Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction & Anxiety - Justin Whitmel Earley (Podcast Ep. 30)

Whether or not you’re intentionally forming your habits, your habits are forming you. With constant distraction at our fingertips, our routines around work can add up to days filled with anxiety, restless busyness, and even depression. Our guest Justin Whitmel Earley is a corporate lawyer who has experienced both slavery to bad habits, and the freedom that comes from healthy spiritual disciplines. His book is The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction.

Scripture References

Romans 12:1-2
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (NRSV)

Genesis 1:27
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (NRSV)

Genesis 2:2-3
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (NRSV)

Additional Resources Referenced

The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, by Justin Whitmel Earley

Thanks for Listening!

If you like what you've heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts! We'd love to hear from you, and it helps other people find us.

< Back to Making It Work podcast episode list


​​Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

Whether or not you’re intentionally forming your habits, your habits are forming you. With constant distraction at our fingertips, our routines around work can add up to days filled with anxiety, restless busyness, and even depression. Our guest Justin Whitmel Earley is a corporate lawyer who has experienced both slavery to bad habits, and the freedom that comes from healthy spiritual disciplines. His book is The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction.

Justin, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.

Justin Whitmel Earley: Thank you so much, Leah. I am so happy to be here.

LA: We're so happy to have you. So start by giving us some background. What happened in your own life that made you realize you needed to change your habits around your work in your life?

JWE: It was a long and intimate process for me. So I actually started as a missionary in China right after I graduated from undergrad, and I would have done that for a lot of years, except I actually felt this calling one day in China to move back to the States and become a lawyer and sort of live missionally within law and business. I ran into law with all the fervor of a man on a call. And so I went to law school trying to do it right, do it excellently, to do the best that I could. And it did work, actually. So I graduated around the top of my class.

I was married to my wife, Lauren. Still am. Then we had our first two sons during law school. I got my dream job in mergers and acquisitions at a big law firm headquartered here in Richmond, where all my friends and family live. My life was going really well. However, and I wouldn't have known this at the time as a problem, I knew it was a reality, I was moving a million miles a minute all the time. I was just like your typical law school student. My schedule was jam-packed full of resume activities and engagements and always adding one more thing, staying up late or waking up earlier. But this was all exactly what I thought one was supposed to do. And I was sort of also unconsciously assimilating to the normal pattern of law and what you did to become a great lawyer. So I look back at that time, and I think I really was serious about the calling, but while the house of my life was decorated with this Christian content of calling, it was really serious, the architecture of my life, I realize now, was built just like everyone else's in that my habits of living were just like any other typical top law school student. And as it turns out, a lot of us have anxiety crashes, alcohol problems, significant mental health issues that crop up. And for me, it cropped up really quick and quite spectacularly.

So what happened was, in my first year of practicing law, and I didn't know any of these stats at the time, actually, I didn't... I had no idea. So I was... One Saturday night in the middle of the first year I was practicing law, I wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating and my hands shaking and nothing to blame it on. I had no specific crisis that day, I wasn't aware that I was worried about anything, and I didn't know what a panic attack was at the time. So I just sort of woke my wife up, told her that I was feeling really strange, and we eventually went back to sleep. But the next night it happened again, and I was never able to fall back asleep. And almost at the 48-hour mark of not sleeping, I go to the hospital 'cause I think something is wrong. Something is really wrong. And I'll never forget, a doctor, in one of the most anti-climactic moments of my life to date looked at me and said that nothing was really wrong, I was just experiencing symptoms of clinical anxiety, and that that was totally... It was normal. And he said that as if it was comforting, that it's really normal, a lot of people experience this. And he sent me home with some sleeping pills. And I didn't know at the time that I respond to sleeping pills in all the horrible ways you read on the back of the bottle.

So in a matter of weeks, my life went from what I thought was the best time in my life, to what I know now is the worst time in my life. I wasn't sleeping, I was being knocked out by the sleeping pills sometimes, but I was having enormous daytime mood swings and even hallucinogenic nightmares, and I began to have suicidal thoughts. And that's when I knew something was really, really wrong. And so I got rid of the sleeping pills, but all the rest of this remained. And I was at this point where I was becoming very, very thin. I was having to have a glass of wine or two or even three just to fall asleep. And this was the capstone, and I'll pause my terrible story after this. One night I was standing in the kitchen with my wife, and she hands me a pile of dishes to put away. And I took them from her and I looked back at her and then just gave 'em back, I said, "I don't know where these go." And I went upstairs, and just collapsed on the bed.

And I remember thinking, if I can't put away dishes, I'm not gonna be able to do my job, I'm not gonna be able to pay back my student debt. But even more, I'm not gonna be able to be a father, the friend, the husband, this "missionary to law and business" that I would so hope to be. And that's when it clicked for me that the missionary had been converted. And that was a big, important realization, 'cause I suddenly thought, Wait, I was the missionary to law and business, or so I thought, and I had been in such short order converted to the nervous medicating lawyer, just like everybody else. What happened to me? And it was a lot of work later that I started to realize that I had assimilated. I had assimilated primarily by habit, not by propositions, not by somebody converting me, but just by living the typical lawyer's life, I had become someone different. And that's when I started to think, Whoa, habits really, really matter to who we are.

LA: So just like the doctor said, "Well, this is pretty normal," you had become normal for your industry.

JWE: Yes. I am actually really typical, unfortunately, for lawyers. And people listening will probably know, this is also fairly typical for most western white collar work. Most of us are experiencing some sort of low level, if not significant mental health crisis or crash. And surprise, surprise, it's because lots of us assimilate to the exact same patterns of life, which I think we don't really realize how... Not just how powerful they are, but how spiritual they are, how spiritually rooted some of these liturgies are. And I'm sure we'll get into what that means in a minute.

LA: Well, let me ask you now, because you just said you had been converted by your habits, and you just mentioned the word liturgy. And this is something you hang on a lot in your book. You say that habits are a form of liturgy. Tell us what you mean exactly by liturgy. What is typically... What do we typically think of as liturgy and how can habits be liturgy to us?

JWE: Yeah, sure. I like to start slowly sneaking those words in, so that somebody will ask the question you just asked, because... Here's what I know about habits neurologically, and this is why I think about them spiritually. Neurologically, anybody who reads up a little bit on what we've studied about the brain and habit in the past couple decades, realizes that what happens in the brain during habit activity, and that is normal day-to-day activity, almost 40% of our actions are habits, so this is happening to all of us all the time. Habits occur in the deepest part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which means our top order thinking conveniently actually sort of shuts down, so we can do simple things like drive home, turn our keys, catch a baseball, without thinking about them. In fact, lots of times, and you'll hear people say this during sports or something like, “Don't overthink it, just let habit take over.” So it's very convenient for us that habits occur in the part of our brain that is lower order thinking, because it allows us to free up and think about a lot of other things like what we're gonna do when we get to our destination, or what we're gonna do with that baseball after we catch it. But it hamstrings us.

What is so convenient for us in some places is really, really bad for us when the habit's a bad habit. For me, for example, if it's a pattern of addiction every evening or maybe it's a morning routine of looking at your phone. And your top order thinking says, I don't wanna have that other drink, or, Why do I keep looking at my phone, or, I don't wanna go to that website, or, I don't wanna speak this way about that person, but that top order part of our brain that knows better is not that lower order part of our brain that's actually engaging in the habit activity, and so there's actually this neurological reality where when your head goes one way, but your heart or your gut, your lower order thinking, your habit goes the other way. Well, the heart tends to follow the habit.

And that's where I started to connect, oh my gosh, this is why liturgy is so important, and why liturgy is based around habit, because liturgy, just like habit, it's the stuff that we do over and over semi-consciously to unconsciously. But liturgy admits that it's worship. We call habit liturgy when it happens in the spiritual realm, and I think my big realization was, wait, if habits are always forming us and they're sort of forming where our heart goes, then shouldn't we just think of habits as liturgies of worship, if all of life is worship anyway? And I, of course, don't mean capital L Liturgy, as in the highest forms of worship that the church participates in, but there is a liturgical, a true liturgical nature to all of our habits. And this was the big realization for me, that the way I looked at my smartphone was as much of a liturgy as my morning reading in the Book of Common Prayer, for example.

LA: Well, Mark, let me bring you into the conversation 'cause I wanna ask you about your expert opinion. Could you help us just tease out this word liturgy? How have liturgies been used throughout the history of Christian worship in the church? And what can you make of this link that Justin's making between liturgy and daily work habits?

MR: Well, if you go way back, a liturgy was a kind of an action that had a particular kind of meaning or service to it, not just in terms of worshipping God, it was liturgy in non-worship settings. And we've come to use that language to talk in particular about the things that we do that are very intentionally offered to God. So liturgy is what we do when we come together for corporate worship. And obviously, certain churches don't use that language as much. It tends to be used in more traditional, or we would even say liturgical churches. But all churches have liturgy. It's what we do that's explicitly offered to God as a kind of sacrifice. In the ancient world, a liturgy could be something that someone would do for the good of the city. So somebody gives a certain amount of money to build something that'll be helpful to the community, that could be an act of liturgy. And so our liturgy is what we offer to God. And we tend to think first off of the things we do when we come together in corporate worship.

But the idea that we ought not to limit the idea of liturgy to... Just to those settings, that liturgy can be things we do and regularly do and habitually do for the Lord that we do in our own life. And they don't even have to be obviously, "spiritual things." They can be the things we do that have meaning, the things we do because we're created in God's image, the things we do that we offer to God. And so it's a way of rethinking how we live our lives and the intentionality about it. Paul in Romans talks about presenting your body as a living sacrifice. We would want to get to the point where all that we do, we could offer to God in that way. Offering our body as a living sacrifice not just Sundays and in my devotional time, but in all I do.

JWE: Mark, I'm really glad you looped in that Romans verse, because this is a layman's hermeneutic, but I often think about that verse in terms of, do not be conformed, but be transformed. And I think how this similarity is what you're always being formed. The formation is the given. And for me, after my habit crash, and that experience, I started looking with sort of more skeptical eyes at the habitual routines that I thought were neutral, the ways that we organize our schedule, the ways that I looked at my phone, the ways that I incessantly checked email and kept up with certain technological trends. And then... And I realized that there was a teleology or a purpose. What I thought was neutral, I'm just flipping open my phone, the programmer of that device or app or whatever, actually, there's a reason why they made it like this. And so I liked your definition of liturgy, the things we do on purpose for the good of the city or the worship of God. I think what I started to realize was that if I didn't have a purpose for my habits, someone else did, and that's why I was being drawn into continual habit loops that were serving someone else's bottom line, or advertising clicks or billable hours at the law firm as opposed to thinking, how do I master all these for the God that I actually worship?

LA: Now let me go ahead and read this verse for everybody and then I'll ask you a follow-up question, Justin. So this is Romans 12, verses 1 and 2, and it says, "Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters in view of God's mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is, his good, pleasing, and perfect will." So Justin, tell us about the way you decided not to conform to the patterns of this world, so to speak, to change your habits in order to transform and renew your mind.

JWE: Yeah. It was a little bit accidental at first. After this crisis that I told you about, I knew that something was really wrong, but I didn't exactly know how to fix it, and I had a really long hard year of struggling through a lot of this stuff. But it was about a year after my initial crisis that my wife and I decided to try a couple daily and weekly habits to reign in my chaos, and this was really a last-ditch effort because some medications weren't really having an impact and counseling was helping, but not as much as we had hoped. So it was just sort of trial and error. And I remember sitting down with two of my best friends at a restaurant, and I put this program of daily and weekly habits on the table, and I asked them to keep me accountable to it. And they were little things like I was gonna turn off my phone once a day during dinner, I was going to make sure I actually took a Sabbath every week, I was gonna make sure that one of my meals a day wasn't on the go, but actually eating with other people.

So kind of small stuff that I didn't think would matter at all. And a couple weeks to months into this, I started to feel dramatically different, and I started to have this, just epiphany, of, Oh my gosh, I thought these little habits didn't... I thought they were too small to matter, and now I realize that it is actually the small everyday patterns that aggregate into the enormous things that shape our mind and heart. And so that's when I started to really explore what sort of typical habits I could look at in my life and that would help me feel better and be more consistent with a life lived of discipleship. And it was my pastor, actually, I was talking to him about some of these. When he looked at them, he was like, "Oh, you've created a rule of life. I see what you're doing there." And I asked him, "What is a rule of life?" Come to find out, people...

Monastics and other people in spiritual communities have been using this concept of living according to a program of communal habits for formation, for the purpose of formation in the love of God and neighbor for millennia. And I sort of accidentally stumbled into this idea, but once I sort of realized that I really went deep into thinking, all right, what have other people have done in different communities to say, We're gonna have a counter-cultural set of formational habits to form us in the love of God and neighbor. And that's, as a missionary, someone who is trying to live missionally within the vocation of law, I thought, anybody who really follows Jesus needs... If we're always being conformed and we wanna be transformed, like the Romans verse, we should have sort of a layman's rule of life or a common rule of life. Like, yes, we're not monastics, but we need a set of formational habits. And that's when I started writing about this stuff and noodling on what those habits might be.

MR: So let me ask you a question, I'm sure you've gotten this before, and I know you can deal with it. But I can just imagine certain folk listening saying, a rule... I knew, this works, right?

JWE: Yeah. Right, right, right. I knew it.

MR: There's rules. And Christian life isn't rules, it's a relationship and all that. So can you just... For that person who is just kind of worrying about the rule language, can you kind of explain a little more what you mean by rule, but then also, how does that relate to God's grace?

JWE: Yes, I love answering this question 'cause it always reminds me of the wonderful feeling of freedom that I have now that I've laid myself some rules. I mean, one, you can look at why we call it "the rule of life." And so the original Latin behind a rule of life was this word that didn't mean a law that you had to obey, but actually connoted a bar or a trellis. And the idea was how would you set up a trellis of habit on which the love of God and neighbor could grow? The idea being that, like plants, we actually all grow, we're all being conformed or formed, and what would be a healthy framework for that? So the rule was never intended to be... And if you read some of the most famous and original "rules of life," St. Benedict's for example, he'll say beautiful little sentences like, "We mean nothing harsh, but we just want to give everybody an urging to love and follow God."

So the origin of the stuff was not in "You need to obey. This is legalistic." And that's all well and good, but I think it's... What I've experienced, I think, is maybe equally as compelling for the listener. And that is that one of the reasons that I lived like I did in law school was because I was a good American, and I loved freedom. And in my view of American freedom, I did not want... My understanding of freedom was the ability to do whatever I want to do in any given moment, and that is the way to the good life. And I think that is probably an implicit assumption that any American or even Westerner listening to this, either has now or has had at some point in their life, we tend to think that the way of the good life is through freedom and freedom means being able to do whatever you want. And after my crisis, it was abundantly clear that doing what I want was not helping me. In fact, it was enslaving me to the phone, it was enslaving me to my office, it was enslaving me to some anxiety that I couldn't control. And I realized that by seeking American freedom, I'd become a slave, as so many of us do.

And I found in the Bible a much better version of freedom, and that's not the ability to do whatever you want to do at any given moment, but the ability to do what you were created to do, and that is be an image bearer of God. And that means if you're created, we have certain creaturely restrictions. And the goal is not to be able to do whatever we want to do, but to be able to do what we are made to do, and that requires living within some limitations. Just like a sports car has to have a very finely-tuned engine to do that incredible turn that it can do or acceleration that it can do, or just like a baseball player needs to practice the mechanics of the swing over and over to be free to hit a home run, we need to live within limitations to guide us towards freedom. And so I look at these things now not as the burdensome rules that I have to follow in order to make God happy, I look at them as the guardrails to the good life. How do I stay in the safe and wonderful place of continuing to follow Jesus? So I always remind people, habits will not change God's love for us, period. It's just fundamentally important to this conversation. But God's love for us can and should change our habits. And as long as we go in that order, then we're talking about, "Okay, I'm seeking these habits because he loves me, I'm not seeking his love through habits."

LA: You mention how each of us is an image bearer of God. This comes from Genesis, when God creates human beings in God's own image. And even when we look at God in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, God who is all powerful exists within some limits. You even mention this in your book. We all know that God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, he rested. This comes from Genesis 2:2 and 2:3, but even in the Genesis 1 narrative, every day there's a little pause for rest and reflection that God has where he looks on the work that he created that day, and he rests. So even in the first salient chapter of the Bible where we're meeting God before we meet any other creature who's created, we get this experience of some limitations, even within the boundless creativity that God has. So these are limitations that God sets for his own person.

JWE: I agree. It's really, and it's come to reframe limitations for me. I just... I used to look at limitations as something that was gonna hold me back, and now I think of them as the boundaries that get me to the freedom that I was meant to have, freedom in Christ. So yeah, I just... That word is really a new word for me. I'm no longer scared of that. I don't see limitations or rules or law as antithetical to grace, I see them as guiding me towards freedom and grace.

MR: I'm also impressed, Justin, that the rules you chose for yourself... For one thing, it wasn't as if, oh, I don't know, there was some external authority imposing all of this stuff on you. It was really your participation in community but freely choosing things that seemed right and good and healthy for you. And also, I just have to say, and I know we've only talked about a couple of yours, but it's not as if you... When I was a young Christian I thought, if I'm really gonna be holy, man, I gotta get up at 5:00 in the morning, right?

JWE: Yeah. [chuckle]

MR: And I know people who do that. But that just was impossible, that was... There was no way I could do that. I could think about reading scripture before I look at my phone. That feels possible, whereas 5:00 in the morning prayer just wouldn't do it.

JWE: Yeah.

MR: And so the rules you chose for yourself that you've already said were so transformational to you don't feel like, "Oh my gosh, Justin is just the most amazing Christian that ever lived. I can never do that." There's a sense in which the things you chose are encouraging, because they feel doable as opposed to impossible.

JWE: Yeah, I'm glad you agree and feel that way. But that's what I was thinking as I started to outline stuff for myself, and in hopes that other people would do them too. I was thinking two things. One, as I started to read about the power of habit, there's a lot of neurological wisdom to something we call keystone habits, which are micro changes in your routine that lead to macro changes in your actual life. And this is not like... I don't wanna get into life hack and stuff like this. There's just some truth that small changes actually matter. So I was thinking about what are like small changes in my daily routine that would actually have major spiritual impact? And so that's where things like Scripture before phone came from, or turning your phone off for one hour a day.

But then there was another aspect that I really... I started with my story, not just because it's how I came to it, but also because I really do still feel 100% like the Lord has called me to live missionally within my vocation. And I think that others should feel that way if they follow Jesus, that they're called to where they are, and that we are all ambassadors of Christ. We are not fundamentally American. We are sent to America. Whether we're born here or not, we are sent to where we are, to live out our calling. And I wanted to think about habits that people who weren't full-time pastors, or weren't full-time missionaries in the traditional sense, people who are lawyers like me, or stay-at-home moms... And because I think they're probably the only vocation busier than a lawyer, [chuckle] but I wanted something that "busy people" could say, "Well, this is still doable."

And so when I chose habits like one communal meal, or one conversation with a friend a week, I was trying to think about, what are some small keystone spiritual habits that would push our lives towards community, push our lives towards prayer and meditation, push our lives towards silence rather than the continual inundation with more media? And so just small changes that I think everybody should be able to make. And that's what this whole... The common rule and the book I wrote and the habits that are in it, they're all those kind of small things. And people can start with all of them, or one of them, but they're all just supposed to be small micro changes that push you more into either the love of God, or the love of neighbor.

LA: And something that I love about your book, Justin, is I don't get the impression that these habits are supposed to turn me into a monk, or supposed to take me away from my job as I'm practicing them.

JWE: Correct. Right.

LA: There's this great story, and you talk about you turning off your phone for an hour. Sometimes I think like, Oh, if I turn off my phone for an hour, I'm just gonna have to like behold the sunset and be really holy for two minutes and then be bored. But you tell this great story of a client needed something from you in the first part of a day, and you turned your phone off for an hour and went to a coffee shop so that you could do your work better. So tell us just... I wonder if you would just give us some tips for working. We wanna do good at our work. How can these habits help us do our work better without departing from the world into some kind of monastic reality that doesn't seem viable for a lot of us?

JWE: Absolutely, yeah. I think at first I was worried in so many ways that, Oh, if I really follow Jesus in my vocation, it's gonna somehow take away from my vocation and I'm gonna have to do this either/or. And it's been so comforting to me to find out and figure out that following Jesus makes me a better lawyer. And so with these habits. And I give... I love, I love, I feel like this is one of the ways that the Lord is honoring Him calling me to live missionally within law. One of the things I love doing is I talk to lawyers actually regularly about... In just a work-productivity sense... Of the kinds of things we need to do to be more careful with our mental health.

And so for example, let's just take the story that you brought up. Can we turn our phones off or not? I'll talk at law firms about the wisdom of having off time, and sometimes, especially young associates, will be like... I got this question one time. It was anonymous from the crowd. It was like, "I don't think that the partner that I'm working for would like it if I turn my phone off." And in general, of course, if you're just willy-nilly like, I'm gonna decide to be unavailable now, at 2:00 PM, in the middle of the day, that could of course be unwise, but as it turns out, it was a couple of things for me. I was terrified to turn my phone off while I was at home, because I thought of... Surely somebody's gonna call. And I hit this point where I just realized, it doesn't matter. I'm so distracted around my family I'm just gonna try this.

And one of the great realizations I had was that, one, in turning my phone off, my present came back. I was actually much more able, and almost immediately, to be present with my family, but the other big realization was that I was not nearly as important as I thought. As it turns out, not only did usually from 6:00-7:00 PM nobody needed me, but nobody even noticed. And that was the great humbling realization, that no one even knew. [chuckle] I was just less important than I thought. And there are still days... I still live according to this habit. I turn my phone off when I get home every evening most times, but this is the wisdom of a habit. We had a major deal for a client closing last week where for a couple of days we were kinda working around the clock. And that's fine. That is fine once in a while. Not only did I not turn my phone off, but I didn't even leave the office some of those days.

The wisdom of habit is that there are always exceptions, and this is why it's so comforting to me to frame this in terms of habit and not law, as in like you're in trouble if you break it, because the wisdom is to have a default habit where you are in rhythms of presence with other people because of course that's how God created us, but of course, there are times in all of our vocations where we're gonna be called to a really demanding task and we should probably break our habit or not fast on that day, or keep our phone on all the time, and that's just wise, but I also turn my phone off at work sometimes because that one client has asked me to do something and to honor that one client, I've gotta ignore all other clients for a while. And I think that idea that I'm limited and I need to honor those limitations in order to honor my call either to God or family, or that one client is one of the key realizations. If I try to do the opposite, and that is live without limits and be available to all people at all time, I end up being unavailable to all people at all time because I'm just not... I actually don't have that capacity, and so that's a spiritual reality, honoring our limitations in order to do good work, is a spiritual truth that the Bible will teach you as it turns out it works in law.

LA: Yeah, and so Justin, in your book you lay out just a bunch of different kind of exercises, like things you can try on, different habits that you can try, and you say like, Here's a way to do it. You could try and just do a little experiment and do it with your friends and talk about how it impacted you, or whether you might wanna repeat it. I appreciate that it's a low bar. I like a low bar 'cause then I don't worry that I'm gonna fail at it.

JWE: Yeah, most people do, and I think that's great. So I always tell people, "Don't try all of these at one time." Usually people should take one habit and try it communally, so one of my classic recommendations for people who ask the great question, "Well, where do I start with all this?" I'd say, "Here's where you start. Find one friend and pick one habit." And I would recommend, for example, scripture before phone as just one of the most powerful and small keystone habits. So that would be like get a friend and say, "Alright, from mid-April until mid-May, or for the month of July, we're gonna do scripture before phone and we're gonna tell each other about it and how we did." And there's two really powerful things happening there, one is that you are committing to a certain time frame, and that actually matters as we're just talking about our bodies matter, our brains are generally just sort of tuned to pick up habits after anywhere from two to four weeks, so committing to do something for a month is way more important than trying to do something for a day or two days or three days, so try one habit for about a month. And then the other really, really important thing that I can't talk about enough is community.

No, almost... I wanna say it in the most extreme way, but I should probably nuance it a little bit, almost no significant change in our life happens outside of community. And even if you were to say it was, it would still be the community of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God within you. So I'm just gonna say: no significant change in our life happens outside of community, we don't change alone, we're lousy at it, we don't do what we say we're gonna do, we fail at what we said we're gonna do, then we give up trying and then we fudge the numbers, we just radically need accountability all the time, so when I say find someone else, that's actually one of the most important things you'll ever do for your habit life and your spiritual life is do them with someone else. So pick one person, pick one friend, and that is a great way to start experimenting with the spiritual disciplines as habits.

LA: Mark, your son just did an experiment about this, didn't he?

MR: Yes, so, unrelated to the fact that we're having this conversation, a couple of months ago, my son, who's 28, and a number of his peer friends, decided that... And this is still when the pandemic was raging, especially in California, where we live... That they were going to have a weekly Zoom call, and in that call, they were going to read out loud Justin's book to each other, a chapter at a time.

JWE: This is so phenomenal to me. I'm so impressed by that.

MR: And they would go and one person would read two or three paragraphs and then pass it to the next person, and then they would get to the end. And sometimes they would talk about it. Sometimes if somebody had to go, they'd go. So sometimes it was just the communal reading, but they read through the whole book, and Nathan was talking about this, and I'm like, "Wait, that's the guy we're gonna do this podcast with." So he's very impressed that I get to have this conversation with you, Justin, but I just thought it's a great example of the community piece.

JWE: Yes.

MR: And they loved your book, by the way. It was your way of communicating, here's a good little commercial for your book, but you talk about very serious ideas in a very... And important ideas, in a very available way, so even though you're an attorney and you could probably speak attorney boilerplate all day, you write like a friend who is discovering stuff and wanting to share it, and so my son and his friends were... They loved that experience.

JWE: Well, that's a high compliment for someone who loves writing, but I will say I'm more impressed with your son because that's a significant achievement, and...

LA: Nathan is the real hero of the podcast today.

JWE: He is, he's the real hero today. I also want you to just know that one of my favorite habits, not only that I wrote about, but also just to do is... I think it's about chapter seven in the book I can't remember, is the weekly habit of a conversation with a friend, because community doesn't just change your habits, community changes everything. And I love this idea of them in the middle of a pandemic finding each other through Zoom and through reading out loud, because it is just so phenomenally countercultural to go... It's much easier to turn on Netflix, it's much easier to zone out, but one of the most important things in our life is whether or not we reach out and find someone else, which is why one of the habits in the common rule is spend an hour each week in intentional conversation with a friend, because for example, in my career, it's so easy to make the default to work all the time.

And I think you look at the typical American, and the typical path of an American is you become a busier, wealthier person who used to have friends. And I talk about friendship, and it's common sense, it's common sense that we all want more friends, but it's not common practice, and that wisdom of habit applies to this most important area of our life in community and friendship. If we don't actually carve out a rhythm in life to go to that small group, or a rhythm in life to be serious about that accountability group, or a weekly rhythm to just engage in that friendship, then life will pull you into a solitary, strained and lonely existence. This is a well studied, sociological fact in the West right now, and it's actually a health issue. Pre-pandemic, we were in an epidemic of chronic loneliness. The average life span is declining because of preventable causes like alcohol abuse, opioid deaths, suicides, things that sociologists are stringing together as an epidemic of loneliness. So I just think it's one of the most countercultural and wonderful things we can do is to have rhythms of reaching out and finding other people, telling the truth, having conversations, processing life, reading a book out loud, reading and praying together, whatever it is. That's living, that's honoring one of the ways that the Lord made us, and that is to live intp community, 'cause we're created in the image of a Triune God. And so, I just can't talk about this book or these habits without mentioning that one as one of the most fundamentally important for Christians in our time right now, have rhythms of friendship.

MR: Wonderful.

LA: So the book to read in community is The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction. And Justin Whitmel Earley, thank you so much for talking with us today.

JWE: You're welcome. Thank you for the conversation. I so enjoyed it.

< Back to Making It Work podcast episode list