I’ve been preparing to teach a new class this spring and start this Sunday. And it’s been one of the hardest sessions I’ve had to prepare.
Sometime last year our associate pastor emailed some of the teachers in our church a list of potential topics as he planned classes for the coming year. I chose one that has been on my heart for some time, but it’s such a vast, broad, and sensitive topic that after some months we both agreed to save that one for later. And so I chose another from the list: steps to keep growing.
At first glance, this seemed like a topic that would be, well, not exactly easy (teaching is never easy), but not a terrible stretch for me either. However, once I started to prepare, I realized my mistake.
There is one main problem with a topic like this. Namely, the people who attend adult Sunday school at our church have long been at this. Oh, we all have room to keep improving, but the fact that they come — and so consistently — is proof of their desire to grow in Christ.
What can I bring that is new to them?
My own walk
I did not grow up in a Christian home. I spent two summers in a row at a Bible camp and it was there that I prayed to God to save me. But with no foundation to build on, the focus fizzled. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I realized I needed to repent of seeking my own way and instead seek God’s way.
I would describe myself in the years between those events as the seeds that fell on rocky ground. But God is good and he delivered me and opened my eyes and I hope I more resemble seeds on good soil. But the years go on and you build ritual and routine and pretty soon you’re … comfortable.
Being a Christian isn’t about “doing”, but you don’t have to attend church for long to know we’re all supposed to read our Bible, pray, and spend time in worship together. How do we go beyond the basics? I often find myself asking the question:
Am I doing enough?
The question is not quite right. It reflect a bad theology, a bad way of thinking about God. Am I doing enough to get saved? Obviously not.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Am I doing enough to keep my salvation? Will I lose it? I don’t believe so.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And yet I read some passages in the Bible and I’m fearful. Let me share a few from the Gospel of Matthew. Returning to the reference I used above, the parable of the sower:
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
And the parable of the talents:
But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
Last, at the end of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
The scariest part of this passage for me is that the people Christ is addressing knew him. Or rather, they knew of him. And they even did activities (impressive ones at that) thinking they were serving him. His response is chilling. How much of what I do now could be just religious busy-ness?
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
In this Look at the Book, John Piper gives a nice rundown of this verse and digs deep into what “work out” means here. It’s a continuous, sustained effort. Not to earn our justification, but to press on to the end goal, the end result of the salvation that comes from our faith in Jesus.
We’re not all missionaries in a foreign land. We’re not all serving the needy in our community. We’re not all evangelists sharing the Gospel in the marketplace.
But should we be? Do I make myself feel better about staying in my comfort zone by saying I serve in my church? That I disciple my kids?
And so preparing this class has been a challenge for me. What can I do to ensure I’m growing in my faith and in Christlikeness? I do not ask these questions to cast doubt. But I fear getting stuck being comfortable. I fear hearing those words:
I never knew you.
And so I’m driven to live in a way that results in a far more wonderful statement:
His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic in the coming weeks.
Another excellent read I came across in a newsletter (Sarah Bray this time), James Somers talks about dictionaries. That may not sound enticing, but he does it really well!
He first describes the problem:
The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.
Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian…
That is, until he discovered John McPhee (an American non-fiction writer) describing how he uses his dictionary.
But somehow for McPhee, the dictionary — the dictionary! — was the fount of fine prose, the first place he’d go to filch a phrase, to steal fire from the gods.
And after illustrating how good McPhee’s dictionary must have been, he mentions the sad fact that McPhee never names the particular version he used. So Somers did some sleuthing and discovered the history behind Webster’s dictionary.
Take a simple word, like “flash.” In all the dictionaries I’ve ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I’d’ve had no reason to — I already knew what it meant. But go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) — they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).
This is the best thing I’ve read in a while.
The Polar Vantage M
My wife treated me well this Christmas and I was the recipient of some lovely running gear. The most prominent item was a new Polar Vantage M. Up until the late fall, I had my eyes on a Garmin device, but once Polar made this the Vantage M available I was sold.
First of all, most of the serious runners in my community use Polar gear. Second of all, the Vantage M looked like Polar was starting to take aesthetics more seriously (their older stuff is butt ugly).
Prior to this Christmas, I’ve been wearing a Fitbit Charge 2 for the last 24 months (which is apparently the approximate amount of time required for my wife to start to consider purchasing me a gift that replaces a previous gift she gave to me … she’s too good to me). The Fitbit has served me well and as a general activity tracker, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
But as I became more serious about running, I wanted something a little more robust.
What I was looking for
When I first started thinking about replacements, the Apple Watch was the device that came to mind. However, since I was focused on the athletic aspects, much of what the Apple Watch provides was not of interest to me. In fact, it was a detriment — I would have to set it up to not be a distraction. I have enough of that in my life already.
Second, in order to use it for running as I desired, it would have to connect to local cell networks. And that costs money. I’d like to reduce the mobile charges our family pays, not the opposite.
Last, battery life is a big consideration. I want a device that can run a long while between charges. The Fitbit Charge 2 fit that requirement very well — I would charge it about once per week. The Apple Watch would require charging nightly. Not ideal for an activity tracker.
The Polar Vantage M? I put it on around noon on Christmas Day and it’s currently 3:17 PM on New Years Day as I type this. The battery appears to have just under 20% left.
So I was looking for a device that:
has great battery life
enables me to run without my phone
gives me advanced stats on my runs
tracks my general activity like steps and sleep
and looks good
The Vantage M ticked all those boxes. It would be nice if it also could store music, but that factor was not a huge detriment for me. I’ve been slowly listening to less of, well, everything on my runs. So this is not a deal breaker for me.
How do the two compare?
In some senses, this is not an apples to apples comparison. Fitbit is a company that targeted activity tracking for the general public since its inception, whereas Polar is laser focused on serious athletics. In most cases, a device from either company would be designed for a different overall purpose.
However, the Vantage M is Polar crossing the ground from dedicated training device to the realm of a general activity tracker. You won’t go wrong using it to train for a triathlon; but neither would you go wrong buying one to be used as a watch, step counter, sleep tracker, and for casual, less frequent exercise.
So in that sense, it was easy for me to compare the two. I’m not a serious athlete in terms of competing against others. But I am a runner — and it’s a big, important piece of my life. So how do they compare?
Aesthetically, the Vantage M is a nicer looking device. It’s more on par with an Apple Watch or wearables in that category. Fitbit themselves have similar devices … but the Charge 2 is not one of them. It fits the definition of a classic activity tracker, not a smart watch. And while the Charge 2 looks fine, it’s not as nice to look at as the Vantage.
Not that the Vantage doesn’t have room to improve. Polar has taken steps to improve the look of their devices, but they shouldn’t rest where they are. The hardware itself is quite nice and it feels even better. You know that feeling of a solid, well-made product? It has that feel.
But the software could still use improvement. A lot of the possible “screens” on the Vantage are still more functional than beautiful. The views when training are quite nice. But inexplicably, the basic regular “I’m living my life” views are less pleasing. Polar needs to keep iterating here.
One last thing to note on this topic is the customization that is possible. You can build your own “profiles” that can be displayed while training (and it can differ from sport to sport). This is a nice touch and lets me see exactly what stats matter most to me when on a run.
One area where the Vantage M is a huge improvement over the Charge 2 is the display itself. The Charge is the worst possible combination. It’s not bright enough to see in the daylight hours when training and so rendered pretty useless for seeing your details while exercising. But if you roll over in your sleep and raise your arm, you’re likely to wake up your significant other with blinding blue light (sorry, hon). The lack of some kind of ambient awareness was something that irked me daily for two years.
The Vantage M does a much better job of this. I’ve not had to strain my eyes or even move the device out of direct sunlight to see the details while on a run. Nor have I had it blind me at 2am.
Another advantage I would not have considered before purchasing is how the Vantage handles water. That is to say, you can take it in the pool. I’m no triathlete, but it is nice to be able to record some laps when taking the kids for a swim.
A tangent on the importance of software
Tangentially related, one critique of Polar is one I’ve had of other health-related data-centric services. They all seemed to be designed by developers. Fitbit, Polar, and even Strava to a degree, all share one thing in common: their web applications are poorly designed.
At this point, I have two years of data from my everyday life in Fitbit. And to a degree, the Fitbit web application is functional. But its form leaves a lot to be desired. Polar is no better. Strava is a little ahead of these two services, but it leaves me wondering why all of these companies aren’t better at what they offer.
I guess one could say it’s a reflection of their core offering. Both Polar and Fitbit are hardware companies. They make profits from selling physical devices (like Apple). Strava is not, so it makes sense that they put more effort into their software.
But I would argue that the longevity of these companies will be dependent on the quality of their software. If I choose to purchase and use their devices, the chances of me purchasing a second, third, or fourth devices is much higher if the data I generate is useful and enjoyable.
Design makes everything better.
If I took anything important away from my time at InVision, it was the mentality that was plastered on my Kyle Steed-illustrated tee shirt.
At any rate, the Polar Vantage M is an upgrade from the Charge 2. I’d consider it a high end activity tracker that also meets the needs of more serious training. I’m very happy with the change!
It’s one thing to write about how the internet has changed the way we read. It’s another thing to claim how that change in reading as affected us overall. This article from Maryanne Wolf opens with just that:
When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.
What are the problems? Well, the author states there are several:
Multiple studies show that digital screen use may be causing a variety of troubling downstream effects on reading comprehension in older high school and college students.
So, comprehending what we read. But that’s not at all:
Katzir’s research has found that the negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as fourth and fifth grade - with implications not only for comprehension, but also on the growth of empathy.
So not only understand what we’re reading but also in how we feel about others and the things they’re facing. Wolf sums it up like this:
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.
Whether you agree with her case, this is worth reflecting on.
Should I focus on habits or my task list?
Habits are in focus at this time of year more than any other. My recent reading of Atomic Habits and testing various habit tracking apps has had me evaluating how I get things done and how I plan my time.
I’m not alone. Here are other authors writing along similar lines:
Shawn Blanc has been writing recently in his newsletter about goals and his teammate Isaac Smith recently wrote about weekly reviews for your goals on The Focus Course blog
One thing I’ve begun to ask myself is whether it makes sense for me to plan tasks each week. A shift started to occur in my weekly review process this past year: I noticed that I was missing my weekly goals with increasing frequency. However, the habits that I wanted to incorporate in my life were becoming increasingly consistent. I started to wonder whether that was good or bad. Should I even set weekly goals?
How it looks
Here’s what that change looks like with practical examples. For a given week, I may have a set of goals like this:
Complete an outline of my proposal for Jan. board meeting
Finish all planned improvements to CRM set up in Airtable
Practice all 15 of my katas at least once at home
Finish installing new sump pump
Have a date night with one of the kids
These goals are based on various projects I want to complete or am responsible for. And they can be for any area of my life (home, family, work, health, church, etc.).
At the same time, I also have a list of several activities that I want to perform more regularly. Aka, habits. These are the kind of things I’ve tracked:
Communion with God
Saying something positive to my kids
Homework with one son
60 mins of pure focus time
Stretch one muscle group
Write 400 words
Read 10 pages of non-fiction
1 core exercise per day
My time is limited, so it’s rare when I have a week that includes me hitting all these habits daily and completing all my goals. Very rare.
So which is more important?
Atomic Habits has been a good read (largely because it’s highly practical and immediately actionable). I don’t agree with much of how author James Clear talks about human motivation, but the book is very well done overall. And the part that stood out most to me is Clear’s focus on identity. He talks early in the book about how habits shape your identity and so there is a very important first step to succeeding in life:
Decide the type of person you want to be.
That resonated greatly. But I’m still unsure how that fits into planning my days and weeks. And I’ve been pondering that question over the Christmas break.
A few insights revealed themselves:
Habits are better in the long run. They shape who you are and are present no matter what current tasks or projects you have on the go
Some habits will help you complete those tasks and projects
Some projects are purely aspirational and “nice-to-haves”, whereas your habits are vital to a successful, enjoyable life
Let me unpack that last one with some concrete examples. I’ve had the itch to refresh my website again (an itch that comes every two years). I have a project broken down into tasks and sub-tasks that has been in my task manager for over 12 months. Every once in a while I manage to make small increments of progress on this project.
But truthfully, it doesn’t really matter if I never complete this project.
On the other hand, doing an exercise 5 days per week to strengthen my core makes a big difference to my life. So too with running four times per week (and the first habit makes the second more doable). Helping my son with his reading makes a huge difference in his life. So too with speaking positive words to my kids every day. And journaling makes life less stressful now and brings a lot of joy in the years to come.
So you may get be getting a picture here: I’m putting more value on the habits, not the projects.
Will I stop setting goals for my weeks? No, not yet anyway. But maybe I’ll stick to 3 instead of 5–6. And each day I’ll be keeping a close eye on keeping those streaks alive.
Apps that help build habits
Over the past several years, I’ve used my notebook to track the habits I want to adopt in my life. And I still do that today.
However, I’ve been slowly trying out different apps to go along with this habit. It started with the Google Calendar app for iOS, but from there I began to explore a few of the options in this space. After a year, I think I’ve found a winner. Or maybe two winners.
Here are the various apps I’ve tried.
The iOS app for your Google calendar is different than what you get in your web browser on the desktop. The biggest addition is the Goals feature. You can set a goal, how often you want to do it, and Google’s AI will schedule times on your calendar.
If you complete the activities at a time the AI did not schedule, it will learn your preferences and adjust its scheduling accordingly.
Overall, it was a nice implementation of AI (the best I’ve used to date), but it did not stick for me. I still used Fantastical for scheduling actual meetings and having two calendar apps was not necessary. More importantly, my habitual activities do not need to be scheduled to a specific time. If I’m going to run on a given day, I slot it in depending on my other activities (whether those activities were on the calendar or not).
Last, while scheduling the habits was easy, seeing your progress and being mindful of it is clearly an afterthought in this app. The focus is all on the scheduling of the activity.
An interesting option, I found the UI on this one different enough that I ended not wanting to use it. I wasn’t interested in taking the time to explore an alternative UI — I just wanted to track my activities.
Overall, this app is focused most on calendar-based productivity. I like that, but I was looking more for something to track how I consistent I was in my habits, not another task manager.
This option did better at offering the functionality I wanted, but in less than ideal package. Function is more important to form, but between two functional apps, I’ll take the one with better form any time.
That brings me to the next option.
When I first came across this app, I loved how it looked. But for reasons I cannot recall, it didn’t stick for me at the time.
When I first considered all the options above, it usually was from reading some tweet or a link in a blog post. I wasn’t actively searching for a solution of this sort. I finally got serious about it this all and took a closer look at the options in this space with a firm goal in mind. Right away, Streaks jumped out at me. Here are the aspects of this app that I like.
The ability to group different habits together (categorize). I can keep all my fitness focused habits in one group, all my work related habits in another, and all my family focused ones in the last
The badge! Yeah, I turn badges off for every app on my phone (except for due items in Things). But for Streaks, I want that reminder that there are activities I still want to do today
The mechanics of the app. A long press on the habit results in a satisfying completion of the circle around the habit. It’s better than filling in a checkbox
The ability to do a specific activity multiple times in the specified timeframe. Stretching is a good example for me. Ever since I started running consistently two years ago, I’ve wanted to stretch more regularly. But I could never seem to find the time to sit down and do a full, proper session of stretching. But with Streaks, I set up an entry for stretching one muscle group — I can take 3–5 minutes to stretch my quads a lot more easily than taking 30 minutes to stretch everything. And in Streaks, the habit is complete when I do two muscle groups per day, 6 days per week.
So I’ve been using Streaks for the last several weeks. I thought it was a clear winner. However, I took the time to review all the apps above once I had a clear goal in mind. Habitify now made a lot more sense to me as well. Both are very good options.
I prefer the looks of Habitify, but I love that Streaks allows me to have several iterations of any given habit in order for it to be considered complete for the day (i.e. stretch one muscle group twice per day). But Habitify comes with a macOS and iOS app, whereas Streaks is iOS only (and the macOS version has a nice menubar option).