In Defense of Checklist Mormons

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

I think a common self-criticism we make within the Church is the valid concern that people get so caught up in trying to be perfect that we miss the forest for the trees with respect to the atonement. People do things just because it’s on some idealized checklist. Frequently because so many checklist items are incomplete they become depressed or at least discouraged. Some even throw up their hands saying they just can’t live the gospel and fall away.

Elder Hallstrom a few years ago talked about distinguishing doing things at Church and the gospel. “Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger,” he said. “It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel.”[1] Elder Uchtdorf noted that “in our world of change, challenges, and checklists, sometimes it can seem nearly impossible to avoid feeling overwhelmed by emotions of suffering and sorrow.” Elder Maxwell in a fantastic talk from years ago noted the problem of becoming overwhelmed trying to do the right things.

Now may I speak, not to the slackers in the Kingdom, but to those who carry their own load and more; not to those lulled into false security, but to those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short. […] The first thing to be said of this feeling of inadequacy is that it is normal. There is no way the Church can honestly describe where we must yet go and what we must yet do without creating a sense of immense distance. […] Thus the feelings of inadequacy are common. So are the feelings of fatigue; hence, the needed warning about our becoming weary of well-doing. […] The scriptural advice, “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength” (D&C 10:4) suggests paced progress, much as God used seven creative periods in preparing man and this earth. There is a difference, therefore, between being “anxiously engaged” and being over-anxious and thus underengaged.

There’s definitely good reasons to be wary of becoming what I’d call a “checklist Mormon.” But I come not to condemn but to praise. For all the very valid criticisms of reducing the gospel to a “to-do list” I think we perhaps have gone a bit overboard.

Many of us have felt that feeling of “being in the Spirit.” Everything seems to flow effortlessly. It seems like we know just what to do. We’re helping others and feel better than at any other time. I’ve felt that numerous times in my life. However it’s not the only way I feel. Sometimes I get so busy it’s hard to keep that enlightenment. While it’s undoubtedly in part my responsibility, I suspect I’m not alone it having that feeling of “the wind blowing where it listeth” seeming more like irregular breezes. They’re amazing when they happen but I can’t always count on it. Further, I sometimes think we use that experience as an excuse not to be prepared on our own.

Within sports there’s the idea of “playing in the zone.” There’s that feeling like it’s effortless to shoot the ball in the net and to react to the players around you. Psychologists describe this as “flow.” One author noted, “the reason momentum is so powerful is because of the heightened sense of confidence it gives us.” Lose your confidence and things can quickly fall apart. That’s in part what I think Elder Maxwell was getting at. The problem with the athletic notion of being in the zone is that some of it is an illusion. One psychology paper noted that when examining three point shooting there was no actual effect when feeling “in the zone.” More recent work makes this a bit more complex. According to a recent Economist article finds about a 6% effect. Not a huge effect, although a significant one among elite athletes.

The problem is that of course we’re not always in that zone. Our efforts can’t assume a kind of fluidity where we seem to always do the right thing. Also a problem one sees in basketball is that people in the zone often will take stray shots they shouldn’t precisely because they feel like everything is working. That is the confidence and efficiency of playing in the zone still depends upon discipline and game plans. That’s where organization comes in.

My old mission president used to have a refrain he repeated that when the time for action has come the time for preparation is over. The idea being that we prepare so we’re always ready for acting. The spirit can do a lot but doesn’t mean we have to duty to prepare. When we are in the zone in our spiritual activities we can reorder our organization when prompted. As Oliver Cowdery found, just asking and expecting the spirit to do everything won’t work. We have to study it out in our mind. I think that applies well to regular attempts at living a Christlike life as much as attempting to translate.

Yes we can be overwhelmed if we make our activity lists too large. But part of the point of a list is to prioritize what we see as most important. That way we aren’t overwhelmed doing too much. We may even find as we make lists that what we thought was important really isn’t. A to-do list, as soon as life reaches a certain complexity, become invaluable. If you want to know how some people manage to juggle so much, most of the time it’s because they become organized. As a person who naturally isn’t terribly organized I’ve found this to be extremely true. Getting things done matters. When I was young it seemed like time was something I had a lot of. Now I find I have almost no spare time. Organization, planning and prioritizing becomes crucial.

Of course in saying this I’m calling myself to repentance. I look at my life, which sometimes seems more than a little overwhelming, and I realize I’m not doing as good of a job as I should. One thing I learned from when I was young and used to rock climb a lot is that breaking problems up into small pieces always helps. It first off keeps one from being overwhelmed because you just focus on the part you need to do [i]then[/i]. When climbing you just think of the holds and body movements needed to complete that part. In my more adult life it’s figuring out what I need to do with the kids education, with the house chores, and with house maintenance.

I’m pretty confident that being a to-do list Mormon just isn’t as at odds with Elder Maxwell or Elder Uchtdorf as some have suggested. I’m not saying you have to start using a to-do list. I’m just saying that you’ll get a lot more done if you do.

[1] I should note he didn’t say Church activities were bad. “Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire.” I’d just quibble a bit and say it can be an outward indication of our faith in Christ. It’s just that it can also be an indication of a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality or even a fundamental misunderstanding of the atonement.

4 comments for “In Defense of Checklist Mormons

  1. Marivene
    May 15, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    I find it rather difficult to prioritize the day without first making a to do list, so for me, the check off part is part of the priority. That check off list also helps me feel like I am making progress, when there are often no other visible signs.

  2. Clark Goble
    May 15, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Yup. The best way to hold off feeling being overwhelmed is to look back and see all you accomplished.

  3. May 16, 2017 at 10:20 am

    I’ve never been a list person. I understand there are those who are. Does this mean I don’t have priorities in my life? No. It just means my priorities are fluid and change regularly throughout the day.

    Does that mean I don’t get things done. Nope. I have made what I feel is great progress spiritually, educationally, and career-wise. I just don’t let priorities I’ve defined previously rule me. Any time I’ve let that happen it has ended up being a mistake.

    I believe a spiritual life is like driving a car on the interstate. To drive well you make small corrections all the time with major corrections when you need to change directions. It isn’t necessary to be ‘in the flow’ for the Holy Ghost to prompt us–and prompting us regularly is how He guides us. He prompts us to make millions of minor changes rather than waiting for us to drive off the side of the road and crash. We don’t have to be spiritual giants to do this. I’m certainly not. I just try to listen and have faith in The Lord.

    So without a list, how do I assess my progress? Instead of looking back at a list to see how I’m doing spiritually, I’ve learned to regularly ask The Lord. After all, He is the one who knows if I’m making progress in the direction He wants as opposed to where I want to go. If He needs me to change a direction He’ll tell me.

  4. Clark Goble
    May 16, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    I’m not saying everyone should use a list, although I think at a certain level of complexity it becomes invaluable. Just that they aren’t inherently bad.

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