At the end of What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, I give a summary of the book in 500 words so that people can easily take away the core concept and a few key practices (and share them with others).
Here it is:
Gospel-Driven Productivity in a Nutshell
We need to look to God to define for us what productivity is, not simply the ambiguous concept of “what matters most.” For God is what matters most.
When we do this, we don’t enter a realm of spiritual weirdness, as we might fear. Good secular thinking remains relevant as a gift of God’s common grace. Neither do we enter a realm of over-spiritualization where the things we do every day don’t matter.
Instead, the things we do every day take on even greater significance because they are avenues through which we serve God and others. In fact, the gospel teaches us that the good of others is to be the main motive in all that we do and the chief criteria by which we determine “what’s best next.” This is not only right, but also the best way to be productive, as the best business thinkers are showing. More importantly, when we do this in God’s power and as an offering to him, he is glorified and shown to be great in the world.
In order to be most effective in this way in our current era of massive overload yet incredible opportunity, we need to do four things to stay on track and lead and manage our lives effectively:
The result of this is not only our own increased peace of mind and ability to get things done, but also the transformation of the world by the gospel because it is precisely in our everyday vocations that we take our faith into the world and the light of the gospel shines—both in what we say and in what we do (Matthew 5:16).
If You Only take 5 Productivity Practices Away from This Book
Learning and especially implementing productivity practices can be hard. It is easy to forget what we learned or forget how to apply it. One remedy is to keep coming back to this book (of course!). But to make this as simple as possible, if you can only take away 5 things from this book, they should be these:
- Foundation: Look to God, in Jesus Christ, for your purpose, security, and guidance in all of life.
- Purpose: Give your whole self to God (Romans 12:1-2), and then live for the good of others to his glory to show that he is great in the world.
- Guiding Principle: Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want them to treat you. Be proactive in this and even make plans to do good.
- Core Strategy: Know what’s most important and put it first.
- Core Tactic: Plan your week, every week! Then, as things come up throughout the day, ask “is this what’s best next?” Then, either do that right away or, if you can’t, slot it in to your calendar or action list that you are confident you will refer back to at the right time.
This post from Harvard Business Review nails it — totally nails it — on the importance of daily planning, and how to do it well (it is very simple).
My short ebook How to Set Up Your Desk: A Guide to Fixing a (Surprisingly) Overlooked Productivity Problem is on sale for $4.99 through next Tuesday.
Whereas What’s Best Next gives a comprehensive view of why our work matters and how to be more effective in it, How to Set Up Your Desk takes a very specific area of productivity and shows you how to maximize it.
It’s easy to think that you don’t need to give thought to how you use your desk. But in reality, your desk setup matters immensely because your desk is actually a workflow system. Setting up your desk well minimizes the resistance to getting things done — and makes it a lot more fun.
So in this ebook I outline the basic principles for how to set up your desk well (yes, there are principles for this!). Then I apply them to help you make your whole desk setup more effective so that you can get get things done with minimal drag and get rid of the clutter that so easily sucks your energy and creativity.
(Note that I originally published this as a series on this blog, available for free, but I’ve updated the introduction and added some other things for the ebook. Also, getting the ebook is a great way to help support the blog!)
I’ve turned one of the most popular series on this blog into an ebook, which I’m releasing today. The book is How to Set Up Your Desk: A Guide to Fixing a (Surprisingly) Overlooked Productivity Problem, and it’s available for your Kindle.
I believe that being productive starts with your worldview — you need to know your purpose and why it’s important to be productive at all. But once we have that worldview in place, it is crucial to also understand and utilize the best strategies and tactics we can find and develop.
The question of how to set up our desks is an area that affects all of us consistently, yet has received almost no good treatment. The common idea seems to be “just do what works for you.” But far from creating greater freedom, this notion actually creates inefficiency and annoyance. While it is true that we each have our own personal style, it is also true that there are certain fundamental principles applicable to everyone that make for an effective desk setup. If you don’t understand these principles, you will have an annoying, less effective workspace.
In other words, it is possible to have a smooth-running, efficient desk setup that will make make your desk setup both more efficient and more enjoyable to use. And this will increase your productivity, since when we like the way we have things set up, we not only use them more efficiently but are also inclined toward more productive behaviors.
This ebook shows you how to do that with your desk. It shows you how to get it set up right — in a way that serves you and is not annoying, and is based on sound principles that make sense and that you can apply to any situation.
Here are three endorsements:
“Matt Perman has served me so well in applying a Steve Jobs-like approach to my workflow: simple, intuitive, elegant, and efficient. I’ve followed most of his advice about setting up my desk (as well as processing my email), and it works beautifully.”
–Andy Naselli, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis; Research Manager for D. A. Carson; Administrator of the theological journal Themelios
“Your desk is probably standing in the way of your effectiveness at work. So are your email, office supplies, and task management systems (or lack thereof). Matt Perman is the master of all of these areas. His well-researched and documented methodologies have revolutionized the effectiveness with which I live out my callings in life.”
–Matt Heerema, Pastor of Stonebrook Community Church; Director of Mere Design Agency
“Sitting here in my office, I am able to look around at a well-ordered and organized system thanks to Matt Perman. This book drastically helped me with my physical workspace, and the results have been tremendous. I will now use this book for all new staff in our department.”
–Chris Misiano, Senior Director of Campus Recreation, Liberty University
This would be a good book for readers of What’s Best Next who want to go deeper on the tactical side, but you don’t have to have read What’s Best Next to benefit from this book. It will help anyone, anywhere, who is interested in implementing, as David Allen has said, “smooth running, silent systems” for greater productivity.
Traditional View (TV): Do more in less time.
Gospel-Driven Productivity (GDP): Do the right things, and you can care a lot less about efficiency.
TV: Use the right techniques.
GDP: Be the right kind of person. Then, use smart techniques.
TV: Seek peace of mind and fulfillment.
GDP: Seek to do good for others first, and make a contribution. Peace and fulfillment will follow (and so will suffering!—but of a different kind).
TV: Minimize work and maximize money.
GDP: Do hard things and find joy in your work as a fulfillment of your calling. Maximize meaning, not money.
Stephen Covey, in his stellar book First Things First:
For most people, the large majority of waking time is spent communicating or interacting with people — or dealing with the results of poor communication or interaction.
Effective interdependence is core to the issue of time management. But the traditional literature essentially deals with it in a transactional way. This transactional approach grows out of the mechanical, controlling, managing “things” paradigm. People are essentially seen as bionic units to whom we can delegate to get more done, or as interruptions to be handled efficiently so that we can get back to our schedule.
But fourth-generation interdependence is not transactional; it’s transformational. It literally changes those who are party to it. It takes into consideration the full reality of the uniqueness and capacity of each individual and the rich, serendipitous potential of creating synergistic third alternatives [see note below on why these aren't just buzzwords] that are far better than individuals could ever come up with on their own.
Fourth-generation interdependence is the richness of relationships, the adventure of discovery, the spontaneity and deep fulfillment of putting people ahead of schedules, and the joy of creating together what did not exist before.
In other words: Just as leadership can be transactional or transformational, so also our approach to productivity can be transactional or transformational.
In leadership, the transactional view sees people merely as means to an end. They are a tool to accomplish a task, rather than also being valued in themselves. In a transactional view, people are viewed as expendable. If this person can’t do it, then that person will. Instead of adjusting jobs to fit people, people are “adjusted” to fit a standardized view of a job (all in the name of “efficiency,” of course; note: this hardly every works out well for people!) People with a transactional view say things like “why is this taking you so long? I’m not paying you to learn, I’m paying you to get a job done.” Truly horrible. I mean that.
In transformational leadership, people are not seen as a means to an end. People are valued as well as tasks. People are seen as important and valuable in their own right. Thus, the goal becomes not simply to get tasks done, but to build people up in the accomplishment of tasks. This is the only view of leadership consistent with the Scriptures, which teach us that people are created in the image of God, and thus are always to be treated with respect, value, and love.
As with leadership, so also with productivity. In the transactional view of productivity, we think of others either as tools to help us get more done, or interruptions who are getting in our way. This is disrespectful and unbiblical, just as transactional leadership is.
The correct view of productivity is transformational. People are not merely means to help us get more done, or obstacles to doing what we really want. Rather, relationships are seen as part of what it means to be productive at all. True productivity comes from working with others, and doing so in a way that recognizes and values their individuality and seeks to help them grow through the process of creating something great together.
The essence of the transformational view of productivity or leadership or anything else is this: see people as people who are valuable for their own sakes, having been created in the image of God, and thus even when you have tasks to accomplish, make the aim not to “get things done through others” but rather to “build people up in the accomplishment of the tasks.” Value people as well as tasks, and more than tasks. For it is the effect you have on people that is the true measure of your productivity.
Here’s the note I mentioned: Covey is often criticized for using terms like “synergy” and “paradigm” too much. I think that’s a very wrong-headed criticism. Sure, lots of people use those terms not knowing what they are talking about. That’s annoying.
But when someone who actually understands such terms uses them, it’s not something to criticize; it’s something to pay attention to. If we criticize people every time they use a word that has become “common,” we undermine all teaching. For teaching is about making important concepts universal. If we then make fun of those concepts because they have become so common, haven’t we then undermined the whole enterprise of teaching?
It is so completely strange to me that really odd naming conventions for computer files continue to persist to this day.
I have probably over 10,000 documents on my computer (Word documents, spreadsheets, keynote presentations, PDFs, and so forth). If I followed the usual naming conventions that most people seem to use, I would be totally lost. I’d never be able to find anything.
For example, one of the things I do in my consulting is write business plans for people. Sometimes, when the client takes the first attempt at writing the business plan, the file will be named something like “plan234.doc.”
It’s as though we think we need to intentionally give our computer files cryptic, obscure, hard-to-grasp names. This, in turn, makes it really hard to find the file when you are going to work on it, since it’s not like it’s the only file you have.
Far better to call it what it is. In this case, the best file name would be: “Business Plan for [Name of Company].doc.” Then, you know what the document is right away when you see it in your files. You don’t have to guess or, worst of all, open it in order to know for sure what it is.
I see this type of mistake made over and over again: people continually give their computer files names that are hard to decipher. I don’t know if the aim is to save space or what; if the aim is to save space, the need to do that went away about 20 years ago. It used to be that file names had to be kept very short, because we were limited to just a few characters. Those days are over.
And, spaces are OK!
In one of the call-out boxes in What’s Best Next, I summarize these principles as one of the immediately-applicable productivity tips I give. Here’s the box:
How to Name Your Computer Files Well
- Give the file a name that actually means something.
- Don’t abbreviate (it makes no sense and makes it harder to know what the file is at a glance!)
- Make the file name the same as the title of the document in the file.
Good name: “Bookstore Procedure Manual.” Bad name: “Bkstr_2305.”
If someone says: “The type of file name you suggest is too obvious,” my response is: That’s the point! If you don’t make it obvious, you’ll forget what the file actually is down the road or the next day. By making it obvious, you save time.
The principle for naming your computer files well is the same as the principle for making websites effective: “Don’t make me think.” That is, minimize your cognitive workload by making the file name something obvious. The aim is to know right away, at a glance, what the file actually is so you don’t have to spend time trying to figure out which file you are looking for after all.
Stephen Covey would often talk about people climbing the ladder so fast that they would get to the top, only to discover that their ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.
So how do we set goals that actually take us to a place we want to be? I give seven principles. The first is that a good goal always starts by asking not “what do I want to do,” but “what needs to be done?” That’s the question that orients you toward contribution and service, which is the core principle for being effective in any area.
This is the full version of my interview with Seth Godin on the essence of productivity and avoiding productivity whining, found in chapter 10 of my book What’s Best Next.
It is fascinating that when you study the most effective individuals throughout history, you see the same theme coming back again and again in how each of them managed their time. The key was focus and concentration on a few very significant priorities, always keeping in mind what is centrally important at the moment (that is, what’s best next).
We see this especially in Winston Churchill. Here’s how Steven Hayward very effectively summarizes Churchill’s approach in Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity:
Despite his wide-ranging attention and interests, he always kept in mind what was centrally important to the moment. He was always able to focus his full concentration on the immediate task at hand, and he sent clear signals to his subordinates when an inquiry or directive was of special importance. “When his mind was occupied with any particular problem,” Sir Ian Jacob wrote, “it was relentlessly focused upon it and would not be turned aside.” Ultimately this served as the cornerstone of his time-management system.
….His general method of work…was to concentrate his personal attention on the two or three things that mattered most at any given moment, and to give to each of these all the time and attention that it merited.
This is the same observation Peter Drucker made about effective executives in the midst of his 50 years of observing them: “Effective executives put first things first, and do one thing at a time.” That’s the key.
Note one misunderstanding we can fall into, however, about what it means to focus on a few core priorities. It doesn’t mean that you are getting less done and doing fewer things overall. Rather, it means you are doing more things overall. That’s why you do one thing at a time — precisely because you have so many things that need to be done. Hence, you focus on one thing at a time because “doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform” (Drucker, The Effective Executive).
So the key is you identify that which is centrally important, and work on that all the way until it’s done. Then you work on the next thing of central importance until it is done. And so forth. (And, of course, above all of these and governing the choices you make about what to do next are just a few, overall, chief goals for the current quarter or year or season.) Drucker summarizes this well:
Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of their organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.