How I Work
I posted something at the end of last year, The Books I Read in 2016, that received lots of questions from lots of people. Most of the questions centered around how I find time to read as much as I do. One friend asked if I could plot out a typical day – where do I find time for it? So, I wanted to devote a post to answering that question, but, really, more than just that. I want to talk about what I do and why I do it, which leads me to the how. (If you want the quick and dirty version, jump down to the How I Read section.)
What I Do
Briefly, here’s what I do. I work for HCA Physician Services. I’ve been there almost ten years. It’s the only place I’ve ever worked. I manage a group that develops software applications for our accounting team. I also serve at my church, Refuge Church Franklin, in various capacities. I preach when our pastor is out, I lead men’s Bible studies, lead a small group, manage the money, and serve wherever else I can. I have three children, all boys. My oldest is five-years-old. My youngest is one-year-old. I have an incredible wife who encourages and helps me in ways that I never knew were possible. I write and read and disciple. And that’s about it.
Why I Do It
I do lots of things. I could do lots of other things. I do what I do because it’s where God has led me. I believe that he ordains the times and places in which we live (Acts 17:26). I believe that he gives gifts to the church through people (Ephesians 4:11-12). And so, I am where I am by the grace of God to fulfill the call on my life for his glory.
I wasn't always a reader. I never read anything in high school from cover to cover that I can remember. I found books to be incredibly boring and hard to endure. I was barely able to make it through the cliff notes (at that dawning era of the internet, Spark Notes were all the rage.) In my view, reading used to be a worthy but unnecessary goal. Then I went to college in Kentucky and found a group of Christians who lived like Christians and my world got turned upside down. I saw day in and day out their love for Jesus and their desire to live for him. Something changed inside of me - God had awoken my heart in a new way. I picked up the Bible, and I started to read, and thus my relationship with books began.
It was the Bible that kindled the fire for more books. The first time I read through the New Testament, it took two full weeks. It wasn't fast. I just had a lot of time because Sociology 101 was boring, and I didn’t need to be there to ace the test. I skipped a lot of classes those two weeks. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. I don’t think it pleased God that I shirked responsibilities, but I needed to focus because my world was changing.
Shortly after that, I started to read other books. Most were an attempt to help me understand that one big book I had just finished. So much of it was a mystery. What was Paul talking about in Romans 9? Why did Jesus have to die? What in the world is the book of Revelation? I needed more information. I could find the right person to ask and schedule some time, or I could pick up a book and take it with me. I chose books.
I didn’t read 100 books that year. I maybe read 4, if that. I didn’t read 100 books the next year, either. In fact, I didn’t read 100 books until this year. Last year I read a lot, but not 100. Whenever we see someone doing something that seems incredible we tend to forget that they didn’t wake up playing basketball like LeBron James or making one-handed catches like Odell Beckham. No one just stumbles into crafting each nook of the house by hand like they do on HGTV. No one preaches like Ray Ortlund on the first try. No one…you get the point. It’s a gradual thing. We grow, like a plant, millimeter by millimeter. Most of the growth we see happens in the shadows, hidden beneath one tiny alteration after another until we have enough distance to see that things have changed. So it was for me and reading.
One simple, obvious reason I read is that I like it. But, as I’ve said, that wasn’t always the case. Over time, I began to enjoy to act of reading. I would find myself looking out at a cold, rainy day and longing for my chair, coffee, and a book. I would see a free night as an opportunity to read. A summer evening dream included a book and a cigar on the back porch. I would find anticipation in getting up early to crack the spine of a newly acquired volume. Books open new worlds, introduce life-changing characters, explain Scripture in insightful ways, challenge my cultural blind spots, expand my geographical understandings.
But it’s more than just a desire to read. The call on my life (which may be different than the call on your life) is to be a leader in the local church. As such, I need to read. I don’t have a seminary degree. I don’t have money or time to pursue one. I have three children and a full-time job and responsibilities at home, work, and church. Reading is the way I acquire the knowledge I lack from missing out on formal education. I read not only because I want to but because I need to. If I am to be a good steward of God’s grace, I must be a reader.
How I Do It
Maybe you’ve seen those articles on Lifehacker where they interview someone in some profession and ask how they work. Well, here’s mine. Here’s how I attack my list and make it through so many books while raising three small boys, working a full-time job managing employees and various projects, loving my wife, serving my church, etc. (Nothing more than what all of you do on a daily basis.)
What I Carry
- My bag (Leather Men's Messenger Bag).
- My laptop (Surface Pro 3)
- My Bible. You never know when you need it, and digital Bibles just aren’t the same. I need to be able to turn to the page I read the words on.
- At least three books. I am usually working on a few books at a time: a novel, Christian non-fiction, and history or biography. I never know what mood I’ll be in so I make sure I have options.
- Pens (Micron) and a pencil (Graph Gear 1000 Automatic Drafting Pencil). I use the pens for writing in my Bible. Then pencil I use for underlining and note taking in whatever book I’m reading (only books I own!)
- Various other project/task related papers, such as things for the church. I’m the Treasurer, so I always have reimbursement forms or checks or bills or something.
- Kindle Voyage. This is perhaps the biggest game change for me. I read so much more because Kindle is so easy to use. I have the Voyage. I chose this because it has everything I want: a backlight for darker rooms, no color to distract me, high resolution, page press technology, and a long battery life.
What Apps, Software, or Tools I Rely On
- Evernote. I use it as my digital filing cabinet. In particular, I keep a reading list and a writing ideas list here. I’m a terrible procrastinator, and so I need to be able to look at a list and start working. I don’t need to waste time thinking of something in the moment.
- Microsoft Office. I know some people don’t like using Word to write, but I just haven’t found any reason to change. I’m not distracted by the options, and I don’t need anything more than what it offers. I also use Excel, Access, and Outlook at work for a variety of things.
- iPhone. I use my phone for everything from setting reminders, to-do lists, Evernote notes, to texts. Our church doesn’t have an official office, so we text to get lots of things done.
- Zoom. Our staff at church uses this app for our weekly staff meeting. Since we’re all over the city on Tuesday afternoons, this app has been a lifesaver. It doesn’t replace being in the same room in physical proximity, but it does offer a good alternative, with video.
- Surface Pro 3. I love this tablet/laptop. It’s by far the best piece of technology I’ve ever owned. You can write on it, type on it, flip it around to landscape or portrait, use it as a tablet, or a full-out desktop. It’s so versatile. I don’t want to hear anything from you Mac people. This Microsoft product is a beast.
- Kindle Voyage (See above).
How My Workspace is Setup
It’s simple. I don’t have a big house, and therefore don’t have a lot of space for a desk. Every bit of work I do at home is accomplished in my brown leather chair that I’ve owned for 15 years. It’s right beside the TV, so if it’s on, I can’t see it and be distracted. I have two bookshelves next to me, one on my right and one on the left. I have stacks of books I’m working through or using for reference, with a Bible nearby. I just purchased the Bibliotheca Bible set, so that’s what’s sitting next to me now.
In the office, my desk-set up isn’t how I’d like it, but the room just doesn’t allow anything else. I don’t face the door; I face a window. So, my back is to anyone who comes into the office. I don’t like that, but it’s what I have to work with. I spend a good portion of my day in meetings. The rest is spent at that desk.
How I Read
Now, how do I read so much? It’s simple. Fill your time with books. We all have more free-time than we realize. Smart phones have hijacked most of it. Twitter is amazing, and I love it, but it’s a free-time sucker unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They call it a feed for a reason. The line of thought never ceases. When you run out, you’re just a refresh away from something new. And we, like the Athenians in Acts 17, spend our time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. We are news junkies in a fake news world with access to more information than anyone in the history. And we swallow the fake news with glee instead of tasting the sweetness of a well-crafted and carefully thought-through paragraph.
Here’s what I do. I make a list of books I want to read, and I start reading them. Some I purchase, some are given to me, and lots are rented from the library. (We tend to forget that we have access to the greatest books in the world for free. Every major city has a world-class library with more volumes than most of the world’s great thinkers and writers ever had access to. Use it.)
I also do this…keep reading…this is the best secret I have.
My Best Secret
Lately, I've been getting up at 4 am. It's life changing. It's the most productive I've ever been. If you're looking for time, I'm firmly convinced that 4 AM is it. I use that time to both read and write.
It sounds crazy. I'm not historically a morning person. I remember the days when I regularly stayed up past midnight and slept until well after the sun had risen. But these are new days for me, and I must say, 4 in the morning is getting better and better.
Here's why it works for writing and reading (I don’t do any “office” work during this time. This is purely creative/input time):
- I'm fresh and can think clearly. At night, it takes at least twice as long to collect my thoughts.
- Nothing has interrupted me yet. Nothing has begun to occupy my mind. I can think about what I want to think about.
- No one else is up, so I have limited distractions. No one is Tweeting or Facebooking or Instagramming. It's so quiet!
- I start my day with accomplishment instead of ending my day with disappointment over things I ran out of time for, which, for me, is always writing.
- I'm up and ready to welcome my family when they get up, which makes a difference. I'm way more patient.
And here's how I make it work:
- I go to bed around 9. That's early, but not much sooner than I used to when I got up at 5:00-5:30.
- I automated my lights downstairs. I go down to a bright room.
- I automated my coffee. I go down to hot coffee with the mug ready. This takes prep time at night.
- I play music. I use an Amazon Echo and play Spotify through it. I can just tell Alexa what to play as I’m pouring my coffee.
- I have my laptop ready, charged, and by my chair.
- I have a list of topics to write about, and I get started.
- I pray for God's help when I'm tired. I read to fill my heart. I write to tell about it.
- I recognize I can't write a book in a day, but I can in the course of many diligent days.
- I have three boys under the age of 6. The youngest is a year old. We don't sleep a lot, but we sleep enough. If you want to do it, you can. You may not want to write, but whatever it is you need/want to do there is time for.
4 AM has, day by day, changed my life. I bet it could change yours, too.
Oh, and it turns out I'm not the first one to figure this out. Who knew?
What I’ve Learned from Reading So Widely
I’m in positions all the time where I need to be able to think clearly and broadly. I need experiences and thoughts outside of my head. Not every book I read sticks in my mind. Not every chapter or paragraph or sentence is in the filing cabinet of my brain, ready to be retrieved at the click of the mouse. But what reading does do is expose me to new ideas and thoughts and experiences. Even if I don’t remember the nuances, I remember the thesis. John Piper once said books don’t change people’s lives, sentences do. I believe that. Reading an entire book for one great sentence is worth reading it. Just like watching an ok movie is worth that one scene that lifts you into another world, or makes you laugh uncontrollably, or makes you cry on a Friday night after a hard week.
How I Recharge
It might sound like I’m always running fast without must rest. But that’s not true. I play with my three boys a lot. When they’re awake, they get my attention (most of the time). I get up early because I know they need me and they’re still sleeping at 4:00. We laugh and wrestle and throw balls at each other and run around and play soccer and basketball and baseball. We play board games and eat ice cream and watch movies. We live a normal family life. My wife and I talk after the boys go to bed. We don’t accomplish much in the evenings, and that’s ok. We have time for each other.
Primarily, though, I recharge through the hearing and believing of the gospel. Without the free forgiveness of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ, I have no rest at all. As Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.
I read through the entire Bible every year. I’ve done this seven years in a row now. It’s the most important thing I do each year. I write primarily for ministry. I read primarily to expand my knowledge of God.
I attend church regularly, every Sunday. I don’t miss. I can’t miss. I need to be reminded of the grace of God. I need to worship through singing and partaking of communion. I need to be around fellow believers and let their faith rub off on me.
I meet with other Christian regularly, as well. I need to confess sin. I need to hear how others are doing. I need people who know me.
I pray when I’m tired and when I’m overwhelmed and when life seems like too much. I pray at other times, too, but especially when life feels hard. I go to the one who has asked me to cast my cares upon him because he cares for me.
I do this, and write this, not to boast about anything, but to share what God has taught me in hopes that it helps someone. Everything I know, I learned from someone else. But isn’t that how life is? That’s perhaps the biggest reason of all that I read. I need thoughts not my own. Mine are just too boring.