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The Common Rule

I started the day beautifully… I had a tall glass of water, drank a cup of coffee, completed ten minutes of quiet morning exercise, and then… I started reading my emails, which lead me to a YouTube video about a man that stopped a charging elephant by waving a stick, a cheetah that jumped in the back of a safari vehicle, and how to build a grandfather clock from scratch. Then I checked my LinkedIn for the fifth time… For no reason. And looked up at the clock, my jaw dropped. 11AM? Where on earth did the morning go? 

Have you ever had this happen? You’ve heard the saying you are what you eat, but have you heard the saying you are where you spend your time? The Common Rule, by Justin Whitmel Earley challenged me to take a hard look at where I was spending my time and I didn’t like what I found. I needed help to create better habits.

  • Author Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”
  • “Only in retrospect did I realize that, while the house of my life was decorated with Christian content, the architecture of my habits was just like everyone else’s. And that life had been working for me—until it collapsed.”
  • “How did the missionary come to be the one that got converted? Answering this question was not easy at all. It was a very long and difficult road. I now see that my body had finally become converted to the anxiety and busyness I’d worshiped through my habits and routines. All the years of a schedule built on going nonstop to try to earn my place in the world had finally rubbed off on my heart. My head said one thing, that God loves me no matter what I do, but my habits said another, that I’d better keep striving in order to stay loved.”
  • Actually, by barraging ourselves with so many choices, we get so decision-fatigued that we’re unable to choose anything well. Since we’re too tired to make any good decisions, we’re extremely susceptible to letting other people—from manipulative bosses to invisible smartphone programmers—make our decisions for us.”

We can replace our low quality time by being deliberate with our habits.

  • “Only when your habits are constructed to match your worldview do you become someone who doesn’t just know about God and neighbor but someone who actually loves God and neighbor.”
  • “A keystone habit is a super-habit. It’s the first domino in the line; by changing one habit, we simultaneously change ten other habits. Beginning the day in kneeling prayer is such a keystone habit. In morning prayer, we frame the first words of the day in God’s love for us, which is to say we uproot the weeds of legalism that grow if we simply do nothing, and we lay the first piece of the day’s trellis on which love can grow.”
  • “Kneeling prayer midday is a chance to acknowledge that inexorable tendency and to reframe the day right as it is falling apart. At this point in the day, I close my office door and kneel. This is inevitably awkward. What if someone walks in? It’s uncomfortable. Suit pants weren’t made for touching knees to the floor. But these are good discomforts. They remind me something is happening. If I’m working in a public place, I may just set my hands on my lap and turn them up. I need something physical to mark the moment for my slippery mind.”
  • “Our phones—and their programmers—are happy to set our habits for us. They would love to speak the first words of the day, and they usually do. Our phones—and whatever has come through them—thus shape the first desires of the morning and order our first prayers for us.”

Who am I? And who am I becoming? These are the questions our morning routines are inevitably asking and answering for us. But no words except the words of Scripture can bear the weight of a response to these questions.


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Let the wise listen and add to their learning. (Proverbs 1:5)


Some may be able to resist the temptation to scroll on social media with no mission. But I have found that gets me too riled up, the phone too difficult to put down, and that scrolling only creates negative energy inside me. That is why I have deleted my Twitter, Nextdoor, Facebook, and Instagram. I have yet to get rid of my LinkedIn, but I am getting closer and closer every week. It has been almost two years since I have been Facebookless and I don’t regret it one bit.

Earley has some good ideas about social media if you don’t want to be as dramatic as I have been, he says, “First, I try to open a media site only when I have need to post or respond. I don’t open it because I’m bored or have a spare moment. Those spare moments are reserved for staring at walls, which is infinitely more useful. This is to say, I try to treat social media like work. I go to it once in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and once in the evening to put out content that I think will help someone or to engage with someone who is responding in a healthy way.”

He also talks about how important it is to notice when you are just thumbing through content without even paying attention. “Second, I avoid unplanned scrolling. Unplanned scrolling usually means I’m hungry for something to catch my eye—and plenty of strange, dark, and bizarre things are happy to catch the eye on social media. Planned scrolling can be very different. If you carefully curate what is in your feed and when you will scroll, the dynamic radically shifts. But in general, I believe we should be wary of the flicking thumb motion. The restless thumb often correlates to the restless heart. Third, I turn off notifications. There is no good reason I (or any human being) needs to know in real time who is liking my posts when and how much. There are some useful purposes for these stats, but not as an every-moment affair. Fourth, I don’t use social media in bed.”

He created a simple habit that replaced his morning phone scrolling and checking of email. “Refusing to check the phone until after reading a passage of Scripture is a way of replacing the question “What do I need to do today?” with a better one, “Who am I and who am I becoming?” We have no stable identity outside of Jesus. Daily immersion in the Scriptures resists the anxiety of emails, the anger of news, and the envy of social media. Instead it forms us daily in our true identity as children of the King, dearly loved.”

The book covers a lot about the sabbath, which I think is something we don’t talk about enough. In my family we don’t go shopping on Sunday. I worked in retail for almost two decades and worked on Sundays for almost this entire time. I now honor this day and respect the retail worker by spending my money on the other six days of the week.

But I have not spent a lot of time thinking about how I should be spending my sabbath. Early quotes Abraham Heschel whom says, “A man who works with his mind should sabbath with his hands, and a man who works with his hands should sabbath with his mind.”

I spend all week using my mind and need to convert my Sundays to a day of honoring my body. By taking longer walks, swimming, playing tennis, cooking a great meal, gardening, working out, and other more physical activities.

As far as the importance of the sabbath for our body, “There is more going on than just our body’s need for rest. Our souls need rest too. But the rest that our souls need is not simply a nap. It’s the rest that comes with realizing we don’t have anything to prove anymore. We don’t have to prove we’re important.”

I suggest this book as part of a housecleaning project for your habits. It will challenge your current way of thinking and has actionable steps to replace your habits with better ones. 

“Failure is the path; beauty is the destination. We walk toward beauty on the path of failure. Which is to say that formation occurs at the interplay of failure and beauty. No habits can be pursued for the purpose of success or productivity or a new and better you. They must be done for the vision of beauty. If the goal is self-help, failure will destroy you. But if the goal is beauty, failure makes that goal shine all the more brightly. So you get up and keep walking.”

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