The Hardest Part Is Starting

The worst decision I made in seminary was to ask for an extension on a paper that was due the end of my last semester. The professor gave me a week. It was the just before Christmas and the idea of writing the paper hung over my head the whole time. I had lots of excuses to put it off. I was pastoring a church and it was Advent. We had four young children and I needed to help get ready for Christmas. I procrastinated like a pro, putting it off until the night before the extension deadline. Then I wrote the paper.

If you’re a procrastinator like me, you can relate to this feeling. It’s easy to come up with reasons why other things are more important. There is a gnawing in the back of your mind that keeps reminding you of what needs to be done. And, once you actually get started, you find that it wasn’t actually that bad. Sometimes it even feels good.

That’s the way I feel about writing, exercising and dealing with my inbox. I’ve gotten pretty good about the first two, They have become habits, so I know I just need to get started and once I’m in to it, I’m really glad.

My inbox is another story. It’s a slot in a bank of inboxes that we share as a staff. It’s only about three inches high and it’s usually full or close to full. I cherry pick “important” stuff off the top, which ends up on another stack on my desk. Since my ceiling is 10’ high, there is no limit to how high that stack can get.

Over the holidays I went through the stack on my desk (there were actually two), my inbox and the two stacks on my credenza. It felt great. Once I got started it wasn’t that hard. Much of the stuff was OCE (overcome by current events) and went straight into the recycling bin. Most of the rest needed filing and there were a handful of things that I still needed to act on.

Are there things you put off? The New Year is a time that we think about them and decide we’re going to do things differently. Here are three tips to help you get started.

Commit to a micro-habit.

A micro-habit directly addresses the issue of starting. If you want to start reading your bible daily, then set a goal of sitting in your chair and holding the bible for five minutes. Do that for a week, then add five minutes of reading to the goal. Do that for another week and then add five more minutes of reading. Keep that up and in seven weeks you’ll be reading 30 minutes each day. You can apply this to exercising, eating, praying, writing, cleaning, organizing or any other project that you want to get started. It works.

Pick a time and place.

One of the best ways to develop a habit is to make it a part of a routine that is grounded in a time and place. Over time, the “time and place” will trigger your actions so you do them without thinking. In our bible reading example, if you use the same chair every day, that will reinforce your habit. Eventually, just sitting down in your chair with your bible will make the reading part automatic. Better yet, if you’re doing it in the morning, then grab your coffee and head straight for the chair. The act of getting your first cup of coffee will be your cue that it’s time for bible reading.

I’m writing this blog in my cubby-hole of a desk in the corner of a spare room. Every morning, as soon as I put my journal down, I open up my PC and start writing. Or, if I’m not writing, I’m researching, outlining, proofreading or editing. Sometimes the work goes well. Other times it’s a grind. But, I’m working on my craft, a little bit at a time.

Again, you can apply this idea to just about any habit, goal or project. Over time, your brain subconsciously associates your habit with the time and the place and getting started is almost automatic.

Write down your goal and tell someone else.

Research is clear that the chances of success increase significantly if you do this. It’s using both accountability and support to help you get moving. It’s scary. It’s a lot easier to keep it to yourself. That way if you procrastinate, then nobody knows.

Once you write it down it becomes real. Once you tell someone it is out in the world. Ideally, the people you tell will encourage you and ask you how it’s going. Just knowing that others know about it is often enough motivation to get started.

I’ve just decided that I will spend five minutes each day in the office with the stuff in my inbox. I’ll grab it, then stand over the recycling bin and immediately toss what’s not important. I’ll deal with what’s left in the remaining amount of time. Ask me how it’s going in a few weeks.

What about you?


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?