Uniting theology and productivity is no easy task. Fortunately, Matt Perman marries the gospel and getting things done in a beautiful ceremony in What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.
Usually, productivity is left to gurus and hackers, while theology is reserved for the super-spiritual and seminarians. What’s Best Next thoroughly dismantles the separation of the spiritual and the practical, and puts the gospel at the center of our work–no matter what we do.
Matt Perman has written about productivity from a Christian perspective for years at whatsbestnext.com. He helped build John Piper’s Desiring God ministry, and he’s more than qualified to merge theology and productivity. His book is a treat through and through, and I’ll be referencing, re-reading, and recommending it for years to come.
[Note: This is one of my longest posts ever. If you trust my judgment, go buy What’s Best Next right now, at Amazon (affiliate) or WTS Books. Feel free to skim and scan this review to get a glimpse into why I loved the book.]
Much is lacking in literature on work from a Christian perspective–and I’d argue even more so is missing on the way Christians should work. Matt’s goal in “What’s Best Next” is to fill in that gap of wanting literature.
My aim in this book is to reshape the way you think about productivity and then present a practical approach to help you become more effective in your life with less stress and frustration, whatever you are doing.
He wants to help equip us, inspire us and prepare us to serve God in all we do, through the how and why of our work. And he does just that.
The book is oriented around seven sections:
- First Things First: Making God Supreme in Our Productivity
- Gospel Driven Productivity: A New Way to Look at Getting Things Done
- Define: Know What’s Most Important
- Architect: Create a Flexible Structure
- Reduce: Free Up Your Time for What’s Most Important
- Execute: Do What’s Most Important
- Living This Out
The first two sections are more theologically focused, followed by four practical sections and the last section ties everything back together.
The end of each chapter includes “The Box” which reiterates some combination of a core point, core quote, core passage and recommendations for further reading. It’s a perfect summary to close the “open loop” of each chapter and give opportunities for further exploration.
I read a PDF version of the book, but the use of white space and typography in the book is beautiful. It’s clear Matt means what he says about beauty and usability being another way we glorify God.
The end notes are filled with resources galore, a quick summary and tons of bonus material that you can link to on his website. The book is obviously thoughtfully laid out with the reader in mind.
I’ve scratched digital markings onto nearly every page of this book. It is easily my favorite book on productivity, as Matt bridges the high-level aspect of productivity a la Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (mission, values, principles) and lower-level tangible aspects a la David Allen’s Getting Things Done (organization, projects, actions). He describes it as a fifth dimension of productivity beyond lists and principles, where God is at the center.
This review has in a large part been an opportunity for me to relive WBN. Here’s what I most appreciated:
- A theological underpinning of productivity that will surely be a foundation for works in this area in the future.
- An encouraging reminder of the meaning of the work we do every day–from the menial to the most important.
- A practical guide on how to actually do work that matters with resources, tools and tips.
One of the most valuable things Matt’s done with WBN is putting words and phrases to explain concept I’ve thought about but haven’t been able to define properly. Here are a few of my favorites.
“An approach to personal productivity that is based on the scriptures without rejecting good common-grace wisdom or being spiritually weird.”
Secular wisdom that aligns with the truth of God’s word, even if they aren’t explicitly written in the Bible.
For example, the Bible doesn’t say delegating crappy tasks to your subordinates because you don’t want to do them is a bad way to lead. But, anyone who has been on the receiving end of those jobs knows they don’t have an overflowing respect for their boss. That’s the essence of common-grace wisdom: truth that God has revealed to all people.
“Anything that does good and is done in faith”
“Since good works are the things we do every day in faith, then things like clean parking lots, swept floors, and even Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwiches can indeed be good works. That’s exciting!”
Love is the motivation for productivity
Most productivity books don’t focus on love as our motivation for getting things done. Most focus on control as the highest value we can achieve. The reality is we can’t control everything. But we can choose love in all situations (through the power of the Holy Spirit).
At a few different points, I’m almost certain I heard an audible click of things falling into place in my brain as I read WBN. Here are a few of the paradigm shifts I experienced along with some helpful evolutions in my thinking.
Productivity is about the intangibles
Productivity is about intangibles — relationships developed, connections made, and things learned. We need to incorporate intangibles into our definition of productivity or we will short-change ourselves by thinking that sitting at our desks for a certain number of hours equals a productive day.
Books are for insight, articles are for awareness
Such simple advice, but such a good distinction. Matt spends 70% of his reading time on books and 30% on articles. I need to grow toward that healthy split.
How to start each day
- Plan your day.
- Execute your workflow (including processing your email to zero).
- Do your main daily activity.
- Do some next actions or major project work.
Simple enough, eh?
Instead of procrastinating, do nothing
In cases in which you are most significantly tempted to procrastinate, the best thing to do is procrastinate positively: do nothing. Not something else, but nothing. This will help you avoid “procrastination in disguise,” which is when you do other things that are less important and less necessary. To avoid this, do nothing. You will find that you often become uneasy and then get to the task. Plus, this break can be good thinking time.”
Talk about being driven to get things done. Nothing is the new Facebook.
Schedule to 70%
People try to be uber productive but have no margin when they schedule everything solid. That margin creates stress and leaves no flexibility for other issues that may come up. 70% is a healthy amount of pre-planned things with room for problem-solving or tasks that take longer.
No (calendar) white space means no brain space.
Absolutely everything anyone does starts with a thought. Because the quality of the thought has a large influence on the quality of the outcome, it makes sense to do what you can to think clearly. In a world in which technology provides the capacity to reach out and be reached anytime, anywhere, finding space to think clearly is more and more of a challenge. A lack of white space on one’s calendar correlates with a lack of white space in one’s brain.
–Scott Eblin, The Next Level: What Insiders Know about Executive Success
Productivity is all about God and others
“All productivity practices, all of our work, everything is given to us by God for the purpose of serving others.”
Caring for the poor means using your gifts well
What got me on that topic was what Paul says in Galatians, that we should remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). I had been going with my wife a few times to this inner-city ministry to the poor in a poor area of Phoenix. But after three or four weeks I thought, This is a wonderful ministry, but I wonder if there’s some better way to use my gifts than primarily handing out food and clothing. I thought maybe if I could write on the causes and solutions to poverty, I would be using my gifts more effectively. And so it was a concern for being obedient to the biblical teachings to care for the poor.
– Wayne Grudem
Everyone has an approach to productivity. It’s just a matter of how effective it is.
Productivity is ultimately about stewardship. You’re not a nerd if you care about productivity, you’re a faithful steward.
Three productivity villains
Ambiguity and overload: the two chief villains that make it hard to get things done. The villain behind those two: lack of fulfillment.
“If the gospel changes everything, that means it changes even how we work.”
“Maybe we’ve had enough retreats with Jesus. Maybe Jesus wants us to learn how to get things done.”
“The ultimate in unproductively: gaining the entire world but losing yourself. Then what will you have?” (Luke 9:25)
“It’s not enough to be diligent and work hard. Your work has to actually benefit people. And that means you have to know what you are doing. You are to be useful — and usefulness takes competence”
“To be productive is to get done what God wants done.”
I think I could have made the review nearly as long as the book (and perhaps you feel I did!) I didn’t even touch on Matt’s cases for excellence, usability and many other things in productivity. At 350 pages, this book is a whopper, but it’s well worth the read.
From beginning to end, WBN is squarely centered on Jesus and practically driven to help us glorify him in all that we do.
Matt says this book is written to Christians and not alike–and I agree. It’s filled to the brim with practical advice centered on the truth of the Bible. And as he reiterates throughout, productivity makes the most sense when it is done in the context of eternity.
And I’ll let Matt’s final exhortation in the book be mine as well:
Make the goal of your life to show the greatness of Jesus Christ by doing good for others, and organize your life around this purpose.