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.

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?

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?

 

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?

Does Your Family Make You Anxious? (And Why It Matters for Leadership)

Photo (Public Domain) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons-

I was once at a meeting of mostly clergy colleagues. There were eight of us sitting around a table. It was August and the leader asked everyone to share about what they had done that summer. As we went around the table, the answers were pretty consistent.

“I just got back from a week of vacation with my family, Ugh!”

“I vacationed with my family and I survived.”

“Our family got together and it was pretty good for a few days, but then it got ugly.”

Actually, only about half of the responses were along these lines, but it was startling to me. I never realized vacationing with family was such a problem. Since we’ve been married, that’s pretty much all we do. We vacation every year in Cape Hatteras with my wife’s family and we get together at least every other year with my family, including my mom’s sisters and my cousins.

In fact, when one of my kids was young I was asked, “Dad, when I grow up and get married, will my (spouse) be a part of the family?”

“Of course,” I said.

“No. I mean, will they be able to come to Hatteras with us?”

For my children, being family meant vacationing together, in a good way. I’m not saying we’re perfect. Like any family, we have our issues. Vacationing together is not one of them. So, I was surprised by the responses at the meeting.

So here’s the question: Does your family make you anxious?

I’m not talking about just your immediate family. I’m also talking extended family. This is what family systems theory calls your family of origin. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

I would say that if there isn’t something about your family of origin that makes you anxious, then you are unconscious or in denial.

The primary factor in this kind of family induced anxiety is surrounding togetherness pressure. This is the pressure to conform to existing, mostly unspoken, family norms. These surrounding togetherness pressures show up in things as basic as how you celebrate holidays and birthdays and how you do vacations. They extend to how children are raised, how money is handled and how you deal with conflict (or not). Anytime you feel the pressure to conform in your family of origin, you are feeling a surrounding togetherness pressure.

Here’s the thing. The problem is with you.

If you are feeling anxious about pressure to conform, that’s not anybody else’s fault. That’s how your family rolls. If you don’t like it, then it’s up to you to do something about it. In family systems, we call this taking an emotional stand. There are two components to this.

First, own your own position without blaming others. Say, “This is how I feel. This is what I believe. This is what I would like to see.” If you are blaming others for the way you feel, that’s not taking an emotional stand, that’s being childish. The key here is to be able to state your position while giving others the freedom to have their own position, as well.

Second, stay connected emotionally in a non-anxious way. This is called being a non-anxious presence. Taking an emotional stand is meaningless, even harmful, if you withdraw from those in your family. It’s not really taking responsibility for your own condition, it’s running away. Conversely, staying connected while you spew your anxiety over everyone around you is not helpful either.

So how do you do this?

Do your own work. Reflect on your family of origin and start to unpack the unwritten rules that make you tick. Anytime you feel anxious, ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is especially true if you are anxious and you don’t handle it well. If you spew anxiety at others and blame them (reactivity), if you get passive aggressive or if you just stuff it and get resentful (adaptivity), then you are not taking an emotional stand.

It’s likely that if you are anxious, there is an unresolved issue with someone in your family of origin. There is someone with whom you have never been able to take an emotional stand. Or someone has hurt you and you haven’t been able to forgive them. Or a host of other possibilities. This is not easy work. It may even require a therapist.

Why does this matter for leadership?

Because any time you feel anxious in a given situation, whether in your family, church or organization, the anxiety is your issue, not anybody else’s. More importantly, the source of the anxiety is not the situation you are in, but your inability to deal with it. And that goes back to your own family of origin. If you want to be better able to handle your anxiety in ANY situation, you need to do your own work in your family of origin. Deal with the unresolved issues. This is especially important if you know your anxiety creates problems because you get reactive, passive aggressive or adaptive.

Effective leaders are able to take emotional stands in non-anxious ways. This does not mean that they don’t listen to others. It means they are able to say what they believe and own it, while giving others the freedom to do the same. Effective leaders deal with surrounding togetherness pressures in their family, church and organization in helpful, healthy ways.

You will get anxious. We all do. I get anxious all the time. But I work on how to deal with it. I’m conscious of it. I work to be a more healthy member of my own family of origin, as well as my church and the ministry I serve. Some days I’m better at it than others. But I try to be aware of my anxiety and deal with it appropriately. That’s all we can do.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you deal with it?

What would help you to take non-anxious, emotional stands with others?

The Spiritual Foundation for Leadership

I mentioned a blog post in the video about developing habits. Here’s the link.

So I’m doing more video, but I realize that some of you may prefer to read the post. So here is the transcript. Please keep in mind that it is verbatim, so it won’t read like a term paper. Thanks!

Hey, it’s Jack Shitama. Today I want to talk to you about the spiritual foundation for leadership. I’m going to read to you from Luke, Chapter 5 verses 15-16.

“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

So here is Jesus, his ministry is expanding, people are flocking to him to hear him preach and to be healed. And what does he do? He takes off to pray. So if Jesus decides that he’s not going to try to do it all, what makes us think that we should? What makes us think that we can do it all? If we’re honest with ourselves we can’t. When you get up in the morning and your feet hit the floor are you go, go, go, go, go because there is so much to do and you’re trying to get it all done? Well that’s a natural feeling that we just have to move faster to accomplish everything.

Martin Luther, the reformer, famously said “I’m so busy that I’m going to have to pray for three hours to get it all accomplished.” See prayer is counter-intuitive. Stopping and connecting with God doesn’t make sense to us because we have so much to do. So when we get up in the morning we’re just drawn to get going, when really we should be stopping to connect with God.

I want to talk to you about two specific kinds of prayer today that I believe are the foundation for spiritual leadership. The first is intercessory prayer. Now most of us pray and when we pray we often are asking for things for ourselves. And that’s okay, but intercessory prayer is lifting others up, is asking on behalf of others, it’s interceding for others.

Picture Jesus when he’s gone off to pray. Do you think he’s saying, “Lord please take these people away from me, I just can’t handle it.” Or is he saying, “Lord, I feel for these people who are hurting and broken?” You see that’s what intercessory prayer does. When we lift others up, it gives us the heart of God. It takes us outside of ourselves and makes us less absorbed. It makes us more grateful for the people in our lives and puts our own situations in perspective. Intercessory prayer gives us the heart of God.

Another form of prayer that I think is practiced less by Christians is meditation. And if intercessory prayer gives us the heart of God, meditation gives us the mind of God. There are many different ways to do meditation but essentially meditation is about listening to God. It’s about opening ourselves up and allowing the Holy Spirit to overtake us, to work in us and to guide us. So that we know, we can discern what we should be doing, what God what’s us to do.

Podcaster Tim Ferriss’ most recent book is Tools of Titans and over the last couple years he’s interviewed over 200 top performers from all over the world. And what he says is that almost without exception each of these top performers meditates daily. The Harvard Business Review has an article that helps us to understand actually what goes on within us and how meditation can actually help us. This article tells us that meditation reduces anxiety and increases our ability to handle stressful situations. It increases our ability to control our own emotions, so that when something frustrates us or angers us we are better able to cope and instead of responding with our own anxiety and anger we can respond with grace and with love. Meditation actually encourage what’s called divergent thinking, where we are considering multiple opportunities, multiple possibilities and it opens up the possibility for the, “Aha!” moment. And meditation increase our ability to focus, so that during the rest of the day when we’re actually trying to accomplish task we’re actually more effective, we’re more focused. And most importantly when we meditate daily, because we’re more able to focus, we’re better able to be present in our relationships.

You see, I believe that God created us in this way. God created us so that when we stop and take time to connect with God we get the heart and the mind of God. And if these top performers, many who are not Christians, have figured out this spiritual practice shouldn’t we who are Christian leaders be doing the same?

So if you are interested in figuring out how to incorporate these practices into your daily routine you’ll find a link in this blog post, about a blog that I did, on developing habits and incorporating them so that you can be more consistent.

And if you want to know more about actually how to do it, how to pray or how to meditate leave me a comment in this post and I’ll do something in a later blog post.

Thanks a lot. And go with God. And be with God.

The Problem with Annual Goals: They’re Too Long (and Too Short)

Photo credit: iStockphoto

As we begin a new year, you might be thinking about annual goals. This could be personally or professionally. It could take the form of the dreaded New Year’s resolution. Or it could be part of an annual plan that you’ve developed at work. Regardless, a year is too long.

I’ve made annual goals before. My problem was two-fold. One was that life happens. Other things would pop up that demanded my time and attention. The other was a lack of urgency. A year seemed like a long time. It was easy to rationalize putting off getting started or making progress because there was plenty of time.

This past summer, I heard of the concept of the 12-week year. The book, by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, is subtitled, “Get more done in 12 weeks than others do in 12 months.” Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or bought any of their resources. But I learned enough about the concept listening to a podcast that it changed the way I think about planning. I don’t make annual goals anymore, but I do make quarterly goals.

At about the same time, I read the book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. This book changed the way I think about time management. My main takeaway was to focus on the few things that matter most and make regular incremental progress toward achieving my goals.

So between the two, I developed my own quarterly goal system. Here’s how it works.

Begin with the End in Mind

The One Thing reminded me of something Stephen Covey taught in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Begin with the end in mind. I started writing down where I wanted to be in seven to ten years. With the ministry I serve, with my personal and spiritual life, and with, at the time, a budding idea to share what I’ve learned about leadership. Then I worked backward and set milestones that might be one, two, three or more years out and would indicate that I was moving in the right direction.

This is why annual goals are too short. They aren’t as meaningful if they don’t fit into a larger vision for your life. Without context, they are easier to put off. Set in the context of an inspiring personal vision, annual goals can make sense, but they still are not energizing.

Set Quarterly Goals

This is where I got energized. Annual goals are too long. They are easily put off. Three months is a long enough time that you can achieve something significant. But it’s short enough to create a sense of urgency.

I limited the goals to three areas. Two ministry-related and one related to sharing about leadership, which was to launch this blog by the end of September. Three is probably the max that I can handle and may be too many. The problem with setting too many goals is that it’s hard to stay focused. That’s the premise of The One Thing. Or, as Covey wrote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Focus on Effort, Not Outcomes

This was where things really changed for me. Rather than making lists of things that kept getting put off, I focused on blocking out time for my three priorities. This was most important in launching this blog. I have a day job, so if I was going to make any progress, it meant putting in 30-60 minutes in the morning before I got ready for work. I didn’t do it every day, but I knew if I was going to achieve it in three months, there was no time to waste. Finding a domain name, choosing a blog platform, learning how to set it up and learning how to set up an automated subscription list were just some of the things that had to happen for me to reach my quarterly goal.

Some people might find it helpful to set weekly goals to achieve their quarterly goal. This is great, but it’s not my style. I’m a “perceiver” in the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), which means I don’t like to get boxed into a prescriptive set of plans. So instead, I kept a list of all the things that needed to happen and every day that I could, I did something to make progress.

The important part of this for me was that it kept me focused on putting in the time and the effort. I believed that if I did that, I would achieve the goal. I launched the blog on September 3rd, about a month ahead of schedule.

If you’re the type of person who likes lists and plans, a “judger” in MBTI, then you can break down your quarterly goals into smaller goals and check them off. This will make you happy. Either way, by focusing on effort, you’ll make progress.

Journal

Finally, I started journaling a few weeks before I started working on my quarterly goals. I don’t journal every day. I’ve journaled 80 times since the end of May. What it did was help me to reflect on what was working and to stay focused on what matters most. I wish I could remember where I got the questions that I used as a framework. In any event, I adapted them to fit my own situation. Here are the questions:

What did I learn today?
What did I do today that was really important/energizing?
What didn’t I do today that I should have?
What could I do without?
For what am I grateful?
Where did I experience God today?
Three things I will accomplish tomorrow are?

The last question is the one that’s most relevant to this topic. The three things weren’t always from my three priorities. A lot happens in life and sometimes you just have to get things done that aren’t a part of your main thing. But, in general, focusing on three important things each day moved me toward my quarterly goals. I found that if I spent just a few hours each day, no more than one before work, and a couple at work on my ministry-related priorities, then I would make progress. It wasn’t that I didn’t put in a full day’s work, it’s that there are thousands of other things that are part of the job, but aren’t the main thing. For the most part, all these other things got accomplished, as well. More importantly, I spent quality time on my most important tasks. Time that could easily have been gobbled up by less important priorities.

Questions for Reflection:

What is your vision? For your life? For the ministry you serve?

If things went well, where would you be a year from now?

What can you do in the next three months to make significant progress?

 

Looking for Bright Spots: How Small Things Lead to Big Change

Photo by Ben White courtesy of StockSnap

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches

Matthew 13:31-32

Thinking about big change is overwhelming. Especially if it involves other people and organizations. We may know where we need to get, but getting there is a monumental task. Planning the steps, convincing people to change and then executing the tasks can seem impossible.

And, if it seems big to you, it’s almost unthinkable to others. They haven’t put near the amount of thought into it that you have. A wise pastor once told me that we need to allow others three hours of process time for every hour we’ve put into developing a plan. So if you’ve spent 20 hours obsessing over the big change you want to see, as well as developing the rationale and action plan, you need to allow 60 hours for others to get it. That’s a lot of discussions, Q&A and receiving feedback.

There is a different approach.

In 1990, Jerry and Monique Sternin went to Vietnam to try to fight severe child malnutrition for the Non-Governmental Organization, Save the Children. Analysts had determined the causes were many: poverty, poor sanitation, lack of education, etc. Sternin called this information “TBU,” true but useless. Instead, he went looking for what might already be working. He asked the question, “Are there children from poor families who are much healthier than the norm?”

Once identified, Sternin discovered that the mothers of these children were doing little things that made a big difference. They were feeding their children four times a day instead of two, using the same amount of food in smaller portions. They used brine shrimp from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens in their children’s diet, even though they were considered “low-class” foods. Sternin described these situations as “positive deviance,” an idea first posited by Marian Seitlin. These are situations that deviated from the norm in a positive way.

The Sternins were then able to replicate these bright spots to teach other mothers these simple changes in food preparation. In six months, 65% of the children in the villages Sternin served were better nourished. The method ultimately reached 2.2 million children across Vietnam.

Out of this came the Positive Deviance Initiative, that has improved childhood nutrition in 41 countries around the world. That’s BIG change.

But it started with a small bright spot.

When we are following God, the entire path is seldom, if ever, revealed to us. If it were, it wouldn’t really be faith. It starts with small steps. Like a mustard seed. As Stephen Covey says, you can begin with the end in mind. But the path from here to there is not always clear. That’s OK.

Dan and Chip Heath put this in perspective in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I found this book helpful because it shows how change is possible without power or resources. Like Jerry Sternin in Vietnam. It deconstructs the change process into understandable components that can be replicated in a variety of situations.

They help us to understand that our rational side has a weakness. It loves to solve problems and it tends to focus more on the problem than the solution. We love to analyze and go deeper down the rabbit hole of why a problem is a problem. It is the wheel-spinning of the paralysis of analysis. Bright spots get our rational side thinking positively instead of negatively. Plus, they motivate our emotional side.

The book is predicated on a metaphor originally developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The model argues that humans have two sides:

  • An emotional/irrational side called the elephant.
  • An analytical/rational side called the rider.

According to Haidt, the rider is rational and can plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct.  The Heath brothers put it this way:

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to loseHe’s completely overmatched. 

If you convince the rider, you’ll have direction but no motivation. If you convince the elephant you’ll have motivation with no direction. That’s why bright spots are so critical. They motivate the elephant and focus the rider on what’s possible.

Bright spots give us hope. And hope gives us the faith and energy to take a step. And then another. Then another. To start with the small change that leads to the big change.

Like a mustard seed.

Questions for Reflection?

What is the big change you are seeking as a leader?

What are the bright spots, the positive deviance, that show that the change is possible?

How can you communicate those bright spots to others?