Book Review

How we can reorder our habits to love God and our neighbor

Learning to live a less distracted life

January 24, 2020

Don’t let the title fool you: The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction is not a pedantic self-help book—it is a clarion call to a life of loving God and loving others.

An anxious pace 

Author Justin Whitmel Earley begins his narrative by describing an experience exactly like my own in my mid-20s: an overachiever, he was living far beyond his means, sleeping precious little, and enslaved to a chaotic calendar (“busyness functions like an addiction”). Without even feeling anxious or stressed, he experienced a full-blown “anxiety breakdown,” complete with panic attacks and a trip to the emergency room. He owed his body an unpayable debt, and his body finally called his bluff. He writes, 

“When we try to be present everywhere, we end up being present nowhere. When we try to free ourselves from the limitations of our presence, we always become enslaved to absence. . . . My life was an ode of worship to omniscience, omnipresence, and limitlessness. No wonder my body rebelled.”

The shock and severity of the breakdown motivated Earley to reevaluate his life, to exchange his hemorrhaging habits for life-giving ones, for “…habits are the water we swim in. . . . Habits are something we do over and over without thinking about them. They shape our world effortlessly. They form us more than we form them—and that’s why they are so powerful.”

A call to purposeful living 

While I typically bristle at books that propose “rules for living” (boiling down intricate complexities into trite tinctures), Earley’s “common rule” doesn’t feel at all like a prescription, but rather a call to eternally purposeful living. In an age where the loudest voice wins, the smart phone perpetually distracts, and we keep frantically busy to avoid facing our inner turmoil, Earley challenges his readers to practice habits of authentic relationship, resting, praying, and limiting our endless choices: “What if the good life doesn’t come from having the ability to do what we want but from having the ability to do what we were made for? What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations?”

He explains that the good life is a life spent in formation (he cites Romans 12:1-2)—formation that results in our better loving God and loving others. The habits he proposes are not ultimately for our self-preservation or success—they are intended to enlarge our hearts for a Godward life of beauty—because how can we ever hope to love anyone well, or have a vision of what is truly beautiful, when we are perennially stressed, exhausted, and distracted? So Earley suggests practicing four daily habits and four weekly habits to curate a whole, undistracted life of love. 

These eight habits include practicing a weekly Sabbath and a weekly fast; beginning each morning with Scripture-before-phone; sharing a meal in community once a day and an hour-long conversation with a friend each week; as well as limiting social media intake. I found myself nodding and smiling at his rationale behind each habit, thinking of how these same “micro shifts have brought about macro effects” in my own life over the past 10 years (to the extent that I’ve practiced them). 

While each of us may flesh out these habits differently, the principles are universally applicable. For example, I wouldn’t personally recommend a routine fast like Earley’s (at least from my own imperfect understanding of God’s intent for fasting as seen throughout Scripture), but we all desperately need Earley’s encouragement to practice limiting our excess, to regularly deny ourselves in order to live more fully. His call to fasting helped me go to God again and ask, “What do you want to say to me about fasting in this particular season of my life?”

These daily, weekly habits are intended to fix our attention (which is “our precious commodity”) on the things that matter, that endure, that benefit those around us. They are a way of displaying God’s good news to our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and world. Earley writes of the urgent need for us to spend our time well (especially in the area of media) so that we have an opportunity to love the most vulnerable among us:

“I believe a new problem of my generation is the way that (whether right or left leaning) the ever-outraged and always-offended tone of mainstream news sources is making us numb to the world’s pain. When everything is a crisis, nothing is. We think we’re becoming informed, but actually we’re becoming numb.”

This endless stream of media will drown out the quiet cries of the vulnerable unless we curate specifically in order to hear them, to love them, to close our screens and walk out our doors to where they are.

In an age where the loudest voice wins, the smart phone perpetually distracts, and we keep frantically busy to avoid facing our inner turmoil, Earley challenges his readers to practice habits of authentic relationship, resting, praying, and limiting our endless choices.

I’m so grateful Earley didn’t conclude his book without the epilogue, “On failure and beauty.” In it, he freely confesses his own failed efforts at faithfully practicing these healthy habits and thus loving God and others well. I can relate with his failure. I can also relate with his hopeful words:

“Look at me or at any other human being long enough, and you’ll see nothing but a hypocrite. . . . But if you stand next to me and look where I’m looking, then we’ll both see Jesus. He’s the life we want. He’s the life given for us. And the gold of the resurrection inlays all our fault lines. He is the one who lived the beautiful life. He is the one redeeming ours.”

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I do deeply appreciate the opportunity to look again at the habits that are shaping my days, to make course adjustments where needed, and to fix my eyes on the One who has purposed for me a beautiful life of love. The Common Rule has helped me to do just that, which makes it a book I will refer to and recommend for years to come.

Colleen Chao

Colleen Elisabeth Chao is a freelance editor and the author of the children’s book on suffering, Out of the Shadow World. She blogs about God's kindness to her through the unexpected chapters of her story, including singleness, depression, and cancer. She makes her home in Southern California with her husband Eddie and … Read More