5 Ways to Stay Focused While Working From Home

If you prefer listening over reading, check out Episode 124: Reimagine Your Work of The Next Right Thing podcast. Or you can read below with links and photos added. If you want even more help to stay focused on your next right thing, I wrote a whole book about it!

You know how at the end of the year, those of us who are on Instagram share our top nine of the year? That’s the top nine photos that got the most likes all year. I’m here for all of it. I love seeing people’s top nines and I love discovering what my top nine are.

It’s fun and kind of fascinating to see what people liked, but in the spirit of doing what I want, I also like to post two versions of my top nine. The first version I follow the rules and then the second version I pick my own top nine: my favorite posts of the year.

In the world of podcasting, there isn’t really an equivalent of the Instagram top nine, but we can gauge, at least in part, which episodes are listener favorites by the number of downloads they receive.

Here are the most downloaded episodes of The Next Right Thing podcast:

  • 01: Become a Soul Minimalist: This isn’t a huge surprise because it’s the very first episode. Because it’s been around the longest, a lot of listeners like to get a feel for a podcast by listening to how it starts.
  • 88: Come Away For A While: This one is about the importance of sabbaticals and how we confuse them with other kinds of “rest.”
  • 84: A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Reflection: This one makes me eternally happy because making reflection lists is one of my most favorite things to do so talking with you about doing them is equally as satisfying.

I love all three of these episodes, but they’re not necessarily my favorites. One of my favorite episodes was Episode 73 about how I created theme days for my work and how they saved my life during some of the busiest years of my life.

The reasoning behind creating theme days in the first place a few years ago is because, like many of you, my work responsibilities don’t fall under the same umbrella. This is true for a lot of authors, people who work from home, or entrepreneurs who wear lots of different hats. That means when I sit down to work, there are many different types of tasks that I could tackle.

This could apply to you no matter what your job is, whether it’s paid work, ministry work, or running and managing your household.

As I tried to manage the ever-growing to-do lists that I had, switching between tasks for these different areas of my work got me nowhere. The to-do list was impossibly long, and I found that the options lead to discouragement and decision fatigue.

I tried to prioritize based on importance or urgency, but that never seemed to work because too many tasks felt equally important depending on the day, the weather, and my mood.

That’s when I started using theme days for my work. I divided up my week based on different themes or categories. At that time, my theme days were:

  1. The Next Right Thing Podcast
  2. hope*writers
  3. Grad School reading + paper writing
  4. General admin stuff
  5. Meetings (online and in-person)

The decision to use theme days saved my life at the time. But now, life has changed.

Today, I’m revisiting that idea of theme days with a pandemical adjustment, or if you’re reading to this from the future and that global pandemic is just something only your parents talk about that happened way back in 2020, this still could be for you if you’re finding your life rhythm has changed drastically, but your work expectations have remained the same.

I’m so grateful that I have a job, and I’m grateful that it’s one I’ve always been able to do from home but things have not slowed down. If anything, they’ve ramped up.

How can we continue to do our work with some sanity when everything is different?

See if you can relate to this: My plan for today was to finish a new podcast episode by the end of the day. But instead by lunchtime, I’m a quarter of the way through 10 different tasks, moving each one an inch at a time, doing everything, getting nowhere.

I’m halfway through writing a caption for an Instagram post.

I’m in the middle of responding to three different Voxer conversations.

I have a book next to me that I just put down, and I only read one half of one chapter.

Just before I started to record the intro to the episode, I read a text from my sister with a link to a video that took me down a 10-minute rabbit hole.

Today, I’ve also Googled the phrases “storm damage in North Carolina,” “TV shows that had been canceled,” “Boris Johnson hospital,” and “Meghan Markle” because, of course, I did.

These things are not specific to the times right now, but they are evidence that I am even more easily distracted these days, and maybe you are too.

The bottom line?

I’ve discovered giving myself a theme for the whole day is just unrealistic for me right now. It’s too broad of a time limit without enough details.

At the end of the day, I feel like I did a lot of stuff but finished nothing.

I’ve come to accept that it isn’t only our plans for the future that needs some serious adjustment. It’s also our plans for today.

I’m still using the theme concept, and I might return to the old way of doing it at some point, but right now, instead of applying it to a workday, I’m applying it to a work session.

Some days I get to have several work sessions in maybe twenty, forty, or sixty-minute blocks. Other days there’s only one good one. Some days, there’s not a good one at all. But this can be especially helpful if you have a lot of people (big or small) living in your house.

Plus, it’s much easier to tell your family that you’re going to disappear for a sixty minute work session and then lock yourself in your bedroom than it is to say that you’re taking the day to work.

Whether I’m able to work all day or for only a portion of a part of a day, here are five things that are helping me right now.

1. Get clear on the task.

I’m not working on my website. I’m writing an About Page. I’m not reading email. I’m responding to five messages and clearing them out.

One of our decision-making practices that we talked about in episode 121 was that if you can’t put your decision into a clear sentence, then you won’t be able to make a clear decision. The sentence forces you to hold just one decision at a time. Nothing brings on frustration overwhelm more quickly than when you’re trying to decide two things at once. If you can’t state clearly what the decision is, then don’t try to make the decision until you can.

Well, the same goes for a work session.

Depending on your living situation, you may not get many of these during the week. So it’s important to be clear on the front end what you want to accomplish when you have a work session. If you can’t state what the task is when you sit down to work, chances are you’ll be more prone to distraction, and instead of sending those five emails, you’ll end up reading a lot about what Meghan Markle is up to these days.

2. Ready your workspace.

Whether you have an actual home office with a door, hallelujah. Or if your workspace is your kitchen table or your side of the bed, ready it by clearing and tending.

First, clear, clear off that workspace. That does not mean reorganize your desk, but if there’s a bunch of stuff on your desk, just put it on the floor. You can always place it back on your desk when your work session is over and nothing is lost. If you’re locked in your bedroom on your bed, make that bed. Clear the clutter that you can see. Face the window. Anything to just get rid of that visual clutter. That’s the clearing part.

Next, it helps me to tend the space. Before I sit down to do the task at hand, I light a candle, open the window above my desk or put on my writing playlist. This can be anything small that feels a little extra.

This week I ordered a new candle from Target. It’s blood orange if you must know, and when it came in the mail, it made me so happy because it’s just a little something to set the tone for my work session.

3. Apply a time limit.

This is just another way to say set a timer. The experts say that our brains can concentrate on one task for about 20 minutes before losing focus (Pomodoro Technique, anyone?) I don’t necessarily think there’s a rule on how long a work session can go, but I do think there’s something to that 20-25 minute space for us to be able to sit down, concentrate and then take a quick break. But the most important thing is that you pick a time and stick with it. I always just use the timer on my iPhone.

4. Carry only one task.

This is where I personally get into the most trouble which is why I’m making one point twice. The first point was: get clear on the task. That one refers to getting started. But once you’re started, you have to carry it through as though it’s just one single task.

Jason Fitzpatrick calls it single-tasking in a post for LifeHacker. Single-tasking is the “eat healthy and exercise of productivity.” It’s so obvious that it feels dumb to say it, but then I continue not to do it because it’s hard. Instead, I suffer from trying to make tiny progress on lots of things instead of lots of progress on one thing.

Carry only one task.

5. End the session well.

It’s hard for me to end, especially these days. It’s not that I’ll work all day long, it’s just that the work fizzles out at the end of the day when I get tired and there isn’t a clear end to work. The timer will help. Single-tasking will help. But ending well is still something I have to be really mindful of.

Even if the task isn’t finished or didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped, it’s important to end the session anyway. If I can start another one, I will, usually with a little bit of a break in between. But these days it’s easy to slip into always being attentive to the work but never making progress on the work. This just adds to the fog in the waiting room.

Honor your limits of which there may be many, and maybe that’s the most important part to remember. We’re not robots, and sometimes the best thing we can do for productivity is to extend grace for ourselves, our coworkers, our families, and our outcomes.

Fun fact: These tips spell out GRACE if you write them down:

G – Get clear on the task.
R – Ready your workspace.
A – Apply a time limit.
C – Carry only one task.
E – End that session well.

The days may be different now, but the work continues.

We need you to find a way to do your good work, so that we can be inspired, so that we can laugh, so that we can learn, remember, believe and link arms together.

And when a day goes seven kinds of sideways and you don’t get a single minute of real work done, there is grace enough for you to start again tomorrow.

The same way we’re parenting our children these days, telling them it’s going to be okay, we have to parent ourselves, too. And in that, we’re to be kind, extend grace, keep a light heart and hopeful posture as we continue to do just our next right thing in love.

“We do not have to be qualified to be whole or healed.”

– Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

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Let’s Help the Children Do Their Next Right Thing

This post is a modified version of Episode 119 of The Next Right Thing Podcast. I wrote this content just days before the a national emergency was declared in this country. While I don’t specifically address the near daily changes happening in our lives right now as a result of our efforts to slow the spread Covid-19, I hope this simple reminder is still a timely one as we are all practicing the posture of doing the next right thing.

I had a dream that I printed out a manuscript I was working on, and it fell from the printer like soup. So I grabbed a little bowl to catch it with, and I took a sip without thinking. And then I worried because I wasn’t sure which chapter I ate.

It was a dream, of course, but I still woke up feeling like I had done something wrong, like I was missing something important, but I didn’t know where to go to find it. A mentor told me once to pay attention to my dreams.

Every single element in our dreams don’t necessarily hold some kind of hidden meaning, but the emotion that lingers when we wake up, well, that can be an important source of information.

A thing may not have happened, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.

It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few weeks ago I was on a cross country flight and watched the movie version of a book that I’d read a few years back. I enjoyed the movie mainly because I had already forgotten a lot of the details from the book.

Readers can be hard to please at movie theaters. When we read a book, our imagination is limitless. If the author doesn’t give details, we just fill them in ourselves. Our imaginations are powerful. But the filmmakers have so many limitations with time, money, and technology, as well as their own interpretation of the author’s intent. They have to make choices that decide for us the color of a dress or the layout of the room. Inevitably they’ll get something “wrong.”

Our ability to imagine what someone else is imagining is the outer limit of our own imagination. In other words, I cannot put myself in your head. I’m stuck inside my own. I don’t know what you’re thinking unless you tell me. And even then, I only hear it through the filter of my own experience. That’s true between you and me, and it’s true between us and our children.

So when my daughter was in elementary school and told me she was afraid of what her friends would think of her new haircut, I dismissed her imagination too soon. “Oh, they’re going to love it,” I said. They probably would, that’s true.

But they may not love it. So what then?

The picture she was holding onto in her mind wasn’t necessarily an unreasonable one. She was lost in her own imaginary world, seeing her friends laughing and pointing and offering only heavy rejection. In her head, it hurt even though it hadn’t happened yet, even though it probably wouldn’t happen at all. But I’m no help to her when I say, “That won’t happen. Don’t worry about it.”

I’m learning to practice expanding my own imaginary world to include the imagination of my children.

I started to learn this back when they were a little bit younger, but I’m finding it still applies even as they grow. The goal is to enter into that painful place with her, to walk alongside her into the dark alley of her mind, and to confront the fear lurking in pretend corners. The goal is not to tell her there’s nothing to fear but to give her the tools to handle what might come next. This is an important practice in all aspects of parenting, but especially when it comes to helping our kids make decisions.

The next time your child comes to you with a particular fear, a potential uncomfortable outcome, or help for making a decision, rather than launching immediately into lecture, fix or tell mode, here are four things you can do to help your child begin to develop their own habit of soulful decision-making.

1. Ask at least two questions.

When someone listens to us it feels like the opposite of loneliness. Part of the fear of negative outcomes our kids have is they’re afraid of the burden of being alone in the rejection, alone in that new adventure, or alone as they navigate an unknown future.

If your child is stuck in fear or doesn’t know what to do next, pause and ask a question. Not a leading question, or a statement disguised as a question. But a true curious question that seeks to know and understand.

Episode 94 of The Next Right Thing is all about the importance of asking the second question which can be especially important for children. I know as the parents or caregivers it may seem like we’re supposed to have all the answers so our first instinct is not to ask but to tell. But if your child is struggling with a fear or frustration or a decision, before you tell them anything, try asking them a question.

And then challenge yourself to ask at least one more question. Look for the clues to her hesitation. Find out the images she’s holding onto. Follow the trail to her heart.

2. Kneel to understand their world before asking them to rise to understand yours.

Years ago, I read a book by Wess Stafford that forever changed how I see children. The book is called Too Small to Ignore, and in it, Wess says this, he writes, “So far as we see in reading the gospels, Jesus never admonished children to become more grown up. He did, however, exhort grownups to become more like children.”

What does it mean to be like little children? The best way to know is to ask the children themselves.

What imaginary outcomes might they be anticipating?

What is he afraid will happen?

What sounds fun?

What sounds scary?

What clues will she offer you about the shape of her soul?

Kneel to understand their world before asking them to rise to understand yours.

3. Offer next-right-thing solutions.

If your son needs to decide between taking an art class or taking a music class in third grade, keep the third-grade perspective. What matters in third grade? Learning, yes, but also friends, predictability, safety, curiosity, fun. Resist the urge to insist a third-grade decision have high school consequences. Let it be a third-grade decision.

At the same time, when offering a next-right-thing solution, keep in mind that third grade is the oldest your child has ever been. In fact, no matter the age of your child, the age he where she is now is their oldest one. No matter if she’s three, or ten or sixteen. That’s why they always feel like they’re so grown up. It’s because they are.

To your child, this is the biggest and potentially most consequential decision she’s yet had to make. So resist the urge to downplay it just because it’s only third grade after all.

As the parents, we get to help shape these moments for our kids both by respecting them for what they are and by not making them something they’re not. And if a child has no idea what she wants to do or feels overwhelmed with the decision, maybe take what you’ve learned and ask her what is just the next right thing she can do today.

It might be go for a bike ride or eat a snack. Do her homework or play in her room. Keep her in the moment as much as you can and do your best to stay there with her.

4. Remember your job.

There’s a difference between God’s job and our job.

“God’s job is to fix and to change. Our job is to depend, serve and equip. This is the work of grace and it is more restful than you can imagine.” — Jeff Vanvonderen, Families Where Grace is in Place,

I wonder what would happen if we would dare to parent from a place of love rather than from a place of fear. While I know a little bit about what it could look like, I want to know even more.

I need God in all of this. Not just to do the parts that I’m not good at, not just to pick me up when I begin to feel weak, but I need the kind of God who takes up residence inside me to parent with me, in me, as me, as I trust him. Good thing that’s the kind of God he is.

So that haircut conversation might sound to my grownup mind like it is small and unimportant, but when you’re in third grade, that is your whole world. And actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had some pretty important haircut conversations in my adult world too.

I want to be willing to walk into the imagination of my child and face her biggest fears with her. And I know our friend Jesus is willing to walk into my imagination with me and face my fears with me, too.

He doesn’t dismiss me and say, “That’s never going to happen.” He says he will be with me even if it does happen.

The town in my head has beautiful potential, but it also has long, dark alleyways of fear and uncertainty. I don’t want to live in that town, but I also can’t ignore it.

God wants to give me a holy imagination to restore the twisted thoughts into straight lines again, to reclaim the corrupt government that rules in my head, to recover the barren wasteland of my battered emotion, to repossess the rundown streets I have forgotten to enjoy.

In him, all things hold together. In him, the town in my head can be redeemed.

If God did not value the power of our imagination, how could he ask us to believe in a God we cannot see?

How could Noah build an ark when there had never been rain?

How could Moses lead the people toward a land he’d never visited?

How could Mary believe the baby savior would come from her virgin body?

What was she treasuring up in her heart if not the image of the not yet born God born first in the heart of her imagination?

I’m learning slow, the power of inviting God into my imagination, and I want to be a parent who enters into the imagination of my kids. In turn, as we continue to learn together what it means to simply do our next right thing in love.

“The people brought children to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. The disciples shooed them off, but Jesus was irate and let them know it. Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom.

Mark this, unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in. Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.”

Mark 10:15-16, The Message

If you have Amazon Prime, you can read The Next Right Thing book for free with the Kindle app. Learn more right here.

10 Things I Learned This Winter

We do this every quarter and will share our next list (What We Learned in Spring) on Friday, May 29. If you are drawn to reflection but aren’t sure where to start, I’ve created an entire self-paced, online class to help you reflect on your life. Learn more and enroll in Discern + Decide right here.

Welcome to What We Learned, where we pause to reflect on the past season before we move ahead into the future. “It’s not the experience that brings transformation,”says author and teacher Jan Johnson, “it’s our reflection upon our experience.”

If that’s true (and I’m convinced it is) then it’s vital we establish intentional time to reflect on our lives. Reflection is part of my daily and weekly routine, but once a quarter I like to share some of my list and invite you to share yours. Note: Where books are shared, affiliate links are used.

Here are 10 things I learned this winter in no particular order:

 

1. I can change my habits.

Towards the end of last year I read Atomic Habits by James Clear and while there wasn’t necessarily any earth-shattering advice inside the pages, I still found I couldn’t put the book down.

Sometimes simple truth is the most irresistible. Specifically, I have gone from zero yoga in the second half of 2019 to a daily home practice of yoga in 2020 (today marks day 58 in a row!)

The non-secret secret: Make it obvious, easy, attractive, and satisfying.

 

2. Our kids birthdays are not just for our kids.

The girls turned 16 in January and after asking them for months in advance what they wanted to do to celebrate and getting only half answers and I don’t cares, I realized maybe my obsession with wanting their birthday to be special was not just for them but for me.

And so I made a list in my journal of what I wanted for their birthday:

  • I want them to feel celebrated in a way that suits them.
  • I want to be present.
  • I want to bring peace into the day.
  • I want to eat good food.
  • I want to celebrate the milestone without being annoying.

 

3. I need to say no even more than I thought.

As someone who talks a lot about boundaries, essentialism, and making space, I’ve learned this winter that I still have a lot to learn about actually putting this into practice. Coming soon: Emily has less meetings.

 

4. I need to say yes even more than I thought.

What?! Emily where is the glitch in the matrix you just said the opposite are you okay? I’m learning it’s possible to need to say no and yes at the same time just not to the same things.

For example, I need to say no to almost all requests for endorsements right now (I know, it’s a super author-specific example but this is my life and my list so you understand) so that I can say yes to collaborations, a few learning communities, and a huge project that requires deep work.

5. “There’s a light at the end of letting go.” Sawyer, Letting Go

It feels like the worst, this letting go of what you thought would be and who you thought you were. But this line sums it up and feels especially important during this current season of lent.

“I found the door but not the key
To be alone but not lonely
God help me to believe
There’s a door that I can’t see

Even when I’m left to stand alone
Even if you never come back home
Still I know I can feel it in my bones
There’s a light at the end of letting go”

 

6. I am not my emotions.

I may feel them deeply. I may despise them desperately. They may move me to from madness to gladness and back again some days. But they do not own me, boss me, or define me.

 

7. Pinterest is the most beautiful and useful search engine.

Thanks to my sister and her Cozy Minimalist Community, I have started to re-think our living room. She gives step by step instructions on how to redo a room of your house, starting with creating a pinterest board of inspiration with at least 50 pins.

Here are some images I pinned for our living room and I continue to be fascinated by my inability to avoid florals and pinks despite my verbal insistence that I love only neutrals.

8. Parenting is hard and I’ll never feel like I’m doing it right.

I know this is not the right way to frame this (what does “doing it right” even look like anyway? Don’t answer that.) But I think this has been a season of accepting that our kids are growing up and [Spoiler alert!] we still haven’t really figured out how to parent them. Lord have mercy. Jesus be near.

9. Speed matters in a race but life is not a competition.

When it comes to creativity, personal development, spiritual formation, and life with God and others, your pace is your pace and there’s no such thing as behind.

10. Once I finally found the courage to confess I was lonely, I found so many people are lonely, too.

I will have more to say about this but in summary, that’s a huge thing I learned this season. See: this podcast episode and this instagram post.

Now it’s your turn. What’s something you’ve learned this season?

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Never Believe Anything Bad About God

Every Tuesday we release a new episode of The Next Right Thing podcast, where you can find past episodes and transcripts. Sometimes we’ll post a written version of those episodes here on the blog, including affiliate links where books are mentioned.

I consider it a gift that I grew up hearing about the goodness of God. My mom taught us when we were very small that God loves us and he’s good. Over the course of my life, I confess, I’ve doubted certain things about God and his character, mainly about his provision, his timing, and sometimes his trustworthiness, but I would never say I doubted his goodness.

You might think I’m contradicting myself and I probably am, but I’m just telling you how it’s looked from where I sit. Your story is I’m sure quite different from mine, or maybe you can also relate with knowing or thinking and believing that God is good, but also doubting him in other ways. No matter where you are in your own faith journey, six words, from Dallas Willard have the potential to challenge even the most faithful among us.

Never believe anything bad about God.

As I said before, I’ve always believed God is good, but I’ve also believed bad things about him. Essentially Dallas was saying, God is not only good, he’s also not bad. I can’t explain why that turn of phrase changed things for me, I can only tell you that it did.

When we consider the kinds of decisions we’re faced with every day, some are decisions of privilege and preference, like What’s the best way to celebrate our anniversary? Should we get another dog?

These are important decisions and can actually cause quite a bit of daily pressure if they linger unmade for too long. Just because something is fun and enjoyable doesn’t mean the decisions surrounding it are always fun and enjoyable. Don’t discount the weight of happy things. Of course, you may also have more complex decisions. Which of these five highly qualified people should I hire? How do I parent my teenage son or daughter? Is it time to retire? Should we look for a new church? Do we say yes to foster care? What’s the best home for my aging parent?

There will not be a time in our lives where we have no more need for discernment, but one of the most foundational influences on our decision making lingering beneath the surface is what we believe about God. Because, as I’ve shared with you from my own life, what we say we believe and what we actually believe don’t always match up.

Something else Dallas Willard said is that we always live what we believe, we just don’t always live what we profess we believe. I believed God is good, yet I often made and, still sometimes make, decisions believing bad things about him.

What kinds of bad things? Well, there’ve been times in my life where I’ve pictured God as an angry teacher, disappointed that I can’t get it right.

I’ve pictured him as a distant relative, family yes, but not directly invested.

So how does the way we picture God influence our decision making? I talk about this in chapter four of my book, The Next Right Thing and I’ll repeat it here.

If I believe God is distant, I’ll feel alone and untethered in my decision making.

If I believe God is a scolding parent, I may delegate decisions to someone else so I can avoid the consequence.

If I believe God is wimpy, maybe I can manipulate him into doing whatever I want.

If I believe God is indifferent, then he probably doesn’t care what happens one way or another.

If I believe God is like a carnival barker presenting three cups, I’ll feel cheated or duped when he forces me to guess which one is hiding my right answer.

Is God like a puppeteer, a kind old grandfather, an abusive parent, an insecure friend, a greedy King, a manipulative mother, or a golden retriever?

Has he chosen a number between one and 10 and is just waiting to see how close we’ll get?

Is he standing in the corner of the room with his arms crossed and his eyebrows raised?

Does he roll his eyes, turn his back, or slam the door when I make a bad decision?

How we answer these questions will determine how we live our lives. And how we live our lives is really a series of decisions. So yes, how we see God is relevant to the decisions we make about schooling, parenting, money, vocation, marriage and friendship and everything else.

We’re always telling ourselves a story. The question is, is the story true?

As you consider your next right thing, what if you started with the decision to never believe anything bad about God?

He will not shame you, belittle or abuse you.

He will not trick or tease you.

He will not laugh at or make fun of you.

He will not talk about you behind your back, stab you in the back or tell you to be more like your sister.

He will not cheat on or betray you.

His eyes are not narrowed at you.

His ears are not closed to you.

His nose is not turned up at you.

His hands are not harsh with you, and you do not leave a bad taste in his mouth.

“God, my shepherd, I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush Meadows. You find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way it goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.

Your trustee Shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head, my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”

Psalm 23, The Message

If you prefer reading to listening, perhaps you’d like the feel of a book in your hands. The Next Right Thing is all about helping you:

  • clear the decision-making chaos
  • quiet the fear of choosing wrong
  • find the courage to finally decide without regret or second-guessing

If you have trouble making decisions because of either chronic hesitation or decision fatigue, here’s some familiar but often forgotten advice: simply do the next right thing.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Christianbook.com

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2019

For the last several years, I’ve been writing down the titles of books I finish. Then, at the end of the year, I pick 10 favorites and make a list for you here. (I’ll include the last five years at the bottom of the post) This is one of my favorite posts to write all year!

I’ll list them here in no particular order. These are not books released in 2019, but ones I read in 2019. All of the “about the book” descriptions come directly from the Amazon book summaries where I am a grateful affiliate, followed by a short explanation of why I loved it. Let’s talk books!


I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

Genre: Memoir

About the book: “In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value ‘diversity’ in their mission statements, I’m Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words. Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric–from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.”

Why I loved it: What many would take pages to say, Austin Channing Brown says with one compelling, powerfully simple sentence. She begins her story by writing about her experience as a young black girl with a white man’s name. I’m deeply grateful that Austin had the courage to write her story and tell the truth. Reading it I had to put it down several times and just think, remember, and be honest about how much I don’t know about the experience of people of color in America. What an important, compelling book.

 

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace by Christie Purifoy

Genre: Christian Living

About the book: “In Placemaker, Christie Purifoy invites us to notice our soul’s desire for beauty, our need to create and to be created again and again. As she reflects on the joys and sorrows of two decades as a placemaker and her recent years living in and restoring a Pennsylvania farmhouse, Christie shows us that we are all gardeners. No matter our vocation, we spend much of our lives tending, keeping, and caring. In each act of creation, we reflect the image of God. In each moment of making beauty, we realize that beauty is a mystery to receive.”

Why I loved it: This book was one of a small stack I read during my summer sabbatical and what a kind companion it was for me. I recorded an entire podcast episode inspired by this book (91: Be A Placemaker) and you can listen to that for all the details of why I loved it. In short, some books find you at the exact right moment in time and when that happens, you can’t help but share them and that’s what this book was for me.

If you’re in the ellipsis in your own life right now, you might have more questions than answers, more furrowed brows than nodding heads. But there are some things you can still choose – like making a place where roots are lacking, like believing for sure that God is with you even when you feel alone.

 

Recapturing the WonderRecapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper

Genre: Christian Living

About the book: “Even as Christians who believe in the resurrection, we live as if miracles and magic have been drained from the world. As Mike Cosper wrestled with his own disillusionment, he found writers, thinkers, and artists like Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor, James K. A. Smith, and David Foster Wallace whose words and ideas reassured him that he was not alone. And he discovered ancient and modern disciplines that shape a Christian way of life and awaken the possibility of living again in an enchanted world.”

Why I loved it: I love and adore this book, all about the impact cynicism and disillusionment have on our faith. He often says things I wish I would have written which is always the sign of a great book. Compelling, thoughtful, and beautifully written.

 

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: The Story of Unlearning and Relearning God by Sarah Bessey

Genre: Christian Living

About the book: “Weaving together theology and memoir in her trademark narrative style, Sarah tells us the story of the moment that changed her body and how it ultimately changed her life. The road of healing leads to Rome where she met the Pope (it’s complicated) and encountered the Holy Spirit in the last place she expected. She writes about her miraculous healing, learning to live with chronic pain, and the ways God makes us whole in the midst of suffering. She invites us to a path of knowing God that is filled with ordinary miracles, hope in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and other completely reasonable things.”

Why I loved it: If you’re looking for a compelling story, a relatable narrator, and exquisite writing, this is the book for you. I’ve heard many say they read it in one sitting and, while I’m too slow of a reader for that, I understand how they could.

I started it on my living room sofa and finished it a few weeks later on a North Carolina beach, laughing and crying my way through it. This was the book Sarah wrote after her previous book was rejected by her publisher and I’ll add my voice to the chorus of those who say I’m so glad they didn’t accept that other book. This is the book Sarah was meant to write.

 

 

Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life by Lucy Worsley

Genre: Biography

About the book: “Drawing from the vast collection of Victoria’s correspondence and the rich documentation of her life, Worsley recreates twenty-four of the most important days in Victoria’s life. Each day gives a glimpse into the identity of this powerful, difficult queen and the contradictions that defined her. Queen Victoria is an intimate introduction to one of Britain’s most iconic rulers as a wife and widow, mother and matriarch, and above all, a woman of her time.”

Why I loved it: Now that I’ve visited London twice in the last two years (and will again this summer!) I’ve become mildly obsessed with learning about the British Monarchy. What a perfect companion for my neighborhood walks and in-town commutes!

I loved learning about Queen Victoria through the lens of 24 important days in her life. From the day she realized she was next in line to the throne when she was a child to the moment she first met Albert, I loved every minute. Pro tip: If you listen to the book like I did, make sure you at least thumb through the hardcover copy at the bookstore or library so you can see the glossy insert with photographs.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Fiction

About the book: “The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.”

Why I loved it: This is the most fun summer read and I wish I could rewind and not read it so I could read it all over again. The style and format of the book is an interview-type style that feels so real you’ll find yourself googling “Daisy Jones and the Six real band?” even though you know better. For my first book after grad school read, this one was perfect. Spoiler Alert (but not really): On a scale of HBO to Hallmark, it’s for sure more HBO. The end.

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Genre: Fiction

About the book: “For years, rumors of the Marsh Girl have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.”

Why I loved it: First I loved it because it was set on the coast of North Carolina (even though my friend Erienne pointed out that Delia Owens seems to think Asheville is an easy bus-ride away from the coast of North Carolina which it most certainly is not). But second I loved it because of Kya’s story. As heartbreaking as it sometimes was, watching her grow up and love the land and learn to be a person was a delight.

 

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

Genre: Christian Living

About the book: “In this classic theological treatise, the acclaimed theologian and religious leader Howard Thurman (1900-1981) demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised. Jesus is a partner in the pain of the oppressed and the example of His life offers a solution to ending the descent into moral nihilism. Hatred does not empower–it decays. Only through self-love and love of one another can God’s justice prevail.”

Why I loved it: Published in 1949, theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman writes about his own experience, advocating for non-violent response to oppression. It’s a short book and I want to read it again because one read isn’t enough to digest Thurman’s brilliance (and I’m not being hyperbolic here). His first chapter on Jesus is one of the most stunning commentaries I’ve ever read about the life of Christ.

 

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

Genre: Fiction

About the book: “The beautiful Manoir Bellechasse might be surrounded by nature, but there is something unnatural looming. As the heat rises and the humidity closes in, some surprising guests turn up at the family reunion, and a terrible summer storm leaves behind a dead body. It is up to Chief Inspector Gamache to unearth secrets long buried and hatreds hidden behind polite smiles. The chase takes him to Three Pines, into the dark corners of his own life, and finally to a harrowing climax.”

Why I loved it: This is the fourth book in the series and made up for the unfortunate mishap that was Book 3. It had everything I want in a Penny book: a cozy Inn, family drama, a mysterious murder, and Gamache at his best. Carry on, Louise Penny! Don’t stop writing about Inspector Gamache!

Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton

Genre: Christian Living

About the book: “‘In these pages Transforming Center founder and seasoned spiritual director Ruth Haley Barton gently leads us into retreat as a key practice that opens us to God. Based on her own practice and her experience leading hundreds of retreats for others, she will guide you in a very personal exploration of seven specific invitations contained within the general invitation to retreat. You will discover how to say yes to God’s winsome invitation to greater freedom and surrender. There has never been a time when the invitation to retreat is so radical and so relevant, so needed and so welcome. It is not a luxury, but a necessity of the spiritual life.”

Why I loved it: 

A perfect read during my summer sabbatical. Her clear and simple instructions for how to retreat were right on time. I took this book with me on my own two day retreat and finished it before I left. What would we do without Ruth?

***

As you make your own lists of books to read in 2020, perhaps you’ll add a few of my favorites into the mix. To give you more to choose from, I’ll include my 10 favorite books from the past four years below.

If you would like to receive a monthly list of the books I’m reading, enter your name below and you’ll receive my most recent letter on the last day of every month. Happy reading!

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My Top 10 Favorite Books From Years Past:

 

10 Things I Learned This Fall

We do this every quarter and will share our next list (What We Learned in Winter) on Friday, February 28. If you are drawn to reflection but aren’t sure where to start, I’ve created an entire self-paced, online class to help you reflect on your life. Learn more and enroll in Discern + Decide right here.

Welcome to What We Learned, where we pause to reflect on the past season before we move ahead into the future. “It’s not the experience that brings transformation,”says author and teacher Jan Johnson, “it’s our reflection upon our experience.”

If that’s true (and I’m convinced it is) then it’s vital we establish intentional time to reflect on our lives. Reflection is part of my daily and weekly routine, but once a quarter I like to share some of my list and invite you to share yours.

At the end of this post, you’re invited to link up to your own list of what you learned this quarter – be it silly, serious, sacred, or just plain useful. I like to share a mix of all of those. Here are 10 things I learned this fall in no particular order:

1. Leading a retreat for women I know is not as scary as it used to be.

At the end of October I had the honor of being the word-sayer at our church women’s weekend (I would say speaker, but the weekend is so casual and intimate that to say “speaker” makes it sounds like something it isn’t). Years ago this would have been a dreaded, nerve-wracking assignment. This year it just felt like a gift.

2. I prefer the beach in the summer.

While I loved the content and company of our women’s weekend, I do realize I prefer to travel to locations that are congruent with my idea of the seasons. Beach in summer, mountains in fall and winter. This is not a complaint, just an observation. Carry on.

 

3. I love to teach.

As an author and speaker, I’ve been teaching for years. Not in an academic way but in ways that still count. Then in 2016 I had a vivid dream about being an actual teacher. I woke up and immediately wrote it down because it had such an impact on me. Maybe I’ll tell that whole story later but this Fall after teaching a day-long workshop in Wichita I moved one step closer to owning this part of my design.

5. Logic is not superior to emotion.

Both are allowed a seat at the table. Neither are allowed to rule alone.

 

4. Next time I co-host a big event, I need to schedule recovery time.

For most of 2019 we worked on the hope*writers conference and even though we had a lot of help, even though it was a beautiful event I was proud of, and even though we were more prepared than we’ve ever been for a live event, I still forgot to plan for one thing: I forgot to remember how brutal re-entry can be.

After a full four days at this event, it took me a week to feel like myself again. I wish I would have remembered how hard it is to come back to life, to battle the doubts that come knocking once your defenses are down. Next time I’ll remember. I should have known better. I’ve done this before! See: This post.

P.S. If you need help with re-entering life after a big event, time off, or a major transition, maybe that post on reentry will help.

 

6. “Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.” – Mario Andretti

It’s advice for a race car driver but I found it most helpful during a week-long bout of discouragement in my work. Thank you, Mario, for this reminder to not look at the wall.

7. Cinnamon in the coffee grounds is magical.

I cannot express how much more I enjoy my morning coffee when brewed with cinnamon in the grounds. It’s Christmas in a cup!

 

8. Small group work is my actual jam.

I feel like I’ve said this before but I keep learning it on different levels. For years (years I tell you!) I have felt out of place in the stage culture that those in my industry seem to inhabit so comfortably. It’s not that I think it’s wrong to stand on stages, it just doesn’t seem like the place where my most valuable contribution is offered. This has always been a tension for me. What does it look like to be an author who doesn’t travel and speak on stages?

Slowly I’ve been living into that answer. First, it looked like saying yes to lots of speaking and never feeling fully like myself. Next it felt like saying no to most of the speaking and always wondering if I was doing it wrong. These days, it looks like hope*writers (and still does), serving writers online from the comfort of my own home. It looks like Literary London with Tsh Oxenreider (one of my favorite trips ever – this year we’ll take our third group).

And next year it will look like being a lecturer for the Masters in Spiritual Formation residencies at Friends University and co-leading 28 hope*writers through year long mastermind cohort.

We introduced this mastermind group opportunity at our conference in early November and now we have a lovely group of writers ready to make progress together in 2020. I’m paying attention to how excited I am to dig in with a small group for a full year.

 

9. Felicity is not that great of a show.

I watched all four seasons over the past few months and I kept waiting to love it. It kept not happening. I know this might be a controversial opinion, but there you go. I adored a few of the characters and appreciated the way Felicity evolved over the course of the show. But as a whole, I just didn’t enjoy it the way I wished I had. #teamnoel

10. Always buy the pink chair.

It doesn’t have to be a chair and it doesn’t have to be pink but the point is if you are shopping and have money in your pocket to spend and you see something you love within your means, don’t talk yourself out of it because of doubts or lack of confidence or whatever. In the spirit of pick what you like and see how it growsjust buy the pink chair already.

Now it’s your turn. What did you learn this fall?

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