29 January, 2015 Ed Moll
Richard Scarry wrote a seminal book called “What do people do all day?” The title poses a question I ask myself often, along with where does the time go? Some days are spent entirely in meetings; others fly by while you’re at the desk or glued to a screen. Later this week I will spend two hours at an under 5s Nativity simply because it is being held in our church building. Is that time productive? Was it well spent?
It’s a question I often ask myself because I want to give good account of my time and efforts, first to the Lord, and then to the Church. It’s a question that seems especially hard to answer in pastoral ministry because so little of what we do can be measured - we’re not making a set number of widgets per day. My ministers' cell group meet recently to think these things through; here are some reflections on Productivity for the Gospel.
The Challenges to Productivity are ambiguity and overload.
We work in the age of ‘Knowledge Work’ which is hard to quantify. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective agency will recall the scene where detective Mma Ramotswe is chided by her anxious secretary Mma Makutsi for ‘doing nothing’ while bills mount up. She replies that she has in fact been thinking, and has devised solutions to various problems their clients face. Knowledge workers can be productive without looking busy. Equally they can look busy and be unproductive. One major challenge in Knowledge Work is the ambiguity that work is hard to define let alone measure.
The second challenge comes from the internet which brings both ease of communication and overload of information. There is so much we could read, know, access, that we don’t know where to start or how to say no. In addition, the work of Pastoral ministry is never done; and we will never finish reading all the Puritans our friends cite, learning the Hebrew and Greek we promised we would, following up those interesting articles we hoped to, visitng those parishioners or fringe contacts. In an age where everything is available, nothing can be completed.
The Goal of productivity is to Love God and Love Your Neighbour.
As people made in God’s image, we are stewards of the gifts, talents, time and opportunity that He has given us. You are the steward of the gifts he has given uniquely to you. Productivity means working out how to discharge that responsibility faithfully, in order to hear the ‘well done good and faithful servant’. We’re doing it to love God.
Second, God has given gifts so that we serve others. One way we love our neighbour is to put our resources (gifts, talents, time, opportunity) to the most effective service we can. For some, loving your neighbour will mean working out how to be a useful and considerate team-member; for others it will involve an ambition to coordinate large-scale responses to global problems.
The Test of Productivity is Character.
So many books and blogs on productivity focus on disciplines. While they play their part they do not define our productivity. Character, rather, embraces how we deploy our resources for the glory of God. For instance, it is not efficient to deal with a homeless person when your schedule says you should write that sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But it is merciful to do so, and that lies closer to a character formed by Christ. For those of us who are task-opriented, character is how we learn to deal with interruptions in a godly way and realise they can be fruitful; for those who are so people-oriented that tasks can drift, character is what will lead you to organise yourself in order to serve others.
Character may also help us redeem dysfunctional productivity. We can be hardworking in order to love self rather than God and serve idols rather than our Creator. A lot can be done, but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, a character formed in the image of Christ can drive our passions and talents to glorify God.
The Means of Productivity is Self-control.
Productivity programmes don’t work if we don’t use them. Productivity is about doing the right things, in the right order, one at a time.
I used to think the issue was simply discipline, and the solution lay with will-power. But if productivity is about giving glory to God and living out of Christian character, then there are both physical and spiritual obstacles to productivity, and the fruit of the Spirit that is self-control is a better goal. We wisely manage the physical obstacles by recognising the value of rest, sleep, time of day; we battle the spiritual barriers by spotting the spiritual reasons why we’re procrastinating, and by praying through both our tasks and our objections.
The Tools of Productivity are Helpful (and Many).
By all means read about getting the right people on the bus, eating the frog first thing in the day, setting up tickler files, deferring emails to a sane time of day; these are all helpful tools and each of us will love some more than others. Their power becomes productive when we use them to help us love God, love your neighbour, and we are aware that taming the heart is the key to taming our desk.
Two tips that especially stuck in my mind from Perman are that if we aim to plan 90% of our time we will be less efficient than if we plan for 70% utilisation because of the ‘ringing effect’ of projects bumping into each other. A second is to give explicit time to Projects. (Anglicans may realise this is John Stott’s ‘Quiet Day’ in another guise!).
The book we discussed is Matt Perman What’s Best Next: how the gospel transforms the way you get things done (Zondervan 2014). He’s read everything else, explains Knowledge Work and shows where GTD (see below) is good but incomplete.
Tim Chester’s Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness is worth noting because he includes more on the human heart and why you might be busy because you’re serving non-gods. Kevin deYoung’s Crazy Busy is another short introduction but, speaking personally, I found Tim Chester’s book better.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done (known by aficionados as GTD) is the go-to book for getting through many tasks. He’s not writing from a Christian perspective and you can end up with lots of lists.