“I believe this book can improve your life.”
Admittedly it’s quite a bold sentence to begin your own book with, but that’s what writer Tim Challies chooses to go with as he invites us into Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity.
You may be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow or two. After all, we’re talking about productivity here! ‘Improve’ seems a subjective word at the best of times, but applied to a realm often associated with task management and to-do lists? Well, it just seems a bit over the top.
And yet by the end of Do More Better, I challenge you not to be inspired to try and do life differently. In fact, more than just wishful thinking, I think you’ll actually be equipped to do life differently.
Of course on one level this book is completely inadequate to change your life. But the beauty of Do More Better is that the author recognises that straight-up. I’ll explain:
The concept of productivity seems to be one that divides people. Some people lap up new tricks and techniques to order their day and priorities, perhaps in the hope that they’ll become more efficient in the workplace, or they’ll be able to straddle the work/life balance that little bit better. Others seem much more sceptical. Isn’t it all just buzzwords and baloney?
However, before Tim Challies dives into any such practicalities, he begins with a ‘productivity catechism’, using the question and answer format to unpack an overall ‘foundation’ or framework, setting productivity within the context of what life’s all about. His point is that productivity cannot be considered as an end in itself. Rather, given we’ve been created by God for his glory and the good of others (i.e. we are not meant to be the star of our lives), then that must be the lens through which we understand productivity. Thus, these Christian convictions lead Challies to define productivity as follows:
“Effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.”
In other words, it’s not only about what you do, it’s also about who you are; “productivity is not what will bring purpose to your life, but what will enable you to excel in living out your existing purpose.” And whilst the rest of the book goes on to emphasise tools and systems, Challies is adamant that this prior foundation cannot be lost sight of. Only then does Challies go on to share his own methods for ensuring he effectively stewards according to the productivity definition above.
To give a bit of detail, essentially Challies’ method is as follows:
- Define your various responsibilities in life.
- State your personal mission for each of these areas of responsibilities.
- Select tools to enable you to effectively carry out the various tasks that you have in each responsibility. Here Challies advocates the importance of three particular tools:
- A scheduling tool, i.e. a calendar
- A task management tool, i.e. somewhere where you store your ‘to-do’ list, but broken into different projects according to each role of responsibility that you have.
- An information storage tool.
Challies’ underlying rule for using these tools is: “A home for everything, and like goes with like.” In other words, everything needs a place to go, and you stick similar things in the same place. Just as all your keys might go in a key draw (and thus you never wonder where you put your keys), so all your information goes in the same place, all your appointments are put in the same tool, and all your tasks are kept together. And then within these tools, you’ll create more specific ‘homes’ (along this same principle of ‘like goes with like’) for each of the different projects in the various responsibilities you have. Follow?
- Collect your tasks. As tasks come up, add them all to an ‘inbox’ (i.e. a list) so none are lost.
Get into the pattern of giving a daily and weekly slot to ‘Workflow’. Essentially this means using a small amount of time each working day to go through your task inbox and allocating them to the particular responsibility they are associated with, and then to the particular project within that responsibility. Add deadlines as necessary. Then spend time looking at up-coming tasks and deciding which to take on today. Challies commends three questions to focus this process:
- What are the possible tasks for the day?
- What are the necessary tasks for the day?
- What time is available?
On top of this daily routine, Challies commends having a weekly version of this ‘workflow’ meeting which allows you to focus on the bigger picture and be mindful of the next 30 days or so.
Although some of this might not be a million miles from the likes of David Allen’s seminal Getting Things Done, Challies aforementioned emphasis on the Christian foundation means that everything is viewed through starkly different lenses. For example, when outlining how to identify priorities, Challies suggests four steps: plan; pray; consider idolatries; embrace the tension. I find this approach allows vital space for recognising a number of important realities, which flow from a Christian worldview and so are often missed in general productivity lit:
- For a start Challies is aware of the deceptive nature of our own hearts, hence the need to consider our own ‘idolatries’, i.e. the unhealthy influences and desires that may be motivating us, such as taking on too much on because we’re seeking to please people, or overworking to try and make a name for ourselves.
- Likewise, his reference to embracing tension also reflects the important understanding that productivity is not about getting everything done, as ultimately we can’t see the future and there will always be unexpected turns. God’s sovereignty means we needn’t get angry or despair at this. As C.S. Lewis said: “The truth is, of course, that what one calls the interruptions [of life] are precisely one’s real life.”
- And then, whilst Challies generally advocates for “planned neglect,” (i.e. being content with saying ‘no’ to truly good opportunities out of an awareness of our own limitations and a desire to faithfully steward the various responsibilities we have prayerfully prioritised), he also acknowledges that, particularly as a Christian, there will be tasks which, whilst they don’t fit perfectly into any of our responsibility mission statements, we will yet still find time to do them out of a love for others.
It seems that there’s been a plethora of Christian productivity resources out recently. Tim Chester blogged about busyness just this week, and has also written a book on it. Matt Perman’s much-anticipated What’s Best Next came out about a year ago (check out my review) and though that’s a more substantial offering, I’d now happily suggest starting with Do More Better.
It is simple, clear, and I found the thought of implementing Challies’ suggestions as totally conceivable. For those reasons I’ve found it an invaluable resource to spend a few days digesting and applying as I begin a new year. That said, I’d be interested to know whether his approach appeals to (and works for) everyone. If it doesn’t, what exactly is it that rubs? I’m aware that whilst there’s part of me that loves the discipline of his method, another part reacts against anything that forces me to focus. But as I remember Matt Perman once saying, “we all have a system to get things done, even if that system is there is no system”.So, whilst Do More Better begins with the kind of bold sentence that might wind some Brits up, I’m convinced that if you take his productivity foundation to heart, if you prayerfully follow his approach to responsibilities, and if you invest in some tools and workflow method, then you’ll most likely find that, actually, you are doing more of what you’re intending to do, and, God-willing, you’re doing it to serve others and you’re doing it better.—
Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of the book for free, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review!