Busted Halo
column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

Click this banner to see the entire section.

September 20th, 2009

What Works: Freedom From Choice

Stop wasting so much time figuring out what to do



I was on a retreat this weekend, and do you know what one of the little pleasures was for me? Coming to the dining room at mealtimes and being presented with a single option — simply accepting what is offered. Why is this lack of choice a comforting treat rather than an annoying limitation? Because having to choose from dozens of options — having to decide what to do every minute of the day — can be exhausting, and stressful. And, like the dinner menu, many of the decisions we face every day are entirely unimportant.

I live in New York City. More than any other single place on this planet, perhaps, it offers lots of options. This can be exhilarating, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. On any given night, there are a dozen amazing events I could attend. On any given day, there are a dozen things I could do to advance toward my goals.

Now, though, thanks to technologies that open up the entire world to us through our cell phone, cable TV and laptop, this characteristic of New York City is becoming more prevalent for everyone, everywhere.

Getting things done

Task management guru David Allen devotes a lot of his attention to the issue of choice. As he sees it, one of the biggest obstacles to getting things done occurs in that moment when we have to decide what to do next. Allen says that often it’s much more efficient to just do something reasonable rather than spend time deciding what to do. His approach, dubbed “Getting Things Done” or GTD, can be overly fussy, but it has a lot of useful techniques.

To oversimplify, its key feature is preparing in advance so you know what needs to be done and can be done in different settings and at different times; then, depending on where you are or what you’re working on, it’s easy to identify what you could be doing, and you just do the next thing on that list. You don’t waste time deciding what to do. You don’t even complicate your lists with the kind of priority coding used in most task management systems. You just do one of the things that needs to be done. Over time, you get everything done and you don’t waste a lot of time deciding the order.

People who don’t fret so much over unimportant choices are more confident and productive. I can’t help remembering an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Captain Picard and Beverly Crusher have temporarily gained the ability to see each other’s thoughts. When they come to a fork in the path, and the captain picks a route, Crusher discovers that her leader often makes choices without really knowing which is better. If they stopped and debated which way to go, they would have gained little if anything and wasted potentially precious time. So he just picked a direction.

Even if you don’t become a GTD zealot with software and file cabinets and labelers, this one nugget can change your whole relationship to deciding what to do: If you find yourself trying to choose between several comparably useful things to do, just pick one and do it.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about rushing through decisions here. In my last column, I talked about the value and importance of discernment. Here, I’m referring to things you’ve already decided to do. The question is which, and when. And the answer, often, is any of them, and now.

Set it and forget it

The problem, according to Allen, is that the modern connected person has tons of what he calls “open loops” — uncompleted tasks and undecided priorities — that their brain must keep track of, or experience anxiety over the risk of losing track of. Many of his techniques involve removing unimportant choices, or making them once and moving on, so that our lives become simpler.

My favorite example of Allen’s simple genius is his story of how, if we need to remember to bring a file to work tomorrow, we might prop the file up against the front door. If you see the logic behind this “trick,” his systems are just fancier methods to the same end. But many of us, and I count myself in this camp, would tend to think the file-at-door trick is stupid, go to bed planning to remember the file in the morning, forget it, and then be furious with ourselves for forgetting. We insist on doing everything without any help — even from systems we create. It is a point of pride to manage our insanely complex life — it can even feed into our sense of self-importance that we have such a complex life.

Managing your calendar

Back to all those wonderful New York events. When I switched from my Filofax to an iPhone a few years ago, I relished the calendar’s ability to keep track of all my options. Before I knew it I had 12 calendar categories, from work appointments to friends’ concerts, from brunch dates to options for Mass. Every time I learned of an event I had any interest in, I’d add it.

As an example, let’s take an actual night from last week. With last year’s method, I’d be looking at four overlapping vertical blocks — red for a friend’s dinner party; green for a usual weekly group event; orange for a friend’s show at a local club; and blue for an optional work-related conference call. I would have reviewed this mess several times in the preceding days, reminding myself of my priorities and redeciding whether to stick with them or change them.

Rereading Allen’s Getting Things Done last year, I got to a part about calendars. People want to add things they’d “really like to” do but which are not essential, says Allen:

Resist this temptation. You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory, reflecting the exact hard edges of your day’s commitments, which should be noticeable at a glance while you’re on the run. That’ll be much easier if the only things in there are those that you absolutely have to get done on that day.”

And as I read this passage I realized my error — with all my categories I was missing the key one: Is this something I am committed to doing? On the run, that’s the only categorization that matters.

Simplify and streamline

So I added a “definite” category in a solid dark color and got rid of all others but two: events and stuff with friends. If I glance at my calendar and there’s something definite, my decision is already made. Done. Go do it. If not, then I can choose, free of anxiety, to do nothing or to pick something from the optional stuff. I know there’s no right or wrong answer.

For that night last week, the dinner party was “definite.” I knew that when I made the date a month ago, and coded it that way. (See also, in my column on honesty, about the value of honoring commitments.) So, looking at my calendar, I knew at a glance what to do and I was free from anxiety.

Look for opportunities in work projects, your appointment calendar, bill payment, and anything else that needs keeping track of, to simplify and to make decisions once and forget them. The nagging unfinished processes can feel overwhelming and add a lot of anxiety to your life, making it harder to maintain a sense of acceptance and peace.

Have you worked with GTD or another task management approach, struggled with managing your tasks and appointments, experienced the strain of an over-committed life? Leave a comment below or email me at phil AT bustedhalo.com.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
See more articles by (92).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • john hechtlinger

    another great article by PFR.. out of sheer inertia I use the oldest and least efficient organizer of them all.. my brain.. yep.. I juggle all my appointments in short term memory and hopefully bring forth the right one when a new day arrives. Occasionally I make a written list in one of my notebooks so that I can see at a glance what’s coming up in the ensuing week. That of course is much better. Oh well….

  • James Martin, SJ

    Dear Jonathan and Kate:

    Yes, indifference is a key Ignatian concept. We are, as he says in his Principle and Foundation (the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises) to be indifferent to all created things, inasmuch as they prevent us from getting closer to God. Not to say that you shouldn’t “care” about, for example, other people, but that you should be free of any “disordered attachments” (like, say, a desire for wealth or power or an excessive regard for your physical health or appearance) that would prevent you from experiencing God’s love. Another way of looking at this is by saying you should be “detached” or, more simply, “free.”

    You can find a lot of this in my chapter on Ignatius in “My Life with the Saints” and also in an upcoming book, to be published in March 2010 called “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything,” an introduction to Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality for the general reader.


    Jim Martin, SJ

  • cathyf

    Phil, I think that the next line of that is really important:

    Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
    I want and I choose what better
    leads to the deepening of God’s life in me.

    I have found that one question to be a touchstone — I hold a decision up against this light, make it, and move on.

    (I think that I found that originally by following a link on prayer in the googlingGod section of BH. Thanks for it being there.)

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Kate, I don’t know what passage Jonathan is referring to, but Father Martin is a Jesuit, and this principle is core to Jesuit teaching, so I’m sure he’s talked about it many times. The “First Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius reads:

    “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

    And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

    From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

    For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”

    I appreciate Jonathan bringing this issue into the discussion. Of course, this is the spiritual backdrop behind my statement that “many of the decisions we face every day are entirely unimportant.” The anxiety and fear that feed and feed off of indecision take us away from God or are expressions of our distance from God.

  • Kate

    Jonathan, is Father Martin’s take on indifference something I can find on the ‘net? I’d be interested to hear his take on it, but I haven’t found anything by searching “father james martin and indifference”.

  • Jonathan

    You article reminds of of Fr. James Martin’s take on being indifferent with the decision making… indifference in a good way. Understanding that whatever you choose (or is chosen for you), it will bring goodness and is open to God’s will. My fiancee and I take turns making decisions, there are days that I make decisions the whole day, then there are times I make her decide everything (which makes me realize, after we get married its all her decision that matters, hehehehe).

powered by the Paulists