingdom: Technological Activation.

As I mentioned earlier, if 20% of the tech industry were disciples of Jesus Christ, we would have about 18,000 coders who have been gifted by God for an amazing purpose.

The Church must help these believers to use their gifts to advance the Gospel, not simply invite them into cookie cutter volunteer roles. There will always be a place for serving as an elder, volunteering on a weekend or leading a Bible study, but these believers have the capacity for so much more.

So here are 6 models for activating technologists to use their gifts to advance the Kingdom.

The first model is a hackathon. It’s basically 48-hours where like-minded people collaborate to create solutions to Kingdom challenges, particularly with tech.

You don’t have to be a coder to participate–applying and adopting technology for the Kingdom is as important as creating it. But a hackathon is a place for do-ers. People who want to get their feet wet with new technology, people who want to use their skills and do something about the challenges they see in the world from a Christian perspective.

Do you know people like that? Are you one of them?

Hackathons

So let me walk through an example from last year’s Code for the Kingdom Hackathon.

First we start with prayer, an introduction and then an open mic. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who has an idea can get in line and share it with the room for 2 minutes. Then each person with an idea gets a sign and everybody mingles to chat and decide which team they want to join.

Once everybody has a team, it’s time to get to work. Some people pull an all-nighter, others take a nap–either way, it’s lots of food and lots of fun.

On the last day of the event every team has the opportunity to pitch their project to a panel of judges. These judges and the people get to vote on the project they want to award and those projects compete at the global level to get further support, momentum and distribution.

So after nearly 48 hours, we celebrate God’s grace over the weekend and go home and sleep.

So the hackathon model is very flexible and a great way to get people started using their gifts for the gospel and getting connected to and inspired by other like-minded people. It’s something that your church can do–all you need to do is provide the space, the time, the food and a program. It doesn’t have to be 48 hours, it doesn’t have to be a big production. Again, at the heart of it is activating people to use their gifts for the Gospel by bringing them together for a period of focused and intense, but fun collaboration.

You’re all invited to this year’s Code for the Kingdom Seattle hackathon. It is going to be next weekend from Friday to Sunday at Seattle Pacific University. Here are some links where you can register and learn more. Come and see for yourself what it’s like and please share it with other do-ers!

Since my time is almost up, I want to briefly touch on the other 5 models of engagement.

“Bezalel” Open Source Model

One is the Bezalel Open Source Model. Open Source means that the intellectual property behind the software you produce is licensed in a way that enables other people to read and contribute to the source code. How many of you use Linux? Linux is so ubiquitous, powerful and flexible because it is open source. Developers from all over the world can contribute to the code base and use it for their own purposes.

In the case of Linux, it’s original creator Linus Torvalds is known as the BDFL or “Benevolent dictator for life” because he has the final say in whether or not to accept people’s code contributions to the Linux kernel. In some ways he is like Bezalel the master craftsman overseeing the construction of the Tabernacle to fulfill Moses’ specifications. That is why I call it the Bezalel Open Source Model.

At my company we’ve open sourced Ceaseless, an app that helps you pray for others.

The app is available for iPhone and Android. It shows you three contacts to pray for each day so that over time you pray for all the relationships in your life. You can download it at ceaselessprayer.com

The advantage of making the app open source is that other people can contribute to making it better and more suitable for their use cases. They don’t have to work for your company or organization, yet if they find the app useful and want to make it better, they can be a part of improving it.

You can see here that Ceaseless has a team of 14 people who are largely volunteers, contributing to the app. So this is a way beyond hackathons that people can continue using their technological gifts on explicitly Kingdom-oriented software projects over time.

Again, if you’d like to try out the app, you can download it at ceaselessprayer.com or if you’d like to contribute to the code you can check it out by searching for ceaseless-prayer on GitHub.

Missional Communities in Corporations / Corporate Chaplaincy

Model number 3 for technological activation is missional communities in corporations.

There are believers in companies like Microsoft and Amazon who gather for regular prayer and the word. When I was an engineer at Amazon, I convened a group of believers to study the Theology of Technology because as creators of technology we have a great opportunity and responsibility to infuse what we build with the values of God’s Kingdom.

This was consistently a refreshing time, not only to think about the Kingdom of God, but also to encourage one another in the daily struggles of work. God uses groups like this to make disciples in place–making disciples directly in the marketplace and at work.

If you are a pastor interested in serving the tech community, I’d love to speak with you about the need for corporate chaplaincy.

Missions/Non-Profit Platforms

Model number 4 is the Missions model, or non-profits that create technology platforms that others can build on.

One example of this is the Digital Bible Platform from the ministry Faith Comes by Hearing. By making their Bible content available through an API, developers can easily integrate Bible content in their apps. Ceaseless for example uses the Digital Bible Platform to show a Scripture related to prayer each day as a devotional aid.

So if your church or non-profit has certain kinds of data that it can export via an API, creating a platform is a way to engage and activate technologists to build things that will advance your mission.

Software Foundations

[Skipped in the talk recording]

Model number 5 is the institute or foundation model and this is related to the missions model, except that it is more explicitly focused on technology. How many of you are familiar with the browser Firefox? Did you know that it is created by the Mozilla foundation, which believes that, “the Internet must always remain a global public resource that is open and accessible to all”.

I mention them because I think there is similarly a need for a Christian software foundation which can steward the software generated by many developers to address Kingdom challenges so that the projects and its impact can outlast the individuals who started them.

Eschatological Entrepreneurship

And so we close with Model 6, Entrepreneurship or as I like to call it Eschatological Entrepreneurship:  Spirit-filled leaders fully exercising their gifts everywhere and together to hastening the coming of Christ.

One local example of this is a startup led by my friend Jonathan Kumar. His company, GiveSafe helps people be the hands and feet of Christ when they see someone in need.

Basically their company partners with non-profits to distribute bluetooth beacons to people experiencing homelessness. Then if you have their app installed on your phone, you’ll get a notification when you are near a beacon. From that notification, you can read the person’s story and give money to help with their needs. The money goes to an account they can use to get goods and services from non-profits and vendors, so that you can give without worrying about the money being used for a negative purpose.

A second example is my company TheoTech and our product SPF.IO. It’s a product that lets you speak freely in your language while providing subtitles in real time on people’s smartphones for those who are hard of hearing or do not speak your language.

The Kingdom purpose of this product is to empower churches to reflect the multilingual glory of God’s Kingdom. Churches should be a foretaste of heaven and SPF.IO is meant to help make that possible.

The common good purpose of this product is to help minorities have access to the same experiences and services that English-speakers have. Talk with me afterwards if you’d like to use it in your church or organization.

For the long term, I believe that paying people market rate for using their technological gifts to advance God’s Kingdom requires prosperous for-profit companies that have business objectives explicitly aligned to Kingdom objectives. That is one reason why I created TheoTech and why I believe Model 6 is an essential component for long-term activation of technologists for the Kingdom.

So there you have it. 6 ways the Cascadian Church take advantage of this amazing opportunity to accelerate the Gospel and make disciples of all nations through technologists and technology. I realize we covered a lot of ground today and so I want to leave you with one simple call to action as a next step.

Come to Code for the Kingdom Seattle next week. See for yourself what God is doing about Faith and the Tech Sector.

Thank you.

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)