Generosity. My post today at The Gospel Coalition.
Here’s a project for you: go build a smart phone this weekend.
I’ll give you some parts and some tools. You can pull from the internet if you want. And we’ll help you keep the distractions away. How do you think your project will turn out?
If you’re like most people, it’s going to be an unmitigated disaster. Why? Because it’s virtually impossible to build a complex system from scratch.
If you’re new to thinking about productivity and personal effectiveness, you may be surprised by how complex the whole subject can be.
There’s the theology piece. There’s the motivation piece. There’s weekly planning and workflow management and a hundred digital tools that might help you. You have different roles, specific strengths, and personal passions…
Then, as soon as you make some progress fitting the pieces together for you, you realize that you better figure out how your personal system fits (or doesn’t fit) with your colleagues. It doesn’t matter how “effective” your system is if you can’t work with others to be truly productive.
All this complexity can keep you from getting started.
The good news is you don’t have to jump in to the deep end of the productivity pool.
Start with Simple
Today’s tip is simply to “start with simple.”
This comes from Gall’s Law, named after John Gall, a systems theorist who wrote the book Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail. It goes like this:
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a simple system.
So, permission granted to start simple.
Simplicity is incredibly powerful in how it allows you to get started and in what it makes possible down the line.
A Few Simple Places to Start
“What’s best next” is first of all a statement about that which is best next, which is doing the will of the Lord.
What is the Lord’s will in our daily work? We know that ultimately what Jesus wants from us is love (Matthew 22:37-40), so that’s always what’s best next. All of our productivity needs to be grounded in love—first, in terms of our motives (seeking the good of others) but also in terms of how we make decisions at all.
This is often overlooked: love isn’t just our motive in what we do, it’s also a guiding principle by which we decide what to do. What is best for the other person? That’s the question love asks, and it’s the guiding principle of true productivity. We don’t make choices based on what’s best for ourselves next, we make the welfare of others the motive and criterion for deciding what to do.
And so “what’s best next” is also a question we can use to help guide us. We can’t do everything that might possibly be next. We need to do what’s best next. A core principle for getting things done is to do what’s most important first. So when you have a thousand things to do, slow down and ask “what’s best next?” Then do that. Likewise, don’t do what’s easiest next; do what’s best next.
“What’s best next?” is a question you can continually use to guide your daily work.
What Does God Want Done?
Good works. What God wants done are good works.
We see this right in Matthew 5:16, where Jesus sums up for us the entire purpose of our lives: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
That is the purpose of the Christian life summed up for us in one sentence. The entire purpose of our lives—what God wants from us—is to do good for others, to the glory of God.
We also see this in one of the most important passages on productivity in the Bible—Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Likewise, Titus 2:14 tells us that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” And Jesus says in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
Being Fruitful in Good Works
Hence, good works are part of the purpose of our salvation. In one sense we have been doubly created for good works. God created us to do good works, as we see in the creation mandate in Genesis, and here we see that we are also re-created in Christ to do good works.
Productive things, then, are things that do good. Productivity always has to be understood in relation to a goal, and God’s goal is that we do good works.
Hence, we can define productivity in this way: to be productive is to be fruitful in good works.
This is a post from a while ago that contains an important framework that is always helpful to keep in mind. I’ve found it helpful in a new way recently, and thought you might as well.
David Allen very helpfully defines three different types of “work” that we do when doing our work:
- Doing predefined work
- Doing work as it shows up
- Defining your work
Many people get caught up in number 2, and let 1 and 3 slide.
He then notes:
Your ability to deal with surprise is your competitive edge. But at a certain point, if you’re not catching up and getting things under control, staying busy with only the work at hand will undermine your effectiveness. In order to know whether you should stop doing something and start dong something else, you need to have a good sense of what your job requires and how that fits into the other contexts of your life.
In 1899, a few months after becoming governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt gave the speech “In Praise of the Strenuous Life.” It remained one of his most popular, and has excellent things to say that are affirmed by the biblical doctrine of vocation. Here is how it starts:
In speaking to you, men of the greatest city of the West, men of the state which gave to the country Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody all that is most American in the American character, I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease but the doctrine of the strenuous life; the life of toil and effort; of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.
A life of ignoble ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual. I ask only that what every self-respecting American demands from himself, and from his sons, shall be demanded of the American nation as a whole.
Read the whole thing (it’s short). And you can find more helpful resources on vocation at MondayChurch.org.
If you are in the greater Kansas City area, come join Matt tonight as he speaks at Christ Community Church. This event is free and open to the public. Matt will speak on gospel-centered productivity and have a time of Q&A. You can find full details about the event here and you can RSVP here.
Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters, is the senior pastor of Christ Community Church. Pastor Nelson’s book provides helpful counsel for those seeking to better understand the theology of vocation and apply it in their own life.
Come join the folks from Christ Community for an evening of discussing faith and work together. See you there!
From Executive Intelligence, quoting Irene Rosenfeld, former CEO of Frito-Lay:
Because we know speed is of the essence, too often we immediately start moving without first taking the time to think about what we’re trying to accomplish.
There are hundreds of stories about this. Everyone is trying to act quickly, but too often they run out to solve a problem without fully understanding what problem they are trying to solve. This creates a lot of organizational angst which slows things down and leads to all sorts of issues regarding job satisfaction and work-life balance.
There is still sometimes in the church today the thinking that success is a sign that a person is following God well, and difficulty and adversity are signs that they are likely doing something wrong.
While following God’s commands often leads to success, sometimes (due to injustice in the world) it leads to hardship and the opposite of earthly success. Hence, we cannot evaluate whether God is blessing someone simply by their outward success and circumstances. We have to look at character and obedience.
Here are some incredible quotes from some of the greatest theologians in church history on this matter, from Leland Ryken’s book Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure:
Puritan Thomas Watson: “True godliness is usually attended with persecution.”
Puritan Richard Baxter: “Take heed that you judge not of God’s love, or of your happiness or misery, by your riches or poverty, prosperity or adversity.”
Luther: It is “utterly nonsensical” the “delusion” that if someone “has good fortune, wealth, and health, …God is dwelling there.”
Samuel Willard: “As riches are not evidences of God’s love, so neither is poverty of his anger or hatred.”
Thomas Hooker: “Afflictions are no argument of God’s displeasure…but the ensign of grace and goodness.”
I love this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” (Quoted in Tom Nelson’s Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work.)
Here’s what I love about it: He calls everyone to high expectations and recognizes that creativity and excellence can be exercised in any and every type of (lawful) work.
This stands in contrast to the thinking I encounter sometimes among some Christians of the more cynical variety. Most Christians don’t think so poorly, but sometimes I encounter people that actually have a problem with the call to exercising creativity and finding meaning in our work. They say things like “how can this or that person find meaning in their work — they sweep streets [or whatever]. You have your head in the clouds. They need to focus on just paying the bills, not finding meaning and purpose in what they do.”
This view is then justified on allegedly spiritual grounds as being “liberating” by “freeing” people in difficult jobs from the “obligation” to find meaning and purpose in their work.
But in reality this perspective is fueled by cynicism and low expectations. It is a very un-Christian way to look at work.
The call to find meaning and satisfaction in our work is not a new burdensome law; it is, rather, an invitation. The point is not “you better find meaning in your work.” Rather, it is: “guess what: you can find satisfaction in your work, whatever it is.” It is pointing to an opportunity, not one more burden a person has to carry.
And MLK here captures it perfectly. We can all find meaning in our work, whatever it is, by doing it for Christ and doing it with creativity and excellence. This is something any person can do in any vocation — even street sweeping or collecting the garbage.
In fact, in my view, a sweet sweeper who does his work with excellence and diligence and creativity is creating just as much a work of art as anything Michelangelo did. Michelangelo’s art was on the canvas; the street sweepers is on the streets and the beneficiaries are everyone who walks by.
Art is more than just paintings and poetry. Anything you do with emotional investment and creativity is a type of art, and all work is to be done in an artful — rather than merely utilitarian — way.