Of Mormon missions, trimming to-do lists, and setting reasonable expectations

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh


The picture above is a little bit of a misrepresentation, but one that serves a purpose. I use the wonderful Things 2 as my master to-do list—mostly because it lets me write down anything and everything that I would like to do at some point during my life and then assign a certain number of those items to my “Today” list. Red items are due by the end of the day (or maybe even yesterday, or the day before…), and it would just be swell if I could take care of the other ones, too. Oh, and don’t lose sight of the Inbox, where you’re constantly dumping in new things to get around to.

I’ve never really had a “Today” list that’s 1,000 items long (I was having some syncing issues when I took that screenshot), but there are days that certainly feel like it. I even started off most of the days this week trying to fit 50 things in there. It’s frustrating to put 50 important things on your to-do list in the morning and to have 40 (or more!) of them still sitting there when you go to bed… but sometimes that’s just the way things go. To reduce this frustration, though, I’ve been experimenting with some new ways of tackling my to-do list, though, and it’s making me think about where I was eight years ago this summer.

At the time, I was working as a secretary for the Switzerland Geneva Mission of the LDS Church, keeping track of the mission’s small fleet of cars, helping manage visa paperwork, and doing other odd jobs alongside my colleagues who were balancing the books, distributing the money, and fighting with the Church offices they reported to about the cost of living in Switzerland. Being an LDS mission secretary was a somewhat bizarre experience for me. I had left on a mission to represent my faith and teach our doctrines to people who were interested in hearing about them, just like the other 100 or so young men and women assigned to the mission, and for the first 10(ish) months that I wore the famous name badge, that’s exactly the work that I had been doing. Getting the call that I was going to be reassigned to the (admittedly quite swanky) mission offices just outside of Geneva to do paperwork and send emails felt a little bit like being benched: After all, we have a number of hymns about missionary work, but no Mormon child learns to sing about serving God by filling out forms in triplicate.

Like many of the secretaries I served with, though, I grew to appreciate just how much the religious work everyone in the mission was there to do depended on a small number of people staying at the office to take care of the foundational-if-mundane things that kept non-Europeans in the area legally, made sure people had enough money to buy food with, and coordinated travel from city to city. My reaction, then, was to begin ascribing religious significance to each spreadsheet I filled out and each bill my colleagues paid: Not the same kind of religious significance that feeding the poor or comforting the downtrodden has, of course, but it still felt like I had a responsibility to my faith—and even to a higher power—to do my job well.

One day, though, this resulted in some dilemmas that I hadn’t seen coming. We always had plenty to do in the office, but this was never more true than “transfer day,” an every-six-week event that consisted of missionaries traveling to new assignments in the mission. I was in charge of coordinating travel for every transfer day, and I was also in charge of making sure that no one got lost. Things never worked out as expected, and (for reasons I can’t quite remember) this transfer day was particularly tricky. Right in the middle of a very hectic morning, though, the Franco-Swiss couple in charge of all of our missionary apartments called me with a matter that they felt was very urgent. This was the last straw: I had a lot of things to take care of in that moment, I wanted to best serve my church by doing them all quickly and well, but I knew that I couldn’t do them at that particular moment. I ended up more-or-less hanging up on the apartment coordinators with a quasi-coherent promise to call them back later and went back to work.

In that moment, I learned for the first time that I couldn’t do everything when I wanted it to get done and that I probably couldn’t even keep everyone happy at the same time… even if that seemed incompatible with what a Mormon missionary was supposed to do.

Grad school has reminded me of my mission in a number of ways. It’s the first set of responsibilities and activities I’ve experienced since my mission where I’ve felt so strongly about wanting to do everything well and so overwhelmed by how much “everything” is. This is a feeling that ebbs and flows, but it’s always on my mind, and I’ve found myself recently going back to that day that I hung up on the Fulcrands and asking myself who I need to “hang up” on today.

Or, more precisely, what I need to “hang up” on. As much as it pains me to do it, I’ve been making a real effort over the past couple of months to treat my to-do list differently in two major ways:

First, I only add to my “Today” list what I actually, genuinely think I can get done that day. Things 2 has a wonderful “Next” section where I can keep everything I want to get to soon as well as a “Someday” section where I can stash things once I admit that I don’t have time for them in the immediate future. I’m trying to keep more things on these lists (checking back in on them regularly) so that I can spend my time focusing on what I can get done instead of stressing about what I want to.

Second, I take a few minutes to wipe my Today list at the end of the night. That doesn’t mean finishing everything (despite my efforts to keep my Today list manageable), but by rescheduling items for another day, moving them back to the “Next” list, or even banishing them to “Someday” (or, gasp, the Trash), I don’t leave anything left to do when I go to bed in the evening. This lets me feel like I’ve acknowledged everything on that list, I can go to bed with a clear conscience, and I will start the next day with a clean slate (except for everything I’ve scheduled to show up that morning, of course).

I’m still bad at actually doing these things, but when I do, I feel a lot more in control of my day and what I’m doing with it. I think it’s helped me develop some valuable skills and mindsets for pressing forward with grad school, and I hope it can be helpful to others as well!

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.