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.

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)

Walking a tightrope.

Image by Carlo Ciccarelli, CC BY-SA 2.0
Image by Carlo Ciccarelli, CC BY-SA 2.0

Although it can feel like walking on a tight rope, the tension between relying on human ability versus trusting in God’s grace is not resolved by “staying balanced”. Are we praying so much we’ve turned passive? Are we relying on our own strength and wisdom instead of God’s? Trying to stay centered for fear of falling off the rope is tiring.

While walking around my neighborhood the other day it started to rain. Like a child I asked God to let the rain stop until I got home. I asked a few times and it didn’t stop, so I thanked him for his answer (“nope”) and that it wasn’t raining harder and that my home was very close by. Then it started raining harder. Big, cold, drops washing over my hair and drenching my jacket. That’s when I decided to run the rest of the way.

God gave us the capacity to pray that he would change the weather as well as the legs to get us home quicker. They aren’t two ends of a spectrum, but are both gifts from him. Where then does the “merit and grace tension” come from? It may actually be the tension of “faith versus not faith”.

Faith vs Not Faith

Praying and running are both actions, which can be motivated by faith or the lack of it. Here are two quotes to kick off the conversation:

“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23b)

“To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15a)

(Note: I’m using these quotes to explain the concept more than to exposit the texts. The concept should still be tested through deeper exegesis.)

Whether a person prays or runs, if they do not have faith, it is sin.

Why? Because the actions glorify something other than God. Faithless prayer is merely therapy for an anxious soul. Faithless running highlights the legs of a man fit enough to save himself from being drenched. God will still be glorified in what he has made and done, but the person doing the action without faith does not glorify him.

On the other hand, a person who waits for God, hopes in God, has faith in God alone, whose heart purely desires God, can do anything like pray and/or run and it will not be sin. Everything is pure to such a person.

Why? Everything they do glorifies God. When they pray, they exalt his faithfulness, taking comfort from his character and promises, and thus highlight how awesome he really is. When they run, they exalt his grace for giving them strong legs to get safely home and for keeping them from slipping along the way.

The Relaxing Transformation

So we see that the “merit and grace tension” of leaning too much on one’s ability versus passively letting God decide is not resolved through a balancing act. The tension is resolved through a transformation of the heart. 

This is why walking by faith is in a sense very relaxing. You aren’t worrying about if you are doing too little or too much. You are trusting God for everything and working, praying, resting and learning, with your attention fixed on your Hope rather than your effort (spiritual or otherwise).

This transformation unleashes immense fruitfulness in a believer.

When you walk by faith instead of sight, your merits are treated as graces and used without a second thought to what you deserve (or don’t deserve) for your effort or diligence. You already know by faith that your effort and diligence will be rewarded and are themselves gifts. Even if those gifts were removed, the grace of God will be enough and will continue to abound in thousands of other ways.

You’re not anxious about if you’re doing enough to merit God’s blessing (as if you could). You’re not afraid that God’s favor will be removed because you relied on your strength too much. You’re not depressed about not being good enough to get what you want. You don’t feel guilty over receiving more than you deserve.

Instead, you are grateful for everything and use everything God has given you–the power of prayer, a compassionate heart and sharp intellect, swift feet and strong arms, kind and true words, weakness and suffering, good health and wealth–to honor God and love others.

By faith everything suddenly finds its proper place, everything is aligned and can fulfill the purpose God intended when he gave you those gifts. Instead of living on edge like a marathon tightrope walker, you become like an advanced warship, rolling steadily down a river of grace, exercising your every capability to fulfill your mission as you press on to your destination.

Conclusion

If you feel anxious about the tension of trusting in God versus relying on yourself, RELAX. Trust God to guide your prayers as well as your abilities. Wait for his grace to be revealed to you in both and be open to what he chooses to give.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Election Anxiety

Are you anxious about this election?
Here are ten Scriptures to give you peace of mind (read them all sedulously for full effect).

The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33)

God matters, his gravitas outweighs whatever plans humans have devised for the next 4 years. Isaiah writes of God’s transcendant majesty, compared to which all nations including our own are as insignificant as dust on the scales:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
(Isaiah 40:2-17)

Whoever is selected the next “leader of the free world” is completely under God’s just dominion. Many great leaders of the past have acknowledged this. Take Nebuchadnezzar for example:

34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34-35)

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will. Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:1-3)

God’s purposes will not be thwarted regardless of who wins the election. He will continue to do all that he pleases:

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:2-4)

God’s purpose to exalt himself among the nations will be accomplished through this election as it always has in the past:

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:8-10)

16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Romans 9:16-17)

This is great news for those who trust in Christ because his glory is our own:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

But until the day of glory arrives, this is what God wants us to do:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

And beneath it all he promises that it will be well for those who love him:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

So if you love God, relax! Whatever the outcome of this election may be, he has committed all his omnipotent power to turn it for your good. Cast your vote, canvas for your candidates, debate with your friends, pray that all those in power would use their power for good. Then trust in the Sovereign Lord to do what is right.

If you don’t love God, be anxious to love him! Whether or not your candidate wins, God will be exalted and a day is coming when he will remove all authorities and firmly establish his righteous dominion. You can become a citizen of His country now by believing in his chosen ruler, the Christ.

Questions? Comments? Contentions? Leave me a note in the comments please!