Business Leadership Personal Growth

The 2 Vital Ingredients You Need to Have Unbeatable Preparation

Zig Ziglar said, “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.” We can’t control opportunity, but we can be prepared for it. Preparation occurs when simplicity meets stewardship.

Preparation occurs when simplicity meets stewardship. @DanielTStephens

Defining Success

As much as I enjoy the Zig Ziglar quote, it’s pretty empty if you take it by itself at face value. I’m sure that when he originally said it, he went on to define opportunity and preparation. I’m sure that he also went on to explain why he believed success was made up of those two ingredients. But I have never heard or read the original context of the quote. I have only ever heard that one line by itself.

So for the sake of argument, I am going to assume Zig’s definition of success had something to do with achieving meaning and stability beyond oneself. Success has as much to do with helping others as it does with helping yourself.

Another Ziglar quote I often hear is “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” Because helping others is meaningful, I am going to assume that his definition of success included meaning, significance, transcendence, or whatever you want to call it.

The point is that success is bigger than just you. Success includes your tribe. Success is also bigger than just your tribe, it includes other tribes.

I am also going to assume that Zig’s definition of success included stability. You could say that I am being redundant, because there is a lot in common between “stability” and “preparation.” But for the sake of argument, I am going to say that you work from a place of preparation in order to get to a place of stability.

Preparation is the point of origin, stability is the destination.

I could just say that to be prepared is to be ready. But that is… obvious. What exactly does that mean? I think it will be most helpful to break preparation down into what it looks like internally and externally. I also think it will be helpful to think of preparation as an ongoing process, rather than a one-and-done achievement.

Preparation = Simplicity + Stewardship

The basic principle of simplicity is to clear clutter from your life. Simplicity is the cutting down phase of preparation.

The basic principle of stewardship is to save your extra resources now for when you might need or want them in the future. Stewardship is the building up phase of preparation.

If you have implemented simplicity and stewardship in your life, then you have extra gas in the tank to “go the extra mile” when the opportunity arises. Anyone can say that “going the extra mile” leads to success. I think what Ziglar was getting at is that you have to have gas in the tank (preparation), and you have to do it at the right time (opportunity).

Internal Preparation

Spiritual Preparation

Can you tell the difference between an opportunity and a temptation? Can you tell the difference between a good idea and a distraction?

It is your spiritual preparation, your world view, your growth, that will help you to be discerning, and to make good decisions. You need a filter to screen out the temptations and distractions while letting in the opportunities and good ideas.

How you build that filter depends a lot on your learning style and spiritual temperament. If you’re bothering to read a blog, odds are you’re a bit on the intellectual side. If you want to build a strong discernment muscle, spend your time in the wisdom books of scripture, and surround yourself with people who do the same.

Physical Preparation

I can’t resist. Call me immature.

Isn’t Viagra’s whole advertising scheme based on “being ready when the time comes?”

Okay, moving on. Olympians train hard for their sport so that their bodies can handle the punishment of competition. Parents get worn out from lack of sleep and blow up at their kids.

Filling your physical tank means getting good rest, good food, and good exercise. If you’re not sleeping, not exercising, or you’re putting garbage in your body, what are your chances of being prepared to:

  • Make love to your spouse?
  • Play tag with your kids / grand kids?
  • Defend yourself in a fight?
  • Work extra hours when it’s needed and appropriate?

Physical simplicity pretty much rest. Sleep. Creating habits that allow your body to clear the clutter (which is mostly what sleep is for). Check out the book Sleep Smarter for specific suggestions.

Physical stewardship is diet and exercise. Putting in the right fuel and tuning the motor so that you’re ready for whatever race you need to run.

Emotional Preparation

Filling your emotional tank means dealing with negative emotions and maximizing room for positive emotions.

To handle your negative emotions in a healthy way, remember the GEMS (Kay Bruce):

  • Gyst of what happened (or is happening)
  • Emotions associated with it
  • Meaning assigned to it
  • Strategies for change

Dealing with negative emotions, or clearing emotional clutter, will create space for positive emotions. You can do a lot of work to deal with these yourself, or you can talk to a safe person in your life about them. Don’t handle your negative emotions by ignoring them, because they will only get more intense. Don’t handle your negative emotions by numbing them, because you’ll numb the good feelings too.

Emotional simplicity is handling your negative emotions in the right way.

Emotional stewardship is reminding yourself of good feelings. Take time at least 3 times a week to ask yourself, and write down the answers to these three questions:

  1. What are you thankful for?
  2. Who have you helped recently?
  3. What have you learned recently?

Unless it’s a habit that you’re highly motivated to maintain, or it’s part of your “normal,” don’t do those questions too often. If you do, the practice might lose its potency and become ritualistic.

These questions are a part of my bed-time-prayer routine with my daughter. They’re a part of her normal. I hope it’s something that she takes with her when she is older. I am highly motivated to participate and to set an example. So for us, it works really well to do this daily, but it might not work for other people.

External Preparation

This is really the same drum that I’ve been beating for the last month. Just in case you missed them, you might want to read my past two posts on simplicity and stewardship.

Financial Preparation

Finances are the area that I hear the most about simplicity and stewardship.

If you have a lot of debt that drains your weekly or monthly cash flow, you won’t be able to build a savings as quickly. If you don’t have an emergency fund, you won’t be able to fix or replace things easily. If you don’t have a savings, you won’t be able to pay for large expenses, or to survive a season of unemployment.

You can’t start a business if you don’t have start up funds. You can’t donate to a cause if you don’t have discretionary funds.

Schedule Preparation

Have you ever made the excuse “I’d love to, but I don’t have time.”

A simple schedule is not an empty schedule. A simple schedule just reflects the right priorities.

Stewardship of your schedule is saying “I’ll make the time” instead of “I can’t find the time.”

Rory Vaden’s “Focus Funnel” is a great visualization of that illustrates both of these. It’s created for a business context, but with smart phones and mobile apps, it’s totally possible to automate a lot of tasks at home too.

Rory Vaden, Focus Funnel, Eliminate, Automate, Delegate, Procrastinate on Purpose
Image via Rory Vaden

Relational Preparation

Relational preparation is a lot like emotional preparation.

Simple relationships are low drama relationships. I did not say low conflict relationships. I said low drama. Drama happens when a conflicts are not handled well. Both people in the relationship have bad habits for handling their own negative emotions, and they bring those bad habits into the relationship.

If both people have good habits for handling their negative emotions, then they will have good habits for conflict resolution. Conflicts will be addressed when they are small.

Stewarded relationships have a lot of positive memories. Both people have stored up things to be thankful for in the relationship, and they have quick ways of referring to them. Both people have stored up things they’ve learned, and they are quick to remember those lessons. Both people remember when one of them was a better fit for a challenge they faced together, or one was stronger than the other.

Add Your Voice (comment below)

  1. Which area of life are you least prepared for?
  2. What are you doing to implement simplicity or stewardship in that area of life?

Like this article?

Click here to subscribe to my email list to get articles like this every Monday.

Business Leadership Personal Growth

Achieve Simplicity in 3 areas to be a Successful Steward

In a couple of past posts, I wrote about the importance of stewarding your health, as well as stewarding your time, money, and relationships. But there is one critical step that comes first. Successful stewardship requires simplicity.

Successful Stewardship Requires Simplicity. @DanielTStephens

BONUS: Read all the way to the end of this article for a free download to help you achieve simplicity by prioritizing your relationships, time commitments, and expenses.

Knowing Your Limits

One of my professors at Western Seminary, Norm Thiesen, uses the illustration of juggling. If you can juggle, how many balls can you juggle? Three? Four? Five? Seven? Ten?

If the most that you can juggle before failing is five balls, you can probably juggle four well. If you try to juggle five, you’re pushing it; and if you try to juggle six, you’ll fail.

If you’re failing at stewardship, it’s because you’re failing at simplicity. Your life is too complex. You’re trying to do too much at once.

Pairing Down

In a recent article at No Sidebar, Melissa Camara Wilkins told the story of packing up to move her family to a new home. As she was going through her and her family’s belongings deciding what to pack, she began with the obvious question: “Do I need this?”

Along the way, she discovered a better question: “Can I live without this?” That second question isn’t necessarily better when the answer is a clear yes or no, but it is definitely better when the answer is, “maybe.”

Melissa was applying those questions to her possessions, but what if we apply those questions in other areas?

Simplicity in your Relationships

Can I live without this relationship?

This is probably one of the most painful areas of life to ask this question. In a culture where most of our “friends” are on Facebook, it can seem like considering an amputation to consider setting boundaries with people we have face to face relationships with.

It can be tempting to try to simplify your time or finances first. But your time and financial priorities hinge on the relationships that are important to you. Trying to start in those areas is like trying to open a door with no hinges.

But, “bad company corrupts good character,” does it not? When people around you are pervasively negative or draining, they are not only taking your time, energy, and possibly your money, they are corrupting your character. It is absolutely critical to set boundaries.

On the other end of the spectrum: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn

I am not suggesting that anyone should ever turn their back on family or a marriage or other serious commitment because of a season of hardship. Forgiveness is part of every healthy relationship.

Even so, there is a line somewhere. Here are a few questions that you can answer to help find that line:

  1. Does this relationship bring me more joy, or more pain?
  2. Is this only a season, or is it a pattern?
  3. Does this person invest in me as much as I do in them?
  4. Do I invest in this person as much as they do in me?
  5. Does this person actively or passively support my goals?

This is NOT about playing favorites or being selfish. It’s about freeing up energy and resources sunk into unhelpful relationships so that you can invest in important relationships.

Simplicity in your Time

Can I live without this time commitment? 

We live in a culture where being busy is a badge of honor. If we can answer the “how are you doing?” question with “busy,” people somehow assume that we’re either really important, really productive, or both.

In 2005 and 2006, I was in a men’s bible study led by David Valear. He frequently said that BUSY stood for “Burdened Under Satan’s Yoke.” I initially brushed it off as one of the goofy things that Christians say sometimes. But as I got to know David and how protective he was of his time, and how successful he was, I started taking it more seriously.

Once you have prioritized your relationships, it will be MUCH easier to simplify your time commitments.

Here are some questions to help decide what commitments can be cut:

  1. Is this a “have to,” a “get to,” or a “need to?” (Check out Michael Hyatt’s podcast episode “Watch Your Mouth” for a great self-check).
  2. Does this bring joy to people important to me?
  3. Does this bring me closer to people important to me?
  4. Does this tap into my personal strengths?
  5. Does this contribute to a greater, long term purpose?

Simplicity in your Finances

Can I live without this expense?

Has anyone else noticed that the majority of financial blogs or “gurus” focus on the increase-your-income side of the equation more than the decrease-your-expenses side?

In today’s developed and post industrial economies, even our “poor” are better off than most of the world’s population. In spite of that, in the US, personal debt per citizen is nearly twice the median income (check out the debt clock).

I confess that I am a part of this. But I’m writing about where I’m going; not where I am now; or where I’ve been.

Here are some questions to help you examine your finances:

  1. Does it provide a basic need (food, shelter, transportation)?
  2. Does it provide an economic need (education or job training)?
  3. Does it facilitate my important relationships?
  4. Does it facilitate my time commitments?
  5. Do I have to go into debt or dip into my savings for it?


I have created a printable worksheet to help prioritize your top ten most important relationships, time commitments, and expenses. Click Here, enter your information, and I’ll email it to you right away.

Add Your Voice (comment below)

  1. What helps you to keep your life simple?
  2. What self check questions do you use in these 3 areas?

Like this article?

Click here to subscribe to my email list to get articles like this every Monday.

Personal Growth

Back to Basics: Intentional Stewardship

Stewardship is about more than money. Time, relationships, energy, and talents also require stewardship. Last week I wrote about self care. Specifically, I wrote about optimizing your sleep, diet, exercise, and spirituality; I also confessed some of the things I need to do to improve in those areas.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Matthew 25:23

If you’re maximizing your self care, then you are maximally controlling the few things in life that you have the best chance of controlling at all. You are also maximizing your stewardship of your energy.

It’s obvious that your relationships are points of overlap with other people’s lives, but so are your money and your time. Stewardship is not an issue of being stingy or high spending, it’s an issue of relationships. You can’t control other people, but you can control your investments in other people through stewardship.

Stewardship of Money

I am a big fan of Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Make Over. The basic principles are to work hard, stay out of debt, and be generous. His approach includes 7 “baby steps” to financial peace.

  1. Save $1,000 in a small emergency fund.
  2. Pay off all debt but your house by using a debt snowball (see the video below).
  3. Save 3 to 6 months of expenses in a full emergency fund.
  4. Invest 15% of your gross income into IRAs and pre-tax retirement accounts.
  5. Save for your kid’s college.
  6. Pay off your home.
  7. Enjoy and share your wealth.

I have to admit, Skylar and I have fluctuated between steps 1 and 2 for several years. This is largely because we haven’t been intentional about it. That lack of intentionality is also why I’m writing less on this topic than on time or relationships.

Stewardship does not happen by accident, it only happens intentionally. In order to help me be more intentional about financial stewardship, I am using a tool called Mint (made by the same people who make QuickBooks and TurboTax).

Stewardship of Time

I’m a pretty busy guy. I have my family and home, I am a full time graduate student, and I work 30-45 hours between 3 major projects. Part of my discussion last week was being honest that while juggling all of that, I have done a piss poor job of watching out for my own health.

Stewardship of time involves the basic things like using a calendar, to-do list, and a good appointment booking tool (I use Google Calendar, Evernote, and But there is more to it than that. Whether you’re hyper organized or more free spirited about your time, there are some basic skills that help you to prioritize what gets on your calendar or to do-list in the first place.

I recently heard a podcast interview with Rory Vaden about his book Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time. I haven’t read the book yet, but you can bet it’s on my wishlist. One of the principles he discussed in that interview is something called the focus funnel.

To apply the focus funnel, ask yourself these questions about each task that comes your way:

  1. Does it have to be done? If no, eliminate it.
  2. Can something else do it? If yes, automate it (for example, using to automate appointment bookings).
  3. Can someone else do it? If yes, delegate it.
  4. When can it be done?
    1. If it can be done later, procrastinate on purpose (go back to 1).
    2. If it has to be done now, concentrate on it.
Rory Vaden's Focus Funnel
Image via Rory Vaden

Stewardship of Relationships

One of the implications of globalization and “social” media is that we all now “know” many more people than we used to. That is, “know” in the sense of being acquainted with, not in the sense of being familiar with, or personally close to.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 the median number of Facebook friends among millennials was 300, and 200 among Gen-Xers. But according to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the maximum number of stable social relationships any one person can handle is only around 150.

Facebook Friend Counts, Pew Research Center
Image via Pew Research Center

That means that we are in some way “connected” to between 33% and 100% of the number of people that we can have stable relationships with. How can we manage that number of connections in a way that is both authentic and mutually beneficial?

I don’t believe that the answer is “we can’t.” At the risk of sounding as if I approach my relationships in-authentically, I believe that the very technology that creates the problem can be part of the solution.

If I am connected to a person on Facebook, I know certain things about them. I know a bit more about them if I am connected to them on other networks, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, or Pinterest. The problem then is that all of that information that my “friend” has publicly displayed is fragmented. I need a tool to pull all of that information into one place.

That same tool also needs to work with my email, because a lot of conversations happen there too. It also needs to work with my phone, so that I can at least know when was the last time I called or texted someone.

Enter Nimble, the relationship management tool. Nimble is an automated contact database that pulls in data from each touch point and contact with a person. This may or may not sound appealing for your first 150 social connections. But it is absolutely critical for relationships 151+ (see, I knew that would sound in-authentic).

The point isn’t that people are numbers, the point is that we have a limited capacity to remember who we know and where we know them from. If we’re lucky enough to remember that much, we still have to remember our past conversations with them. A tool like Nimble won’t help those chance street encounters to be any less awkward, but it will help you to be more intentional about connecting, reconnecting, and following up with people.

Here’s a quick overview video of Nimble aimed at business users. Even if you’re only considering it for personal use, you should still check out this video.

Add Your Voice (comment below)

  1. How can you be a better steward of your time, money, and relationships?
  2. Which of the tools that I mentioned might help you the most or least?

Like this article?

Click here to subscribe to my email list to get articles like this every Monday.

Personal Growth

Back to Basics: Practicing What I Preach

Whatever you’re doing in business or ministry, your most impactful investment is yourself. It’s for the same reason that flight safety briefings tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. If you’re unconscious or dead, you can’t help anyone.

Recognizing that, I have a confession: I am a hypocrite, I unhealthy. I am convicted by James 3:1, knowing that as someone in a teaching role (counseling and coaching are at least partly teaching), I am “judged with greater strictness.”

There are seasons of life when you have to make sacrifices to achieve your long term goals. Don’t let your health be one of those sacrifices.

Since January of 2013 I have been employed full time AND a full time graduate student. My priorities have been faith, family, and future. Fitness got squeezed out. Probably not coincidentally, it got squeezed out right when I had finally found a nutrition and exercise combination that was sustainable and enjoyable for me.

The last time that I was in the gym was April of 2013. Now, in May of 2015, my health reflects my choices (physically, that is).

Yet, with clients, I preach that whatever challenges life puts in front of you, you will have the most resilience by optimizing four areas of your life: Sleep, diet, exercise, and spiritual disciplines. I have purposefully left relationships off of the list, I’ll address the reason why next week (hint: it has to do with control).

Anyway, I’ve hit an inflection point. If I don’t change, my body is going to break. I can’t go back to what I was doing before, there just isn’t time. But I can go back to the basics. There really is no excuse not to do at least that much.

The Basics of Sleep

Sleep has been shown to impact literally EVERY health condition we know about. Good sleep has a positive impact. Poor sleep has a negative impact. Since I am a little bit of a podcast nerd, I have heard several interviews recently with Shawn Stevenson, who wrote a helpful little book called Sleep Smarter, which includes 21 specific changes that anyone can make to improve their sleep.

He also wrote a blog article with the same basic tips as the book. Of course, the book goes into much more detail about why each tip is beneficial for your sleep, and practical ways to implement each tip in your own life.

The basic changes that I need to make to improve my sleep are these (do any of these apply to you?):

  1. Get outside more: I work indoors, so “getting outside” for me has often been the time between the car, the house, and the office.
  2. Move more: Being in school involves a lot of sitting. So does my work. Burning more calories and getting some sort of exercise will help me fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
  3. Caffeine Curfew: I have a bit of a coffee habit. I don’t have to give coffee up to sleep better. But I shouldn’t consume it any later than noon if I want it all out of my system by bedtime.

Lord Kelvin is supposed to have said “What gets measured gets done.” With that in mind, I will also be using a Sleep Tracking App to measure improvements in my sleep.

The Basics of Diet

Diets fail. Period. A nutritional lifestyle will produce results. The old saying isn’t “you are what you eat this week.” It’s “you are what you eat.” Thinking that a diet will work for you is like thinking you will win the lottery.

The nutritional lifestyle that I would like to live (I’m being honest enough to say that I’m not living it right now) is most informed by the book The Carb Nite Solution, by John Kiefer. Like any other lifestyle issue, people get religiously committed to their ideas about good or bad nutrition. There is a lot of nonsense and a lot of poorly researched garbage out there.

What I appreciate about Kiefer’s work is the quality of the research behind it. He researches the research, changing and updating his model as new information comes up. He doesn’t do one study and get personally invested in the results of that study (like, for example, Atkins).

No, by the way, I don’t buy the crap that calories burned minus calories consumed = weight loss. There is some truth in that. But the relationship between calorie deficit and fat loss isn’t so simple.

The basic dietary changes that I need to make are these (right now, I’m living the exact opposite):

  1. Fats first: Fats are the fuel for most of our daily activities, and we get 9 time released calories per gram of fat (think of that as 9 miles to the gallon).
  2. Proteins Second: Proteins are the construction materials. When we need to burn protein for energy, we only get 4 calories per gram.
  3. Carbs Last: At 4 instant calories per gram, carbs are an important energy source when used correctly.
  4. Drink More Water: We all know that water is necessary to life. But the right amount of water will send fats, proteins, carbs, and vitamins and minerals straight to where they’re needed. Even relatively inactive people like me should be drinking at least 1 gallon of water per day.

Measuring it to get it done: I’ll be using My Fitness Pal to track progress here.

The Basics of Exercise

Exercise programs, like diets, have religious followings. I am a weightlifter. You might be a walker, a runner, a cyclist, or a cross fitter.

As much as I want there to be, there just is not time for me to train 10 hours a week as a power lifter any more (which is what I was doing before I went back to school). Since I am a weight lifter, my ultimate goal is to get back in the gym and to be moving barbells again. Until there is time in my week, this is my plan.

  1. 10k steps a day: Ten thousand steps doesn’t seem like much from a weight lifter’s point of view. But honestly, it’s more than I’m doing now.
  2. Morning Calisthenics: 6 minutes of burpees, 20 seconds on, 40 seconds resting, every morning.
  3. Strong Lifts 5×5: (Starting in September, when my school load goes down) Strong Lifts is a 3 hour/week workout regimen for Average Joes that is built around the three basic exercises of power lifting (squat, bench press, and deadlift). When I was training 10 hours a week, this was my gateway drug.

Tracking: Google Fit and the Strong Lifts App. Maybe I’ll eventually buy a FitBit Surge.

The Basics of Spiritual Disciplines

There are tons of books about spiritual disciplines. The only two that I have ever actually finished were Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas and Living Prayer by Dennis Fuqua.

I recently heard an interview with Hal Elrod (who is either Buddhist or very new age) where he used the acronym SAVERS to summarize his book, the Miracle Morning. Even though it comes from a worldview very different from my own, the acronym is helpful for providing structure to some abstract ideas from Thomas and Fuqua.

To synthesize those books in a Christ-honoring manner, here is the series of six morning disciplines that I want to build into my life. The order doesn’t matter so much as that they’re all there.

  1. Silence (prayer): praying through the Lord’s prayer as talked about in Living Prayer.
  2. Affirmations: A series of simple, encouraging “I am…” or “I exist to…” statements.
  3. Visualizations: Just like an athlete visualizes a good play, I’ll be visualizing myself completing the goals of the day.
  4. Exercise: I’ve already addressed this component above (morning calisthenics).
  5. Reading: Namely, scripture reading, following a 1 year bible reading plan.
  6. Scribing (writing): for now, I’ll use the prompt question “What would make today great?”

Tracking: HabbitBull (Android) Habbitlist (iOS).

The Basics of Sustainable Change

Baby Steps

I’ve listed out 16 individual goals above. If I try to implement all of those at once, I will flat out FAIL. But one or two at a time should be manageable.

Over the next 16 weeks, I will add one individual goal each week. I’ll use HabbitBull for my overall goal tracking.


The order of these goals is important. I’ll go from easiest to hardest so that I get to feel success early on, and have momentum to carry me through the harder changes.

Getting 10k steps and drinking a gallon of water per day are the easiest, because I have already started on those goals. Putting carbs at the end of my day will be the hardest, so I’ll add that one in week 16.

Find Synergies

I’ve written about synergies before. All of these goals work together in ways that reinforce the other goals. They are mutually supportive. They don’t compete with each other.

Add Your Voice (comment below)

  1. What small changes can you make to improve your sleep?
  2. … Your diet?
  3. … Your exercise?
  4. … Your spiritual disciplines?

Disclaimer: The book links above are all “affiliate links.” This means that if you happen to purchase anything from Amazon after using one of these links, I will receive a 4% to 6% commission.