5 Brain Benefits from Creating Routines

I’m reading a great book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. In one chapter on ‘flow’ he describes the routine Michael Phelps has practiced before every race. For years he has kept the same routine… from the same time he shows up before a race… to the same number of warmup laps he swims… to the same time he removes the infamous ear buds from his ears. His routines have contributed to both his Olympic golds and his world records. Routines not only benefit Olympic athletes, but can benefit us as well. Consider these 5 brain benefits to creating routines.

Routine Word Odometer Letters Repetitive Everyday Ordinary Same
  1. Routines help minimize uncertainty.
    • Our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty engages the fight-flight-freeze-appease part of our brains (the amygdala) which can stifle clear thinking. Routines, however, help give you a greater sense of control which creates certainty, what the brain loves.
  2. Routines make space for clearer thinking.
    • In the front part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, social intuition, and emotional control occur. However, that part of our brain tires easily. The more we use it, the more it tires which can affect our ability to think clearly, make wise decisions, and relate to others well. However, when we create routines and habits, the brain stores those routines in our habit centers (basal ganglia). As a result, routines free up working space in our pre-frontal cortex so that we can think and concentrate better on new tasks and relationships.
  3. Routines can reduce the drain on our daily energy.
    • Ego depletion refers to the concept that we all possess a limited pool of mental resources available for self-control and willpower. And it gets used up during the day. If we spend that resource on activities that could be routinized, we waste energy that we otherwise could dedicate to more important tasks and relationships. Routines help conserve our energy for what’s most important.
  4. Routines help us focus and maintain attention.
    • The ability to pay attention to what’s important is a key to successful living, leading, and learning. When we are scattered (Where did I leave those keys?) attention gets diluted. Routines, however, can help you direct your attention where you truly need to direct it.
  5. Routines help quiet the tyranny of the urgent

    •  The tyranny of the urgent beckons us to worry about insignificant issues that seem important at the moment. The term rumination describes the mental process of rehearsing something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. The tyranny of the urgent breeds such rumination. McKeown writes that routines helps us focus on the life’s essentials rather than spending precious time trying to prioritize everything. Years ago Charles Hummel wrote a classic booklet Tyranny of the Urgent! If you’ve not read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s a real gem.

So, building routines into your life offers many practical benefits.

How have routines helped you?

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My 7 Do-Overs after 35 Years in Ministry

This year I am approaching 35 years in ministry. I’ve served as a singles pastor, discipleship pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and as a lead pastor where I currently serve. I’ve served in the deep south (the land of grits), the southwest (the land of Mexican buffets), the far west (the land of fish tacos), the mid-west (the land of Chicago hot-dawgs), and now in Canada (the land of poutine; I wondered what that was too. Google it). Three kids, one grandchild, and four books later, each experience has made me a more rounded leader. Yet, as I look back, I think I’d have done a few things differently. Here’s a list of my do-overs.

Erasing Regrets with Pencil Eraser
  1. I wouldn’t have been so much a people pleaser.
  2. I would have carved out more time to think and reflect.
  3. I would have more consistently disconnected one day each week.
  4. I would have spent more time building closer friendships with other pastors.
  5. I would have turned off my smart phone and computer more often.
  6. I would have read twice as many books as I actually did.
  7. I would have listened more and talked less.

As I enter not my life’s ‘half-time’ but more like my life’s ‘3/5’s-time, I hope to apply some of these lessons better going forward.

What would be your biggest do-over?

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10 Ways Porn Damages your Brain

I just finished the message I will bring to our church in two weeks entitled, How Porn Changes your Brain (for the worse). It’s part of a larger series on sex. With my prior interest in the brain and my recent research on the brain and porn, I’m amazed at how deadly porn can be not only to marriages and our walk with Christ, but to the brain. Consider what science is now telling us. 

Until recently the research on how porn impacts the body and brain have been correlative. That is, from a scientific perspective, studies did not show that porn use directly caused these problems (although common sense told us otherwise). The correlative evidence, however, is quite damning in itself. The problem has been that researchers have had trouble finding college students (the most often chosen group for guinea pigs in research) who have not used porn. And, even if they did, it’s questionable the ethics of introducing someone to porn.

Dementia Disease

However, new research is now showing clear causal relationships of porn use to damage to the brain. In fact, the variable (use or non-use of porn) is now becoming more available as a large number (over 75,000) of former porn addicts have formed an on-line community called NoFab. Through surveys, they are posting how their lives have changed for the better after getting off porn. Also, a recent German study has shown a clear causal connection between even moderate porn use and damage to the brain.

Here is what research now indicates that porn does to our brains and bodies.

  1. It becomes addictive. Overstimulation of the brain system that releases the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine (which internet porn spurs in massive amounts) results in the buildup of the molecular switch protein called deltaFosB, an ingredient common in most addictions.
  2. It impairs memory and concentration.
  3. It numbs you to other pleasures of life and real sex in marriage (called desensitization). You develop a tolerance and need for greater and greater stimulation because real sex has become dull.
  4. Sensitization. Because your reward system has been hammered, you have an amped up attraction to porn that can tempt you to view it through even simple cues like seeing your computer monitor. Your brain goes into autopilot and your reward circuit says, “Do it now!”
  5. It diminishes impulse control and willpower. The fight between clear thinking and temptation is heightened and you have less willpower to say, “No!”
  6. It increases sensitivity to stress. Even minor stresses can lead to cravings and relapse because they activate powerful sensitized pathways.
  7. It literally shrinks your brain. Studies actually show that even moderate amounts of porn can shrink grey matter in areas associated with cognitive function related to our ability to focus. Porn users report pervasive brain fog.
  8. It causes depression and low energy because it interferes with normal dopamine production and signaling.
  9. You become more susceptible to risky behavior. Since porn addicts need a bigger and bigger hit they gravitate to more degrading kinds of porn and risky behavior to get that hit with diminished fears of experiencing negative consequences (i.e., getting caught).
  10. Erectile dysfunction. Porn users become less sensitive to real sex with their spouses and need more and more stimulation to get aroused. Ex-porn addicts report that porn created significant sexual problems, specifically ED. 

That’s the bad news.

The good news, however, is that because the brain is plastic, porn users can break free from porn and change their brains back to a healthy view of sex and sexuality. With Christ’s power, men (and women) can find freedom from the devastating effects of porn.

In my Tuesday post I recommended a great site that offers help. Here’s the link again. If you struggle with porn, please check out that web site.

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9 Ways to Boost Brain Power

God gave each of us a two-pound dynamo called the human brain. It’s truly the most amazing physical object in the universe. Yet, many people (and leaders) don’t take care of their brains and later in life they pay the price. However, we can keep boost our brain power and keep our brains healthy and humming along with 9 simple choices.

Brain

First, some sobering facts about the brain.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) also begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

These brain changes lead to memory loss, decreased attention, slowed mental processing, and lessens our ability to learn. However, even with these sobering facts, we can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and keep our brains healthy by applying these 9 choices

9 Ways to Boost Brain Power

  1. Get moving.
    • Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. When we exercise, a chemical called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) is released and it keeps our neurons healthy. Some call it the brain’s Miracle Grow.
  2. Use it our lose it.
    • Think of your brain as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. The more we use our brain, the more we create something called cognitive reserve, the brain’s savings account. As we age, the more cognitive reserve we have developed, the more capacity the brain has to reallocate functions to other regions of the brain from regions that may not be working as well.
  3. Make lots of friends. 
    • Staying connected to others in community helps keep your brain fresh.
  4. Volunteer/serve others.
    • People who volunteer have a much less chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease and have less stress. Prolonged stress on the body can actually shrink our brain, especially in our memory center.
  5. Keep you devotional life strong.
    • At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistenly have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time may help you live longer.
  6. Don’t veg in front of the TV.
    • In some sobering new research, scientists have discovered that watching too much TV can alter the brain structure of children in areas related to verbal intelligence. So, monitor the amount of TV you watch.
  7. Eat your spinach.
    • A healthy diet is crucial for brain health. Foods such as dark leafy veggies, blueberries, green tea, and those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (the brain’s building blocks) bodes well for a healthy brain. Some supplements such MCT oil, vitamins E and B, and CoQ10 may also boost brain power.
  8. Learn something new.
    • The brain loves novelty. When we learn something new (learn a new skill or develop a new hobby), we actually encourage growth of new brain cells.
  9. Get adequate sleep.
    • When we sleep the brain is quite active. It consolidates what we learned that day into long-term memory and helps grow new neurons in our memory center (the hippocampus). Sleep also clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in Alzheimer’s disease.

Take care of your brain and it will serve you well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, watch for my new book coming out this May, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. If you want a reminder when it comes out, you can join my email list here. It is now available for pre-order.

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7 Questions to Ask Yourself to End your Day Well

Starting each day well is certainly important. We must prioritize our goals, prepare our soul, and schedule our time wisely. When we discipline ourselves to begin each day with intention and thoughtfulness, we do ourselves and others good. I suggested 7 questions to ask yourself each morning in this post. But what about preparing to end your day? How can we end it well? Consider these 7 questions to ask yourself as you end your work day or before you go to bed.

Finish flags
  1. Did I treat others with respect, kindness, and God-inspired grace?
    • “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34-35, NIV)
  2. Did I rush through the day, or take time to be truly present with others and with God?  
    • “Be still, and know that I am God….” (Ps 96.10, NIV)
  3. Did I treat myself well, respecting my limits and my margins?
  4. Did I honor God with my time, the responsibilities He entrusted to me, and my competencies?
    • Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…. (Col 3.23, NIV)
  5. Have I told my kids who live at home or my spouse, “I love you,” at least once today?  
    • The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love…. (Jer 31.3, NIV)
  6. Have I thanked God for at least one blessing He has given me today?
    • Be joyful always;  17 pray continually;  18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Ths 5.16-18, NIV)
  7. If you were to add a seventh question, what would it be?

Ending your day well might be the key to beginning the next day well. 

What was your seventh question?

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