Presenting Your Research at an Academic Conference: A Guide for New PhD Students

Presenting research papers at academic conferences allows PhD students to promote their work to scholars in their field, receive feedback from trusted experts, and (hopefully) see exotic locations. While conference participation is therefore important, it can prove daunting to students who are just beginning their journeys in academia. I have had the opportunity to participate in conferences both the UK and the US since beginning my PhD. Several of these conference experiences have proven positive, but I have made a few mistakes along the way. Here I share a few tips on how to have a successful conference presentation based on what I learned so far.

Keep Within the Allotted Time

This point might sound simple, but you will be surprised how many people

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It is important that one work very hard on one’s presentation.

fail to follow this simple rule. Some conference organizers will boot you from the lectern once your time expires. Others will be too polite to remove you, but by going over your time you will likely bore your audience, show disrespect to the people who will present behind you, and probably make yourself “that guy” at the conference. So, always be sure to end exactly when you are supposed to end.

Focus on Your Presentation Style

It goes without saying that your audience will arrive because they primarily have an interest in the content of your paper. But, this fact does not mean that the manner in which you present your content does not matter. Practice your delivery several times before the conference so that you are not a slave to your notes. By having such familiarity with your work, you will have the confidence you need to add rhetorical flourishes and captivate your audience.

I recognize that this is purely anecdotal, but I have received the most praise for my presentations when I have worked on both the content and the style of my presentation. When I have been in a rush and have not focused on style, I have noticed eyes in my audience glaze over during my presentation. People are busy during academic conferences, and they will hear many, many papers during their time at the event. Having the courtesy to present your paper in a pleasing manner will make your work more memorable.

Be Confident

It is likely that no one else in the room will know the topic you are discussing better than you do. I know that this statement might sound crazy to you if you are just starting your research, but there is a high probability that it will prove true. Even experts in your field will likely not know the particular angle that you are taking or the nuance that you are bringing to your discipline.

So, walk up to the lectern with the belief that you have something important to say that people want to hear; what you are doing at the conference matters! Do not act like your research does not matter or is of low quality. Believe in what you are doing and know that there are several people in attendance who have enough interest in your topic to show up and hear you.

Prepare for Potential Questions and Objections

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Practice makes perfect. 

People will always ask you questions after your present paper. Even if the members of the audience have nothing to say, a gracious moderator will step in and invent a question or two 

just to be courteous. Prepare as best as you can for this time. Outline potential queries and construct answers for them in advance. I usually write out potential questions and then my responses to them on a sheet of paper that I then take with me to the lectern when I present my paper. 

Be sure also to include footnotes in your paper. Even if only your eyes will see your presentation documents, if someone asks you about a source that you used you will want to be able to provide a good answer for them.

Network Well

Networking with other people remains an important part of the conference experience; it is likely just as significant as the paper you will present. If you struggle with networking, consider some of the many online courses that are available on this topic. You can start with simple steps, though. Always have your contact information ready to pass out to everyone. Keep your conference name tag in a place that is easy to see. Go to social events—do not stay in your hotel room alone!—when they are available. You never know what opportunities will come your way by mixing with other people.

I personally struggle networking because I hate self-promotion and feel like a phony when I “put myself out there.” Still, when I have forced myself to network at events, I have made valuable research contacts who have helped me with my thesis. I have also received opportunities to write book reviews or even make friends. You never know unless you try!

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When I Became A Pastor at the Age of 20: What Ministry Can Teach Young Adults

I distinctly remember the day I turned twenty-one. I was pastoring a small church near my family’s home in Florida, and several members of my congregation joked that they now had an “adult” minister at their church. That’s right; I served as a minister before my twenty-first birthday.

There are several anecdotes from to this time in my life that I now find interesting and even humorous. When I was first hired as a minister, I could not tie my own tie. So, before driving down to my congregation for the morning worship service, I would stop at the church across the street from my home where my grandfather served as a deacon. He would sneak out of his Sunday School class and put my tie on for me. I was once stopped by a hospital nurse because she thought that I was a church member’s grandson; she was upset that I was in her patient’s room after visiting hours. When I told her that I was a minister who had come to offer prayer she thought I was lying.

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Me with several members of our congregation

Yes, becoming a minister at a young age created awkward social situations, and in my inexperience I made many mistakes and did not always know what to do or say. It is indeed best for a young adult to serve as an apprentice or a staff member before jumping straight into the role of lead minister. Still, entering the ministry in my early twenties taught me valuable lessons about aging and death that I will always appreciate.

When I first became a minister, all the members of my immediate family possessed good health. All of my friends were healthy. I was a skinny and active student who seemed to have a boundless supply of energy. I could stay up almost all night reading or watching movies and still do well in college the next day. My morning breakfast usually consisted of several honey buns that I bought in a hurry from the local gas station on my way to school. I was usually running late and needed a quick energy boost; buying junk food did not bother me because the sugar seemed not to affect my high metabolism. In all honesty, I had no concept of what it meant to age or to die.

Pastoral ministry is not primarily about speaking or writing; in terms of time commitments, most of a minister’s life is spent talking with people—hurting people. There were people in my church who were facing cancer. There were people who had incurable diseases, diseases that confined them to chairs or beds for the rest of their lives. There were people who were aging and who were starting to recognize—or whose family members were starting to recognize—the early signs of dementia. There were people who were once strong who now had to learn to rely on others. There were people who lived alone because all friends had passed away and all family members had moved to a new town; they seemed to spend each day living in old memories and photo albums.

Serving in this environment taught me the realities of aging and death at a deeply personal level. From what I have seen, most people in their twenties do not appreciate life’s fragility and brevity. I know I that once did not.

I learned, though, that aging strips away all vanity and sense of self-sufficiency. When we are young, we might seek divine grace when we are nervous over a test or want to date a girl (at least I did!) or are anxious about finding a job. I saw people in my church who prayed simply for the ability to walk a few feet so that the hospital could discharge them. I met people who asked for food because their Social Security checks did not arrive on time. I knew people who wept and cried over departed friends and who could make no new acquaintances because most people give little time to someone who is older in life.

The truth is that we are all much weaker than we imagine, and we are all in need of divine grace more than we realize. Watching the aging process unfold is ultimately good because it teaches us that all of life is contingent upon God’s good favor—even its most basic aspects such as eating or socializing or walking.

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With “The God Squad” on a church mission to Nicaragua

 

I also learned that God is indeed present to provide grace and meet the most basic of needs. Many people in my church were forgotten by neighbors who lived busy lives and could not notice the senior adults around them and even sometimes by family members who moved away for new jobs in bigger towns. Still, God was present with the people in our church. Few of them experienced physical healing or a sudden change in fortune—indeed, I preached many of their funeral services at the local cemetery—but each one of them could testify how Christ encouraged them when they were lonely, strengthened them when they received a poor doctor’s report, and reminded them that (in their words) “this world ain’t my home.”

I now try to take nothing for granted. All of my life—who I am, what I have accomplished, what I possess—are a result of grace. All of the things that I value—my possessions, acclaim from peers, a name in the community—are in the end fleeting. God has been with me through my youth and will continue to be with me when I am old and weak, and all of my life will simply the story of a fragile person who has experienced mercy from a benevolent and faithful Father. Most people do not learn this truth until the end of their life; I hope that I started to learn it at the beginning of mine.

When I became pastor of this small church, a local newspaper ran a list of all of the ministers in our town. The paper’s editor placed the title “Senior Pastor” beside each minister’s name. Several friends and even many church members thought this article was hilarious; I was in my twenties but was now called a senior pastor. I do not know how much the people in my church learned from me while I was their senior pastor. But, I can say that I learned much from the seniors in my church. For them I am grateful.

 

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Review of New MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

Though I devote this blog to my PhD work, I thought today that I might share a review of the new MacBook Pro. There are several questions surrounding this laptop. How useful is the new Touch Bar? Will its small battery get you through an entire day of work? Will the computer’s USB-C ports let you, you know, actually connect this machine to…anything? I’ll try to address these questions and more below.

USB-C
Apple’s decision to go all USB-C with this machine created tremendous angst amongst the nerds who live on the interwebs. Basically, USB-C is a completely different port than the USB that we already know and use. Nothing you have will connect to this laptop. Your iPhone will not connect to it. Your printer will not connect to it. Your external displays will not connect to it. You will have to buy adapters to make any connection work.

Honestly, the transition to USB-C has not been the nightmare that I feared. I purchased a few adapters when I bought the MacBook Pro and have experienced no problems. My main objection now is an aesthetic one—I just do not like having adapters all over my desk while I am working.

This issue will work out in time. USB-C is the future. Eventually, every device will have it. This laptop is ready for that time. One day, we will all love the fact that our MacBook Pros have USB-C connections. Right now, well, we must look at adapters on our desks.

Keyboard and Trackpad
Everyone who has this computer told me that I would hate its keyboard on first try. I did. Everyone also told me that in time I would grow to love its keyboard. I did. Once your fingers adjust, typing on the MacBook Pro is a pleasure. The keys are firm and make a solid click sound. The key travel is very, very short but not uncomfortably so.

My opinion of the trackpad is mixed. To start with the positive, Apple makes some of the best trackpads in the business. The Taptic Engine from the iPhone is installed into the trackpad, and this mechanism gives you solid feedback when you click. (There is actually something of an illusion happening. You never truly “click” the trackpad. It remains completely still. The Taptic Engine tricks your fingers into thinking you have clicked it.) The trackpad also has a force touch feature. Click harder—like you are pressing into the machine—and you will receive more menu options on the computer’s screen.

On the downside, the MacBook Pro’s trackpad is insanely large. It is bigger than my wife’s iPhone 7 Plus. It is bigger than my hand. It is bigger than the screen on one of the first TVs that I owned. It is bigger than some of my ice cream cones (okay, this is not true—I like big ice cream, and I cannot lie). It looks like an iPad mini is sitting on the laptop below the keyboard.

 

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Big Ice Cream

 

I do not know why a person would need a trackpad this big; I see no advantage to its size. I do know of one disadvantage, though—accidental contact. On several occasions, I have been typing only to find that my cursor has suddenly flown off to another part of my document. My text has accompanied the cursor. The trackpad is so large that you cannot help but place your palms on it. It is like a black hole that sucks everything into its path. When your palms connect with the trackpad, they often move the cursor around despite your best efforts. Apple is supposedly using palm rejection to compensate for this fact. If so, their palm rejection software needs improvement.

 

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The new trackpad will leave your hands feeling this big.

 

Design Aesthetic
This is an Apple device. So, you expect it to be thin and beautiful. And, this is a thin and beautiful laptop. You just have to get over that bulging trackpad at its bottom.

Screen
Steve Jobs famously said that OS X had icons so beautiful that people will want to lick them. [I prefer to lick doughnuts myself (though not like this).] This screen certainly has that “lickability” factor. It is gorgeous. The contrast ratio and color depth are impressive. Watch a movie on this laptop just once, and you will think that other laptops have vaseline covering their displays. The only screen comparable in the laptop market might be the display on a high-end Dell XPS 15’.

Battery
The battery on this device is tolerable, but it is not going to blow your mind. Bring a charger when you travel. Apple claims that you will get around ten hours of use if you do light work—text editing, light web browsing, etc. That estimate is a little optimistic but not far from the mark.

Part of the problem is that these MacBook Pros have a smaller battery than the models they are replacing. Supposedly Apple was working on some revolutionary battery technology—similar to the terraced battery cell in the smaller 12’ Macbooks?—but it could not complete the work in time. It had to go with a smaller battery size to make everything work. Hmmmm…

Performance
This machine is a beast. There is no other way to say it. I have not managed to push it to its limit. Several people are claiming that Apple placed some of the fastest—if not the fastest—SSDs in the business in this horse. I believe it.

This monster’s one weakness is the fact that it caps out at 16 GB of RAM. That amount should be plenty for most people, but when you buy a Ferrari you want it to have more power than you actually need. It is just the principle of the thing.

Touch Bar
The Touch Bar is an impressive piece of technology. Basically, Apple removed the laptop’s function keys (those F keys at the top of the keyboard that no one really uses) and replaced them with a multi-touch OLED screen and a fingerprint reader. A new Apple-designed chip, the T1, powers the Touch Bar and ensures that fingerprint data remains secure.

Apple bombards us with advertisements for the Touch Bar because it believes its new hardware will help users become more productive (and want to buy Macs). People will no longer have to log into their computers with a password; they can simply let their machines read their fingers. People will no longer have almost useless function keys; they can use the Touch Bar’s display to find contextually appropriate information. Microsoft Word, for example, displays in the Touch Bar the options to italicize or highlight text while users type. Apple Photos reveals small, full-color thumbnails from the photo library so that users can quickly scan through their picture albums.

 

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Touch Bar in action via CNET.

 

While the Touch Bar sounds cool, in practice it does not add much. The problem here is not the Touch Bar hardware. The problem is the software. There simply are not enough interesting and unique options in the Touch Bar display. Keyboard shortcuts already perform many of the actions that the Touch Bar offers. Why would someone want to spend time lifting their fingers from their keyboard to manipulate the Touch Bar screen when they can simply use the Mac’s already extensive library of keyboard commands? My Touch Bar often just sits there looking like something from Star Trek while my hands do real work on the keyboard just below it.

Things will likely not stay this way. Apple always launches new technology in a rather conservative manner and then ramps things up as time progresses. The new Mac operating system is supposed to add new features to the Touch Bar. I suspect, too, that as developers have more time to play with the Touch Bar that its usefulness will improve. So, right now, the Touch Bar is a fancy luxury item that looks great but adds no new functionality. This fact will likely change in time.

Conclusion
So, there you have it. I love this device, but it is not without its flaws. Most difficulties appear to originate from Apple’s ambition. USB-C and the Touch Bar look to the future but have little benefit today. Still, there are many positives here. The computer is light, fast, and fun. It has a great keyboard. The screen is gorgeous. Mac OS is preferable to Windows in my judgment. Two thumbs up.

Review: MacBook Pro 15’ with Touch Bar; 2.9 GHz Intel i7 Kaby Lake; 16 GB RAM; AMD Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB RAM; 512 GB SSD Drive

 

 

 

 

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Recent Appearances on the Interwebs

the-interwebsGreetings, readers. My apologies, but I have let this blog slowly die. I swore that I would not do so, but the birth of Sophia, my Ph.D. work, and various ministry opportunities have all (rightly) pushed my attention elsewhere. I am back, though, and I have new content with me. I hope to offer a new post each Friday morning.

Though I have not posted recently on this site, I am grateful for the opportunities that I have received to contribute to other blogs. I provide links below if you are interested.

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ETS Highlights: St. Andrews, Southeastern, and the Baptists at ETS

The annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society occurs this upcoming week in San Antonio, Texas. April and I will fly down because I am giving a paper in a church history seminar. Sophia is also going. My parents will be there, and we are very excited for Sophia to have some grandparent time.

Much like last year, I plan to attend very few of the sessions. The broader theme of the conference is the doctrine of the Trinity, and while that is very interesting in and of itself, I fear that much of the time will simply be squabbles between the more traditional view and the eternal functional subordination perspective. I am happy to be wrong, though. I hope to spend most of my time seeing old friends from seminary and college, touring a little bit of San Antonio, networking with people who are conducting research in my field, and getting in good family time for Sophia. Some quality paper presentations are on the docket, though, and I want to list them here because I believe they are worth attention. I hope to attend as many of them as possible.

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Sophia has not seen my parents since July. It is time for her to have some grandparent time!

St. Andrews

St Mary’s College in the Univeristy of St Andrews has a good showing at ETS this year. My friend Rebekah Earnshaw is doing some excellent work on John Calvin’s doctrine of creation; she will present a paper entitled “Calvin’s Modest of Trinitarian Account of the Act of Creation While Preaching from Genesis in 1559.” Her paper fits the overall theme of the conference nicely and should be of high quality. Tyler Wittman always impressed me when he presented his work here though I was only able to get to know him a little during his time in Scotland. He is offering research on Karl Barth’s Christology that I suspect will be very good. John Dunne and Logan Williams, two quality NT researchers, will offer a paper on Evangelical and Mormon interfaith dialogue. Finally, it appears that my supervisor will have a busy week. Steve Holmes will appear on a panel related to a book to which he contributed (Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church), present a paper on eternal functional subordination and inseparable operations, and contribute to a panel discussion focused on Fred Sanders’s new book on the Trinity. He is always worth hearing. He also has a gracious and fun spirit (those qualities are sadly atypical in much of the theological world, to be honest).

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

I have tremendous affection for Southeastern Seminary, my alma mater. Danny Akin, Southeastern’s president, will appear on a panel entitled “The Church, the Seminary, and the Future of Formal Theological Education.” I have respect for Dr. Akin. He is an excellent Christian leader, and I suspect this should be a profitable conversation. Some other people connected to Southeastern will be in attendance, and highlights include Dan Heimbach’s work on bioethics, Andreas Kostenberger’s paper on the pastoral epistles, and Ben Merkle’s presentation in the session on Greek grammar.

Baptists

Finally, ETS is always a good time for those interested in Baptist history and theology.

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John Gill is afraid that someone at some point at ETS might laugh, and that potential for frivolity makes him very worried. 

Michael Haykin will offer a paper on Andrew Fuller and spiritual formation. The Baptist Studies seminar will devote its time to considering pastor-theologians in the Baptist tradition; Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland will receive consideration among others. The Christian History session will examine Billy Graham, the great Baptist evangelist. The Puritan Studies session will feature work on Hercules Collins, William Kiffin, and John Bunyan. I am presenting a paper on John Gill’s doctrine of the pactum salutis in a session that will also possess papers on early Baptist ordination practices, William Kiffin, and John Bunyan.

Are you going to ETS? If so, I would love to connect! Drop me a line via either email of my social media pages.

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My Five Productivity Hacks for Online Professors

I have had the opportunity to serve The Baptist College of Florida, my alma mater, for the past several years as an Online Adjunct Professor of Theology. I have many friends who presently serve colleges and seminaries by teaching online in some capacity; online learning is—for better or worse—becoming more and more prevalent in higher education.

Over the past several years, I have learned via the school of hard knocks how to maximize my time as an online instructor. I offer in this post five productivity hacks—some not unique to me—in the hopes that I might encourage and serve my fellow online profs.

1) Bundle all Work—I once thought that I had to be “on” for the students all day every day. When a student sent me an email, I would immediately stop what I was doing and respond. When I would assign online forums, I would check almost constantly to see how the conversation thread was progressing. I have since learned that students should only expect a response within a reasonable time frame—I try my best to respond to all emails within 48 hours—and that I cannot spend all of my life on my college’s website. I now bundle my online work together to ensure that it does not consume my time. I block off time during my week in which I handle tasks related to online education; I respond to student emails, check online forums, grade assignments, etc. This approach allows me to be a better instructor because I can give the students my undivided attention. It also prevents me from being too burdened by my online job so that I can accomplish other important tasks—such as finish my Ph.D. img_0589

2) Grammarly—I posted a few weeks ago about a program entitled Grammarly. It checks spelling and grammar in a very sophisticated manner. I am something of a grammar and spelling gadfly; it is very important to me that my students learn to write well. The problem, of course, is that looking seriously at student papers is very time-consuming. Grammarly comes to the rescue because it flags egregious spelling and grammar mistakes better than Microsoft Word. It allows me to grade papers with ease and much less of a time commitment. I can outsource basic issues to Grammarly and focus my time on the argument the student is making and on more serious style issues. As a bonus, I discovered this semester that it also can check for plagiarism.

3) Templates—Leading an online course involves a lot of repetition. I send emails at the beginning of the semester that introduce the course. I send out reminder emails about important assignments, and I even sometimes have to send out emails about missed assignments. Rather than spending my time writing fresh emails, I use template emails that I have saved into EverNote. Because I teach many of the same classes every semester, I simply copy these templates into the college email system and adjust for dates and times. The students get good information, and I do not have to write nearly as many emails.

4) Explain, Explain, Explain—Every semester starts the same way. I send out the syllabus and some introductory emails. Students bombard me with what feels like thousands of questions. The problem, of course, is that the answers to the vast majority of these questions are found in the syllabus. I know that I am not the only person to experience this problem; every semester my Facebook feed fills up with other professors who post memes about this very issue. img_0588There is unfortunately no way to stop completely these questions that can consume so much time, but there is a way to prevent them—explain everything like crazy. I have learned to spell out everything as clearly as I can not only in the syllabus but also in online forums and emails (again, use templates). There is an adage that states that when you feel you have exhausted yourself explaining something then your hearers have finally understood it. Spend time explaining everything in multiple places and save yourself from having a full email inbox every new semester.

5) Take to the Clouds—The beauty of teaching online is that you can do your work from anywhere. I have done online work on the beach, during trips across the UK and Europe, and even on an airplane flying across the Atlantic. (I am typing this blog post in the middle of a relaxed jazz concert in St Andrews.) I knew of a person who at one time hoped to make online education something of a career; his goal was to teach for American universities at night while he spent his days exploring Europe. To make any of this work, you obviously have to have your course materials accessible to you at all times. Put everything in the cloud—your email templates, electronic versions of your course textbooks, the articles you assign to your students, etc. My college now requires us to run all of our work through the school’s cloud accounts, but you can use your own cloud service if your college does not provide one for you. Microsoft’s OneDrive and Dropbox’s offerings are among the best.

Do you have any tips you wish to share? If you teach online, what would you suggest to your brothers and sisters in arms?

As a bonus, here are a few resources that I personally have found helpful:

Naselli on what to look for when grading papers: http://andynaselli.com/10-issues-i-frequently-mark-when-grading-theology-papers

Two books that I have enjoyed are Jung’s Character Formation in Online Education and Effective Online Teaching by Stavredes.

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Using Household Subscriptions to Save Time and Money

I want to begin by apologizing for not updating the blog recently; April and I have been busy moving to a new flat that will allow us to live closer to my office. It is precisely this move, though, that has given rise to today’s blog post. During our move, we took almost an entire suitcase of household supplies to our new home—things like toothpaste, shampoo, toilet tissue, shaving cream, and paper towels.

The problem with these goods is that even if you have a good stock of them—and apparently we did!—they will quickly run out. You will soon have to make yet another trip to the store. I do not like shopping, and I especially do not like buying things that I will have to buy again in just a few weeks. All of this time spent running errands is not only not fun, but it can also hinder you from doing more important work.

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The inside of an Amazon warehouse. Photo taken from a YouTube documentary on Amazon’s infrastructure.

My search to become a more productive person led me to a new release entitled Become Your Own Personal Assistant by Dana Byers. Dana has an entire chapter describing how you can use Amazon to prevent yourself from having to make frequent trips to the store to buy life’s necessities. The short version is this: Amazon has a service entitled Subscribe and Save. You enter all of the items that you buy on a regular basis—everything from toilet paper to baby diapers—and then Amazon sends them to your home according to a schedule of your own making.

April and I are trying Subscribe and Save for the first time this month. Not only does it look like it will rescue us from making regular trips to the store, it will also save us money! The more you order from Amazon, the more discounts you receive. Simply by ordering five items we are saving 15% on everything, and that is on top of Amazon’s already low price! Also, the service is so customizable that I cannot conceive of us running out of something between shipments.

So, our neighbors are about to see our flat inundated with boxes of toilet paper, baby goods, shampoo, and toothpaste. But, the sense of being on top of things—you no longer have to make a quick run to the store because you just realized that you ran out of shaving cream—and the time we will save (not to mention the money) are worth it.

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