All the exhortations listed in Scriptures are focused on one thing: helping us persevere by keeping our focus in the right place. Namely, on Christ and his work. And the disciplines we see listed (explicitly or implicitly) in the New Testament are all beneficial.
However, I cannot help but put three above the rest.
The Inward Disciplines
I like the way Richard Foster breaks down the different disciplines in Celebration of Discipline. He lists them as the inward, outward, and corporate disciplines.
Inward: meditation, fasting, study, and prayer
Outward: simplicity, solitude, submission, and service
Corporate: confession, worship, guidance, and celebration
Again, these are all highly valuable to our walk (no matter how you categorize them). But I put special emphasis on the inward disciplines, and specifically on study, meditation, and prayer. I find the three are in many ways intertwined and, without them, I do not imagine we will do well at any of the remaining disciplines.
We must start with our minds, how we see and think about the world. As Paul points out in one of the pillar verses for my own walk (Romans 12:2 NET):
Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God - what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.
Where the mind spends its time, the heart follows.
How do you describe meditation? I find it to be one of the most interesting, fascinating, and enjoyable of the disciplines, partly because it's difficult to practice, partly because it’s so interrelated with several other disciplines.
How do we define it? Most dictionaries will say something like this:
to think deeply or focus one's mind for a period of time
That may be the opposite of how many think of meditation. In eastern religions, meditation is often used as a means of clearing the mind, of removing all thoughts. Using the great app Headscape, you’ll get a sense of this as you listen to Andy’s soothing tones and he will at times guide you to an empty state.
However, this is the opposite of what the Bible gets at when it speaks of meditation. Christian meditation is the filling of the mind, an effort to completely focus on God. On his character and his works and his word. I cannot think of a better picture of this than the 1st Psalm (verses 1–2 ESV):
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
The Hebrew word used in Psalm 1:2 is to mutter. The same word describes the murmuring of kings in Psalm 2 and the chattering of doves in Isaiah 59. In Psalm 1, it's indicative of a muttering. It indicates a vocal aspect.
Let’s consider a few questions that may come to mind.
Is meditation easy? No, not for most people. Especially in our day and age. Kenneth Boa alludes to the work required in Conformed to His Image:
The discipline comes in the effort to deliberately choose that upon which we will set our minds and in the skill of gently returning to it when we find that we have wandered.
How is meditation related to the other disciplines? For one, it requires silence and solitude (at least at first … in time a person can get good enough that they can focus on a subject for a period of time even in chaotic, noisy environments).
Back to Psalm 1: how can the Psalmist meditate day and night without internalizing the Word? Memorization of Scripture is another related form of discipline, one I would put in an overlapping circle between study and meditation.
Most important, how can a person start meditating? First, it can take different forms. One may be the purposeful time of focusing on something intensely, like one line of Scripture, or a characteristic of God.
Other times, it might be a longer session of pondering a problem or application of Godly wisdom. Our pastor is fond of stating, “Here’s what I’ve been wrestling with this week” during a sermon. This “wrestling” is a form of meditation. I do this often as I take a walk. Those familiar with Deep Work may think of the section titled Meditate Productively: this is the idea I’m getting at here.
And so I would postulate that meditation is two sided. One is a time of focus, in solitude and silence, where you bring your mind to bear on the Word. The second comes later; you can meditate on that Word through your day as you go about your activities.
And so there are a few things required to get into this habit.
Desire: you can start with just a touch of this, but unless it grows over time, you’ll only be following a system. Ask for this desire by praying for it.
Whitespace (aka margin): this is needed in order to give yourself the opportunity just be still for a period of time
Silence: this also make the habit easier to adopt, and must be present both internally and externally. Internal silence is a result of the whitespace mentioned above: without any margin, your mind will struggle to be still. The same will be true if you do not create some external silence: this is not just audible noise, but input of all types (including all internet enabled input).
Solitude: there is so much value in creating a space in the home for quiet, inner activities. Another good option is quiet path to walk
Once you have all these in place, find a verse, a short passage of Scripture, a thought about God or one of his characteristics, and focus on that for a time. Over time, memorize a longer passage of Scripture so that you can meditate on it during different breaks in your day. Maybe that 15 minute walk to the café for your afternoon coffee is better spent going through the sermon on the mount or Romans 8 than reading Twitter.
How many of us faithfully read through our Bible each year, but it’s a speed reading 10–15 minute session each morning? We should not mistake familiarity with the Biblical narrative and themes as intimacy with our Father. His word is not spiritual fast food, to be gulped down between entries on our calendar. It’s meant to be chewed slowly, to be savoured.
Developing a habit of meditation helps us with just that.
Rands shares a good piece of advice for how to get value out of all interactions. At the base of his advice is that, although not all interactions with all people will benefit you directly, it’s still worth your time to make investments in others.
He summarizes his advice this way:
Life isn’t short. It’s finite. As a leader with a finite set of minutes, it is your job to find the stories. They will teach you.
He’s describing that idea that although he is not hiring for a position, it can still be a good investment to talk to someone outside of your area of expertise. You cannot always see them at the time, but our small world brings a myriad of related connections. The different teams, departments, companies, and the humans that comprise them: it so often comes down to who you know.
But if you read the post, you may see another other benefit here. There’s value here for Cathy (the person he’s meeting with). In asking her some pointed questions, she gets the benefit of telling her story, of being validated herself.
Sometimes we all just need someone to listen to us.
I’m guessing “Cathy” remembers Michael Lopp because he gave of his time, showed genuine interest, and was a good listener. We all benefit from people like that. So when you cannot see the direct benefit and you're tight for time (because we’re all tight for time), Rands reminds us of the indirect benefits and how to best achieve them.
Can Coffee Help You Sleep?
There are a couple of different coffee focused newsletters I’ve subscribed to over the years. The current one is from Roasty, a site dedicated to the enjoyment of coffee and those who are passionate about it. The man behind it, Matt, describes it this way:
This website, however, I built because I love coffee, and I wanted to share that love of coffee with you and everyone else who shares my passion. Through this, we can all enjoy the glory of thoughtfully made, mindfully prepared “slow” coffee together – even if we’re not in the same room. Hell, even if we’re not in the same country.
In a recent email, Matt asked the question about whether coffee can help you sleep. Sounds like a silly question, right? Well, he makes the case that this is true.
However, did you know that coffee can also be used to help you sleep? While that may sound crazy, when you take a look at how our body reacts when we drink one cup of coffee or three, you can begin to understand exactly why it can actually ultimately have the opposite effect from what you might expect. In fact, the more coffee you drink, the more tired you could ultimately feel as your body continues to react the endless supply of coffee you keep pouring into your system.
He gets into the physiology of caffeine and its effect on your adenosine function, the cycle that your body takes with caffeine, and even includes some practical tips on how to use caffeine to aid your sleep.
Personally, this entire idea sounds like a recipe for disaster. Any coffee after 4pm is likely to cause issues with my sleep. But we are all different and I personally am more sensitive to caffeine that many folks. I also know that my sleep is affected by the regularity of my coffee intake. If I have a long string of days with 2–3 cups of strong coffee, I will eventually increase in fatigue, irritability, and experience lower quality sleep (that is why I reset my system every 4 weeks or so).
However, I do agree with his case that coffee intake will result in drowsiness. Just as I would not use coffee as a sleep aid, I try not to rely on it for energy either. It truly is self-defeating in this regard. Nothing is worse than the energy crash after the post-lunch coffee. So many people struggle with energy and focus at the tail end of the work day and coffee/caffeine have a role in that issue.
At any rate, it’s an interesting topic. My advice is that good sleep is better aided by an overall healthy lifestyle. Eat well, all things in moderation, and physical activity will do a lot more good for getting proper sleep than a coffee at 7pm.
This article is interesting to me for two reasons. One, it well illustrates the different type of communication preferences people have. And how that can be hard when your boss communicates differently than you.
I once had a boss who would send me a series of two-word emails throughout the day, each one bearing the same message: “Call me.” Each time I received one of these emails, the hairs on the back of my neck would stiffen and my stomach would churn violently.
The author’s reaction was never justified:
When I did call my boss, our conversation was always friendly. It might be that he wanted to get an update on a project, or ask me a quick question, or even compliment me on a presentation. It was almost never bad news.
However, I call this lazy leadership. How much more effective could this person have been if she did not worry about these email “bombs”?
The second interesting aspect of this article was her solution to what she perceived as a problem.
Inspired by Grove and Drucker’s approaches, I created my own standardized, habitual communication with my boss. My goal was to make sure that we would always be in sync, and that he had an up-to-date understanding of all my projects—which meant that we could cut down on phone calls.
She would send him an email every Friday highlighting three things: what she had done that week, what she was currently working on, and what she was waiting on. This simple once a week activity that took 15 minutes solved her problem.
Now, the part that interests me is not so much her solution, but her initiative. I’m a good example of a reactive person, who often fails to come up with proactive solutions like this. I'm learning, but it can be a painful process.
Deep Prayer > Deep Work
One thing I have come to appreciate about Cal Newport’s Deep Work is the focus on weaning yourself from stimulus. I say appreciate, not experience. I still struggle with habits that have been ingrained over the past 10 years.
But one area where I am coming to see the most benefit — and one where this ability to focus is most critical — is in communion with God. How can I expect to be changed by the word if I cannot read for more than a few minutes without doing something else? Or if I cannot pray with a sense of waiting? How long does it take for one to feel the presence of the Spirit? To hear the still, small voice of the Almighty creator of all things?
I dare say it takes more than 10 distracted minutes a day.
And this is more important to my life than career success.
Over the past 18 months since I read Deep Work, I’ve had varying degrees of success with focus in my work day. Each month, each week, and each day bring different projects, different areas of responsibility that require our attention. It is easier to achieve focus with some, less so with others.
But over and over, I come back to the fact that while Newport’s concept of increasing our ability to focus is crucial to a successful career, it’s even more crucial to a successful Christian life. One that is lived attuned to the Spirit. One that is carefully watching to see where God is working, then ready and willing to join him in it.
There Is Depth in Freedom
One of my goals for this year was “deeper times of devotion”. Now, that is a goal that does not meet the criteria of good goals. It’s general, not specific. Therefore, it’s not measurable. However, I purposefully left it somewhat ambiguous, for I do not want to simply adhere to a rule without seeking the true purpose (something I am prone to do).
And so I have a very general guideline. I leave the entire hour of 5–6am open for devotions. My reading plan only requires 10–15 mins each day, so I have a good amount of time to meditate, pray, or just sit in stillness. By not setting a list of rules for this time, I give myself the freedom to see where I’m led.
I allow myself to sleep in some days … if I get up at 5:20am, I still have a good amount of time left
I make my coffee as a part of this time
I have been reading one Psalm every day, on top of my regular Bible reading — this is a slower read, more meditation than “study”
I have started to practice praying the Psalm when it really resonates (not all do)
I have spent more time contemplatively praying the Lord’s prayer
I pray more often, for some regular items or persons
If there are days when something else comes up, like a deadline or this newsletter or I feel like a walk or run are a better choice, I allow myself to do that thing. Some weekends, I stay up later and skip devotions the next morning.
I can do that because I’ve set this goal for the year and that gets reviewed each and every week.
Depth of any sort takes time. For the Christian, this is especially true. For we not only have to fight off our internal struggles of boredom, distraction, and desires. But we also have external forces at work trying to impede intimacy with God at all costs.
So as I focus on improving my skills to achieve depth in my work, I’m beginning to realize how vital this is for all areas of my life. Especially that which is most important to me.
Being self-employed is great. And it’s not so great. Like anything, there are tradeoffs. For you, the tradeoffs may be worth it. Or, they might not. Or, they may not be the right tradeoffs at this point in your life. Just don’t put self-employment on a pedestal. There are plenty of other options that are darn near self-employment without the burdens.
There has been so much hustle and propaganda about “doing what you love” and life hacks and indiepreneurship in recent years that “having a job” has gotten a bad rep. But Garrett shares how his run as an entrepreneur needed to end (at least for a while). As someone who went through the same experience, I understand where he’s coming from.
Yes, I enjoyed a lot of flexibility when I ran my own company (as I do now at Wildbit). Yes, it’s nice being able to make decisions and have impact on the bottom line (which I do now in my customer facing role). And yes, it was nice to earn a great income (that has not changed either). And when I compare running my own business to my previous employment at a 10,000 healthcare company, the contract is striking.
But that does not mean employment is bad. It really does depend on where you work.
You know what else came from running my own business? Anxiety.
The pressure of knowing that your every decision directly impacted the needs of your family wears on you. That kind of pressure is not for everyone. Self-employment sounds really great when you're focused on the negatives of a job that you're not satisfied with, but working for your self will have that as well.
Don’t get me wrong — those were some great years for me. But I also experienced my first taste of anxiety and how it can impact every area of your life. By the time an offer to buy our business came around, I was ready for something else. And I have been blessed to work for some amazing companies since then, enjoying many of the same benefits that self-employment made possible.
And none of my stops has been better than where I am now. This comment from one of our co-founders says it all.
Garrett and I talked about this a bunch. I’m really proud @Wildbit has given several entrepreneurs a safe and fulfilling home.