Overcoming Overload with Balance

balanceLast month’s focus on technology was interesting because I didn’t realize the impact of technology in the details of my life. I didn’t realize how out of balance I truly was regarding my use of technology and my need for almost constant access and information.

I certainly don’t think technology is evil. I love the relationships, the access to information and the freedom to share thoughts and ideas. Yet, I also realize the need to master or be mastered by technology and its incessant call. I understand that I must refuse to follow the crowd and instead choose my own focus. In doing so, I can overcome information overload by focusing on creating balance.

Laying Down the Gauntlet

Just like overload looks different on every person, so does a balanced solution for overload. In Managing Overload with Boundaries, we discussed basic principles as a guide in creating a plan for awareness, prevention and management of overload.

In today’s post, I am issuing a challenge, playing off our focus last month on technology and playing into this month’s focus on balance.

CHALLENGE

The challenge is this: Decide one way you can begin to become the master over technology in your life rather than a slave to it. Think of some change you can make that clearly says, “I refuse to follow the crowd and will decide for myself how to use technology & how to manage the information it constantly presents.”

To help, let’s look at examples of others working to create balance in their lives:

These examples and suggestions hopefully serve to get your creative juices flowing as well as to inspire and motivate.

Choose to Think

With the gauntlet laid down, consider this quote from Rick Dawson of Planned Peasanthood, someone who always hits home with truth…

“God gave us the ability to think – we have to choose to do so, on a minute by minute basis sometimes, if we don’t want to be overwhelmed by the ‘drinking from the firehose’ condition of living in an always on, 24/7/365 world. In its own way? It can set us up for the same sort of response that primitive man had – always afraid, always on guard.”

Choose to get grounded with God, and let Him prioritize your day. Trust God to get you the information and connections you need instead of obsessing over the constant inflow from technology. Find YOUR balance by choosing to think based on the guiding and directing of the Holy Spirit.

While I see the convenience of technology, I simply cannot shake the fact that it never satisfies my deep need for connection. And for that reason, I choose today to pick up the gauntlet.

DISCUSSION: Will you pick up the gauntlet too? If so, how?

Reducing & Preventing Overload by Capturing Thoughts

In Solving the Problem of Information Overload, we realized that the goal for reducing overload involves balance, which comes through deliberately capturing and filtering thoughts and by setting information boundaries.

When we receive information, regardless of its source and avenue, we react to it through our thought lives. The more aware we are of this process, the better able we are to deliberately make choices regarding our focus.

A large part of capturing thoughts involves creating a strong core of truth within us out of which our thoughts can then operate.

Capturing Thoughts

sf_spiritOfTruth_05Taking thoughts – the products of our God-given ability to reason, reflect and respond – captive means avoiding decisions based solely on our finite processing. This requires holding to a central truth to help govern those thoughts.

Truth should shape us, not the information we take in. The information we receive and digest, whether overloading us or not, should not sculpt thoughts. If it is, we’ve got it backwards. Instead, let truth determine the shape & direction of thoughts. Information then becomes a tool for spreading truth.

Spending time in Scripture allows truth to become part of our thinking and to fuel our filtering system. This practice must exist at our core instead of as a problem-solving method only, and this only happens by spending time regularly dwelling with Him and allowing His Holy Spirit to guide our thinking (1 Corinthians 2:10-16).

Reducing Overload

An overloaded mind produces a divided focus, and a divided focus fails to live fully by truth. So, in addition to establishing a habit of building core strength on truth, capturing thoughts involves limiting and managing the information we take in to allow for a more singular focus.

To reduce overload in a way that allows truth to direct and guide, first limit incoming information and then make sure what you do allow to dwell supplements your thinking instead of draining it.

This process requires taking the time to think about what you’re thinking by asking the following questions regularly:

  1. sf_beautifulMind_04What am I allowing to shape my thoughts? Psalm 1:1-2 says to avoid bad influences and focus on good. We’ll cover more of how to manage this in the next post.
  2. What am I allowing to dwell in my mind? If you think you can’t help what you think about, you’re wrong. Scripture tells us we can choose where to fix our thoughts (See Romans 8:5, Philippians 4:8 & Hebrews 3:1)
  3. What is the source of my thoughts? Do they come from the thinking of others? Or, do they flow out of the truth of Christ established in you? (See Colossians 2:8)

Overload blocks deliberate thinking and even an awareness of the thinking process itself. At some point, you just have to say “Enough!” and give yourself time and space to stop the inflow of information, consider what’s going through your head (writing thoughts down or talking them out can help), and pit them against God’s truth.

If you fail to capture your thoughts by thinking about what you’re thinking, you’ll be the one in the cage while your thoughts wreak havoc as you watch through the bars of overload. Choose to use information as a supplement and an avenue to spread truth instead of letting it overload you.

DISCUSSION: What experience do you have with reducing information overload? What role did God’s word play in that process?

5 Crucial Principles for Managing Stress

Manage stressAn interesting progression took place while blogging about stress this past month – I became more stressed. No, writing didn’t negatively stress me. Stress, yes, but the good kind resulting in stretching and growing, the therapy kind.

Do you have any good stress in your life right now?

Maybe the increased awareness of stress in general played a role. For sure, a large part came from an increase in stressors, most through others and out of my control.

My first reaction, my automatic response, is to eliminate stress as much as possible. That’s not always the best option, though. Sometimes my focus must be on recharging and then continuing, letting stress be and not trying to control it. With that, I realize that I must…

Persistently pursue time to recharge and refocus.

Relieve stressIf Jesus needed to do this (Matthew 14:13-34), I definitely need this habit. So, instead of trying to fix everything (which is impossible and only adds to stress), maybe letting it ride, living within it is best. In other words…

Acknowledge the stress, then keep commitments and fulfill responsibilities by simply doing what’s next.

As I’ve learn to keep moving through the stress, I’ve also gotten better at not letting stress constantly eat away at me, at not worrying about what I can’t control. I’ve learned to counteract stress with healthy outlet activities (exercise, reading, talking, etc.), and I’ve learned to pray… a lot… about everything (Philippians 4:6). Do you have healthy outlets for stress relief?

In that, I begin to focus on controlling my attitude and responses during stress. Out of that comes a realization that I need to apply a principle I’ve told my boys many times, namely…

Understand what you can and can’t control, and refuse to dwell in the wrong place.

Prepare for StressWhen I realize what I can and can’t control, I must then focus my energy and effort on that which I can control, even if only slightly. One of the most difficult areas to realize control involves the volume of what we take on, what we commit to and assume responsibility for.

And what I see happening is a lot of people drowning in a perfectly floatable boat simply because they’ve weighed it down by taking on too much. They’re sitting in a sinking boat because they’ve put too much in it, and the only way to keep from drowning is to get rid of some of the stuff. Really, it’s best to never take it on in the first place, but at some point, we must…

Learn to say “no” – even to good – so we can say “yes” to better and best.

As stress ebbs and flows, and as I realize my inability to truly control its existence, I increasingly understand the importance of a habit of consistency regarding stress management. I realize that stress exists mostly as a mental battle, that it’s the atmosphere of my inner self that truly determines whether or not I sink or float. Do you have any consistent habits to help manage your stress?

Psychcentral says “most negative symptoms [of stress] can be corrected if you take action.” My experience with stress – and a crash and burn resulting from not managing it well – supports this fact. With that comes the final principle for managing stress…

Find ways to manage your stress on your own terms before your body forces you to on its terms.

Dealing with stress really isn’t an option. You WILL deal with it one way or another. The question is, will you deal with it by choice or by force?

DISCUSSION: What can you do today to better manage stress? What advice do you have for others?

Additional posts about stress:

Children & Stress

stress boysJonathan, an independent worker, gets easily frustrated, struggles with change, tends to over-analyze, and operates with a lot of “What if…” scenarios. Richard, a very social person, procrastinates, rushes through work, sacrifices quality for completion, and struggles focusing.

At least, when overwhelmed or not managing stress well, these descriptions fit my boys aptly. But when they manage their stress and keep balanced, they are very productive and positive.

I often forget to consider my kids’ stress. They are “just kids” and seem to handle stress way better than I do, after all. But when I see the signs and do nothing, I miss out on a valuable parenting opportunity.

Biblical Parenting_scriptureSpecific Kid-Sources of Stress

Based on the lives of my two boys (age 15 & 13), both their own stress as well as what they describe as stress in their friends’ lives, the top areas of stress for kids include: School (grades, homework, tests, etc.); peer pressure; sports; parent pressures (chores, behavior, attitude, etc.); consequences of stupid choices; wanting to relax; thinking about the future; and divorced parents.

An Immediate Response

Realizing that most kids, and many adults for that matter, tend to react to stress without first thinking, a stress-management approach for kids must be sort of programmed into their brains (in the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:7). Keeping this in mind, I always ask them the following questions when they struggle with a stressful situation:

What can you do about it?
What can’t you do about it?
Who/what can you control/not control?
Who/what can you change/not change?

We also usually address the “fairness” issue, since kids often dwell here. They need to know that life isn’t always fair.

In addition to getting our boys to realize they can only control themselves and their reactions, we also try to provide stress-relieving activities or approaches for managing stress. Those include giving them a venue to talk out what’s on their minds and making sure they have enough physical activity and leisure time. We also make sure to have lots of family time as well as to provide structure that suits the child. And of course, consistency blankets all of these.

A Biblical ResponseTitus 2

Advice on teaching our kids anything lies incomplete and ineffective without integrating what Scripture says about  preventing, managing and eliminating stress for our kids. With that in mind, lets make a somewhat unique application of some very familiar parenting verses.

  1. Don’t exasperate & discourage them. (Colossians 3:21) So often, my kids’ stress comes from or is made worse by my own poor stress management.
  2. Give them skills to deal with their feelings. (Proverbs 1:8-9) Be available to listen & to talk.
  3. Teach them ways to relieve stress. (Proverbs 22:6) Include them in your own stress relievers when possible.
  4. Tell them why managing stress is important. (1 Peter 5:3) Use yourself as an example.
  5. Model positive stress management. (Titus 2:7-8) Make sure what you say matches what you do.

I want my kids to realize that stress is not always bad. In fact, we need stress to grow and thrive. Take the amoeba – the most basic of life forms – for example. Scientists introduced it into a completely stress-free environment in a petri dish. What happened? The amoeba died. But when placed in a “normal” environment with all its challenges, the amoeba multiplied and thrived.

The same happens, essentially, with us. Without stress, we fail to thrive and grow. Plus, a stress-free life isn’t possible anyway.

Doesn’t good parenting, then, involve teaching our kids how to prevent, manage and relieve stress? Aren’t we living out what Scripture says when we train our kids to handle the inevitable in life to allow them to truly be not only productive and positive but to do so in a way that honors God and points others to Him?

Too Overwhelmed to Become Less Overwhelmed

So often, people fail to work on developing a time management and goal-setting system simply because they feel overwhelmed. They feel like they are so far off track and have too many changes needing made that they just don’t know where to start. As a result, they don’t start anywhere and simply maintain the same dysfunctional system that got them to their current state of frustration.

Where to Start3-14-13 Where to start

Often, the answer is to simply just start. Just take a step forward. Yet, too often, the weight of perfectionism, too many choices or both prevents even that first step. Sometimes, setting big goals and getting your life organized simply seems insurmountable. When you feel this way, start the process of change by focusing on small changes that added together will make a huge difference over time.

The following tips can help you to start this small change process.

  1. Consider the extremes. Ask yourself what’s working well and what’s not working at all. Then look for ways to tweak what’s already working and to change with what is absolutely not working. Don’t worry about what falls in between.
  2. Get and stay teachable. This point has far reaching implications. Being teachable, or having the willingness to always learn and grow, is essential to a productive life. Within the context of goal setting and time management, being teachable involves a willingness to try different things. It means knowing that you can tweak what works and toss what doesn’t.
  3. Stick with what works. Or, at least with what kind of works. Really, something has to be working at least partly, or you’d be dead. You’ve got to be doing at least one thing right. When you’re already overwhelmed, trying to change everything at once just makes matters worse. Some changes can wait.
  4. Take the plunge. This means diving in with a new approach or method and being willing to experience failures. It means taking chances and continuing to do so until you find what works. Failure can be the greatest teacher, but we never know what will or won’t work until we give it a shot.
  5. Struggle through. Life will never be free from struggle. Not giving in, not being apathetic or complacent, not settling… that’s where the value in continuing to struggle exists.

If you make no other commitment today, commit to making your life a process of small change. Some days may involve huge leaps, while others will simply be successful when you don’t go backwards. Simply committing to lifting up your foot and taking a step starts the process of change.

When to Start

3-14-13 Start

Some people struggle with starting something new until every condition is perfect. Experience tells me this results in never starting. So, the perfect time to start is right now. Just one small step forward. Something. Anything. In order for small things to add up over time to make a huge difference, you have to be doing some small things. Choose one and start right now!

A Final Note

Know that person who seems to have it all together? She’s organized, in shape, and eats healthy. Her kids and husband seem content. You want to be just like her, right? Well, first realize that rarely are things as they appear. Secondly, know that being like her is impossible simply because you’re not her.

In other words, be you. Figure out the systems and approaches that work for you. Yes, they’ll be a combination of the approaches of others, but no two people have the exact same system for managing time and reaching goals.

For more on this, check out my guest post entitled The Big Picture: My Own Life Plan Method and its sequel Living in the Details: My Daily Plan at Christian Faith at Work. Then, check out Chris Patton’s articles entitled 3 Keys to Creating New Habits and The Daily Game Plan: A Must Use Tool! Not only will these give you some very different perspectives on goal setting and time management, they’ll help you more fully understand how we truly are all unique in our approaches to life.

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How to… Live an 80/20 Life, Part 1

If 20 years of marriage taught me nothing else, it showed me that people view and handle stress uniquely. My husband and I sit on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to how we handle stress. Simply put, he can handle a lot more than me. About 10 years into our marriage, I finally became okay with sitting and reading while he worked around the house. I realized that we were both dealing with the stress in our lives, just in very different ways.

Managing busyness also looks very different from one person to the next. My husband takes a “handle it as it comes” approach, while I tend to limit how much comes at me in the first place. While I can see how he handles stress and busyness, I don’t really understand it. I have come to accept it simply because it works well for him.

Over the past 2 ½ years, learning to better mitigate the stress in my life and to keep busyness in balance has brought what a friend of mine called “a peace” about me. And I feel more peaceful too. With that being said, the following two approaches largely shape how busyness and stress stay minimal and margin stays optimal in my life.

Schedule Only 80% of My Calendar

This leaves a 20% margin for surprises that pop up and for extra opportunities to minister. I’m not naturally spontaneous, but this 20% at least gives spontaneity (often initiated by my husband) a good chance for success upon occasion.

Mostly, though, the 20% is for the down time that my laid back personality needs. Some days and even weeks go over 80%, but that’s okay when I have margin in sight. I make sure it’s always in sight too. Yes, this means saying “no” to some good people and activities. But, I have found that saying “no” actually allows me to more fully say “yes.”

Say Only 20% of What I’m Thinking

As an introvert, there’s a lot going on in my head. My husband loves me, but he doesn’t want to hear it all. (He actually gets more than 20% anyway.) No one but God wants to hear it all, and saying too much detracts from listening, which is more important anyway.

This 80/20 “rule” also keeps sarcasm at bay, which also comes a bit too naturally for me. Not only that, but my melancholy personality also gravitates toward the negative initially. So keeping those thoughts to myself really does benefit everyone.

My point in saying this really goes toward balance. Keeping much of my thoughts to myself brings more value to what I do say. I feel like it also shows more value for what others have to say. At least that is my intention. To me, that helps bring balance to my relationships.

You Decide!

These two 80/20 “rules” do not exist like rigid accounting principles. They simply provide guidance and help keep life simple. After crashing 2 ½ years ago, I was forced to rethink my approach to balance. These two rules are the result.

If one take-away exists from this post, let it be the importance of managing overload and maintaining balance. Overload happens when you do nothing to stop it, while balance and simplicity must be deliberately and uniquely pursued.  Decide now which state of mind will get the victory in your life.

Next week’s “How to…Live an 80/20 Life, Part 2” will discuss some specific tactics for living an 80/20 life.

DISCUSSION: What approach do you take to achieve and maintain balance & simplicity in your life?

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Related Reading: 

Deciding to Pursue Simplicity

Simplicity for any individual is defined to a great extent by personality and temperament. Introverts, for example, in general tend to need slower-paced lives than do extroverts.

A person’s interests also direct what simplicity looks like to them. Just because someone else finds an activity relaxing, others may not find it to be so and may even discover that it adds a level of complexity that works to undermine their ability to discover a simple life.

For example, I tried scrapbooking but found the process too complicated with too many decisions to make and supplies to buy. My mind feels much more content with a simple photo album with dates of events written in the margin. For me, scrapbooking made life more complicated. For others, it’s a relaxing pastime.

Clothing is another example. I found myself constantly frustrated with trying to decide what to wear each day, and then I noticed I only wore about 20% of the clothing that I owned anyway. So, I systematically whittled my wardrobe down by over 40%. Yet, I have friends who love to try new trends and constantly mix up their wardrobes. They like to express themselves through their clothing.

Simplicity also pursues each individual in unique ways. For instance, significant foot (nerve entrapment) and back (slipped discs and spinal stenosis) problems along with Piriformis Syndrome limited my shoe options to only a few pair for a long time.

The limit came not from simple obedience to the doctor, either. The severe foot and ankle pain gave me the option of either wearing only those few pairs of shoes or not being able to walk. This is not a simplicity I had planned on or in any way pursued, but it definitely found me.

Small things quoteA principle of simplicity that seems inherently true regardless of the person is that small things done consistently over time add up to make a huge difference. In other words, simplicity does not come through any one major event or leap. Rather, there exist a multitude of small changes and adjustments that together add up for big change and create a simpler life.

The combination of elements that create my simple life will look like no one else’s. But, the principles for achieving a simple life are essentially the same and involve one major decision… the decision to pursue simplicity.

DISCUSSION: What does a simple life look like to you? Have you made the decision to pursue simplicity?

Go Against the Flow

Moneyball tells the story of a general manager who decides to build a baseball team based on statistics rather than individual talent. Everyone, except the economist working for him, thought he was making a huge mistake. Everyone was wrong. His counterintuitive decision was right on the money. Billy Beane went against the flow of conventional baseball wisdom, and it changed the game of baseball forever.

Ever had an idea or wanted to make a change that went against what everybody around you was doing? Or, maybe you felt the need to resist going in a direction everyone else was taking. Going against the flow is difficult simply because it sets us apart from everyone else.

4 Principles for Going Against the Flow

Scripture says that while we may plot our course, the Lord directs our steps (Proverbs 16:9). Choosing to follow the steps He indicates often means going against the flow of our culture.

These 4 principles for going against the flow can help you better see the steps he wants you to take.

#1 Acknowledge Limits

Our culture is one of pushing limits. The world of sports is a perfect example. How fast can the mile actually be run? How many touchdowns can one person make in a season? Who can jump the highest or farthest? No matter what records are broken, the new record always becomes the goal. But the truth of the matter is that we do have – and need – limits. Limits allow us to avoid significant negative consequences (think weight control and traffic signs). Intentionally setting limits on desires and pleasures allows us to stay balanced and healthy in body, mind and spirit.  Setting limits is also counter-cultural because we’re told daily we can have what we want when we want it… no limits. Embracing the blessings of limits can protect us from thinking outside of the will of God.

Acknowledging limits goes against the flow of mainstream thinking.

#2 Raise Expectations

There is always someone who isn’t doing as well as you in some way, and it’s easy to get a false sense of superiority. Comparisons are dangerous, yet our culture promotes them like crazy. Comparisons create a false reality, and they can lead to pride in feeling like improvement is unnecessary. When we realize that Jesus is the bull’s-eye, though, we understand the need for progressive improvement. He is the standard by which we should measure our lives. In doing so, our expectations are raised, and we can set goals that don’t pit us constantly against one another.

Forgetting comparisons is certainly not mainstream thinking.

#3 Be Separate

Holiness is a Bible word that many think means perfection. But holiness is not about being perfect; it’s about being separate. When you separate yourself, you avoid conforming to the world. You avoid walking the path of destruction. You become an example of one aiming for the bull’s-eye. Others may consider you odd, but their approval isn’t what matters. The question you must ask is, “Does God approve of my life?” if the answer is yes, then you are living a life of separation and not conformity.

Seeking God’s approval over man’s approval goes against the flow.

#4 Make Relationship a Priority

Limits and rules exist for our safety, but they mean little more than restriction and confinement without relationship. Parents can discipline kids, but kids won’t truly aim for obedience if the relationship is weak. The book of Leviticus is all about establishing rules for the safety of the Israelites. While they focused on God, the rules weren’t a big deal to follow. They followed them because they loved Him. But as soon as they took their eyes off of Him, the rules were broken and rebellion reigned. Relationship makes following the rules a desire rather than a requirement.

Focusing on relationship over self does not support the thinking of our “me first” society.

Directed Steps

As John Carty noted in Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life,

“It’s not easy to overcome the training and traditions of a lifetime.”

Often, though, this is exactly what Christ leads us to do. He sometimes directs us to go against the flow of the training and traditions of our comfort zones.

Are you willing to take the steps He directs?