The iPhone App that Improved my Ability to Concentrate

One of the most precious commodities a pastor has is time. Ministry always beckons us to do more than time permits. I once heard a researcher state that most people have 35 hours of unfinished work ahead of them. However, if we use the time we have most effectively, we’ll become more fruitful for the Kingdom. This app has helps me concentrate better which has improved my time management.

Preparing sermons, at least for senior pastors, is one of the most time consuming Kingdom commitments. Although I don’t preach every week, I still must prepare over 40 original messages each year. Each week I study 15-20 hours to prepare one sermon. That’s a good chunk of my week which requires concentration.

Some time back I purchased a $2.99 iPhone app that has proved invaluable to help me concentrate when I study. When I fully concentrate, I make much more progress than when my mind gets distracted.

That app, Ambiance, is a simple collection of natural (and man-made) sounds that I play on my iPhone through my headphones. They call it an “environment enhancer.” In case you are wondering, I don’t make money on the sale of this app and I’m not connected in any way to the company.

The standard iPhone earbuds work ok, but I purchased a pair of noise canceling headphones (Audio Technica) that block out most ambient noise. You can purchase more expensive ones, but this set works great for me. This would make a great Christmas present. They’re not Bose, but a third the price.

So when I study, I plug in, play a repetitive waterfall or beach sound, and become totally oblivious to the people and sounds around me. My ability to concentrate skyrockets. Science confirms that white noise helps us concentrate.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in Ephesians 5.16, … make every minute count. (CEV)

This simple $2.99 purchase has helped me put that command into practice.

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Are you a Pastor Stuck on Hurry?

Two experiences several years ago caused me one day to pause not only my body, but my mind as well. So often as a pastor I get stuck on ‘hurry’ mode which makes me miss moments in life God intended that I pay attention to. Here are those two sobering experiences and what I learned.

This first occurred at a local diner as I ate breakfast with a friend. The booth I choose gave me a view of the exterior entrance to the diner. Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a middle-aged man walk up to the glass door. Nothing unusual until he reached for the door handle. He missed it, by about a foot. For about fifteen seconds he kept fumbling with his right hand to find the handle. I thought that a bit odd at first. He finally opened the door. The view from where I sat also allowed me to see the inside entrance. As he walked in, the waitress spoke to him. Then she gently held his arm and directed him to a table. He was almost blind.

In an instant I felt both compassion toward this man and gratefulness for my vision. I could have missed that moment had I been in a mental rush. Hurry is an enemy of learning. 

When I arrived at the office an hour later, the second experience forced me again to push my mental pause button.

The older daughter of one of the admin staff at the church took care of a young boy confined to a wheelchair. His body is broken, he can’t speak, he drools, but his mind remains intact. She had left him alone in his wheelchair for a few moments while she went into the office conference room. I stood at the end of the hall and noticed him alone. I walked up to him, patted him on shoulder and said something like, “You’re a bit wet. That rain is a mess out there, isn’t it?” As drool dripped off his lips, he responded was a loud grunt, the best his body would allow him to articulate.

As I reflected on these two experiences, I was reminded of a concept that author Phil Yancey described in one of his books as ‘time between time,’ a concept also called statio (read more about statio here). He explained that he tries to discipline himself to mentally pause between each day’s activity to reflect over what he just experienced and to prepare his heart for what comes next.

My encounter with a blind man and a boy with a broken body reminded me of those moments in time, statio, the ‘time between time,’ that are often pregnant with meaning, if I don’t rush through them.

Leaders are always looking ahead for the next hill to climb. But sometimes we must pause and make ourselves fully present in the moment so we don’t miss God’s subtle, but important lessons.

How have you learned to keep hurry from robbing you of those special moments?

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Hidden Beliefs in a Leader’s Life: Clues to Discovery

Kevin Cashman wrote an outstanding book on leadership called Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life. In his book he writes about both conscious beliefs and hidden beliefs he calls shadow beliefs. He defines a shadow belief as a belief we hold deep inside, outside of our conscious awareness. Those beliefs profoundly affect us and our leadership. He provides keen insight about how to discover those beliefs.

He contends that these beliefs often hinder leaders from being their best. For example, one shadow belief might be a subtle voice inside that constantly says, “You must perform better than everybody else for people to like you.” For me, one shadow belief I discovered was this. “Everybody around me needs to be happy for me to be happy. Therefore, I must try to make everybody happy.” In the past that belief often stifled my joy and peace and hindered my leadership.

Cashman says that we must bring those shadow beliefs into the light for us to lead at our best. He suggests seven clues that can bring these shadow beliefs to light.

  1. If other people often give us feedback inconsistent with how we see ourselves, a shadow belief is present.
  2. When we feel stuck or blocked and at a loss about what to do next, a shadow belief is holding us back.
  3. If strengths become counterproductive a shadow belief may be behind it.
  4. When are are not open to new information, new learning, or other people’s views, a shadow belief is limiting us.
  5. If we react to circumstances with emotional responses disproportionate to the situation, it may point to a shadow belief.
  6. When we find ourselves forcefully reacting to the limitations of others in a critical, judgemental way, we are often projecting our shadow belief upon others.
  7. If we often experience pain, trauma, or discomfort in our body, a shadow belief may be trying to rise to the surface.

As I’ve faced my shadow beliefs, I’ve experienced greater peace in my life and become a more productive leader.

How about you? What shadow beliefs might be dogging your leadership?

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5 Brain-Savvy Tips that Improve Team Creativity

Great ministry teams are creative. They generate new ideas to solve current ministry problems. Because our world is changing so rapidly, we must constantly seek to generate new God-prompted ideas. In my just released book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, I write about how to generate creativity and insight. I include a portion of that chapter below with these 5 tips.

  1. Daydreaming: Insight often comes when we daydream and allow our minds to wander (Christoff et al., 2009). Teach your team how daydreaming can help them solve problems. Encourage your team to schedule times to daydream and to allow their minds to wander rather than always actively trying to solve problems. Help them realize that thinking less about a problem may actually bring the solution. In fact, some companies such as Google, Intuit, and Twitter expect their employees to take time for daydreaming about projects other that than those they’re working on (Waytz & Mason, 2013).
  2. Mood: When we are in a positive mood, problem solving often comes more easily (Subramaniam et al., 2008). Yet when we’re anxious, we solve fewer problems because the anxiety uses up brain resources. So if you’re facing a dilemma in your organization, it might help if the team watched a funny movie to stir the creative juices.
  3. Location: Encourage your team to discover the kinds of activities that help put them into an insight state. Two settings have helped me generate insight. Ideas pop into my mind when I read and walk at a reasonable pace on my stationary bike. Insight also comes more readily when our family leaves for vacation while it’s still dark. I’m the driver and I’m usually the only one awake that early in the morning. With little roadside distraction, my brain has generated many good ideas during those three or four hours of solitude.
  4. Application: Although insight gives us a nice dopamine rush (the feel good neurotransmitter), we all know that the feeling eventually wears off. Remind your team to record their insights in an easy-to-remember location so that they won’t forget them. Even if your team member can’t immediately act on an insight, getting him to commit to acting on it at a later time can help translate the insight into action (Rock, 2007, p. 108).
  5. Speed: If you’re working with a team member who is trying to find a solution to a problem, don’t rush the process. Give her time to engage her brain. Allow space in conversations and encourage her to carve out some down time to give her brain a break.

What has helped foster creativity in your team?

If you’d like a free chapter of my book, you can get it here when you sign up for my twice weekly blog postings. And, the book is available now on multiple on-line sites and through your local bookstore.

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(re-printed by permission)

Sources:

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719–8724.

Rock, D. (2007) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Reprint. HarperBusiness.

Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008) A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21 (3), pp.415–432.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013) Your Brain at Work [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2013/07/your-brain-at-work/ar/1> [Accessed 26 June 2013].

How Curiosity Can Make you Less Defensive

Defensiveness. We’ve all been guilty. Someone in our family says something that hurts us and we say something back to retaliate. A person at work makes a comment about us and we internally stiffen up. Someone in our church questions a decision we made as a leader and we react and defend our position. It’s easy to let defensiveness drain us and make a situation worse. Recently, however, I learned a helpful new tool that can help dampen defensiveness. It’s called curiosity.

In an interesting doctoral research project at the University of Rochester, NY, 142 students participated in a one day laboratory session. They were led to believe that a peer had rejected them and then they wrote for seven minutes. Each participant wrote under one of three conditions

  • Suppression: they were asked to suppress their feelings and write on neutral events of their day.
  • Expression: they were simply asked to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Interest-taking (curiosity): they were asked to express their feelings and be curious about their feelings as they wrote.

Immediately after they wrote, the researcher measured their emotions, specifically anger, their positive feelings toward others (called prosocial affect), and how they internalized rejection. Next they listened to taped speeches from the peer who rejected them and from a neural person. Finally, they rated their like-ability and intelligence.

As you might expect, all three groups rated the rejecter negatively. And those in the suppression and expression group rated the neutral person negatively as well. However, the research yielded this surprise. Those in the interest-taking group rated the neutral person more positively.

What happened? Those in the first two groups displaced some of their hurt from the rejecter onto the neutral party. Those in the curiosity group did not. And at the end of the research session, the curious group reported less anger and less feelings of rejection and more positive feelings toward others (prosocial affect). Curiosity apparently dampens the fight-flight centers of our brain.

As a practical parallel, think of a guy who has a really bad day at work and, for no fault of their own, yells at his kids when he gets home. He’s displacing his anger onto them.

So what are some lessons we can learn from curiosity and its effects on defensiveness?

  1. When someone says something to us in anger, rejects us, confronts us, etc. and we feel tempted to defensively respond, take a curious posture.
  2. Rather than suppressing your feelings or thoughtlessly expressing them, stay curious.
  3. Ask yourself what might have prompted the person to do or say what he or she did (i.e., Did he have a bad day at work?). The situation might also lend itself to your asking the other person non-judgmental, open ended questions.
  4. Be curious about your own thoughts and emotions.
  5. Remind yourself that that the initial anxiety, fear, or worry that another’s behavior may trigger in you, will pass. Those emotions are not you, but passing mental and emotional events. Remind yourself that you don’t have to act on the feeling.
  6. Keep a curious mindset not only in these difficult situations, but also about the good around you (see Philippians 4.8).

Unfortunately, curiosity may have gotten a bad rap in the past (i.e., curiosity killed the cat). Yet, when we apply it to sticky situations ripe for defensiveness, it can serve us well.

The writer of Proverbs gives us wise counsel in this verse.

A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire. (Prov 15.1, The Message)

What has helped you become less defensive?

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Source: Weinstein, N. (2010) Interest-taking and carry-over effects of incidental rejection emotions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.