30 Lessons I’ve Learned in My 30 Years

15 Year Old Becki

Today, I turn 30 years old, which feels absolutely surreal. (Really? Thirty? But thirty-year-olds are adults!)

I swear that on the inside, I feel like the same person as the 15-year-old version of Becki. Except that 15-year-old Becki was very proud of her Union Bay khakis and Old Navy tech vest…which alone should demonstrate that I have at least somewhat evolved in a positive way over the past 15 years.

In this post, I intend to list 30 life lessons that I distinctly remember learning (read: repeatedly pounded into my head)…epiphanies (that maybe shouldn’t have been as surprising as they were), or adages that I repeat to myself on a regular basis. Some are about my career, some are about productivity, some are about ministry, and most have implications in my spiritual life. Any of them that contain an element of real truth belong to God’s grace.

The idea of listing 30 lessons learned in 30 years of life is not original to me. In fact, it’s a really popular blog post title if you search for it. I think one of the reasons is that thirty feels like the end of your expository chapter — a logical place to look back and reflect on the person you actually turned out to be.

30 year old Becki

Of course it could also be that thirty-year-olds tend to think that they have the world pretty figured out and feel particularly led to enlighten those around them. (Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Very Millennial of us?) But don’t worry – I’ll be back in ten years for my 40 Lessons I’ve Learned in My 40 Years post to walk back most of what I’ve said here.

Thank you for indulging me.

  1. People are just People.
    One of my biggest regrets is the time I have wasted feeling intimidated by people because I thought they were smarter, more important, or more experienced. Don’t get me wrong — they often were more smart, important and experienced; and every person I come in contact with is an image of God and deserves my respect. But that doesn’t mean I have to shrink away and lose my own confidence. We all have strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect. I’m learning to remember that God is the only one whose opinion really counts. Every person in the world is just a person: nothing more, nothing less.
  2. God is Worth Trusting.
    Someone once shared with me that, though they believed God existed, they didn’t want to worship him because they didn’t want to look back at their life one day and find out that they had wasted their whole life on something that wasn’t worth it. This person didn’t trust God that giving up the pleasure of sin was worth the sacrifice. If I’ve learned anything in the past 30 years it’s this: I simply do not have the perspective to effectively decide what is worth spending my life on. If anything, the most risky move would be to trust my narrow experience! God does have the perspective we need. So we can trust him when he says that “blessed are the poor in spirit.” It may not make sense to us — but we can trust the one that created us to know what makes us happy better than we do.
  3. I Should Always Be Making My World Bigger
    I’ve learned that I will never regret any time I’ve spent learning something new or doing something uncomfortable as long as it increases my understanding of the world in general. Life only gets boring and I only get set in my ways when I’ve refused new challenges. For more discussion on this topic, read my previous post here.
  4. Get Started. Keep Going.
    Every single project, ministry, new habit, life change, world-altering movement — everything that ever has ever happened — began with these two steps. Two lethal temptations — procrastination and quitting — are the only things between me and doing what I’ve always wanted to do, or being the person I’ve always wanted to be. For more, read this.
  5. I’m a Bad Judge of What Makes Me Happy.
    This is related to #2 above. Even though I’m not always victorious in my battle against instant gratification, I can’t deny that it’s always foolish to go my own way. Doing what feels good in the moment almost never makes us happy in the long run (or even the next day). God’s laws teach us how to please him, which in turn bring us pleasure and joy. It’s only to our own detriment when we are “wise in our own eyes.” I wrote more about this before.
  6. It’s the Gospel that Matters.
    When I started teaching Sunday School 11 years ago, I had a lot of ideas and theories about what made a good Children’s Ministry. But as time has gone on, it has become clear that unless the gospel is being presented, nothing else will have its proper context. When you don’t focus on the cross, you rob yourself of joy. When your ministry doesn’t focus on the cross, it becomes a burden. At least twice in my life, I have been pulled out of a burned out funk by getting the opportunity to share the gospel. Both times, it was me who benefited most by hearing the gospel. For more on this, see this series of blog posts: Ministry Must Be Gospel-Powered, Gospel-Focused, and Gospel-Fueled
  7. An Environment that Looks Chaotic Will Become Chaotic.
    A messy desk produces messy work, a messy room produces fitful sleep, a messy classroom produces distracted students. If you’ve ever seen my desk or room, you might question whether I actually have “learned” this one…but I promise, I know it’s true. (Now if I could just get around to applying it in all areas of my life). When the rest of my life is cleaned up, I write better code, I design better, I’m more relaxed. Read more here: Chaos Begets Chaos
  8. There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Contrast
    This is a design rule I learned in college, and I use it all the time. It’s not so much a life lesson — just a very practical rule of thumb for document, graphic, and web design. Pictures and explanation here: There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Contrast
  9. Emphasizing Everything = Emphasizing Nothing
    This is a rule that also applies most readily to visual design, but can be applied in other contexts as well. It’s basically the concept of “choose your battles” or “admit you have a hierarchy of priorities”. The truth is, if you highlight every page in the book, you really haven’t helped yourself at all when you come back to study later. If you yell everything at your husband, he won’t be able to tell what’s actually is the most important. If you mark every email as urgent, people are going to start thinking you’re “the boy who cried wolf!”. My previous blog post that is one of my favorite ones I’ve ever written, so check that out.
  10. Design Relies Upon Consistency
    Even good designs will look bad if they lack consistency, and bad designs can be elevated with consistency. Explanation and pictures here: Design Relies Upon Consistency
  11. Work is Not Done Until the Person Who Asked for it is Notified.
    When your boss or customer asks you to do something, it doesn’t matter how quickly you got it done, or how much you sacrificed to finish it, if they have to continually wonder if it got done, or worry that it will get missed. The story goes like this: a boss asks his employee to fix an urgent problem at Customer A’s office. The employee has another appointment with Customer B in the afternoon, but in order to please both his boss and customer, the employee skips lunch and fixes the problem at Customer A before going to Customer B. The next day, the boss is angry. “I thought I told you to go to Customer A’s office!” At this point, it will not make the boss happy to be told “I did it when you told me to,” even though the Employee made a sacrifice to get it done. The truth is, the boss has been worrying about this problem all night, and now they have expended unneeded energy. It doesn’t take much effort to respond to an email with a simple “Done!” — but I have found the good will it builds with people is noticeable. All of a sudden you are viewed as reliable and “someone who gets things done.” Credit for this lesson goes to the Manager Tools podcast. It’s great career advice that I think about all the time.
  12. Anything Done Well is Done a Certain Way
    This is another lesson from Manager Tools, I think. Basically, it’s the idea that no one does a good job on accident. Something that is done very well is always done intentionally. So, when I want to do something consistently well, I always try to think of a way to “systematize it.” How can I take this reoccurring task and make it so I don’t have to think hard about it every time? How can I best take advantage of my time? Usually the answer is a checklist, schedule, table, or flow chart. *begins singing These are a few of my favorite things…*
  13. Being a “Learner” is More Valuable Than a “Knower”
    I think I have been particularly blessed to feel considerably out of my depth at every job I have ever had. Always feeling like I had a lot to learn made me become better at learning — and I do believe learning itself is a learn-able skill. In my experience, my willingness to learn new things or figure out things no one else knew how to do has always worked in my favor. At one job, I became the “Microsoft Word” person. (Honestly, all I ever did was Google things until I figured it out.) But somehow, this set me a part as a “go-to” person to figure out other things too. Being teachable is more useful than being smart, and the person that is willing to learn new skills is always a valuable member to the team.
  14. “Done” Trumps “Perfection”
    It doesn’t matter how perfect your art is if no one will ever see it because you never finish it. If you are too much of a perfectionist to let yourself be exposed, you will never learn. Goes along with Lesson #4. (Interesting aside: It’s 2:00 a.m. and I just want this post finished, so I’m applying this lesson first hand).
  15. “Some” Beats “None”
    Goes along with Lesson #14 above. If you can’t run a whole 5K, that shouldn’t stop you from running completely. Can’t read your Bible for a whole hour every morning? How about 15 minutes. Don’t have time to make your husband homemade bread every evening? How about hot dogs and macaroni and cheese instead. Just because you aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole idea out. Which leads to lesson #16:
  16. Be Patient with Yourself
    Every expert was once a beginner. Your ability will grow, but it will grow slowly, so allow yourself the room to fail, make mistakes, and mess up royally. If you don’t, you won’t get anywhere. In other words, Your Ability Will Not Immediately Match Your Taste.
  17. Never Say No to Something Because it is too Scary or Hard
    There are a lot of good reasons not to do something, but fear shouldn’t be one of them. Letting the fear of the unknown, or the fear of hard work, stop you from doing a good thing is ultimately idolatry, because you are trusting in your own ability rather than God’s sovereignty.
  18. When You Don’t Where to Start – Clean Up
    This is a lesson gleaned from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If you feel completely overwhelmed and you’re not sure what to do next, just clean up whatever is in front of you. Maybe it’s your coffee table. Maybe it’s the dishes. Maybe it’s your inbox. Once you’ve got whatever it is cleaned up, the “rush” of accomplishment will inspire you to continue on to the next thing. Once everything in your life is clean, you will end up with an accurate picture of where you stand in the world, and what commitments you truly hold. When these are in place, your mind will feel free to brainstorm and think about the future.
  19. Accept a Compliment Without Self Deprecation
    Goes with Lesson #1 above — Confidence is attractive. Arguing with someone who compliments you comes across as fishing for more compliments. Just say smile “thank you”.
  20. Accept Criticism Without Self Righteousness
    Just as (or more) important than accepting a compliment well, graciously accepting criticism is an all-important skill if you want to become a better person. If we aren’t able to accept feedback that isn’t complimentary, how are we taking advantage of “iron sharpening iron”? Even an enemy’s words can have lifesaving implications if we understand them in light of God’s sovereign hand.
  21. Being the First to Apologize Puts you in a Position of Strength, not Weakness
    Even when I am only 10% at fault, the discomfort of a conflict can consume me. But if I am willing to apologize, the fear of the conflict disappears…it takes away the “power” I had allowed the person to reign in my heart. The humbling experience of asking for forgiveness can be painful, but it aligns our self-image with the truth of our sin, and when we do so, we are walking in the light. When we admit we are wrong on our own accord, we are saving ourselves of the shame that is experienced when we are forced to admit we are wrong.
  22. Hurt People Hurt People
    People who make rude comments, complain all the time, and hurl angry insults are almost always dealing with their own insecurities, anxieties, and pain. It makes sense why God asks us to pray for our enemies. Chances are, they need it.
  23. The Right/Best Option is Usually is the Hardest
    The last few days I have found myself using the following thought process: What should I do next? Well, what do I want to do least? I should probably do that thing. As sinners, our natural desires rarely line up with the right thing to do. But if we go through the hard work, by God’s grace, we find true satisfaction. In other words: “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” –Jim Rohn
  24. Good Leaders Do Hard/Not Fun Things
    Along with Lesson #23 above, I have learned that good leaders do all of the hard work no one wants to do, make difficult decisions no one wants to be held accountable for, have difficult conversations no one else wants to have, and let others take the credit when it pays off. It’s what I want my leaders to do, so it’s the kind of leader I want to be.
  25. Pair Your Critiques with Assertions
    It’s a lot easier (and fun) to point out what is wrong with an idea (or design, or ministry, or product, or argument, or theory) than it is to come up with a substitute idea. So if you’re going to critique, be ready to assert an alternative option. It isn’t helpful to the team to just poke holes in ideas…until you know how to patch them.
  26. Everything that is Now Easy was Once Hard
    …so never give up because it feels hard. No skill or ability comes with no practice. Babies have to learn how to walk and talk. Third graders have to learn their multiplication facts. Teenagers have to learn how to drive. Brain surgeons had to learn how to do brain surgery. And you know what? Once brain surgeons master their craft, it’s not very hard for them anymore. So whatever you’re working on right now, don’t give up. Someday it will be easy.
  27. Sin is Worse than You Think
    So often we rationalize our sin. We describe it as a “victim-less crime” or we truly think that if no one finds out, no one gets hurt. The truth is, sin is much, much worse than we think. I know this because it was sin that necessitated the God of the universe to take drastic action to pay the penalty for it. As I age, I hope I never stop learning the depth of my sin — and the vastness of God’s grace. Please read my post on Sin is its Own Punishment.
  28. Eternity > Temporary
    Thirty years happened a lot faster than I expected. Sometimes the days are long, but the years are short. They are especially short when you consider the concept of eternity. Because our life here is so short, I feel particularly motivated to invest in that which is eternal rather than that which is temporary. This life is a pretty small price to pay for an eternity of joy. Please read my post: Life is Short
  29. Dread Forgets Grace
    After watching the move Inside Out, everyone in the family agreed that “Sadness” is my spirit animal. I am so good at being sad and pessimistic. I can be downright creative when it comes to things to worry about or dread. But God is teaching me that I do not need to dread the future. God promises me grace sufficient for today (and today only). That means if something horrible does happen in the future, God’s grace will be sufficient for me then. But I don’t have the grace needed for that moment because I’m in this moment. So there is no utility in spending energy dreading it until you get there. God has always been faithful to me in the past. Do I really think he will abandon me now? Read my post: Dread Forgets Grace
  30. The Best is Yet to Come
    It’s hard to believe that after the beautiful 30 years I have spent on this earth so far, there is anything left to look forward to. (See? I told you I am really creative when it comes to being pessimistic!) But the truth is, I know the best is yet to come, because God has not finished his work in me yet. I am still here for a purpose. And after that, I have an eternity with Jesus. So much to look forward to. 🙂 Read my post: The Best is Yet to Come

The Best Wedding Programs Ever

Today is my 3rd wedding anniversary and in celebration, I am finally getting around to posting my wedding programs. My wedding programs might be my favorite thing I did for the wedding. (Operative word: “I” …the credit for the rest of my favorite things from of my beautiful wedding belongs to some dear — and talented — loved ones)

Graphic design is my thing, and I knew i wanted my programs to be unique. I might have gone a little crazy (very possible). My wedding programs turned into a book. I remember I went to a 24-hour Kinkos two days (at like 11:30 p.m. at night) before the wedding and asked how much 200 copies of my 5 paged, double sided book would cost, and it was like $500.00. I ended up printing them at home (cue “She’s a maniac…MANIAC…”)

But in the end, I loved them and was so proud of them!




IMG_3307  IMG_3311 IMG_3312 IMG_3313 IMG_3314 IMG_3315 IMG_3316 IMG_3317 IMG_3318


Man Looks at the Facebook Profile, But the Lord Looks at the Heart

This week I am starting a series of blog posts about using godly wisdom when using the internet and social media called “In Your Internet Use, Do Not Sin.” This is part one in that series.

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steve Furtick

If social media has done nothing else, it has intensified the battle for a healthy self-image. Before the internet, comparing yourself to another person was fuzzy. You were only privy to the information you observed in their presence, or heard second-hand. And the impression of you had of yourself was through the lens of your own experience.

It used to be that if you were interested in how you stacked up against the people you went to high school with, you dressed up (lost weight) and went to a reunion. A reunion that was one night, maybe once in your life. We now have no break from the ties we make in the past. Unless you are very diligent about tailoring your social media experience, you have a constant reminder that so-and-so from high school has a better paying job and larger house than you do, and what’s-her-name from college had a baby and never finished her degree *tut* *tut*…

Today, we literally feed statistics about ourselves into a database for comparing and contrasting with other people. We had can count our friends. We can actually measure our influence. Our possessions, experiences, and life accomplishments are documented and publicized.

This constant barrage of information can lead you to feel depressed and discontent with your life, robbing you the joy of the things you do have. It can also tempt you to feel self-righteous and proud when you stumble upon someone who isn’t as successful as you are.

A steady diet of social-media-comparison can also make you addicted to seeking approval and acceptance from others. I am so thankful that Facebook wasn’t around until I was in college. Teen girls who grow up having a Facebook can’t help but equate their worth with who they see on their Facebook profile. In the absence of parents or mentors who help them interpret reality differently, the pressure to post beautiful selfies and prove that they are loveable (as ridiculous as it sounds – it’s true to them) can crush them. They are passionately chasing worth through a means that does not last.

This isn’t an anti-social media rant though.  This is about pursuing truth in the light of the way the world works these days. The temptation to be prideful, self-hating, materialistic, or superficial is certainly not new. But the fact is, we have new ways to indulge in these temptations, and they seem safe to us. We need to be alert and flee temptation. Along those lines, here are some principles I have found useful in the battling against comparison:

God’s Values are Different than Our Values
When I am obsessing about my online self-image, I find it helpful to remember that God doesn’t care if I look bad on the internet. He does care about my heart.

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” Proverbs 31:30

“For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 (From when God chose David for Samuel to anoint as king – after rejecting his older, taller, stronger brothers).

Pleasing God is Often Antithetical to Pleasing People
Sometimes God’s wisdom leads us to prosperity and blessing here on this earth, but often it does not. Adhering to God’s value set often means that we will be regarded as foolish by the rest of the world. Knowing this makes it “ok” when we don’t impress people online.

 “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:10

We May Be Worse than We Think, but Jesus is Better Than We Think
There is wisdom in the quote from Steve Furtick that I started with – it is true that we are not really as “bad” as we think we are. But I also think that – at the same time – we are even worse than we realize.

The problem is, when we compare ourselves to other people, we only get part of the story. We may actually be better than other people at keeping our house clean, or getting grades or whatever – but we are grading ourselves on the wrong curve.

We really ought to be comparing ourselves to Jesus. When we do this, we realize that we are devastatingly sinful – even the good things we do are worthless. But this should not lead us to despair – it should lead us to desperation for a Savior.

When Jesus died on the cross, he made me – who was utterly and deservedly rejected – completely and undeservedly accepted. I once had lots of reason to hate myself and be depressed about the way I looked and accomplished. But now that Christ has saved me, I have a divine stamp of approval. I am now justified to be unashamed before anyone – even God! I am empowered by his to live and work with joy and satisfaction.

When I understand where I truly stand, and claim the self-image as defined by God, I am able to put the feedback I get from social media into perspective: When I do something wrong, I don’t have to despair because I know there is hope and forgiveness. When I do something right, I can honestly and grateful ascribe the glory to God.  When faced with the temptation to hate myself, I look to Christ – his righteousness is credited to me!

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23

“He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” Titus 3:5-8

The Best is Yet to Come

“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Once, when I was 16 or 17, someone told me to enjoy my teenage years because they were “the best years of my life.”

This (of course) struck me with panic. I was hating my teenage years!  I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and leave the social angst and painful self-consciousness behind. The only thing that was getting me through was the idea that soon I would soon be starting a new stage of life and things would get better.

The pessimist in me was quick to internalize the idea that “the best years of my life” were not only slipping away, but weren’t enjoyable in the first place.

Well, as it tends to do, life goes on. And, by God’s grace, my twenties have been much better than my teen years. But now I’m struck with a new temptation to revisit this dread: I’m facing 30. A lot of the things I used to look forward to: graduation from college, starting my career, getting married – are now behind me.

What if my 20s were the best years of my life and now there’s nothing left to look forward to? People say “The best is yet to come.” But how can they be sure? What if the best was in my past? What if it’s all downhill from here? *

I am learning the key to this kind of mid-life crisis is the definition of that word “best.” If you’re looking for the years with the most beauty or potential you’ll be depressed by the answer. The young have fresh faces and a fast metabolisms, a care free life with less complications and lots of dreaming about the future.

But if you define “best” by God’s standards, you have much to look forward to. Those who are older have wisdom and memories – but most importantly, if you love Jesus, you are more like Jesus today than you were yesterday. The best is yet to come because tomorrow I will experience more of God’s grace, resist more sin, and bear more spiritual fruit.

I can look forward to the future because I can trust that God’s best for me – that I become more satisfied in him – is something he promises he will do.

I’m sure that this will be something that I will continue to learn at every milestone. (After the late-twenties crisis there will be the mid-thirties crisis, and so on.) But that is part of what’s best – learning what new applications God has for your life and how your current circumstances and life station can be used for his glory.

And, ultimately, as believers, we have an even bigger hope to look forward to – an eternity free from sin and being perfectly satisfied in him in heaven and on the new earth. THOSE will truly be the best years of our lives.

* Note: I know all you natural optimists and otherwise normal people may I’m crazy, but there are probably other anxious pessimists out there can relate. So just indulge me. 🙂

Never Cease to Expand Your World

There are few things more winsome people who are dedicated to making their world bigger. And here’s why:

They do hard things. When faced with a hard task, this person views it as a challenge, and an opportunity to learn. The “small world” person is quick to give up in the face of adversity, and limits himself to solutions that don’t require learning new skills. If you value expanding your world, you can embrace the challenge of learning a new skill or habit. Even if you fail at the task itself, you learn something you didn’t know before, and that is a success in itself.

They are self-confident. The big world person embraces the opportunity to learn from other people. The small world person feels intimidated by people that know things that they don’t. The truth is,  everyone knows something you don’t, so take advantage of every conversation. Ask questions with genuine interest and learn from everyone you speak with. Speak up when you need clarification and repeat back to them what you’ve learned. This, by the way, is what makes you an excellent conversationalist. Not only will you be learning new things, but you’ll be fun to talk to.

They are never bored. The big world person has an ongoing list of goals they want to accomplish, sub-cultures they want to explore, and skills they want to master. The world is an exciting place – there’s always something to learn. The small world person limits herself to an environment she is already familiar with and people she is already comfortable with. This makes it easy to feel stagnant instead of growing. It’s comfortable – but it’s boring.

They are interesting. Once in the habit of taking on new things, the big world person has a lot more stories to tell than the small world person. They have more wisdom to bring to the table, and more advice learned through experience.

They are brave. The big world person understands that his current world is small – and therefore, isn’t embarrassed when he makes mistakes. It’s always difficult to leave your comfort zone the first time – but after you do it a few times, it isn’t as scary any more. The more you accomplish, the more you gain trust in your abilities. Furthermore, the broader context you gain, the fewer unknowns there are left to intimidate you. In other words – if you’ve made all the mistakes already, what have you to lose?

They are good at what they do. The big world person looks for better ways to do things – to improve their standard method of operation. No expert does things the way they did it when they were a beginner, so why should you become content with the daily habits you currently hold? Challenge the process. How can you make your morning routine more efficient? How you can systemize a repeated task at work and save time? The big world person asks these questions.

They are kind. The big world person feels more empathy. The big world person understands both sides of the argument. They are merciful because they can see things from anther’s perspective. They are forgiving because they are honest about their own mistakes. Just as hate and ignorance go hand in hand, learning someone’s story can lead you to compassion.

So how do you be the big world person? How do you pursue the expansion of your world? I submit the following:

Consume Widely. By “consume,” think: books/articles/blogs you read,  podcasts/sermons/lectures/music/radio stations you listen to, the people you follow on social media, the people you spend time with, and the movies/television/news networks you watch. While it’s fine and beneficial to have favorite channels, remember to occasionally explore new voices to broaden your perspective.

Consume with Purpose: Examine your media choices, and make your choices intentionally. If you find yourself reading the same type of book over and over out of habit, you could be in rut. Endeavor to balance these voices with others to ensure you’re getting both sides of the story.

Think Critically: Approach new arenas of thought with an open mind, and seek to understand what other people see in their position – but don’t accept new positions without thinking critically. Just as a different position isn’t necessarily less vlaid than your current position – it isn’t necessarily more valid either. Learn with the intention of figuring out what you believe, and why you believe it.

Chaos Begets Chaos

For me, this lesson originates in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. In this book, Gladwell describes a crime-ridden neighborhood that is reclaimed by law enforcement by an effort to repair broken windows and cracking down on subway turnstile jumpers. He explains how an environment of chaos contributes toward actions of chaos — a concept that I found applies in a variety of contexts.

Never use your inbox for storage.  Especially the inbox that people use to give you new task items. When people (like your boss) put something in your inbox, you want them to feel confident that you will receive it and process it in a timely manner. When your inbox looks full, people will begin to not trust the inbox as a proper way of reaching you, so they will start to put papers in other places that they think “you can’t miss” (like on your desk or chair). This is why I empty my inbox every day — even if i have to place the past items in a folder marked “Inbox Items To Process.” I want to limit incoming items to my inbox (not anywhere else in my office), and I know that I am catching everything people are giving me.

Keep your office clean. This goes along with the empty inbox. When your boss, clients, or co-workers visit your office, your office is a testament to your workflow. That large, scary stack of papers in the corner betrays that some eventually projects get sent to a “black hole.” If there are many large, scary stacks of papers, that means MANY projects eventually get sent to a “black hole.” If you have streamlined filing system (and an *ahem* EMPTY inbox) you are communicating that you know how to keep important things in place you can find them later, and tasks that are assigned to you get done. Furthermore, you will work better and more efficiently in a clean and well-organized space.

Simplify your classroom. I teach a Sunday School class of Kindergarten – 6th graders. Once, while waiting for our classroom to get remodeled, we spent a number of months in an interim classroom that was really a multipurpose room. There was a chest freezer and refrigerator in the already small room, and there was barely enough room for our tables and chairs. Part of carpet was peeling up, the walls were a chaotic sponge painting, and there were three entrances into the room that made things noisy. We did fine, but I could tell that the environment was taking a toll. There was so many things for the kids to be distracted by that their behavior was more difficult than usual to handle. Even I did a poorer job of taking care of the classroom because it felt so chaotic. In our newly remodeled classroom, everything has it’s place and everything is in it’s place. The wall space behind my main teaching area is mostly blank. I want to impart a feeling of peace and tranquility — as well as energy and creativity — because I believe minds learn better in a non-chaotic environment.

If you can’t eliminate, limit. Every space has a necessary amount of “chaos.” In a kid’s bedroom, there’s always going to be art projects and posters that they want to put up. In an office, there’s always going to be lots of paper to store and process. In a home, there’s always going to be junk mail, bills, grocery lists, and coupons. The key is to take this chaos and make it submit to a system. In the kid’s room, instead of a free-for-all, allow them a bulletin board for their wall hangings. In the office, sort items in to “reference” and “task items” and file them accordingly. In the home, decide where items will go and stick to it. If there is a case in which you absolutely cannot eliminate the chaos, put it into a box and label it. Boom. Chaos: limited.