What’s Best Next. How the gospel transforms the way you get things done. By Matt Perman. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zondervan, 2014. Hardback
How should a Christian think about the topic of productivity? The message of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has already performed perfectly on our behalf, he alone has fulfilled all the law’s commands, paid the enormous debt that we owed to God because of our sins, and “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son1.” The message of the gospel isn’t advice, it’s news of work that has already been completed. It is the good news of the redemption and rescue of all things (Ephesians 1:10) by Jesus Christ without the contribution of any of our effort or work. So in one sense the main message of Christianity is Done, not Do. But everyone lives in a world where things need to get done. So what does the Bible have to say about this topic of productivity? Or more specifically how does the gospel change the way we work and get things done? Matt Perman in his book, What’s Best Next: How the gospel transforms the way you get things done, believes that every Christian needs to have a theology of productivity in order to be a fruitful and effective disciple of Jesus. Perman believes the essence of discipleship is getting the right things done, the right way, for the right reasons. But unfortunately many Christians have not thought long and hard about the topic of productivity in light of the gospel.
Perman has his Masters of Divinity from Southern Seminary and served for 13 years as the Director of Strategy for the Web Department at Desiring God Ministries. His approach to writing on the subject of productivity is deeply theological while also pragmatic and practically applicable. He aims at not just teaching you how to do things best, but how to do the best things, in the best way, for the best reasons. In order to do this one must talk about God for He alone tells us what the best things are. Perman weaves these subjects together throughout the book to create a theology of productivity that should lead a Christian to make the best use of their time (Ephesians 5:15) to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8).
Perman organizes What’s Best Next into 7 parts. The first two parts are deeply theological and offer Perman’s most unique contribution to the topic of productivity. Part 1 First Things First: Making God Supreme in Our Productivity is the foundation for the entire book. Perman argues that because there is no end to work, efficiency cannot be the primary goal in productivity. For, if you are efficient and doing the wrong things you will only do more of the wrong things faster. Biblical Productivity is “about getting the right things done” (43). Therefore, true productivity is first driven by effectiveness which means doing the right things (49). Perman believes that in order to be truly effective a person’s life must be centered on God. “God is, by definition, the most important reality in the universe. Consequently, it makes sense that if we care about living in line with what matters most, we need to center our lives - and therefore our attempts at productivity-around him (55).” To be able to do the most important things, we must do the things that God wants done, in the way that God wants them done.
In part 2 Gospel-Driven Productivity: A New Way to Look at Getting Things Done Perman gives his most distinctive contribution to the topic of productivity. The glory of God seen in the gospel should motivate and move a believer to center their entire life around the single purpose “to do good for others, to the glory of God” (74). Perman does not want us to minimize this or shrink his meaning down to just “spiritual things” - he means anything good a person does for the glory of God. “Since good works are the things we do everyday in faith, then things like clean parking lots, swept floors, and even Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwiches can indeed be good works” (79). Here Perman swings his theological sledgehammer at the old gnostic wall that seeks to separate the sacred from the secular. God wants us to be productive and doing good works in all of our lives not just that which we think is spiritual. This also means that being productive isn’t a selfish endeavor. To be productive is to bring glory to God and to help others. Perman grounds this in Matthew 5:16 “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, a poor work ethic, haphazard productivity, and overall ineffectiveness isn’t just a work problem it’s a worship problem. It is a failure to glorify God and a failure to love others (97). But Perman would be remiss if he didn’t address the question of justification in light of productivity and doing good works. Perman makes it perfectly clear where your works stand in regard to your justification and sanctification. Perman argues for justification by faith alone as the grounds from which all future good works will spring. “Embracing the truth that God accepts us apart from good works is the precise thing that causes us to excel in good works” (104). In other words, productivity is a sanctification issue, it springs from the reality and finished nature of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Gospel Driven Productivity is good works motivated by gratitude for all that God has done for us in Christ and therefore Gospel Driven Christians should be the most productive people on the planet.
Part 3 begins Perman’s four step productivity process he calls DARE. DARE is an acronym with the first letter meaning Define what is most important. Perman says a Christian must Define their mission, vision, roles, and goals. For a person’s mission to be truly God centered it must be motivated by the gospel, worked out in community, and contribute to the mission of God in the world. An example of a biblical mission would be to “make disciples” (Matt 28). A Christian’s vision should be their life goal that can be completed and has a specific aim (171). An example of a Christian’s vision could be to make disciples in my neighborhood through the planting of a new church. The next step is to clarify your roles which Perman defines as an area of responsibility (179). Following the above example a pastor seeking to plant a new church to make disciples in his neighborhood could have the roles of husband, father, pastor, and friend. All of these roles interconnect with each other and the Bible has specific things to say about each of them. Here is where your life’s mission and vision impact each Role that God has called you to and you set and accomplish goals through your roles. What are you goals as a husband, father, pastor, and friend? These goals should be in line with your life’s mission and vision.
Part 4 is entitled Architect: Create a flexible structure and is the second letter in the acronym DARE. This is where Perman amalgamates many different leadership writers, most notably David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. There is a lot of wisdom in this section in regards to how to set up your schedule for maximum personal productivity without being selfish. He offers six core routines to being productive.
1. Get up early or stay up late. This enables you to work when most people are asleep and it gives you several quiet hours for your mind to think.
2. Create a daily workflow by planning your day, executing your workflow, doing your most important activity, and then taking some steps on the next project on your list (210).
3. Create a weekly workflow around tasks that aren’t completed on a daily basis.
4. Make Prayer and Scripture reading a part of your daily schedule.
5. Be sure to make reading and personal development a normal rhythm in your day.
6. And lastly Rest. Unfortunately, I found this section to be painfully lacking behind the other sections of this book. Perman says we should “take at least one full day off each week” (216) but just a few pages before it he was arguing for sixteen-hour work days that begin at 5am each day. To work like that 6 days a week seems to be dangerously close to making an idol out of productivity. What’s Best Next would have been greatly improved and balanced if Perman would have spent a considerable more amount of time on the benefits of rest or a theology of rest.
In part 5 Perman wants to Free Up Your Time For What’s Most Important by Reducing. I found this section especially helpful. Perman insists that leaders should reduce the amount of things on their schedule. He suggests about 75 percent of capacity (225) to make room for the chaos that life always seems to bring into our well planned days. With this topic of reduction comes the need for delegation. There are some things that must be done but we do not have to be the one to do them. These things must be delegated. Perman makes a helpful distinction in regards to delegation, it is not primarily a self-serving way to get the things off of our schedule that we do not want to do. Instead, delegation is about building up another person and training and equipping them for leadership (230). To do this effectively Perman says responsibility must be delegated and not just tasks.
Part 6 is all about Executing. Perman makes this simple. He says plan, organize, and do (256). I appreciate how Perman weaves prayer in and out of this process. Christians who are ready to get things done should prayerfully consider, “What do I need to do this week?” (259), and, “What would I like to do this week?” (259). These questions should be processed through a biblical worldview that places the mission of God at the center and not our personal comfort. This enables a person to get creative about doing good (260) and puts what is most important into your weekly schedule creating room for discipleship relationships, helping a neighbor with a project, or volunteering that we might not normally have time for. Perman spends a whole chapter on managing email (265) offering some sound advice on how to use your email effectively and keep your inbox empty without constantly monitoring it and letting it distract you from getting things done. I found Perman’s chapter on Managing Projects and Actions very similar to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) process and fits well within most digital apps made for that purpose. The one noted difference was that the GTD approach classifies a project as anything with more than two steps required which means you often have dozens of projects needing your attention at the same time (276) which creates another layer of complexity. Perman’s approach is simpler. In fact, the author’s daily execution plan is one of the clearest and most compelling systems I have seen. It is a simple list with nine rules.
1. Plan your day (290).
2. Schedule your day at only 70 percent capacity or less (291).
3. Consolidate your time into large chunks (291).
4. Do the most important thing first (292).
5. Do one thing at a time (293).
6. Focus on outcomes, not activities (294).
7. See your day in terms of people and relationships first, not tasks (294).
8. Ask in everything, how can I build others up (294)?
9. Ask, What’s best next (295)?
The last part of What’s Best Next might be a surprise to the reader. In every book on productivity that I have ever read the focus is on personal success or at most organizational success. Perman takes the subject of productivity and applies it to the public sector and to the common good of humanity. Perman argues that we should all be concerned about being more productive because more productive Christians would mean a more productive society that would increase human flourishing in the world. This expands the concept of productivity into four different dimensions (302). 1. Personal life 2. Work life 3. Organizations 4. Society. Perman says, “Management matters immensely for the health of society. Free society is not ultimately sustainable without effective organizations and, therefore, effective management” (306). This would also lead to the expansion of the gospel through more productive Christians, Christian organizations, and churches in the work of world missions. This makes productivity not just a personal or business concern but a gospel issue.
What’s Best Next succeeds on many fronts. Perman does a great job at making the case for every Christian to be concerned with their productivity. The first two sections and the last section are hard to find fault with. Perman lays out a theology of productivity that is well grounded in the scriptures and the glory of God and shows how that theology should drive and motivate the believer to do good, God centered work in the world. The ramifications of that work are a more just society and the expansion of the gospel around the world. The rest of the book would have to fall under the category of good advice. Perman offers his strategies for being more productive. This of course is based upon his western context, his specific career (knowledge work), and his temperament. There is much to be emulated and adopted here. But I would be remiss to not say anything about the weaknesses of his application. Perman is only speaking to the western world and ignores the rest of the world. This is understandable, one must know who their target market is. But we must also differentiate between good theology that drives our practices and the practices themselves. Many of the practices Perman suggests only work in the western world where we are a technology driven and schedule oriented people. For the pastor working in Kenya, which is still a more tribal society known for their lack of punctuality, to attempt to apply these principles would only create frustration towards the people he is called to serve. Perman’s productivity process also seems to be targeted to the type A person who likes lists and details. Though the creative person would benefit from parts one, two, and seven and could possible glean some principles from the rest of the book they most likely would be overwhelmed by the amount of lists, details, and structure Perman outlines.
The greatest flaw in What’s Best Next is what Perman leaves unanswered. How much productivity is too much? When does productivity become an idol? Also, this book seems far more applicable to a center city mega-church pastor than a small town rural pastor. I can imagine a small town pastor reading this book and wondering, “Am I doing enough? Is my church big enough? How full does my schedule need to be in order to be productive?” That said, for knowledge workers in a fast paced western context that are seeking to maximize their effectiveness for the glory of God and the good of others I have read no greater work on the subject of productivity than What’s Best Next. Perman does the job of a first rate theologian and productivity guru weaving gospel centered theology with the best of todays tips and tricks on getting things done.