Should Have Read This in Seminary

I finally finished a little book that’s already been more influential upon me and my work than any other non-theological book, and even many theological books. Upon a first look at the cover and name, it may appear to be of the “self-help” variety, a genre which I have not taken seriously for many years. Many self-help books have religious overtones, and even teach a kind of self worship. I despise that kind of thing as the dangerous drivel it is. But this one is different. I wouldn’t even call it a self-help book.

The title is Getting Things Done. It’s a fairly popular book by a “personal productivity guru” named David Allen. I found it while searching the Internet for better ways to use the functionality of the DateBk6 program on my PDA. (That’s “Palm Pilot” for the acronymically challenged.)

After reading this book and implementing its techniques in at least part of my life, I’m convinced that it should be a textbook for a third semester class at our seminary. That’s the first semester of the second year. Why then? Because any earlier, and the students would not appreciate the difference it makes, and probably wouldn’t take it seriously. Any later, and the students would lose too much of the increased potential for learning at seminary once they start using these techniques.

It’s standard practice, at least at Bethany Seminary, to have enough homework at any point that it can’t all be done. As students we figured this was intentional, a way to help us adjust to the life of a pastor. A course based upon Getting Things Done — even a 3-4 week course, would be so much more effective, produce better organized and more capable pastors, and also help the students to get more out of seminary. If I ever have a vicar who hasn’t mastered this aspect of life already, this book will be required reading.

What’s so great about it? Allen provides a comprehensive set of viable behavioral patterns that work both individually and cumulatively to handle every demand upon a pastor’s attention. With the system in place, the busy pastor doesn’t feel so busy any more, because there’s nothing left to wrack his brain, and no fear of forgetting important commitments. The idea is to get all that stuff out of your brain, and recorded objectively in such a way that you can trust it will pop up again at the right time.

Another key principle is thinking of every commitment or project in terms of its “next action.” This crystallizes the thought so that something can actually be done about it, rather than letting it float around as an amorphous obligation, which is both distracting and depressing. It also forces the person to separate the thought process of dealing with these things from doing the thing itself. It not only alleviates stress, but also makes things easier to do.

I wasn’t drawn to having higher productivity. For me, it was the allure of an empty head. The productivity is a nice side effect. My friends may tell you that my head has always been fairly empty, but now it’s nearly hollow! It’s nice not to feel as though I need to remember something all the time. Even better, my brain seems to remember little things more easily now that I’m not pushing it all the time. When I actually work on something, my focus is sharper, and distractions are easier to deal with.

Another nice side effect is that I finally have a file system. That only took 8 years! Ironically, some of the stuff I found and filed lately was from seminary, and one of the papers stated that a good filing system is a basic requirement for every pastor. (But don’t get the wrong idea. I haven’t been completely disorganized. Most of my organization has been digital. I doubt any other pastor in our synod, or maybe anywhere, is keeping his sermons and bulletins archived in a subversion repository. But hey, now I also have a file.)

My goal now is to get my study at home under control. It’s a shared space with Erica, in theory. Right now it needs some finishing touches on the new drywall, a new window, some builtins, maybe new carpet, …. I’ll spare you my list for that project, but you can be sure now that it exists. Anyway, once things are a little neater in here I’ll be able to set up an inbox and file at home too, and get most of the rest of my life under control. Erica may be able to sew in here too.

If you can find Getting Things Done at your library, check it out!

Leave a Reply