by Jill Kuehnert
I begin to write this article at 6:30 in the morning, after spending a half-hour reading a daily devotional text and writing in my journal, but before turning on my phone or checking email.
I’ll admit that I don’t start every day like this, but it seems fitting today to follow the advice from Matt Perman, the author of the book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel transforms the way you get things done.
Perhaps a lifelong love of self-improvement books and my more recent fascination with effective altruism both stem from my faith in the same way. As a follower of Christ, I strive to use my resources – my ‘time, talents and treasures’ in the language of many a church stewardship campaign– in a way that does the most good. This means I put my talents to work professionally on the global problem of agriculture, I make charitable contributions through GiveWell, and I’m almost constantly trying to make better use of my time.
In What’s Best Next, author Matt Perman seeks to persuade Christians that God cares about how well we use our time, so we should too and he gives us tools to do it.
Perman begins by putting God first in the opening sections of his book. He takes Ephesians 5:15-16 as a central text: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (NIV). Perman makes it clear that he’s not talking about being more efficient at getting things done for ourselves. Rather, God wants us to be productive and effective (Perman uses the word) at doing all the good we can.
Perman’s definition of a ‘good work’ is simply ‘anything that does good and is done in faith,’ and he identifies four specific ways that good productivity enables it:
- it reduces friction in doing good (making it easier and more likely);
- it amplifies our ability to do good (by getting more done),
- it frees up time for us to serve (by reducing time spent on existing work) and
- it may enable us to do larger, more challenging work for good.
Perman goes on to identify love as the guiding principle for our lives as Christians and generosity to others as its manifestation in our work:
“We did not create ourselves, and we did not redeem ourselves. We doubly belong to God. And God has not made us merely to seek our own good. He created us for something far greater: to seek the good of others, and of society, and his kingdom. The true Christian lives for these ends, not his own comfort and welfare.”
Here I was unexpectedly convicted by his words about discomfort. I devour blogs, books and podcasts in search of less painful ways of moving toward goals. I love ‘hacks’ – shortcuts or little tricks that will make it easier and more comfortable to do what I should be doing. But self-protection is not a Christian attitude! Perman reminds us that we should take pains to ease the sufferings of others, while not needlessly making our lives more difficult than they have to be. God’s peace is the source of things we do; peace is not a result of doing them the right way.
As a Lutheran, I know that God’s love for me is not based on me succeeding at all of this, or indeed even trying to. So I was happy to read the chapter on justification that closes out this opening section of the book. Perman says, “The only way to be productive is to realize that you don’t have to be. Our sins and every failing is forgiven, and Christ’s righteousness has been applied to us. No matter what. And the fact that God accepts us apart from our practice leads to joy and makes us eager to be productive and obedient to his will.”
So now that we’re eager for it, and grounded in faith-based motivations, the middle section of the book lays out a framework for Gospel-Driven Productivity:
- Define (what’s most important),
- Architect (a flexible structure to work on priorities- like getting up early to write!),
- Reduce (eliminate what’s not important) and
- Execute (put it into practice).
Perman admits that Christians have different motivations for managing our time well but not necessarily different methods. Indeed, most of these productivity practices were familiar to me already and are among the most effective techniques I use.
The final section of the book takes us back out into the world. Just as we Christians seek effectiveness for ourselves and our personal work, we should seek it for our organizations and society, Perman says. We have a Christian imperative to understand and care about economics in particular, because God gives us a global call to preach and meet the physical needs of others. We live in a fallen world, and there is suffering. But being productive helps us minimize our suffering so we can take on the needs of others.
Overall, I’m glad I read this book because it brings together so many things I care about from a perspective that is unapologetically Christian, in a well-organized style. However, one disappointment is a shortcoming I find with many writings on the subjects of self-improvement, productivity, business and leadership: a lack of diverse voices. In Perman’s case he holds up Saint Paul, William Wilberforce and Jonathan Edwards as positive Christian examples, and quotes male leaders and writers almost exclusively. I was surprised not to find any mention of the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, which so immediately comes to my mind when I imagine what Jesus would say about what’s really important in the midst of my busyness.
Over the past few months, several of us in the EACH community read “What’s Best Next” and then met online to talk about it. Some of us like me read books in this genre all the time. For others, it was the first they’d read. In the middle of a long-term career, in work with those in need, caring for our own household, we each found something that spoke to us. And so may you.
As for me, it’s time for another cup of coffee.