Decisions, Decisions, Decisions – Part 1

In last week’s post, Multiple Choice Gone Mad, the topic of being inundated with choices was addressed. The questions posed were: “How can we reduce the number of decisions we make daily? Is this even humanly possible? What tips do you have for making this happen?”

The discussion produced a variety of tips and perspectives related to decision making. In addition, a couple of posts from blogs I read regularly added another dimension to approaching decision making. The tips below and in next week’s Friday post come from these sources. Some of the points overlap, but all provide solid ideas worth consideration, especially if overwhelmed, busy and stressed commonly describe your life.

  1. Don’t waste decisions on the trivial. Eliminating possibilities and options where possible is good advice suggested by Mel Corbett. For example, a year ago I underwent a simplification process that involved reducing my wardrobe (I only wore about 20% of it anyway). Because I have less to choose from, my time is not spent on what I consider a trivial decision. I realize this example does not fit everyone, but everyone has some way to minimize trivial decisions.
  2. Optimize decision making. Because this is a new way of thinking for me, I’ll let Mel Corbett’s words explain this point. Mel said, “Optimizers make a decision based on minimum requirements and a maximizers compare all the options to find the best. It’s harder to choose the best vs. which one meets your basic needs. The optimizer’s decision is less complex than the maximizers, leaving her more decision making ability than the maximizer.”
  3. Let others make their own decisions. As a mom, this point goes to the heart. I try to help my boys make good decisions and all too often end up doing their thinking for them. Instead, I need to do what Mark Allman recommends, which is to “not take or accept making decisions for other people. Part of their growth is making decisions, so don’t do it for them or let them push it to you.”
  4. Get help when appropriate. Many of our decisions fall into areas about which we know very little to nothing. When this happen, leaning on an expert is a good idea. Whether choosing a new cell phone or buying a vehicle, consult the ones who have been there. This can mean finding a trustworthy salesman (they do exist), or it can mean reading user reviews online. There are a variety of ways to receive experienced advice to help make decisions.
  5. Schedule decision making. As noted in Multiple Choice Gone Mad, the more decisions we make in a day, the more run down we can get, and the less able we become to make good decisions. Be aware of when you are mentally at your best, and try to make big decisions at that time.
  6. Simplify. Simplifying is a very personal and individualized process. What one person considers simple, another may consider overwhelming. Whatever “simplify” means for you, pursue it. There are a variety of resources under Simplify in the Victory! section of Struggle to Victory to aid you in this pursuit.
  7. Prioritize. Loren Pinilis posted a terrific article that clarifies this point nicely. In Why Covey’s Big Rocks Illustration Is Wrong , Loren explains that sometimes the best decision means choosing not to cram yet another “pebble” into your “bucket.” Kelly Combs in Choose Well also emphasizes prioritizing decisions and even takes the point to another level by discussing temporal versus eternal decisions. Making the eternal decisions first shapes all else in our lives.
  8. Create margin. This begins with learning to say “no.” Over-commitment plagues our society like a disease, and people live stressed and overwhelmed as a result. Create margin by choosing to let space exist. Dr. Richard Swenson has several books on this topic, including Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Swenson’s books provide a plethora of tips and ideas for creating margin.
  9. Systemize where possible. This point speaks toward habits. Find decisions that can be done almost automatically. For example, I have 5 social networks I follow, and I have a system for checking them regularly. Because socializing is not my area of strength, I must deliberately follow a system for doing so. This helps reduce my decisions in that I don’t have to fight with myself to complete them; I simply follow the system I have in place.
  10. Group decisions to avoid needless repetition. What decisions do you make over and over again that could be grouped together and made at once? Choose on Sunday evening what you will wear for the week. Cook a week’s worth of meals every Saturday. I group decisions with meal planning by scheduling meals for a month at a time. Making similar decisions at once can help keep the “What’s for dinner tonight?” type of frustration from hitting you day after day.

Look for additional suggestions next Friday in Part 2. While this week’s tips get at practical “how to” ways of making better and possibly fewer decisions, next week’s list goes deeper into methods and reasons behind the decisions we make.

DISCUSSION: What tips will you begin to immediately incorporate? What additional advice do you have for applying any of the above tips?

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How to… Spin an Effective Web

Charlotte’s Web is my all-time favorite children’s book. I read it several times as a young girl, and I have read it with both of my boys as well. I even really enjoy the movies (cartoon and real-person). In this story, Charlotte (the spider) uses her ability to weave or spin webs and combines it with her intelligence to save her friend Wilbur’s (a pig) life. Charlotte’s webs conveyed simple ideas about her subject in such a significant way that others were motivated to break their usual habits resulting in a long life for Wilbur.

Weaving an effective web (also known as webbing, mind mapping & clustering) with regard to generating and organizing ideas can produce much the same impact as did Charlotte’s webs if a few, simple guidelines are followed. As noted in How To… Create and Use an Effective Outline, idea generating techniques like outlining and webbing work well for anyone wanting to generate ideas not just writers. Webbing works well for individuals who prefer visualizing their ideas in more of a picture format, and it can work well for anyone needing to create ideas whether for a project, presentation, procedure or even planning for a vacation or trip (see photo).

  1. Consider more than one idea. Charlotte discussed ideas with the other barnyard animals, and she even sent Templeton the rat in search of possible words she could use to describe Wilbur. When using a web to generate ideas, avoid limiting yourself to only one line of thinking. Be willing to explore any direction your thoughts might want to go. Remember that this is just idea generating, so you don’t have to ultimately use all (or any) of what you write in your web.
  2. Give your best effort. Often while having to create her webs, and especially toward the end, Charlotte became very tired. Yet she refused to give up the quality of what she was doing. While we may not always feel like creating new ideas, a web can help us move forward in our best effort for that moment by providing an easy process to follow. Simply writing down one word at a time can create an effective web, which can then help an individual move forward even when ideas are slow in coming.
  3. Find motivation. Moved by a deep desire to save her friend’s life, Charlotte refused to give up even when hope seemed lost. While webbing provides a terrific visual for recording basic ideas, having the tool does little good with no ideas to write down. Choosing a topic about which you are passionate, flipping through magazines, talking to someone and even going for a run are all great ways to get the ideas flowing and to find the motivation for ideas.
  4. Follow a general process. “Now for the R! Up we go! Attached! Descend! Pay out line! Whoa! Attach! Good! Up you go! Repeat!” While Charlotte had not written words in her web before, she soon found a routine that worked well based on her previous experience weaving webs. Webbing to generate ideas also follows a basic process: Choose a word that identifies your topic and write that in the middle of your paper, then write words all around your main word. These words can be whatever you think of related to your topic. Next, write words around each of those words in similar fashion. You can circle each word you write and connect the circles with a line if you want, creating what looks like a web.

My youngest son lives life very visually and tactilely, and his preferred method of generating ideas is webbing. (He also likes to use Venn diagrams.) As my son and many of my students have taught me, webbing provides a way of processing ideas that more visual and tactile individuals seem to prefer.

Webbing (or whatever you choose to call it) allows for individuals to simply get ideas out of their head and onto paper, a problem that so many of my writing students had, without having to commit to a specific order. The next step quite often is to Create and Use an Effective Outline, but some people (my son for example) move right into writing a draft or completing the steps written down without needing to put them in order. Webbing simply frees up the ideas that so often get stuck in the mind. Once the ideas are out, action can then easily take place.

Sunday Reflections – Are You Strong Enough to Admit You are Weak?

Pastor Steve Miller defined weakness as “any limitation you can’t change by yourself.” That definition gives hope. Weaknesses limit but possibility for improvement exists.

The best way to overcome weaknesses is to admit and acknowledge them. So, here goes! Shyness has holds me back in a variety of ways, including connecting with others. Lack of spontaneity causes me to miss out on adventures with my husband and kids. My struggles with patience and perfectionism make pleasing me very difficult. The list continues, unfortunately, but these are the big ones.

Considering my own weaknesses, while not pleasant to acknowledge within and then admit outwardly, takes me down a path of self-evaluation that will hopefully result in improvements in my life.

Automatic Pilot

My instincts and automatic “flesh” reactions with regard to my weaknesses depends on how my physical self feels. Am I hungry? tired? stressed? If any of those conditions exist, and all too often they all exist at once, my weaknesses consume me, and I retreat safely into the places where they protect me. Shyness means not being hurt by others. Sticking to a plan keeps me from the unknown. Impatience and perfectionism allow me to control others in an attempt to create my version of an ordered life. They create a comfort zone that protects my fragile self-esteem. And, unfortunately, one that also keeps me from growing spiritually.

Walking With a Limp

Jacob walked with a limp, and it served as a reminder of His encounter with God (Genesis 32:22-32). Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Our weaknesses can also remind us of our dependence on God and can counteract the dangerous state of independence. Both Jacob and Paul moved forward, depending on God for strength even in the face of weakness. What Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 helps us understand the strength that comes from walking with a limp.

“Each time He said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So, now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Want the power of God to dominate your life? Acknowledge the weaknesses in your life, and let Him be glorified as you limp through life.

Weaknesses Provide Opportunity

Weaknesses result from being “earthen vessels.” But, weaknesses also allow for the “surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Our weaknesses can keep us from doing God’s will and growing spiritually, but they can also motivate us to keep in daily contact with Him as we learn to rely on Him to overcome the limitations of our weaknesses. God overcomes my shyness by allowing me to teach others. Every time I get in front of a group of people to speak and teach, the overwhelming presence of His power reminds me that in and of myself I am completely incapable.

Ministry opportunities also increase when we become aware of our weaknesses and allow God to use them. Weaknesses connect us with others with similar weaknesses, making us more relatable and authentic. This can’t happen if weaknesses remain unnamed. My oldest son has a personality very similar to mine, shy and introverted. His current struggle with popularity and fitting in remind me of my own struggles over 20 years ago. Because we have this same weakness and because I have walked longer with this thorn than he has, I am now able to minister to him out of my weakness. Perhaps doing so will lead him to dependence on God a lot sooner than it did me. For this reason and purpose, I rejoice that shyness makes me weak.

Weaknesses Promote Fellowship

As we become more aware of our weaknesses, we also become more aware of those who can help us in those areas. God works through others in amazing ways, including through balancing each other through strengths and weaknesses. While shyness, lack of patience and not being spontaneous represent some of the strongest areas of weakness in my life, they also represent the areas in which my husband holds tremendous strengths. He balances me and at the same time challenges me to not let my weaknesses limit my ministry and my witness.

In addition, knowing our own weaknesses helps us to not undervalue weaknesses in others. When I see others struggling with their weaknesses, whether similar or not to my own, I find myself rooting and praying for them instead of being critical of their failures. This fails to happen when I fail to acknowledge and admit my own weaknesses. Instead, I take my weaknesses, project them on others, and then see them as tremendous character flaws. For this reason, I know to look for what bothers me most about others within myself. Chances are, where I am critical of others indicates weaknesses I am failing to address in myself.

Being strong enough to admit you are weak means realizing that you need the power of God in your life. It means understanding that these weaknesses will not go away, that we really don’t want them to, and that only the power of God can turn them into great triumphs. The key again likes with acknowledging them within and admitting them without.  Then we must then do our part, and our part is to let God do His part.

DISCUSSION: When you examine the areas you are most critical about in others, do you see those as weaknesses in yourself? This post illustrates a tremendous struggle with even articulating how weaknesses work in my life. Do you find that same struggle to be true in your own life?

Multiple Choice Gone Mad

Fill in the blank. Short answer. Essay. True/False. These terms probably bring back memories of high school and/or college. Depending on the type of student, the memories could be ones you’d rather forget or of well-earned victory. Personally, I disliked fill in the blank tests. Short answer tests were tolerable. But I excelled at essay tests and term papers. The longer the writing required, the better. I’ve just always been comfortable around the written word.

But by far, multiple choice tests were the ones I hated the most. Something about having several choices, usually 4, and often only slightly different from one another. To make matters worse, sometimes the directions indicated to choose “the best answer” and stated that more than one answer might be correct with only one being “the best.” This always frustrated me because I thought answers should be straight forward: either you know it or you don’t, and not laced with trickery. This belief system definitely showed itself in my teaching style during my 5-year stint as a college instructor.

As progress continually speeds up our world, life seems more and more like one big multiple choice test gone mad. Choices in every area of life abound. Just walk through your local supermarket to get an idea of the seemingly endless choices for just about every item. Pick one, say toilet paper. Multiple-sized packages. Varying prices. Which one is the best deal and of good quality? All will work, but some are definitely better choices that others. Usually, the best choice isn’t clear until, well… you know when the quality of this particular choice becomes obvious.

As I consider how we are barraged with choices in every area of life, I realized that not mentioning electronics and specifically cell phones would leave a gaping hole in this discussion. I mean, are there so many cell phone options and plans just to make a person frustrated enough to just give up and make a choice just so the confusion will end? Is there some marketing plan to force people into something they don’t want just to make a decision and get the latest and greatest? Cell phone and technology options certainly provide terrific examples of multiple choice gone mad.

In the January 2012 edition of O magazine, Dr. Oz points out a very startling but maybe not all that surprising fact about decision making. He said that “the more decisions we make in a day, the more likely we are to make bad decisions – because deciding wears us down. You start making decisions in the morning, and by the middle of the afternoon, you’re running on fumes.” Sound familiar to anyone?

So what’s the answer? Well, the wrong answer would be to fuel the brain with things like carbohydrates and caffeine and to keep making decision after decision as they multiple before our very eyes. Why?  Because, as Dr. Oz indicates, this creates a vicious cycle of unhealthy cravings and eventually we reach burnout. (Though, there are benefits to caffeine in moderation. See Let’s Have Coffee for a discussion on the benefits of coffee.) So, the best answer would then logically be to reduce the number of decisions we make. But is this even humanly possible?

We will address this possibility – or non-possibility as the case may be – next Friday. For now, please participate in the discussion, and your answer may be included in next week’s post. Share this article with friends (see share button below this post), and encourage them to participate too.  You can also check out my Facebook page and comment and share from there as well. The more input received, the better able we will be to find helpful answers to this question, answers that will help us find victory in this struggle.

DISCUSSION: How can we reduce the number of decisions we need to make daily? Is this even humanly possible? What tips do you have for making this happen?

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How to… Create and Use an Effective Outline

Before all you “non-writers” out there cringe at this topic and then hit the delete button, hear me out. Outlines have value beyond what they do for someone making a living out of writing. In fact, outlines have a use for EVERYONE. Yes, writer’s find them immensely valuable. So do ministers, English teachers and executives who regularly give presentations. Beyond the obvious, outlines also provide immense benefit in a variety of other contexts from conversations with your kids or spouse to thinking through a topic you might be struggling to understand. Why? Outlines help organize thoughts. Whether or not those thoughts eventually turn into a book, article or presentation is irrelevant.

Whether speaking to a group or preparing to write an article or report, outlines provide terrific guidance and direction that help increase an individual’s ability to focus. Outlines help me prepare for speaking engagements as well as for writing blog articles, devotions and Bible studies. I have even used outlines when I need to talk with my boys about something (using an outline helps keep the talk focused more on teaching and learning and less on nagging), as well as when I have multiple items to discuss with my husband when we have some windshield time or when I need to confront an individual about a touchy subject.

But here’s the deal with an outline; just like with a road map, having an outline does no good when it isn’t followed. When an outline is created and used properly, it provides an effective tool for organizing thoughts and ideas. The end result? A well-thought-out speech, paper, post, talk, etc. that clearly communicates to readers and listeners and maybe even motivates them to action. To that end, the following list provides 5 tips on how to create an outline that will aid you in effectively communicating your thoughts and ideas regardless of the context.

  1. Don’t include too much detail. Remember that outlines do not include every word you will say or write. For speeches, use fewer words and sub-points. For writing, more detail is okay and can be helpful when the time comes to write the actual text. Remember that outlines provide the base on which you will build the final product.
  2. Choose the right format. When using a computer, the bullet and numbering feature on most word processing programs provides a logical format for outlines. When jotting down an outline on a slip of paper, keep the system simple. A solid format exists to increase readability, which is important since outlines are often used for quick reference during a presentation or talk.
  3. Handwriting sometimes produces better results than typing. Don’t think that outlines must be neatly typed in order to be legitimate. Handwriting sometimes connects more with the conscious mind, while typing can almost become too easy thus resulting in failure to think as deeply as a subject sometimes requires.
  4. Be consistent. Avoid blending outline formats. In other words, don’t start using roman numerals and then switch to digits for the same level points. Again, using the bullet and numbering features in your word processing program can help with consistency when typing outlines. When writing them by hand, well, the consistency is all on the individual then. The point being that simplicity and clarity are crucial for an outline to be effective.
  5. Rewrite occasionally. If you’re like me, you’ll write in notes while reviewing yoru material by your points after you’ve created the outline. Doing so eventually creates a difficult-to-read mess, so rewriting becomes necessary. With that being said, I do allow for a certain number of “extra” notes on an outline, especially for points I want to stand out and to be sure and cover.

When the time comes to use the outline, whether for speaking or writing, most people discover that time spent creating an effective outline greatly reduces the time spent creating the main event (speech, essay, article, etc.). For a piece of writing, a well-done outline helps writers stay on topic. For a speech or talk, effective outline provide a confident way to remember points and to Struggle Through the Fear of Public Speaking. (Note: When speaking to a group, consider note cards for ease of handling.) For personal application such as talking to your kids or spouse, an outline can help you stay on topic, not nag and make the most of the time together.

When I take the time to create an effective outline, the final product comes out so much more smoothly. In fact, done right, the time spent creating an effective outline will be where the most time is spent. In other words, an effective outline is where the bulk of the work takes place. You are forced to do your thinking in advance, which experience tells me usually produces better results anyway. In the end, the talk or speech or presentation or report or article turns out more focused and solid when an effective outline serves as the base.

DISCUSSION: What other suggestions do you have for improving communication skills?

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Sunday Reflections – “Are you giving your best?”

When asked the question, “Are you giving your best?” my initial thoughts usually gravitate toward the tasks I am currently working toward accomplishing. Work. Writing. Housecleaning. Volunteer activities. I also think about my physical self such as my efforts toward sports and exercising. All worthwhile activities, but the focus with each really lies only with this life. Sure, an argument could be made that these activities hold eternal value too, perhaps in the example I set and the attitude I possess while accomplishing them. But I have to be honest and admit that I don’t always consider the eternal when initially asked, “Are you giving your best?”

The fact that I am a perfectionist greatly comes into play since I struggle with doing something simply because that’s the right way to do it. Also, I care too much about what others think and am motivated by appearing to be doing my best. People are easily fooled though, and simply performing above average can give the illusion of best. But God knows the difference, and He knows that I don’t always give my best. What’s more, He knows that even when I am giving my best, I often fail to do so for the right reasons, for His glory rather than mine.

Why? What prevents me from giving my best at all times? And, when I feel like I am giving my best, why do I feel the need to seek the recognition and approval of man? These questions have forced a self evaluation, one long in coming and one that needs to take place before my spiritual maturity can progress. As I attempt to truly evaluate myself in a way that will move me toward my absolute best for God, I ask myself the following questions to help assess where I currently am with regard to “doing my best.”

  1. Does the goal sometimes hinder me from doing my best? In other words, am I focusing too much on the future at the expense of the present? Do I need to take my mind off my vision, at least partially, to focus on doing more right now rather than on what I need to do? Am I out of balance and need to redirect myself by Focusing on the Now?
  2. Are my goals temporal or eternal? Do I focus myself more on that which will one day “pass away”? (John 1:17) Or, do my goals reflect my belief in eternity? (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
  3. Do I need to see in order to believe, or am I willing to believe in order to see? Do I need to be quiet and silent for a while like Zacharias (Luke 1:5-25) in order to overcome my doubt? Do I have simple faith in God to be faithful as He has always proven Himself to be? Am I willing to have the faith of a mustard seed knowing He gives me the faith I need to accomplish His will? In other words, am I willing to walk by faith and not by sight? (2 Corinthians 5:1-9)
  4. Am I willing to accept that I need to have doubt in order to have faith? Am I willing to think and question and wrestle and struggle in order to see that He really is true and faithful? (See Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg for more on this topic.) Am I willing to have faith even when I can barely keep up and feel like I might drown?
  5. Can I accept that trials are opportunity for growth rather than simply as obstacles to my happiness and comfort? Am I willing to allow God to help me, knowing that He allows trials (tests) in order to build my faith? (James 1:2-4)

As I consider these questions, I realize the vital role that faith plays in doing my best. I realize that when I let God control my faith through His Holy Spirit, my faith blossoms and strengthens. But when my faith comes from my life circumstances, whether or not I face trials as well as if my focus lies in the temporal or the eternal, I realize that I am allowing my faith to be directed by forces (Satan & my flesh) other than the Author and Perfecter of my faith. (Hebrews 12:2) When my faith is misdirected, so are my efforts.

Perhaps this was too personal of a reflection for you to relate to, or perhaps you understand exactly why this personal reflection is necessary. I don’t know where you stand today, but I do know that when I allow my focus to be on anything except God, my growth becomes stagnant, and my attitude begins to stink. When this happens, I am unable to do my best. Either that, or my best becomes focused on that which does not go on into eternity.

No matter where you are with regard to the above questions, my personal belief is that we all need to assess our attitudes frequently to check The Aroma of Your Heart, and we all need to consider an Attitude Upgrade from time to time in order to truly become the Living Sacrifice and Living Stones that Christ calls us to be.

DISCUSSION: Are you giving your best on the things that truly matter? Is this sort of self assessment tough for you? Why or why not?

Note: This reflection was inspired by a sermon given by Jeff Zachary, associate pastor at New Hope Assembly of God in Three Rivers, MI.

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Follow the Signs

After spending a couple of hours on a specific task with a specific goal and getting nowhere except frustrated and annoyed, I gave up. At least for now anyway. Perhaps it’s my ignorance or lack of skills causing my wheels to spin, or maybe it’s simply a stop sign in the road telling me to wait. What for what? Good question.

What I know for sure comes from experience: pushing through obstacles when there’s a stop sign only causes crashes. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t push through struggles. I mean, the title of this blog site clearly indicates my belief otherwise. What I am saying is that some struggles exist to change our direction or path, some exist to get us to stop and wait for traffic to clear, and others are meant to simply be pushed through.

Victory always waits on the other side of a struggle, though it is often not achieved the way we envisioned nor does it always look like we imagined it would when we get there.

A Change in Direction: Exercise has always been a part of my life since I was a teenager 25 years ago. Yet, no matter what method, intensity or frequency I choose, my body cannot handle the level of exercise I envision as ideal (think Jillian Michaels). My body has continually sent me messages letting me know what I can and cannot handle (mostly through injury and fatigue). I’ve had to significantly change direction with regard to exercise, and my view of victory in that area has had to change too. Sometimes we must take a different route to our planned destination. And sometimes, the destination has to change.

Stop and Wait: Along the road to any victory, there have been places I’ve needed to stop and wait. The waiting was often just for the traffic to clear before moving forward, but sometimes it was for the purpose of recalculating my route and choosing a completely different path. But always, it seems, the stopping was for my benefit. Sometimes, I needed to rest and refuel. Sometimes, I needed to be protected from the MAC truck barreling through the intersection. And sometimes, I needed to realize I was going completely the wrong way and that my choices to some extent were simply mistakes.

Pushing Through: When I hit 30, my health began to decline. Doctor after doctor and diagnosis after diagnosis, and only symptoms were being treated. I knew there was a root cause, and I was determined to find it. After 10 years of struggling and pushing, the cause was pinpointed (food allergy & several sensitivities), and I’m on the road to victory as my body heals. Had I not pushed through the many obstacles, my health would still be on the decline. Some struggles serve to test our persistence as we push through them to victory. Stopping is not an option. As I hit dead ends along the way, I did need to change routes, but the victory was still waiting at the end of the road.

What is God doing? To some extent, I think the verse “God does not allow a temptation we cannot bear without giving us a way out” (1 Corinthians 10:13) is at work here. He either gives us a way to bear it (push or struggle through), or He gives us another route to follow. Also at work in this is the verse “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This is where we stop, bask in His protection and grace, and allow Him to be God. In any case, He is offering us guidance and protection.

How do we know? In the daily stillness before Him. In the perfection of His Word. In the act of spinning our wheels. In those places, we find Him directing traffic. Signs are everywhere. We simply have to take time to see and obey them.

How to… Struggle through the Fear of Public Speaking

When asked to list their top fears, most people actually list public speaking as a greater fear than dying.  I guess the people surveyed feel either secure in their eternal destiny or simply would rather die than having a group of people stare at them while they speak. Whatever the reason, the fear of public speaking lives and breathes as a very strong feeling of fear for many people.

Personally, this fear does not make my top 10 fears, but my days of teaching beginning speech class at a community college taught me that the fear is not only very real but very powerful for a great deal many people. The student who sticks out most in my mind is one who actually could not finish her first speech. She simply couldn’t stand being in front of the class, completely froze, and then walked back to her seat. More about her later.

Based on my experiences with terrified students, I am going to share 5 tips that will help you struggle through the fear of public speaking. First, let me just say that this is not a “how to” on giving a speech, nor is it a list of ways to totally overcome the fear of public speaking. In my experience, most people don’t speak in public enough to actually completely overcome their fear. Until they do, they need to focus on pushing through those feelings.

Not only that, but even after my many years of public speaking (teaching at a community college, teaching adult Sunday school, speaking to women’s groups, and giving presentations to businesses), I still have a niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I speak. The feeling is not fear. Rather, it’s that feeling of hoping that I’ll remember what I want to say, that I’ll not do anything to make a fool of myself, and that my audience wont’ be totally bored. (All of these have happened to me on more than one occasion, by the way.) Personally, I think if that feeling ever goes away, I need to stop speaking in public. That feeling keeps me motivated to prepare properly as well as keeps me from over-confidence.

Now, on to the 5 tips that will help most people push through the fear of public speaking.

  1. Have and use an outline. Even if you believe you know your material well, have and use an outline anyway. You’ll be glad you have it when you go blank with all those pairs of eyes staring at you. (See How to… Create and Use an Effective Outline for more details.)
  2. Know your topic. Especially for your first time, choose a topic you already know well. Doing so gives much-needed confidence. Public may be stressful all on its own, but try doing it when you don’t know your topic well. (Note: Look for tips on “How to… Create & Use a Web” for help on choosing a topic in two weeks.) Many of my students struggled with speeches because they weren’t choosy enough about their topics. (Incidentally, the most confident student was one who gave a speech on how to put on a condom. Typically, I approve speech topics ahead of time, but he changed his on me at the last minute. Suffice it to say, I was quite surprised. Yet, he did choose a topic he knew very well, that much was clear.)
  3. Practice. Practice. Practice. I have practiced speeches in front of my son in his highchair, (he just sat there and grinned at me), while running on the treadmill (you’re supposed to be able to talk while running anyway, right?), and while driving. The more you ingrain your speech/talk into your mind, the easier it will flow at delivery time.
  4. Focus on the nose. Many people struggle with making eye contact when speaking in public. I told my students to stare at the bridge of people’s noses instead. Try it… people really can’t tell the difference between that and looking directing into their eyes. I still do this today, even with one-on-one conversations. (Great tip for those of us who are also very shy. Yes, I speak in public event though I am shy.)
  5. Expect to mess up. Once you accept the fact that you will stumble over your words at least once (and probably multiple times), and that it is possible you will trip or drop something, public speaking becomes much easier. These things happen to even the most experienced public speakers, and what do they do? They simply keep going. I have spoken in front of a group after getting a stain on the back of my pants and after having some pretty stupid words come out of my mouth. Guess what? I lived through it!

Over time and with experience, the fear of speaking in public will diminish. Some people will even grow to love public speaking. Remember that student who couldn’t even finish her first speech? She ended up doing very well in the class and gave me a Christmas present at the end because she was so grateful to have struggled through. She represents the fear that almost all of my students had with speaking in front of a group and that all of them were able to struggle through and overcome to some extent. Believe me, if those college students (all ages, by the way) can do it, so can you. I promise!

Sunday Reflections – Easter Reflections

Easter Sunday holds a prominent place in my church-going memories. The smell of Lilies. New clothes. The Easter bonnet my mom wanted me to wear and that I hated. Easter breakfast after a sunrise service, then a second church service. Good memories.

As an adult, Easter memories still sit strongly in my mind. Same smell of Lilies. Spring colors. Easter hymns like “Crown Him with Many Crowns” that I’ve never not known. Small, colored cylinders with treasures inside (aka Easter Eggs, but that term bothers some people). Easter dinner followed by a rather competitive egg hunt at the in-laws.

Outside of the usual Easter routine are several Easters spent away from home, including one on a mountaintop at sunrise in Vermont. Would have been better had there not been blinding fog, but majestic nonetheless.

Easter 2012 combined the usual routine with an away-from-home experience. The first half of the day found me riding in a car traveling home to Michigan from Missouri. No Lilies. No Sunday best attire. Worship via the radio (one of the songs was “Crown Him with Many Crowns), and McDonalds for Easter dinner. We did make the annual hunt at the in-laws though. Even with a seemingly un-Easter start, this Easter held a deeper meaning than ever before in my life.

Somewhere along the line, Easter evolved from a once-a-year Sunday celebration to a year-round sense of purpose. The reason for Easter – celebrating the risen Christ – exists now as a way of life, a state of mind if you will – rather than a capstone day in the church year.

How did my view of Easter change? The ultimate purpose stayed the same, yet my view of that purpose has evolved away from the days of sunrise services and Easter bonnets. (Actually, only the one bonnet. I refused to wear them after the first experience.) In those days, this far-away God had sent his Son to die for my sins. Believing that got me to Heaven; this was the limit of my faith and the existence of God in my life. Today, the Easter story presents more than just a ticket to eternity in Heaven. Today, Easter now represents a relationship with Jesus.

When did my view of Easter change? Over the years, experiencing struggles and letting Christ lead me to victory in and through them matured my faith. Faith is a simple but crucial act of the spirit, and the maturing of faith through the Holy Spirit’s leading and guiding built the relationship that now permeates my existence.

My view changed also because worship changed over the years too from organ-led traditional hymn singing to contemporary worship with hands raised. (Note that I do not believe one is better than the other.) Some songs stayed the same, yet my participation exists very differently. My involvement in the process seems to have impacted my view of the Easter message too.

Parenting also changed my view of Easter. Not only do I want my boys to have an intimate relationship with Christ, my understanding of God’s love for His Son has also grown for me since I became a parent. Would I sacrifice one of my sons to save another person’s life? No, I wouldn’t. Yet, that is what God did, and being a parent gives some inclination of how much He must have loved me to give up His only Son. Something I would never do.

In Holy Week Thoughts and Observations, T. Neal Tarver asks the question, Where has God captured your attention during this past Holy week?” I answered that “God has captured my attention with a look back this week. I have been thinking about different ways I have spent Easter…” And in that thinking, I realized that my faith has progressed and grown in a way that affected not only how I spend Easter but how the reason behind Easter exists in my life.

My spiritual growth is illustrated in the many ways I have experienced Easter throughout my life. And while my preference by far is to spend the morning at my home church and the afternoon with my family, I am able to truly celebrate Easter wherever my body may physically be because my spirit is always connected to Him.

Why did this happen? Somewhere along the line I discovered that not only did Jesus die on the cross for my sins, but He also wanted to be my friend. Not only was He God’s son, but He was my brother. In other words, Jesus became a real person in my life. He became my best friend, a deep longing that I remember having even as a young child. A longing that was not met until after I had my own kids and started experiencing Easter more than just one Sunday a year.

DISCUSSION: Think back over past Easters in your life. How have they changed & evolved? What evidence do you see of growth in your walk with Christ?

Drawbacks vs. Benefits of Simplicity

In considering that Balance Requires Simplicity, we must take time understand that simplicity does have its drawbacks, but those drawbacks pale in comparison to the benefits.

First, simplicity is never complete. It must always be pursued in order to keep complexity at bay. I’ve seen simplicity come and go way too many times both in my own life and in the lives of those I love, and that happens when it’s no longer doggedly pursued.

Second, simplicity makes you feel like somewhat of and outsider since most of the people around you will remain trapped in busyness and overload.

When my life was so busy that I barely had time to keep up with laundry, I guess I just wasn’t bothered that everyone else was that busy too. Maybe misery loves company, or maybe I just didn’t have the mental room to consider the level of everyone else’s busyness when I wasn’t even keeping up with my own.

Third, pursuing simplicity makes you more aware of complexity. Now that I have more margin built into my life, I notice how much others don’t have. They aren’t able to chat and hang out, and they don’t have the time to read, exercise and pursue personal interests. What used to seem like just another busy person now seems like a chaotic life.

Fortunately, the benefits of simplicity by far outweigh the drawbacks.

First, simplicity allows time for pursuing passions. Not until I focused on simplicity did the dream of becoming a writer come to fruition. Having the freedom to pursue God-given passions is truly amazing.

Second, simplicity allows room for quality relationships. Relationships can and usually do complicate life. But, this is one area where complication is welcome. When the rest of life is simple, the complication of relationships seems to bring abundance and joy in amazing ways.

Third, simplicity allows for more flexibility. What makes me happy now is less tangible and more associated with meeting others’ needs rather than just having my needs met. I’m less rattled when my plans fall apart and am able to adapt better than I’ve ever been able to before in my life. As with pursuing passions, the flexibility that comes from simplicity is a truly freeing feeling.

The fact that simplicity sets a person apart from the crowd is disheartening at first. Add to that the realization of how much effort simplicity sometimes requires, and taking a step toward it seems daunting at first. But once you opened the door, simplicity will rush in and tear it off its hinges, and you’ll want to forever leave complexity behind.

DISCUSSION: In what ways would you like to simplify your life?