Before you start something new, finish the thing that you’re working on.
Finish that book you so desperately needed three weeks ago, but now languishes on your nightstand. I don’t mean feel the need to finish every book you start (because we pick some lemons from time to time, don’t we?). I mean “finish” it.
“Finishing” a book, to me, means I have decided I’m done and have emailed my assistant to go to my Kindle Highlights and copy the quotes I’ve highlighted into my Evernote account for future use. Until this last act is “finished” I don’t purchase another book.
There are other things worth finishing before starting something else.
Your sermon is an easy example. Finish your sermon before you move on to another task. Have many times have we “called it a day” on a message and moved on to something else out of boredom?
Conversations are another. How many times have we told someone we’ll “finish this conversation later” when, in reality, we were simply too tired or distracted to finish it right then. Too many “see me later” responses is a sign of a larger problem.
How about confrontation? There’s not a Senior Pastor reading this article (or writing it!) who hasn’t put off a difficult conversation to tomorrow that needed to be had weeks ago.
The Curse Of Open Loops
In last week’s article, I talked about how we Senior Pastors often have disordered minds. One sure way to know our mind is in disarray is we keep what David Allen, the author of the book Getting Things Done, calls “open loops.”
Open Loops are unfinished “to-do’s” stored in our short-term memory. In the same way people have physical to-do lists that never get checked off, we Senior Pastors also maintain similar lists in our minds.
The problem is, as neuroscientists are so quick to point out, the mind was never intended to store an exhaustive running list of conversations, tasks, and priorities to tackle in the future. We forget things, not so much because we’re losing our ability to store and recall facts, as we’re forcing our minds to retain too much stuff.
The instinctive push to “push things off into the future” is a sign that we’ve reached our limit and we’ve gone into mental survival mode.
How To Finish Tasks You Start
When I begin coaching, one of the first things we tackle is the Senior Pastor’s thought processes. How do they think about their work, chart a course of action, then tackle their ministry tasks? Is it working? Where is it breaking down? Why?
When a leader functions in mental overload for too long they begin to think that this is the way things were meant to be. It is not.
You were meant to lead from a place of stillness and clarity.
Here’s how to get there.
1. Understand Yourself
This gives us a baseline from which to have a discussion.
For instance, the Myers-Briggs has a category that helps people understand how they prefer to organize their lives. These two categories are Judging (J) vs. Perceiving (P).
Those who test as Perceivers (P) on the Myers-Briggs are those who put off taking action as long as possible so they can keep collecting data to make the best decision they can. Their problem isn’t procrastination as much as it is perfectionism.
The flip side of that temperament is Judgers (J), those who make “judgments” about how they’ll organize their lives, and then move forward. One would think that Senior Pastors with this aspect of their temperament would have an easier time trying to complete tasks. Sometimes they do. But the dark side of this ability is impulsiveness. They decide too quickly, and they also quit things with the same amount of gusto with which they start them. Quit too many things in a row, and you (and others) lose confidence in your ability to make good decisions. Keep that up and pretty soon Judgers (J) become just as hesitant to start tasks as their Perceiving (P) colleagues.
Knowing these unique peculiarities about ourselves gives us what G.K. Chesterton called “healthy hesitation and complexity.” The problem is it’s hard to discern the difference between a healthy hesitation and an unhealthy one unless we know how God wired us.
2. Create IFTTT Systems
“IF This, Then That” systems are pre-determined ways we’ve decided we’ll handle tasks before they come across our plate.
Quadrant 1 Decisions
The place to start is with the things Stephen Covey called Quadrant 1 activities – things that are both urgent and important.
What do you do when someone calls the office and requests that you marry them? What is your IFTTT system for handling such requests? Is it in writing?
For instance, when we were 100 in size we had a clearly defined Wedding Policy. Anytime someone wanted a CCV Pastor to marry them I sent them to the website and had them read it. The requirements were stringent: they had to be attenders for at least six months, and one of them had to be baptized. They also had to abstain from sex until their wedding night, complete six sessions of paid pre-marital counseling with a licensed Christian counselor (not me), and pay the staff member officiating the ceremony $300. My goal was to do everything possible to help them succeed, and also to avoid what I call “drive-by weddings” (people calling you up out of the phone book to marry them).
I can’t tell you how many Senior Pastors I talk to that drop what they’re doing on a Monday to quickly respond to a wedding request when they should be working on their sermon. This happens because they didn’t have an IFTTT system in place. They knew a wedding request was going to happen at some point, right?
Planning for urgent and important activities is where we start, but creating IFTTT systems for Quadrant 1 activities only deals with surface level issues. Our problem is with those things that are more substantive in nature.
Quadrant 2 Decisions
What are the important, but not urgent tasks in your weekly schedule?
All of these tasks are incredibly important, but they can be postponed as we drop what we’re doing and put out fires with the Quadrant 1 activities.
The path forward for people like you and me is to have IFTTT systems in place to keep us from allowing urgent activities from displacing the important ones:
- IF I work on a sermon, THEN my phone goes into airplane mode.
- IF I’m coaching a staff member, THEN I am not going to cancel our appointments for less important reasons.
- IF I’m evangelizing a leader in the community, THEN I will prioritize follow-up meetings with them over non-leaders.
Deciding ahead of time that I’m not going allow anything short of nuclear war to keep me from finishing my sermon by noon on Monday means I’m going to decide ahead of time HOW I going to keep competing requests for my time at bay.
Am I lazy? Am I undisciplined? Am I easily distracted? YES!
That’s why I have those IFTTT systems in place – BECAUSE I’m all of those things, and worse.
I check email on Sunday late afternoon, then don’t touch it again until noon on Monday. Why? Because I know if I do touch it, I’m like that dog in the movie UP – “squirrel!”
Deciding how we’re going to approach our work before we actually approach our work, and then making conscious choices about how we’re going to keep ourselves on the task at hand, is a sign of an ordered mind.
Clarity brings focus, determination, and calm.
3. Stop Starting New Stuff
Finally, many of us struggle with finishing tasks because we keep starting new ones.
Sometimes this comes because a Senior Pastor is a conference/blog/latest book junkie, and feels this constant pressure to abandon what they’re doing because XYZ is so much hipper/better/more effective.
Other times this happens because they’re just idea people. Ideas come at them a thousand miles an hour.
Regardless of the cause, my suggestion is simple: to create a file in Wunderlist called NEW IDEAS and every time you think of an “incredible and amazing and revolutionary” idea that you want to start/change/fix/solve about yourself or your church, put that idea in your file.
Force yourself to let that idea sit in that file for 30 days.
If at the end of 30 days you still think that idea is “incredible and amazing and revolutionary” then share it with ONE trusted advisor who then will take 30 days to think through the idea.
If at the end of 60 days both you and your trusted friend think this idea has merit, go for it.
The problem, as you well know, is that very few of our “amazing” ideas will make it through that filter. That’s a good thing.
Creating a whole bunch of really good ideas is necessary to uncover the ONE truly “incredible and amazing and revolutionary” idea that is going to be a game changer.
Until then, there’s no harm in coming up with ideas. The harm only comes with impulsively acting on the half-baked ones.
The Result When You Do One Thing At A Time: A Healthy, Focused Self
Thinking about such micro issues as how we think about and approach tasks wouldn’t appear to be that important, until we realize that ignoring such things sabotages our well-being.
That wouldn’t be that big of a deal if God could change the world with perpetually unhappy Pastors.
But he can’t.