Columnists > Voices

Invisible monkeys

They're on our backs, and getting them off will unleash creativity

Issue: "Katrina: One year later," Aug. 26, 2006

When my husband died and this kept woman was hired for her first paying job in 20 years, managing the café of a seminary, I felt anxious and insecure until my mother said the following: "Look at it this way, your goal is to make a decent sandwich."

Why was this so helpful? Why did it dispel the paralysis and release a burst of productive energy? Because it replaced amorphous anxiety with a concrete goal, a goal ("decent sandwich") from which I could mentally work backwards to list the steps toward its accomplishment.

If you have the same problem I have-walking around in a cloud of vaguely nagging uncompleted tasks-management consultant David Allen has suggestions for Getting Things Done. Look at the book as an elaboration of "doing the next thing," which, in its Christian application, involves acknowledging the following division of labor: Trust the loving and omniscient God to protect your life; you, attend to the next required action.

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The fact is that 80 percent of everything in every drawer in your house never gets used. And you know in your heart that every new paper you throw on the pile on your desk renders the paper directly beneath it exponentially less likely to be dealt with. So you have started another pile in another area of the house for "urgent-urgent things," to distinguish them from "urgent things" languishing in the first pile.

All these are invisible monkeys on your back, not unlike Pilgrim's burden in the John Bunyan tale, except it's not sin but mental clutter that robs your peace. God would have you free of this ("We have the mind of Christ"-1 Corinthians 2:16). It's not a moral issue, of course, except in the sense that everything under the sun is a moral issue, in a cosmos owned by God. Keeping your rafters from sagging is a moral issue (Ecclesiastes 10:18).

Jesus tells us not to worry (Matthew 6), and David Allen says much worry comes from a mental traffic jam of "inappropriately managed commitments." He says, "Your mind will keep working on anything that's still in an undecided state." Get things off your mind by getting them done, and see the creativity it releases. Get them done by taking 10 seconds to identify what's bugging you and making front-end decisions: do, delegate, or defer. Allen defines a "project" as "an outcome requiring more than one action," and reminds us that no one ever did a project; he did an action.

Is it bugging you that you haven't read your Bible in about six months? Okay, either live with the gnawing discomfort or take the next action. Maybe the next action is, "Where's my Bible? Honey, do we own a Bible?" Or maybe what's shipwrecked your good intentions is something as small as the looming imagined hassle of not knowing where to start in your reading-Old Testament or New Testament? Make an intuitive stab at that decision, then break the Bible open to the place on your night table, so that tomorrow morning you won't be waylaid by that other psychological barrier of having actually to thumb through for the right page.

Having a clear goal is of first importance, and you should review your projects from a series of different heights, from the bottom at "current actions" to the "50,000-foot altitude level"-or Life. "I'm often stunned by how many people have forgotten why they're doing what they're doing," says Allen. If anyone has a mandate to engage in this kind of reflection, it's the Christian, who has as his aerial view of life the building of the kingdom of God. How do my present "projects" fit into that view?

I just took mental inventory and noticed something that's been bugging me and stalled all summer: I want to have a dessert night for all my neighbors. I want to spend a few days baking cakes and pies and then see people stream in and be delighted and meet folks they've never met in 20 years on the street. The 10,000-foot altitude goal is "summer dessert for neighborhood." The 50,000-foot altitude goal is the advancement of the kingdom of God. The sticking point is step one: What's the next action?

I'm going outside right now to count the houses on the block and decide how many invitations to buy. See ya.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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