Why Most Productivity Advice Doesn’t Help

Turning to the internet for productivity advice might sound like searching for a nutritionist at KFC. But you can find wheat amid the cat-video chaff. Set smart goals. Use good tools. Make realistic to-do lists. And so on.

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The Main Problem

Despite all the practical tips, I’ve been disappointed. Most articles, even from wise Christians, don’t address the biggest barrier to my productivity.

That would be me.

That’s right—I’m the biggest obstacle. Even when I’m in a good location with clear goals and a dynamite to-do list, the fact is that sometimes I don’t want to work. I’d much rather read, sleep, or sort my paperclips. Work is hard.

In my flesh, I’m a lazy man. I’m addicted to comfort, ease, and pleasure. No matter what the newest productivity book says, the main reason I don’t accomplish what I should is that I’m a sinner. My heart wants the wrong things.

God’s Standard

Work has been around since the beginning; it was God’s idea well before the fall of man (Gen. 2:7–9, 15–17). And God has clear expectations.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:23–24)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess 3:10–12)

To these commands we can add the numerous examples and warnings in Proverbs. There we see the terrible consequences of laziness and the rewards of hard work and planning. (See, for example, Proverbs 6:6–11; 10:4–5; 13:4.)

I wilt under these standards in God’s word. I see my sin in sharp contrast, and I know the way forward is confession and repentance. But what does repentance look like?

Hope for the Lazy

Once I confess my laziness, change isn’t as simple as telling myself to work hard. That’s just a restatement of the law. Knowing God’s standard is essential, but I also need a heart that wants good things, that pumps the right motivation clear down to my toes. The first step, then, is obvious: God, please change my heart!

In part, God transforms us as we understand and believe the truth. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses and transforms all of life, this includes my work. So I return to these gospel principles.

  1. God’s work covers mine. In Christ, God has done the most important work for me—work I could never do myself. He has atoned for my sins and kept the law perfectly to make me righteous. My motivation for work must flow down from this mountain spring.
  2. I belong to God. He has created and redeemed me; I am his and I answer to him. My name is written beautifully in heaven, so I don’t have to scrawl it in the dust of earth. From God, my big-picture tasks are to do good to others and make his name known.

  3. God approves of me. He loves me as his son. This must be my dominant feedback, above the most recent or loudest evaluation from my students, colleagues, deans, or any larger community.

  4. I live for others. Because I have been freed and bought with a price, I can freely live for others. I have this charge from God and the Spirit-given ability to do it. As Matt Perman writes in What’s Best Next, “generosity is to be the guiding principle for our lives.” (p.87)

    In other words, love should fuel my work. I must put aside ego, fear, and every selfish motivation. Because I am loved, I can work my tail off to love others. What does this mean?

    …take the energy you have for meeting your own needs and use that as the measure of the energy you use in seeking the good of others. Desire and seek the good of others with the same passion, creativity, and perseverance as you seek your own. (What’s Best Next, p.88)

Battle On

I still fight an hourly campaign against laziness. But when God gives me victory, it’s usually because I glimpse my standing as a child of God by grace and my opportunity to do good to others. Then, when I am thinking clearly (i.e., believing truth) about my work, I can turn to advice about productivity with some profit.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Kamilla Oliveira (2014), Creative Commons License

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