Getting the Right Things Done

When I write about “productivity,” what am I actually talking about? And why?

January 10, 2018Filed under blog#productivityMarkdown source

Americans overrate productivity. We emphasize it at the expense of nearly everything else. That goes for the most individual evaluations to the structures and decisions of megacorporations. Our goal is to extract every last bit of work from ourselves we can. And this is, in a word, bad. It is bad not because work is bad, but because it is a good thing become the only thing. (This is the usual way humans mess things up: we take good things and make them ultimate, when nothing we make or do can bear that weight.1)

So given all of that, why do I think and write so much about productivity? Put plainly, because I think the goods of creation and production are still worth pursuing, and I want to steward my time well accordingly. I want to create the things I am passionate about—from blog posts like this to podcast episodes to the web apps I build and the supporting tools I work on—without that overwhelming the other things in my day. I think about productivity the way I do, in other words, because I want to be productive without productivity becoming an idol.

Put more directly: my efforts on the many projects I care about cannot come at the expense of loving my family well, serving my church, spending meaningful amounts and kinds of time with friends, and so on. There are many goods in this life we are responsible to pursue. That’s not the usual way we think about good things in life either: we tend to think about good things as things we get to pursue, if we have time after our other less-good responsibilities. But I think that’s a misshapen view of the kinds of things I’m talking about here. Worship, family life, work, creative expression, service, teaching: these are all goods we are called to (to various degrees, given the qualifiers of gifting and circumstances).2

We therefore ought to think of them in terms of faithfulness. Do we do each of them to the best of our abilities, making good use of our time and abilities?

For me, that consideration plays itself out in a variety of ways. One making sure that when I am working, I am working harddoing my work well, honoring God in the doing.3 Pomodoro is a tool to that end. It, being a tool, can also be put to other, worse ends, of course: it could very well become a means to obsession with work! But my goal with it is simply to steward my time and attention well, in part so that I may have attention to pay—for attention is indeed something we pay—in other, less “productive” but no less deeply important ways.

Similarly, setting aside this hour for writing every morning enables me to think more and better in the ways I need to for the sake of faithful stewardship of my own God-given gifts and desires, and (no less importantly) for the sake of using those gifts and desires for the good of my community.4 If I am unable to so much as muster a coherent thought because I’ve waited to do my writing until a time of day when I simply cannot think in that manner, then I am unable to use this combination of desire and ability for the glory of God and the good of my neighbors. But if I, aware of my bodily and intellectual rhythms, allocate an hour in the morning to write and an hour of lower concentration for e.g. taking a run in the silence of the empty winter fields near here, then I am able to both be productive when I ought to, and idle when I ought to.

“Productivity,” then, as I conceive it whenever I write about it here, is not an ultimate end. Having (and making good use of!) a to-do list, for example, is not about maximizing the number of things I can do in a given week. It is about carrying out my many vocations well, and not failing to do the things I ought. Your set of vocations looks different from mine. The set of things you ought not fail to do is different accordingly. And the tools you employ may be different: for reasons of phase of life, temperament, abilities, and so on.

“Productivity” as such is not the point. The point is faithfully doing the right things, and doing them for love of God and love of neighbors.

  1. Cf. Augustine, _Confessions_, Book 1, paragraph 1.

  2. The order of this list is important, though it is perhaps also misleading: worship undergirds and shapes the others.

  3. That passage was addressed to people in legal slavery (albeit a slavery very different in kind from the chattel slavery of the American South). I’m not here going to dig more deeply into the hermeneutics of applying it to someone doing labor in a market economy; suffice it to say I think that if a first century slave should work hard so as to honor God in his or her work, so ought we.

  4. Our desires and aims are not for ourselves. They’re meant to be gifts to those around us; used rightly, they can be.