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.
First, some sobering facts about the brain.
- Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
- 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.
- Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) also begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Make lots of friends.
- Staying connected to others in community helps keep your brain fresh.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Learn more here about some of the best brain supplements.
- 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.
- 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, check out my last book , Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry.
Curveballs in life are inevitable. Unexpected surprises can level us or become opportunities to learn. The curveball thrown to Joseph when Mary told him about her “surprise” pregnancy certainly caught Joseph off guard, quite a curveball. But the story in Matthew 1 gives us 5 insights on how to respond when life throws you a curveball.
First, a bit of background. Matthew 1 tells us that Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. Unlike engagements today, in New Testaments days when you got engaged it took a divorce to end the engagement. They were both young and looking forward to a long life together and then Mary dropped the bombshell. Not only was she pregnant, but she explained it to Joseph with a story about how the Holy Spirit brought it about, a double whammy for Joseph: his wife was pregnant and she made up some crazy story it was not because of involvement with a man…two curveballs.
Here’s what we can learn from Matthew’s account.
When life throws you a curveball…
- Don’t act on impulse by doing what first comes to your mind.
- In Joseph’s case probably the first thing that came to mind was the normal protocol for adultery in the time, a public divorce. But because he loved Mary, he didn’t want to publicly shame her and mar her chances to marry to a decent guy in the future. Impulse didn’t dictate his decision. Rather, his character did.
- Principle: Grounded people resist impulsivity.
- Draw upon Christ-centered character.
- Verse 19 paints Joseph as a righteous man. That meant that he was a good man, a compassionate man, a man of character, a man faithful to God’s commands. Rather than acting on impulse, he acted upon his deeply imbedded values. He decided that a private divorce (much like a settlement out of court) would spare Mary from disgrace.
- Principle: Christ-formed beliefs should determine our behavior.
- Face, don’t deny your fear, worry, or anger.
- But before Joseph acted, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife (v 20). The Gospels tell us that God spoke to Joseph four times through angels. God knew that Joseph felt fear so he spoke to Joseph about it. When curveballs hit us, it’s normal to feel anger, fear, anxiety, or worry. Our fight-flight-freeze centers in our brains automatically evoke feelings that we can’t avoid. But denying or stuffing them actually makes them more intense.
- Principle: We can’t avoid feelings but we can determine their expression.
- Stand upon the bedrock fundamentals of your faith.
- Until I studied this passage deeply did I realize how it illustrates several core fundamentals of our faith. Focusing our attention on core doctrines gives us hope and confidence when a curveball hits us. Here are four fundamentals:
- The Holy Spirit dwells in us to, among other things, comfort us and give us wisdom to wisely respond (v 20).
- The virgin birth and the incarnation encourage us that our faith is based upon supernatural, life changing truth (v 23).
- Salvation in Christ alone reminds us that Jesus came to a crib to go to a cross to offer us forgiveness of sins (v. 21).
- Fulfilled prophecy provides evidence that Jesus was who He says He was (vss 22-23).
- Principle: Undeniable truth forms the bedrock for Christianity.
- Obey God’s promptings.
- After the dream Joseph obeyed God and took Mary as his wife. Just as God acted in unconventional ways to bring about Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary, so sometimes we must obey in unconventional ways. Joseph did not take the expected path, divorce. Instead he went against the then current social morays to do the right thing by marrying Mary.
- Principle: Obedience to God may take you into uncharted territory.
This Christmas if life throws you a curveball, look to the Story. You’ll find encouragement, hope, and direction.
What would you add to this list of responses to life’s curveballs?
From time to time every leader and pastor and person faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.
- Recognize the symptoms
- Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
- The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
- You consistently sleep poorly.
- You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
- You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
- You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
- After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
- Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
- The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.
If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?
God made us to be in relationship with each other. We were made for community and we all want good friends. But what do good friends look like? What do they do or not do? In the most intimate of the 13 letters the Apostle Paul wrote that help form the New Testament, Philippians, we see a portrait of what to look for in a friend. Consider these 5 behaviors that a good friend will consistently live out and ask yourself if you model them as a friend yourself.
In Philippians 1.3-11, Paul gives us this template for what good friends do. A good friend will…
- Remember the best in you (v. 3).
- When Paul prayed for his friends in the church in the city of Philippi, his thoughts of them brought him great joy. He chose to focus on their good qualities, rather than upon their limitations and weaknesses. He remembered their best.
- What emotions and thoughts rise up in the minds of others when they think of you…joy, happiness, and peace or fear, worry, and anxiety?
- Give their best to you (v. 5, 7).
- He said that he had them in his heart. He fully gave himself to them by giving them the deepest thing about himself, his heart. He used the word koinonia, which means deep partnership, as he described their strong, intimate relationship. Paul was not a relationship skimmer. Rather he gave himself fully to these special friends.
- How would others describe you? A relationship skimmer or one who is willing to risk and go deep in friendships?
- Encourage the best in you (v. 6).
- He was confident that God would finish the work that He had begun in them. He emphasized that truth and sought to bring out their best. Good friends will bring out your best. Liz Wizeman who studied 150 leaders and wrote Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter discovered that there are two kinds of leaders: multipliers and diminishers. Multipliers bring out the best in others by amplifying their strengths, encouraging them, and empowering them. Diminishers do the opposite. They drain you by having all the answers, micro-managing, and being self focused. Good friends will always seek to be a multiplier in your life.
- How would others describe you: as a multiplier or a diminisher?
- Pray the best for you (v. 9).
- Paul fervently prayed for his friends. He prayed that they would love Jesus and others more, would learn more about God, and would live out the truths of God’s Word in their conduct and character. Good friends will pray that those three things will become reality in their friends.
- When you last prayed for your friends, what did you pray for them about?
- Expect the best from you (v. 10-11).
- Good friends will hold you accountable. They will tell you what you may not want to hear because they will expect the best from you. They won’t let you settle for what is just ‘good.’ They will challenge you to do and be your best.
- What friend in your life holds you accountable? Do you have a friend that knows you will expect the best from him or her?
Good friends are rare. But when God gives them to us, they are worth their weight in gold.
What question above most resonated with you? Is the Holy Spirit prompting you to become a better friend?
Although I posted this recently, it’s worth a re-read. In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.
He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.
- I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
- Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
- I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
- I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
- Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
- I often worry about what others think of my performance.
- I too easily take things personally.
- I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
- I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
- My devotional times with God are mostly dry.
If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.
If that’s so, what should you do?
When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.
- Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
- Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
- Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
- Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
- Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.
After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.
What has helped you gain better margin?