Busting 12 Myths About Productivity

by Matt Perman April 29, 2015

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. —  Ephesians 5:15-17

Do you understand productivity in the right way? Is your approach to "getting things done" rooted in the gospel and its implications?

The things I advocate in my book on gospel-centered productivity What's Best Next? are supported by the best research and the Scriptures, but many of them might seem new to you. Here are the top twelve myths the book seeks to overcome:

Myth#1: Productivity is about getting more done faster.

When most people think of productivity, they think of efficiency—getting more things done faster. While efficiency is important, it is secondary. More important than efficiency is effectiveness—getting the right things done. Efficiency doesn’t matter if you are doing the wrong things in the first place.

Truth: Productivity is about effectiveness first, not efficiency

Myth #2: The way to be productive is to have the right techniques and tools.

Using great tools and the most helpful techniques is a lot of fun. But, like efficiency, it is secondary. One of the central tenets of gospel-centered productivity is that the foundation of effectiveness is not first techniques and tools, but character. The only way to truly make the right decisions is to first be the right kind of person (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Truth: True productivity comes first from character, not techniques.

Myth #3: It is not essential to give consideration to what God has to say about productivity.

I don’t want to imply you have to be a Christian to get things done or write on how to get things done. Much of this is the realm of common grace and we have a lot that we can learn from people of all perspectives.

The problem is if we stop there. For example, we often go about our planning as if it was just like any other activity. But the Scriptures teach that to make plans without acknowledging God is not just wrong, but arrogant (James 4:13-17). There are very significant things that we miss if we do not give serious consideration to what God has to say on these matters.

Truth: We cannot be truly productive unless all our activity stems from love for God and the acknowledgement that he is sovereign over all our plans.

Myth #4: It is not essential to make the gospel central in our view of productivity.

The way to become productive is not first of all to try harder—even if the focus of our efforts is the development of our character. The true power behind our productivity comes from realizing that, through faith in the gospel, we are accepted by God in Christ apart from what we do. This puts wind in our sails and unleashes the power of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 3:5).

Truth: The only way to be productive is to realize that you don’t have to be productive.

Myth #5: The way to be productive is to tightly manage yourself (and others!).

Sometimes we have the notion that people who care about getting things done need to be ultra-organized, rigidly scheduled, and inflexible. But nothing could be further from the truth. You are actually most productive not by seeking to tightly control yourself, but by seeking to unleash yourself. The best productivity comes from engagement, not control and mere compliance. This is why operating in your strengths is so important. Further, this approach to productivity naturally follows from a right understanding of the gospel.

Truth: Productivity comes from engagement, not tight control, and when you are motivated, you don’t need to tightly control yourself.

Myth #6: The aim of time management should be our peace of mind.

Peace of mind is a good thing, but there is something far more important. The reason we should seek to be productive is to serve others to the glory of God, and not for the sake of personal peace and affluence. Ironically, however, true peace of mind results when the good of others, and not our own peace of mind, is the first aim.

Truth: Productivity is first about doing good for others, to the glory of God.

Myth #7: The way to succeed is to put yourself first.

It is often thought that the way to succeed is to put yourself first and crush others. It turns out that not only is that an un-Christian ethic, but it also doesn’t work. The biggest trend in the marketplace is, as Tim Sanders has put it, “the downfall of the barracudas, sharks, and piranhas, and the ascendancy of nice, smart people.”

Truth: You become most productive by putting others first, not yourself.

Myth #8: You will have peace of mind if you can get everything under control.

The problem is that this never works, and cannot work. It is simply not possible to have everything under control, and so the quest to base your peace of mind on your ability to control everything is futile. Our peace of mind must be based on another ground—namely, the gospel.

Truth: Basing your peace of mind on your ability to control everything will never work.

Myth #9: To-do lists are enough.

I made this mistake for years. I read Getting Things Done and created all sorts of next action lists, project lists, and someday maybe lists. Yet, I rarely achieved “mind like water.” Instead, my typical state could have been described as “mind like tsunami.”

What I came to realize is that time is like space. If we don’t think in terms of a basic schedule and having time slots for our main types of tasks, we end up in overload.

Truth: Time is like space, and you need to see lists as support material for your activity zones, not as sufficient in themselves to keep track of what you have to do.

Myth #10: Productivity is best defined by tangible outcomes.

We often think of productivity as getting concrete, physical things done—emails sent, widgets made, and assignments completed. These things are important, but they do not exhaust the scope of our productivity. More and more, productivity is about intangibles—relationships developed, connections made, and things learned. We need to incorporate these things into our definition of productivity, or we will short-change ourselves by thinking that sitting at our desk for a certain number of hours equals a productive day.

Truth: The greatest value comes from intangibles, not tangibles.

Myth #11: The time you spend working is a good measure of your productivity.

Being at your desk doesn’t equal being productive, and organizations should no longer measure an employee’s productivity that way. At the same time, other things take far longer than you would think: sometimes the best way to be productive is actually to be inefficient.

As a corollary to this, deadlines work well with execution tasks (the realm of personal management). But they do not work well with creative tasks and ambiguity (the realm of personal leadership). If you use deadlines and the efficiency paradigm there, you will often kill productivity rather than encourage it.

Truth: We need to measure productivity based on results, not time spent working.

Myth #12: Suffering from your work necessarily means your priorities are screwed up or you are doing something wrong.

I’m not sanctioning the practice of making work a functional idol, to which we sacrifice everything else in our lives. True productivity has a concern for all areas of our lives—work, home, community, everything—because all areas of our lives are callings from God.

That said, people who work long hours often take it in the chin too much. The mere fact that someone is working a lot does not make them a workaholic. Some people really enjoy their work, and want to work a lot. This is not in itself workaholism. Further, sometimes it is the path God has placed before us. Where did we get the idea that our work lives are somehow exempt from suffering? If you are suffering from and in your work, it does not necessarily mean you are sinning (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, where Paul even includes all-nighters among his many sufferings).

Truth: We will (sometimes) suffer from our work, and it is not sin

This post adapted from What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan) by Matt Perman and reprinted here with permission.