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  • Writer's pictureDarrell Stetler II

5 Ways Small Church Pastors Can Beat Forgetfulness

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when your phone rings, you see the name on caller ID and you groan — because you realize you forgot something?  I hate that feeling.  I hate letting people down, when I’ve agreed to do something.

  1. It’s embarrassing.

  2. It’s stressful.

  3. It costs you relationships, respect and trust, especially as a pastor.

“As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a lazy man to the one who sends him.”  (Proverbs 10:26)

If you are like me, your “forgetter” works overtime.  I can remember random facts and poems I memorized when I was 9, but I can’t remember what I told someone a week ago.  And that creates a lot of day-to-day stress.  It will either keep you mentally torn trying to keep everything straight, or kicking yourself that you didn’t!  And the more projects and roles you’re juggling, the harder it is to get it all right and on time.

I imagine this is pretty easy for people who are obsessive compulsive naturally organized, and never seem to forget anything. But I’m not naturally organized.  I’ve had to design systems to work around my weaknesses.

Here’s what I’m learning:

1. Write it down.

You should keep a to-do list.  Writing is a neurokinetic activity that aids in memory.  David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book has become a gold standard for time management (or as he would prefer to say, “action management.”)  The benefits here are many:

  1. Less stress.

  2. More producivity.

  3. Less forgetfulness.

The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory. – Unknown

That’s true, but you have to write it down in a place where you know you’ll check, and on something you won’t lose.

Personally, I don’t write it down in a Moleskin or legal pad, because I lose the pad.  🙂  But because I use a phone belt clip, I almost never lose my phone… so I write everything down there in Todoist, my current favorite to-do list app.  Other places where I capture things include:

  1. Google Calendar (scheduled events)

  2. Evernote (reference material and project notes)

If it ain’t on the list, it doesn’t exist. 

2. Create a system.

Ever forget details of a complicated activity?  You need a system.  The simplest system is really just a checklist, and any materials that go along with it.

Atul Gawande wrote “The Checklist Manifesto,” claiming that “The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.”

He’s right.

If you’re older, and it feels like life is more complicated now, that’s probably because… it is!

A lot of people (particularly forgetful ones!) balk at the idea of having a checklist for simple things.  “I’ve got it all in my head,” one guy told me.  To which I replied, “Yes, which is why there’s no room for anything else up there!”  If you think this checklist thing is baloney, consider this:

  1. in 2001, a 5-point checklist virtually eradicated central line infections in the ICU at Johns Hopkins Hospital, preventing an estimated 43 infections & eight deaths over 27 months

  2. The same system at hospitals in Michigan decreased infections by 66% in 3 months, and over the next 18 months, saved 1,500 lives.

One of my favorite blogs, Art of Manliness, did a very lengthy post about the power of checklists, which you should read if you have any doubt that they are important.

3. Automate whatever you can.

I’ll bet you have some things in your life that you forget to do on a regular basis.  Little, nagging, recurring tasks that will slip by unnoticed — until they are costing you dollars & time & embarrassment.  I’ll also bet that there are ways to get some of them done automatically, if you’ll invest the time to automate them.

I’ll do another post on automating things in your life later, but for now, my favorite automating tools are: > A good smart phone

> Banking tools

> Auto bill pay

I hate filling my short-term memory with things I could just “set and forget.”  Do it.  Automate enough good behaviors, and they will pay you back eventually.

Automate enough good behaviors, and they will pay you back eventually.

4. Set reminders.

OK, let’s imagine you have something, an object that MUST go to work with you tomorrow.  It is imperative.  Let’s imagine you will lose your job, or someone will die if you do not remember that object, but it’s too valuable to keep in your car.

Where do you put it?

Most people I’ve asked this question have said some version of, “By the front door.”  That’s right.  So you have to find ways to put things “by the front door” in your life… in a place where you know you will HAVE to encounter it again.

But really, some things you can’t put by the front door, and you can’t realistically cover your front door with Post-It notes…  So you have to have some way to make sure you “trip over” that thing again.  Ideally, this would look like a list or notebook that you check reliably, so you can stop keeping it in your over-taxed short-term memory.

For me, the place I’m most likely to trip over things is on my smart phone.  So I put things “by the front door” using my Google Calendar, my alarms, location-based reminders, etc.

5. Harness the power of accountability.

You’re more likely to accomplish something if you tell someone you are going to do it, if you really make a commitment out of that.  In fact, some studies on goals indicate that you are 95% more likely to get it done if you’ve become personally accountable to someone for that action or goal.

Use this to your advantage.  Tell someone, or maybe multiple people, what you intend to do.  Verbalize it, text it to them…

And then, (my personal favorite thing) make that a trigger.  Tell them, pull out your trusty phone or calendar, and let it be your cue to write it down.  

Really, it all comes down to this: Just don’t refuse to deal with it.

Don’t make “that’s just who I am” a reason to live the rest of your life letting people down and breaking promises.

Don’t make ‘that’s just who I am’ a reason to live the rest of your life letting people down and breaking promises.  

As I said, I’m naturally forgetful of things like appointments and commitments.  It has required significant work for me to do better.  I’m a long ways from perfect here (ask my wife and my church family!), but with desire and work, and a plan, I’ve improved.

As a pastor of a smaller church, if you want to grow, you’ll need to show your ability to grow past these kinds of things in your life in order for you to be trustworthy with larger things.

When you improve in these kind of character traits, it ultimately speaks well of you and of the One you serve.

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