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Where do you do your best work?

Jason Fried, at a recent TED conference, presented his thoughts on why work doesn’t happen at work.

There’s a lot of what he said that I can really resonate with; I work in an open-plan office, and for the most part find that quite difficult. My best work (and probably my best thinking) happens in a quiet atmosphere, or somewhere I can tune out the background noise. One of the pitfalls of an open-plan office is that noise-levels are, in large part, dictated by others: some people like to think aloud or in conversation with others, and their ideas thrive in connection with other people. Some people just enjoy an almost constant background banter. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy that too, and find external processing of ideas and creativity with others incredibly stimulating. But when I need to get something done, I prefer a quiet calm, or at least somewhere I can tune out the background noise.

There are certain tasks that need me to be able to think clearly and coherently. For example, coding often needs you to be able to plan how one piece of functionality could be coded in a number of different ways, and determining the best route requires being able to consider not just the next line of code, but the implications of that on the next 50 lines.

Unfortunately, it’s often when doing those tasks that need my highest concentration that I find it all the harder to tune out what’s going on around me. And I’m not a nice person when faced with those conditions.

Jason compares work-patterns to sleep-patterns. When we sleep, it’s not a simple binary. You are not just asleep or awake, but your sleep is characterised by cycles and patterns. Medics and psychologists alike recognise how disruptive it can be to have your sleep disturbed, and Jason suggests it can be equally disruptive to have a work cycle interrupted; something that might happen many times every day in most offices. “The best gift you can give to a colleague is four hours of uninterrupted time.” He even goes as far as suggesting ‘silent Thursdays’, or even one silent Thursday afternoon each month, to see what difference this makes. It doesn’t sound terribly realistic, and I know many people in my office would (rightly?) balk at the idea; but as I think about it, I wonder if it might redress the balance of ideal working conditions for different types of people. If we work in an open-plan and ‘disruptive’ office for 160 hours a month, suddenly 4-16 hours a month given to conditions that might be more favourable to other people doesn’t sound a lot. Although that does assume that you can do your best work, under those conditions, in a specifically allotted time.

I think one of my major problems with Jason’s presentation, though, is that it feeds my selfishness. The working conditions he describes are my ideal, and I would love to be able to regularly have quiet space to get things done. But deep-down I know that’s not realistic. Part of my value to the organisation isn’t just my individual productivity, but the shared value of connections; being disrupted to help another, and having the freedom to interrupt someone else to get the help I need.

And people work differently. My ideal would be, I suspect, far from ideal for a good number of my colleagues; people whose creativity and productivity is catalysed by constant connection with others. One colleague (not based in our office) explained to me recently that when he needs to get something done, he turns his wifi off; but he also admitted that, as an extrovert, he thrives on ‘distraction’.

People are different, and that is good. People work differently, and how we accommodate those differences is important.

As we consider an office move this year, with potential to change and shape the way we organise that office, this certainly does give food for thought.

Fast grace.

I’m enjoying listening to Roy Ortlund on Isaiah at the moment; I’m still on the early chapters, and feel like I could readily listen to the rest of the series over the coming months.

‘God is quicker to meet us with grace, than we are to meet him in repentance.’

As an optimistic perfectionist*, my passion for trying to better myself, most of the time outweighs my frustration with past failures.

As I listened this evening, I realised that I often confuse sanctification – the work God is doing to change me – with my own weak attempts at self-improvement. I know I am a sinner in need of God’s grace; I know I continue to fail God each day; and yet my hope for tomorrow is more in my being changed (both through my own efforts and God’s gracious work in my life) than in being fully satisfied in my acceptance today.

God is more concerned that I trust him today, weak and imperfect, than that I am changed to any degree, either through my own efforts, or by his abundant grace. Do you agree?

How will I face tomorrow, and what will my priorities be?

How can I trust God, and enjoy his acceptance in the day ahead?

How should my perceptions and measures of success be shaped in light of this knowledge?

* I was introduced to a variety of perfectionist ‘types’ by my friend, Tom, and ‘optimistic perfectionist’ was the one I most readily identified with. If you wanted to hear the other types, I’m sure I could persuade Tom to share his thoughts more widely.

Living without God.

Notes from a sermon preached at Magdalen Road Church, 2 January 2011.

Living without God
Psalms 42-43
Daniel Blanche

New year is a good time for self analysis. How am I doing? How is it going between me and God? How is the battle with sin going? How is the gospel working itself out in my life?

Psalms are a good place to go, as they show what real life is like for the believer.

Psalms 42-43 written as a single psalm with a unifying, single chorus.

How do you feel about God right now? Sometimes psalms don’t reflect how we feel about God at any given time. This psalm reflects what it feels like when we don’t feel joy and confidence.

The psalmist’s situation. What is going on in this psalm, how does he feel? Powerful imagery to show how it feels to be in this situation. Drought. As the deer pants for streams of water, my soul thirsts. The point of these verses is that there is no stream, or forest. This deer is dying. Where is there water? If I don’t get some soon I will die. This is how I feel, says the psalmist. Where is the refreshing reminder of God’s presence? When will this parched emptiness end? No sign of God’s refreshing presence. This is what it is like at times for the believer. Location. I want to be in Jerusalem, but I’m the wrong side of the river. A feeling of distance from God. God feels very distant. Don’t feel the intimacy, or that I can draw near to him. Depths. The power of a wave, crashing into him and sweeping him away. Chaotic. Traumatic. One thing after another. Swept here, there and everywhere. Plunged into the depths. Genesis 1 imagery, the deep, before God’s spirit moves over it. Deadly wound. Mortal agony. He doesn’t have an answer to those asking ‘where is your God?’, a question he is asking himself. Resonates with the deep questions he is asking within his heart. These four images capture the sense of desperation. The taunts of the world that remind us of our own deep questions. This is a normal part of the believer’s experience, even if you’re not feeling it now. Don’t let it catch you off guard. Sometimes it is like this.

The psalmist’s response. He remembers God. These things I remember. Calls to mind better times. Remembers when he felt intimate with God. In the flow of the psalm it appears that this memory doesn’t help him so much. Tender memories of how it used to be. Temptation to stay distant. This relationship with God is hard work. Settle for a shallow relationship with God. Don’t put your heart on the line and you don’t get hurt. My soul is downcast, therefore I will remember you. This recalling takes effort. I’m going to stop and deliberately recall. Remembrance in the bible, e.g. the last supper, “do this in remembrance of me”. What would it have been like to hear this? Am I likely to forget you Jesus? Yes. We need to remember God. The psalmist relates to God. Bring the situation into the context of my relationship with God. He writes a psalm. He grumbles to God. Takes his complaints, unhappiness and despair to God. Why have you forgotten me? God is big enough to take that. He’s not bothered by us being honest with him about how it feels. He is determined to relate to God. He reasons with himself. Why are you downcast my soul? Turns from talking to God, to talking to himself, to his soul. Why are you downcast? Not a little pep talk for the soul, but in the context of prayer. Soul, you know this God don’t you? Take what you know to be true, and trust you will see it in real life, even if you can’t see it right now. Not because you’ve talked yourself into it, but because it is true. Hope. Wait. Trust. This emptiness will not last forever.

The psalmist’s confidence. He is confident. His hope. God is my stronghold, and I look to be vindicated by him. “Where is your God?” I believe he’s coming. He looks forward to a homecoming (v3). He remembers kneeling to worship at the alter, and he knows he will come home. Not about manufacturing excitement about God, but asking God to make what we know to be true about him, real in our own lives. He will do this in his time.

What is this psalm really about? A man feeling distant from God, entrusts himself to God, believes he will be restored to God’s presence. It’s about Jesus. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Vindicated by God, raised and restored to perfect relationship with his father. Others have been there before you. Jesus Christ has been there before you, and come out the other side, vindicated. He has set the precedent we can trust in wholeheartedly. Jesus Christ is alive and reigning, has gone through this and has conquered it. He will take you home. Hope in God. You will praise him again.

changing communication

If technology and communication are two areas that interest you, I can highly recommend reading or listening to Jeff Jarvis. Author of What Would Google Do?, Jeff blogs about media and news at buzzmachine.com, and is a regular contributor on the This Week in Google podcast. He is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He also writes a new media column for The Guardian.

I find his thinking critical, fair, and very helpful. Whilst I am not certain of his perspective on faith, his insights do also help me think about technology and communication from a Christian perspective; reviewing the impact of technology on journalism, communication and society, leads me to think further about the impact on faith and church.

In a recent post, Jeff refers to a “group of Danish academics [who] say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.”

Being involved in a communications team that happily embraces new media, this sort of thinking excites me, but I’m also aware of some of the fear it propagates within the Christian community. I think some of this is caused by confusing the timeless and unchanging truth of the Gospel, with the means and media used to communicate it. Christians, particularly in the West, are often ‘booky’ people, and feel a little threatened by new media and its malleable nature. More on this in another post…

Jarvis goes on to recognise that “technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.” I’m pleased to know many forward-thinking and tech-savvy Christians for whom this isn’t true, but as well as those who fear technology, there are also some who embrace technology to do the same old things in a slightly different way; something Christians have been notoriously bad at in recent decades, with questionable ‘Christian’ fiction, film and music.

(There are however, some success stories to be celebrated; not least Mars Hill Church in Seattle for the creative way they use design and new media to make their sermon content available online, embracing a wide variety of creative gifts to further the reach and impact of their resources.)

There is an argument that new media is shallow and distracting, with twitter being used as a case for ‘short attention span’ syndrome. Jarvis continues, quoting an earlier post: “Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

I’ll leave you with some of Jarvis’ questions that I will be considering as I prepare for the IFES Bible Study Consultation.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see start.

How are you using technology to improve what you do? Do you know of others that are making good use of technology in new and creative ways?