Vision without Emotional Connection is Narcissism

I learned a long time ago that the leader of an organization needs to spend about 80% of her time in the future. The day-to-day is important, but somebody needs to know where the organization should go to fulfill its mission, whether that’s saving souls, saving the world or making a profit. If you don’t have vision, the organization (or whatever part of it you lead) will flounder. Without a vision, people will focus on doing things the way it’s always been done and that’s recipe for a slow, agonizing death.

Worse yet, when you, as the leader, don’t have vision, people get anxious. That’s because people want to be led. They want to know where things are headed. It doesn’t mean they’ll always follow. It DOES mean they will be less anxious than if there were no vision.

But, vision by itself is not enough. You need to stay emotionally connected to your followers for the vision to make a difference. This is especially true if there are resisters. This is hard. When you are trying to lead, the last thing you want to do is to stay connected with those who don’t agree with you or, even worse, with those who are trying to stop you in your tracks. But, not staying connected is narcissism.

A key element of narcissism is the lack of empathy. A narcissist disregards the feelings of others.

An effective leader is able to share her vision while giving others the freedom to disagree.

When you give others the freedom to disagree you are staying emotionally connected. You are showing that you understand how they feel and that it’s OK to disagree. That is leadership through self-differentiation. Here’s a reminder of Edwin Friedman’s definition from his book, Generation to Generation:

“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this.  If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow.  There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.”  (Generation to Generation, p. 229)

When you articulate your vision, you are taking responsibility for your own goals and self. But if you are doing it without emotional connection, especially with those who resist, you are asking for trouble. The resistors will get more anxious, will find ways to obstruct what you are trying to accomplish and will make leading difficult, if not impossible.

People often misinterpret Friedman to think that leadership through self-differentiation is all about defining self and moving full-steam ahead. In his article, “Misreading Family Systems Theory,” Leander Harding describes what is known as the Yeager Theory in family systems. He writes:

“Friedman uses the metaphor of General Chuck Yeager and the sound barrier. When the sound barrier was being approached the aircraft would experience more and more turbulence as the plane closed in on the critical speed. Pilots would drive their aircraft to what they thought was the limit and then, afraid that the airplane would shake apart, back off without breaking the barrier. Yeager believed a physicist friend that it would be smooth on the other side of the barrier and put on speed just when most pilots were backing off and became the first to break the sound barrier.”

Yeager was correct. He had the courage to increase his speed at the point when the other pilots backed off. Once he pushed through the sound barrier, he experienced smooth sailing.

Friedman uses the sound barrier metaphor to describe what one experiences when leading change. There WILL be resistance. If one can maintain a non-anxious presence the resistance will likely dissipate. “Presence” is the key. It means staying emotionally connected.

Harding maintains that there is a tendency to misinterpret this metaphor by leaders who lack an understanding of family systems theory and, more importantly, do not make the difficult journey of doing their own work. He coined the term, the “Yeager Heresy” to describe leaders who are unable, or unwilling, to discern the difference between taking a principled stand and becoming rigidly inflexible. Those who fall for this heresy see the family systems approach as a “technique” for achieving their goals.

Leaders who are taught that sabotage and crisis are inevitable when they begin to lead through self-differentiation are also taught that they need to avoid getting wrapped up in content and need to understand the emotional processes involved. What he cautions against is taking a stand in a way that leaves others no room to do the same thing. When you are a non-anxious presence, you create emotional space where others are also able to self-differentiate.

You give others the freedom to disagree.

When we see leading through self-differentiation as a technique, we miss the opportunity for real conversation. We are unable to discern between those who are able to self-differentiate and those who are engaging in sabotage. Harding describes it this way:

“They have not heard the challenge that leadership involves staying emotionally connected to the members of the system, especially those with whom they are most emotionally uncomfortable. They have not heard the warning that this leadership theory is primarily about controlling one’s own emotionality and not a recipe for handling or manipulating others. The result is a generation of leaders on all sides of the current polarization who think that leadership consists of taking a bold stand and persisting in a damn the torpedoes full steam ahead mode. When resistance arises and the ship threatens to shake apart they are convinced that smooth skies are just ahead and they pour on the speed. They will not be able to perceive that they have not done the personal and relational homework necessary to really make a positive contribution until the wings come off as they now are.”

What Harding points out is that those who misunderstand leadership through self-differentiation ignore the fact that it requires emotional connection with those who resist. It’s not enough to know who what you believe. You also need to do the hard work of dealing with your own anxiety so that you can be a non-anxious presence for others.

So cast your vision. Follow God’s leading to the best of your ability. But, stay emotionally connected. Especially with those who disagree. It will be hard. But if you want to lead change, it’s the only way.

Making a Difference Is Scary

By Thisisbossi CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Seth Godin recently had a blog post entitled “Feels risky.” He writes every day and his posts are usually brief. Here is the entire post:

“The gulf between “risky” and “feels risky” is huge. And it’s getting bigger.

It turns out that value creation lives in this gap. The things that most people won’t do (because it feels risky) that are in fact not risky at all.

If your compass for forward motion involves avoiding things that feel risky, it pays to get significantly better informed about what actually is risky.”

Posted by Seth Godin on August 02, 2017

This is profound.

Think about how often you felt called to do something, but were afraid. What were you afraid of?

As I thought about this, I realized that most times that I feel afraid have nothing to do with the amount of risk involved. I may be worried about failing, but is there really any risk? Or do I worry what others think if I don’t succeed?

Just because something FEELS risky doesn’t mean it IS risky.

Seth Godin has a corollary to “feels risky.” It’s, “This might not work.” Godin contends that we are not really putting ourselves out there to make a difference unless, at some point, we say to ourselves, “This might not work.” And that feels risky.

I felt this way about this blog when I launched it last September. What if nobody reads it? What if it’s bad? That feels risky. But it wasn’t. It cost next to nothing and the downside was all about how I would feel if it failed. That’s not risky. It just felt that way.

Godin’s post was providential. It appeared in my inbox on a day when I was trying to make a big decision.

Some background is helpful. Last Thanksgiving I was inspired to write a book about how to be a non-anxious leader. As I often write in this blog, family systems theory has been the foundation of who I have become as a leader. I made a commitment to write for 30 minutes each morning and by April I had a 10 chapter manuscript. But now what?

I made some inquiries about publishers. I did a lot of research about traditional publishing and self-publishing. I even submitted a book proposal, but never heard anything back. Two weeks ago I was on the website, publishizer.com, that helps connect authors with publishers, as well as authors crowdfund their book. A successful campaign can get the attention of one or more of the 180+ publishers that they work with. If a book deal doesn’t result, the author has the funds to self-publish.

I noticed that they have something called an “accelerator” program. They select a cohort of 12 authors whom they take through an eight-week intensive schedule to crowdfund their book. The more copies the author pre-sells, the more likely a publisher will be interested. It’s designed to help authors get from manuscript to publishing deal. So I applied. Three days later I was offered a spot in the next accelerator cohort.

I wanted to do it, but I was also afraid. This feels risky. This might not work.

Then Seth Godin’s blog post showed up in my inbox. It was exactly what I needed. Yes…this feels risky, but it’s not really. If I fail, what’s the downside? It might be a bit embarrassing, but I won’t be any worse off. And, if it does work, the book can help a lot of people learn what I have learned about how to be a non-anxious leader. Making a difference is scary.

So I said yes. Next week I’ll be launching a campaign for my book, Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety. I have no idea how it will turn out. It feels risky. It might not work. But I can live with that.

Four Ways Humor Can Make You a Better Leader

Nobody takes the class clown seriously. But that doesn’t mean you need to be serious all the time to be an effective leader. In fact, that will make you less effective. Left unchecked, seriousness creates anxiety and makes it harder for you, and the people you lead, to work effectively.

In family systems theory, Edwin Friedman emphasizes the importance of using humor to keep things loose as an antidote for anxiety. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman writes about the importance of managing anxiety, your own and that of those around you. The effect of humor is to keep things less anxious. In doing so, it helps everyone. He writes: “The principles illustrated here have to do, among other things, with injecting humor and keeping things loose. The looser your presence is, the looser everyone’s relationship will be with you and one another.” (pg. 256).

You might be thinking, “I don’t want a loose relationship with people I lead. I want them to take me seriously.” Used appropriately, humor will not diminish that. Here are four ways it can help you.

Humor builds trust.

When you laugh, you release oxytocin. And, as I wrote previously, oxytocin builds trust, which is your most important asset as a leader. What’s surprising is that humor doesn’t just build people’s trust in you as a leader, it also builds trust among team members. That’s because the humor, and therefore the oxytocin, has the effect of building trust with anyone you come in contact with during the burst of oxytocin. In one study, people who watched a funny video clip were 30% more likely to reveal personal information to a stranger than people who watched a neutral video clip.

This goes back to Friedman’s point about keeping things loose. Humor not only builds trust, but it helps teams bond in important ways.

Humor supports innovation.

In his book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Little Discoveries, author Peter Sims shows that humor is critical to innovation. According to Sims, a playful and humorous environment is most critical for innovation when ideas are in their infancy because that’s when they are most vulnerable to getting killed. Game-changing ideas are much less likely to survive in a super-serious environment because you will err on the side of caution. Humor loosens things up so you are less afraid to go with a new idea.

Humor promotes more effective learning.

When you laugh, you also release dopamine, which aids in memory and information processing. When you are trying to get a point across that you want people to remember, make sure to inject some humor. This is true in a workshop, staff meeting, sermon or even an informal setting. Humor will make what you say more memorable.

Humor improves negotiations.

Researchers Karen O’Quinn and Joel Aronoff set up a study where participants negotiated the price of a piece of art. They found that when sellers threw in the playful line, “…and I’ll throw in my pet frog,” with their final offer, participants granted 18% more in concessions than did the control group. Another study found that sending an inoffensive, funny cartoon to someone during a sales negotiation generated 15% more in profits. It’s believed that in both these examples, the use of humor helps to develop trust, which leads to better outcomes.

Two notes of caution.

By now you should be convinced of the benefits of humor for you as a leader. However, I need to say two things, which may be obvious. One, make sure the humor is appropriate. An offensive or demeaning joke will have exactly the opposite effect. It will destroy trust and make the atmosphere more anxious. Two, don’t use humor to manipulate. It’s not a technique to get what you want, but to build more trusting, more effective relationships.

So lighten up. It will improve just about everything you do as a leader. You might even have fun.

Working Long Hours Is Cheating

By rawpixel.com courtesy StockSnap

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a quote I heard attributed to Jay Papasan, one of the co-authors of The ONE Thing. I think it’s spot on. Papasan says anyone can work long hours to achieve something. It takes focus to achieve while still balancing your life.

In fact, the evidence is that working long hours not only steals you away from other important areas of life, it’s a waste of time.

Research shows that working any more than 50 hours per week is bad for you and bad for your employer (or your business):

  • The difference in output between 50 hours per week worked and 55 hours is almost negligible. So, you can add five hours per week to the rest of your life without suffering any loss of achievement.
  • There is NO difference in output between someone working 55 hours per week and someone working 70 hours per week.

If you are spending more time working, but not getting anything more for it, you will suffer.

There are two areas of life that you cheat when you work more than 50 hours per week.

Relationships

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. Working too much is a recipe for regret. The time you miss with those close to you can’t be recovered. Unless you are an exceptional person, your relationship with God is also likely to suffer because you will be too tired to engage in any daily spiritual practices.

Health

Working long hours will exhaust your willpower and make it harder to make the choices that keep you healthy. Number one on the list will be sleep. If you’re like me, when you have a long day you sleep less because you feel the need to wind down, as well as take care of personal tasks before going to bed. Less sleep and longer hours also make it less likely that you will exercise and more likely that you will binge eat on junk food. Just sayin’…

You might be able to work long hours without cheating yourself in one of the two areas above. You might be able to keep healthy, but not have time for relationships. Or vice versa. But is it worth it?

The way out is to be able to set boundaries and the way to do this is through self-differentiation.

Self-differentiation is the ability to stay focused on one’s own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures. Work pressures are definitely surrounding togetherness pressure, whether in the corporate world, non-profits or the church. And yes, there can be real demands to produce and perform. But if those demands require more than 55 hours per week of work, they are unsustainable.

And the big question is: How much of the pressure is coming from you because you’re worried about what people will think?

When you are self-differentiated, you are willing to set boundaries because you know what’s really important.

I recall as a pastor, I decided to coach my children in sports. I coached baseball, softball, football and basketball. This meant that I would often miss evening meetings at the church. Yes, I initially felt pressure because I felt like I should be at all the meetings. But, then I realized that if I needed to be at all the meetings, the church was too dependent on me. The interesting thing was that nobody complained to me. I think they respected the fact that I would choose family over church because they would do the same.

I realize this might be harder in some situations, especially at work. But you can’t do it all. And life is about choices.

I can recall a person who worked in a corporate setting where “face time” was everything. It didn’t matter whether you were actually productive. It was more about being in the office for long hours. As this Harvard Business Review article shows, this is foolish because managers in one study couldn’t tell the difference between those who actually worked for 80 hours per week and those who were faking it. Anyway, I remember this person telling me that he didn’t buy into the face time thing. He left the office every day at 5pm. Did his career suffer for it? Probably. Was he better off for it? Definitely. At least that was his opinion.

So yes, if you work long hours, you are cheating yourself, those you care about and you aren’t any more effective. You have more choice than you think to change the situation.

When It Comes to Work and Life, Balance Is a Verb, Not a Noun

Photo by Roslyn Walker CC BY 3.0
Photo by Roslyn Walker CC BY 3.0

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have written about how I have grown to love daily routines. They provide a rhythm of important habits that help me as a person and as a leader. These include prayer, meditation, exercise, journaling, writing and yes, even flossing. Most of these happen in the morning and require that I get a good night’s sleep.

I had a week recently that got wrecked. In fact, I had just been bragging to myself in my journal how I had not missed a day of journaling in several months. I should have known better. It’s like on the TV show Survivor when they show someone bragging that they are in control of the game, you know they’re getting voted off the island next.

It started on Monday. I was supposed to pick up my mom at the airport at 5:05pm. Storms caused flight delays and by the time I got her home, I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 1:00am, more than three hours past my bedtime.

No worries. On Tuesday morning I cut short my journaling. I use a practice called Morning Pages, which calls for three longhand pages of stream of consciousness writing. I hadn’t had much sleep and didn’t have much time, so I knew I needed to be flexible. So instead of three pages I did one.

I knew that I could grind through the day, go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep and get back on track. Wrong.

Tuesday evening we had to take my father-in-law to the emergency room. Nothing life threatening, but medical attention was required. He got great care and we got to bed a little before 2:00am.

No big deal. I would get back on track Wednesday morning by sleeping in until 8:00 am, and do my routine, except for exercising. Wrong.

I was in the middle of morning prayer when I found out my brother-in-law (and next door neighbor) had badly rolled his ankle and it was likely broken (it was). So, back to the same emergency room for x-rays and treatment.

Here’s the good news. Everyone is OK, even if there is some inconvenience and some pain, we are all alive and living life.

But this got my thinking about work-life balance.

Most people I know feel overwhelmed about something. Whether it’s work, family, volunteer commitments or social obligations, there doesn’t seem to be enough time.

Here is what I learned.

Work-life balance is not a noun.

It’s not something to be achieved. It’s not a goal. You can’t ever achieve balance because life is fluid, dynamic, ever-changing.

Instead of balance, think of balancing. The image I like is a unicycle rider. There is constant motion. Back and forth. The rider may occasionally achieve a state of equilibrium, but it doesn’t last long.

Balancing is something you do, not something you achieve.

I learned this concept from the book, The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. They write, “Seen as something we ultimately attain, balance is actually something we constantly do. A ‘balanced life’ is a myth — a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it.”

The authors use the term “counter-balancing” to describe balancing as a verb. They write in a blog post, “Counter-balance is the process of focusing exclusively on the important task at hand, whether it’s work, teaching our kids something or working out. We have to choose what’s critical and give it as much time as it needs before switching to the next most important thing.“

There are times when your family needs you. Don’t ignore it. There are times when work is intense. That’s OK, but it can’t last forever. If it does, something has to give. Your spiritual life, physical health or important relationships will eventually suffer if you don’t balance things out.

When you focus on counter-balancing, instead of achieving a balanced life, you can give yourself completely to the moment, knowing that you will be balancing things out. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything has a season. When we remember this we can live more fully.

So, when my sleep schedule, morning routines and work days got wrecked because my family needed me, there was no need to stress about it. It was a part of life. And the balancing act continues.

How Keystone Habits Help Me Grow as a Spiritual Leader

Photo by Goldi Tewari, CC BY-SA 4.0

Both the spiritual life and leadership are like riding a bike. You’re either moving forward or falling down. Growing in faith and growing in effectiveness are ongoing tasks for the spiritual leader.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement was a paragon of habits. The term “Methodist” was a pejorative coined by those who mocked John, his brother Charles, and others in the Holy Club at Oxford as “methodical” in their spiritual practices. Wesley would say, “The soul and the body make a person, the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.”

Wesley combined Spirit and discipline through regular habits of prayer, fasting, journaling, meditation, bible reading and good works, both individually and with others in community. These habits became known as the “Methodist Way” and were the foundation of a spiritual revival in both England and America.

Establishing habits is the key to a productive life. Willpower is an exhaustible resource. The more energy you spend deciding what to do, getting yourself going and actually doing what needs to be done, the less willpower and self-discipline you will have for other tasks. You can check out the blog I wrote on habits to find out more.

Habits enable us to do things without thinking so we don’t use up our willpower. So we have more energy for self-discipline. One thing that I learned is that self-disciplined people don’t have more discipline. They have turned their most important tasks into habits, enabling them to save their willpower for other important things.

But not all habits are the same. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg emphasizes the importance of Keystone Habits. These are habits that create momentum to establish other positive habits in your life. As you might guess, exercise is a keystone habit that results in better health, eating habits and personal productivity. A surprising keystone habit, according to Duhigg, is making your bed. This keystone habit is correlated with increased well-being, higher productivity and better budgeting skills.

It’s important to note the difference between correlation and causation. A keystone habit doesn’t cause a cascade of other positive habits. But it does create conditions that make them more likely.

The keystone habit that changed my life was prayer.

I had always prayed, but life often got so busy that it was difficult to keep a consistent practice. It wasn’t a habit. About 10 years ago, I made a commitment to make prayer the first thing I do every day. It took a few months of doing this regularly before it became a habit. But once it did, the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the last decade, a series of habits have “cascaded” from the keystone habit of prayer. These include exercise, meditation, journaling and fasting. They didn’t happen all at once. Each time, I would feel led to apply my focus and effort to a particular practice. Over the course of time, that practice would become a habit. My own experience is that each time it gets a little bit easier to develop a new habit.

This process of habit formation has transformed me as a leader.

I am more energetic, have a greater awareness of the need to serve others and have more patience and perseverance. I am more grateful and less judgmental. I am more focused on what matters and am better able to stick to my priorities. It started with a keystone habit.

Every person is different, so what might be a keystone habit for one, might not work as well for others. Some things that tend to work well as keystone habits are prayer, meditation, exercise, tracking what you eat and journaling. The best thing you can do is try something and see how it works.

I am far from perfect. I am still growing. God is not finished with me. But, by the grace of God, I have found a way to help me do that. You might say it’s the Methodist Way.

Questions for Reflection:

What spiritual promptings have you had recently to improve your life?

What might you try to develop as a keystone habit?

What’s stopping you?

How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Disagrees

Face Off by Aaron from Seattle, CCA 2.0

Few people want to have a conversation anymore. They want to rant about their own opinion, but don’t really want to hear from those who disagree. This is especially true in politics and in the church. Now, to be fair, people don’t negotiate their closely held values. Politics and religion are values-driven. But there’s a difference between being firm in your beliefs and refusing to hear those with whom you disagree.

I was at Annual Conference a few weeks ago. This is our yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our region. I happened to run into a few of my colleagues who were staffing a display booth for an association that I was pretty sure was advocating a position on an issue that was opposite mine.

I’m not going to share the issue because that is not relevant. In the family systems approach to leadership, one mantra is, “It’s process, not content.” Understanding the emotional process is the key issue. The approach is called leadership through self-differentiation, which is being able to define and articulate your own goals and values, amidst surrounding togetherness pressures, AND stay in touch emotionally. The process part of this is the ability to say what you believe, in a non-anxious way, without cutting off emotionally from the other. This is true regardless of the issue. It’s the process that matters, not the content.

The key to having a hard conversation is to be able to share what you believe while giving the other the freedom to disagree.

If people don’t negotiate their closely held values, then why would you try to convince them to change their minds?

The best way to have a hard conversation is to be straightforward. You can say, “This is what I believe, but you don’t have you to agree with me.” The fact that you will continue to respect who they are as a person, even if they don’t agree with you, is implicit in this statement. If you want, you can say it explicitly. “This is what I believe. I respect that you may not agree.”

If you are dealing with an emotionally mature person, this may be the start of a real conversation. If not, things can get anxious. When you self-differentiate, that is, say what you believe while staying in touch, a more mature person will do the same. She might say, “I see how you might think that, but I disagree. What I believe is…” You can work with that.

I had a conversation with one of the colleagues mentioned above. I consider this person to be a friend, as well as a partner in ministry. We’ve known each other a long time and we both know each other’s positions. So in this case, we didn’t start there. There was no reason for either of us to state our positions or to try to convince the other to change their opinion. But we did have a conversation. More on this later.

When you state your position, the less mature will respond by trying to define you, not themselves. “How can you say that? You are going to lead people astray with that kind of thinking. You are way off base.” These are the folks who rant on social media about how everyone who disagrees with them is ruining the world.

When you get this kind of response, it’s best to politely cut things off. If you can do it in a light-hearted way, that’s even better. “Hey, I can see we don’t agree on this, but that’s OK. I still love ya.”

But, let’s assume that you’ve gotten off to a good start. You’ve stated your position in a non-anxious, non-threatening way, and so has the other.

The best thing you can do in a hard conversation is to ask questions.

If there is common ground to be found, then the only way to get there is to stop battling and start listening. Remember, this is not about trying to convince the other person to agree with you. It’s about learning from the other. Asking questions is how you learn.

It also helps you to maintain a non-anxious presence.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says, “Asking questions is a great way to remain both non-anxious and present (p. 72).”

Here’s how I started the conversation with my colleague. I tried to keep it light, so I said, “Tell me about your association. All I have heard is rumor and innuendo.”

And we talked. We listened. We actually found some common ground. I came away from this conversation thanking God.

Real conversations about difficult issues are rare these days.

Our country is polarized. It’s easier to hang with like-minded people and criticize the other. It’s scary to think of having a conversation with someone who disagrees because it can get messy. But we’re never going to get anywhere in our country or in the church if we aren’t willing to try.

Questions for Reflection:

Who do you know that disagrees with you on an important issue?

How can you have a conversation with them?

What is stopping you?

 

Four Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Health

Photo by Ragesoss-Own Work, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple[ of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Taking care of your body not only honors God, it is good leadership. It gives you more energy and enables you to think more clearly, so you can be at your best for God. Your body, which includes your brain, will either make you better or hold you back.

I’m a productivity geek. I’m always looking for ways I can make the most of my efforts. If I’m going to put time and energy into improving my life, I want to make sure the potential payoff is the highest possible.

Here are four things I have found that do that. They are working for me. They are the things that have taken the least amount of time and effort, but have made the biggest improvement in my health.

All that said, I’m not a doctor, so consult your physician first.

One: Get a good night’s sleep

This seems obvious. But, it wasn’t to me. For most of my life, I thought I could survive on five or six hours sleep. It wasn’t enough. A year ago I started getting seven to eight hours a night and I noticed a huge improvement in my personal effectiveness. I also noticed that I stopped nodding off while driving home from work.

As this WebMD article shows, getting enough sleep will improve your mood, memory, ability to think clearly, weight control and immune system. So why wouldn’t you?

Two: Cut out or cut back refined sugar consumption

I’m going to meddle. Sugar consumption is the American way. Most processed foods contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Then there’s candy, cookies, ice cream and other yummy desserts. But, other than the taste, there isn’t a lot of good to say about sugar. It’s a major contributing factor in belly fat and weight gain.

According to myfitnesspal.com, cutting out (or cutting back on) sugar can lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, decrease heart attack risk, improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression and lower the risk of diabetes and certain cancers. Talk about a high payoff for a simple thing.

Three: Practice Time-Restricted Feeding (TRF)

This one was a revelation to me. Also known as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, TRF is based on the idea that our bodies weren’t designed to eat continuously. Early hunter-gatherers didn’t get three meals a day. They ate when they had food and their bodies did without food for long stretches.

In TRF, it’s not about what you eat, it’s about when you eat. You consume all of your calories during a limited period of time, say eight to ten hours. A typical TRF or intermittent fast would be to eat during an eight-hour period and fast for 16 hours. So, for example, you might eat between 9am and 5pm, then fast from 5pm until 9am. You may get benefits from a fasting period as little as 10 hours, but the longer the fast, the better the results.

Studies show that even if you eat the same foods, with TRF you are likely to gain less weight or even lose it. This has been true in animal studies and early human studies. According to this article from the National Institutes of Health, TRF protects against weight gain and can even reduce weight for the same number of calories consumed. It can also reduce fat accumulation, the risk of Type II diabetes, as well as improve metabolism and cholesterol levels.

The good thing about TRF is you don’t have to change what you eat. It’s not a diet. And you don’t necessarily need to do it every day. Even occasional practice and have benefits. There are a variety of TRF approaches, so check out this article to see six different approaches.

TRF is working for me. But your results may be different. You should definitely consult your doctor on this one.

Four: Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

This is not new. When you think of HIIT you probably think of those insane Crossfit people. But, research by Martin Gibala at McMaster University has shown that interval training is incredibly effective, even in sedentary people. In one study, Gibala found that one 60-second period of intense exercise (think running for your life) was as effective in improving health as 45 minutes of steady, moderate exercise.  This one-minute period was embedded in a total exercise session of 10-minutes that included warm-up, recovery and cool-down.

The great thing about HIIT is that it can be done with just about any exercise including walking, running, biking (real or stationary), elliptical and isometric exercises, just to name a few.

Walking, you say? Yes…if you normally take a 30-minute walk, then try walking as fast as you can for one minute at some point during your walk. Better yet, do several intervals of intense walking interspersed by one-minute cooldowns. Start with one and work your way up. Consult your doctor first, but give it a try.

For me, HIIT means I get to do more for my health in less time. On non-running days, I’ll often do a very short workout on a stationary bike. I do 11 minutes and I get five one-minute intervals of intense pedaling interspersed with one-minute warm-up and cool down periods. Afterwards, I feel like I’ve been exercising for a half-hour or more. Again, your results may vary.

A word of caution.

Don’t try to do all of these things at once. They are working for me and they have allowed me to get healthier for the same amount of time and energy (or less) than I was spending previously. However, I added each of these to my daily routines at separate times. If you saw my blog on developing habits, you know that we only have so much cognitive energy and developing a new habit uses a lot of it. So pick one thing and try it. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t have to think about it anymore and you can try something else. By adding one thing at a time, you can continually improve your health and feel great about it, too.

Questions for Reflection:

Which of these four changes gets you most excited?

How can you get started?

What will it feel like to succeed?

 

Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

Photo by Olu Eletu

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

How to Take an Emotional Stand-Part 2

Photo by andresumida CCA 2.0


In Part 1
, I shared what I have learned about taking an emotional stand. I defined taking an emotional stand as being able to say what I feel and what I believe in a non-anxious way. That post was mostly about technique: using “I” statements, not blaming, giving others the freedom to disagree and keeping anxiety in check.

This post goes deeper.

According to family systems theory, if you find it difficult to take an emotional stand, it has its roots in your family of origin. Ask yourself, is there a relationship that makes you anxious? If so, it’s very likely that if you learn to take an emotional stand in that relationship, you will be able to do it in other situations.

Here’s my story.

I encountered family systems theory in seminary when I was 30. As I reflected on my family of origin, I realized that growing up I had difficulty taking an emotional stand with my mother. My mother is an amazing woman. She wasn’t mean or demanding. She was, and is, a strong, determined woman. If she asked or told me to do something, I would just go along, even if I disagreed or didn’t want to. Kids are supposed to listen to their parents. But not every kid just goes along without saying a word.

Recall that in the last post I shared that I had trouble expressing my feelings elsewhere, as well. I avoided conflict. I stuffed my feelings. I was unable to take an emotional stand. As I looked back on my childhood, I realized that this was not just related to my inability to take an emotional stand with my mother. It was because of it.

Here is what is important. It was MY problem. Not my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t take an emotional stand with her. The problem was in me.

That changed in 1991. I sensed my call to ministry in 1989 and by 1990 I had made the decision to enter the pastorate. I delayed telling my mother until it looked pretty certain that I would receive an appointment to pastor a small church while I went to seminary. I could no longer delay the inevitable.

I called my mother to tell her that I felt called to the pastoral ministry and that I would likely begin serving a church, as well as attending seminary, that year. She didn’t yell. She didn’t scream. But she WAS concerned. And I could tell that she didn’t want me to do it.

We had several conversations over the course of the following month. She asked me about my beliefs, whether it was the right financial decision and whether it was the right decision for our family. It felt like a full-court press.

If this was any other topic, I would have folded on the first conversation. Instead, I remained calm and was able to remain firm in my conviction. I believe this came from outside of me. It came from God because I was being called to ministry. It’s only because of this, that I was able to remain firm in my emotional stand.

At the end of that month of conversations, she wrote me a letter. She said that if I really believed this was the right decision, she and my dad would support me fully. She eventually made me a quilted wall hanging with the nativity. That meant the world to me.

You see, my mom is not a Christian. But she kept her word. She has been supportive in everything that I have done in ministry. She told me a few years ago that she feels closer to God because of me. I’m so grateful for my mother.

Over the years I have gotten better at taking emotional stands. I believe this is because I learned to take an emotional stand with my mom. It’s also taken a lot of work over the years understanding myself and my relationships better. But it started with the emotional stand I took in 1991.

Questions for Reflection:

In what relationship in your family of origin is it most difficult to take an emotional stand?

What would it take for you to rework it?

What’s stopping you?