Like many Evangelicals, I have grown weary of seeing Christian authors simply take secular books, concepts, and ideas, slap on the label “Biblical” (or “Gospel-centered,” “Christian,” “godly,” or other buzzwords), throw in a few (usually-out-of-context) Bible verses and call it their own, usually holding their version on a pedestal.
When I first saw this book and started into it, I’m afraid both Daniel and I did a mental eye roll, thinking that’s what this book would be. But all those initial red flags quickly dropped as I delved further into this book.
Is it possible to disguise a theology book as a productivity book? Or a productivity book as a theology book? If so, Matt Perman just did it in What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. And actually, it seems he’s done better than simply disguising one as the other: he’s showed how the two are intrinsically linked together for the believer.
Perman opens the book by distinguishing the difference between productivity and efficiency, an important distinction to make when implementing productivity habits. Throughout the book, the author references his own life’s study and work to demonstrate that it’s not just about working hard, fast, and furious that will get things done, but one also needs to examine how to use wisdom and skill to be more productive in one’s work.
As he walks readers along the path to productivity, Perman examines books like Getting Things Done and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, sharing how such productivity tips have helped him become more productive. In sharing his own experience, Perman notes that even after implementing hacks from the above resources, he was still coming up short. Eventually, he had to realize he was taking on too much, an assessment which is also a part of improving productivity.
In examining the scope of this book, two weaknesses stand out to me. The first is that it sometimes seems that the author assumes we have all shifted into a knowledge economy and all work in knowledge era work. What of the man who still works in a factory? Or for someone who still works in the field of manual labor all day? In a books that ties productivity so tightly to living out the Gospel in day to day living, it seems it is crucial to distinguish how productivity may look different in various realms of calling. Perman does helpfully acknowledge that these concepts are applicable to those who spend most of their time parenting, but even this deals primarily with productivity within the sphere of a knowledge based economy.
My second concern is the emphasis on excellence without the necessary counterbalance. Whereas Perman tempered much of his other advice by addressing the applicational extremes that have proven to have harmful (e.g., living fully for Jesus does not mean moving to “Africa,” our lives are not divided into two halves of sacred and secular), I felt that his repeated emphasis on the excellence theme warranted additional emphasis for keeping this in check: not judging others for what seems a lack of “excellence,” that our performance does not earn us better favor with God, that we need to be wary of allowing our pursuit of excellence to drift into elitism).
In our realization that productivity and excellence in our work is a part of loving others, we must also love others by gently joining together with them where they are in an understanding of productivity. As an extension on my first concern, it’s also an important reminder that if you work in a knowledge field, excellence in other fields is going to look different elsewhere, and sometimes might not seem as productive or bright and shiny as the knowledge industry. Perman excels at placing excellence under the umbrella of human flourishing and living for God’s glory, and that itself speaks much to keeping this emphasis in check. But simply put, a pursuit of excellence must be used as a personal challenge, but not as a bludgeon when used towards others. More direct warnings on this would be helpful.
Overall, though, I was blown away by all that was packed into this book: practical productivity tips, a deep theology of vocation, a deep theology of human flourishing (shalom, as Tim Keller describes it), and how our work in this world flows from the two greatest commandments: loving God and loving others.
In addition to drawing from popular productivity books, Perman also draws from William Wilberforce and Jonathan Edwards, focusing frequently on Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits and on Wilberforce’s life work of seeking to abolish slavery.
Not only is the content itself rich, but it is laid out well, in a way that is incredibly helpful (something the author emphasizes can be a way of loving others), and Perman provides numberous resources along the way.
Productivity is a significant part of our living out wisdom. Perman helpfully points out that secular wisdom on productivity is a gift of common grace that we should attempt to learn from. But our faith puts our work on a different foundation than secular pursuits of productivity. And though we will likely utilize similar workflows and productivity concepts, we are also pushing toward things that are eternally productive. Perman also helpfully places productivity within the sphere of the creation mandate, skillfully pointing out that its purpose is not to take over the culture, but to serve it. In this way, he demonstrated a deep understanding of vocation and a humility that is often lacking as Christians examine their role in the culture and world.
Much like Hannah Anderson’s book, Made for More, the theology of vocation in this book was freeing and empowering to find fulfillment and pursue excellence in the callings God has given me. Most valuable to me in What’s Best Next, though, was Perman’s focus on productivity and work flowing from loving God and loving others, thereby promoting human flourishing (shalom) and serving our culture. While others may not find this emphasis to be a novel one, those who share a similar religious background and emphasis with me (American Fundamentalism) will likely appreciate this further Scriptural exploration on this issue. And in spite of my disclaimer above, I believe this book will still be helpful encouraging to individuals who work in industry economies, as well, particularly with the emphasis on using their work to promote human flourishing.
In connection with his current writing, Perman has shared resources from the The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and I found this short video to be fitting within part of the scope of What’s Best Next.