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3 spiritual dangers of productivity

Being productive with one’s time is a topic I read and think about a great deal, and even enjoy doing so. If you’re anything like me, you care about productivity and leadership because of a desire to invest time and energy well. And yet, the simple and ironic truth is that you might be wasting your life—and doing so precisely because you’re obsessed with being productive.

What got me thinking about this reality was an excellent book I read last year by Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The book itself is not written from a Christian perspective or for a Christian audience, but it offers a number of insights that are deeply resonant with the Christian vision of reality and enormously helpful in evaluating how one is investing time and energy.

Newport’s central argument throughout the book is that, in a world that increasingly prioritizes the shallow, it is those who commit to deep work who succeed. Deep work requires time, sharp focus, and distraction-free concentration.

That’s great, you might say, but what does this have to do with productivity being spiritually dangerous? Here are three pitfalls that come to mind in light of this book:

1. The danger of wasting your life by never living your life.

Amidst all the products flooding the market on themes of productivity, there are many who spend far more time reading about productivity than actually being productive. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being interested in efficient systems and best practices, but some of us are like a man who has 10 hours to prepare for an important speech and proceeds to use nine of those hours trying to find the perfect index card for his speech notes. We’re often tempted, Newport writes, to “use busyness as a proxy for productivity.”

In this case, the man searching for those perfect index cards is convincing himself he’s working on his speech—“this is an important occasion, after all, so everything ought to be just right”—but in reality is hiding behind this far less consequential task to avoid the hard work of starting on the actual speech, or perhaps, for fear of failing at the speech itself.

Similarly, you might be the kind of person who spends more time reading about productivity than actually producing, or the kind of person that spends so much time setting up your lists and systems that you never actually have time to execute the tasks. What can be behind this in many instances is a subtle cowardice. Whatever the case, this passivity is something all of us who claim the name of Christ should resist. To be sure, it’s not that one has to lead a revolution to avoid wasting one’s life, but surely faithfulness requires more than frittering.

2. The danger of wasting your life by failing to prioritize your life.

A major temptation, Newport identifies, is the principle of least resistance, where workers “tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.” Answering the average batch of email, for example, is often easier than developing a ministry plan or cultivating a product launch. Yet you can have all the best methods to achieve “Inbox Zero” each day, but if all you do is answer email, then all you’re doing is reacting to other people’s needs, effectively putting your life at the whims of everyone else. That’s not to say that we’re not to serve others or that we ought to just ignore everything but our own priorities, but it is to say we ought not delude ourselves into thinking we’re getting things done if we’re not getting the most important things done.

Those “most important things” are different for every person, but for most it requires realizing and battling against what Newport calls the human urge to turn to the superficial. As those who are created in the image of God, we have deep-seated capacity and desire to do deep, meaningful work that reveals order, beauty, and serves our neighbor. Not only that, but the most important things in life are often the most challenging. As fallen creatures, then, we must battle against the urge to drift and the temptation to settle for the superficial by failing to keep the permanent things in view. The goal in productivity is and always must be effectiveness, not merely efficiency, especially if we’re to live in line with our God-given callings.

3. The danger of wasting your life by exhausting your energy.

Humans “need the support of a mind regularly released to leisure,” Newport writes. This sounds counterintuitive, perhaps, in a book about getting meaningful work accomplished, but underneath it is a truth of any Christian worldview: human beings are creatures, not machines. So, we must realize that being faithful with one’s life consists not just in leveraging your time but also your energy.

This means, on the one hand, in an age of hyper-connectivity we must find ways to check what Newport calls the constant “onslaught of small obligations.” In our slavishness to get things done, we can exhaust ourselves if we fail to develop habits and routines that allow our souls to breathe. On the other hand, though, if we want to pursue deep work, we also have to pursue deep rest. This isn’t to say, for example, that one should remove the TV from your home and go train for a marathon, but it is to say that there’s a reason why, after a night spent binge-watching Netflix, you don’t really feel rested. It’s because distraction doesn’t nourish the soul the way other “active” rest can: walking, reading, painting, meaningful conversation, etc. “Deep play” like this requires more effort, but it resonates with the kind of life those created in the image of God were designed to live.

I’m often reminded of the way Screwtape once boasted in his ability to lead a man to destruction not through “spectacular wickedness,” but rather, by gentle distraction. He tells the story of a man who once stood at the brink of eternity and came to a haunting realization: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” That’s the danger. And that’s why the gospel calls us not first to productivity but to faithfulness—showing us along the way what we “ought” all while giving us a kingdom promising all we’ve ever “liked” and infinitely more beyond it.

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