Matt Perman wants to help you get your inbox to zero. He wants you to effectively multi-task, organize your desk, and schedule your day. But Perman, who blogs at and is working on a book on productivity, is interested in more than managing workflow. CT spoke with Perman, who is senior director of strategy at Desiring God, about how his tips to manage productivity connect to theology.

Do you think Christians downplay the importance of productivity?

Yes, I think some do. Because we can think, Oh, it's not spiritual. You have to make a living and learn to do that job well. So I realized that I need to know more than theology; I need to know how to do my job well. That made me realize the importance of learning about the practical.

How does productivity fit with theology?

Theology gives significance to the practical. The practical helps advance theology. It's not that we have theology over here, here's practice, let's do these practical things that will help theology; rather, we can think theologically about the practical. That means we realize that the practical things we are doing are part of the good works that God created us in Christ Jesus to do. So when we're doing practical things, we're actually doing good works. That's a theological understanding of the things we're doing every day.

Is it somewhat an American ideal to be productive? Could you take your message to another country and communicate a similar idea?

I want to define it as getting the right things done. Sometimes that means just being with people rather than accomplishing tasks. Being productive on a Tuesday night might mean saying, I'm not going to do e-mail tonight. I'm just going to hang out with my family. Biblically speaking, productivity is about fruitfulness and serving people. So there doesn't need to be a tension between being productive and having relationships, because productivity exists for the sake of people. We need to define productivity not simply in terms of work products—get as much done as possible—but what are the things, tangible and intangible, that serve people and make life better.

People who are in creative fields might need to spend time just thinking about their next creation. Where does idea generation fit into productivity?

Here's one of the ironic paradoxes of productivity. Usually the most productive thing you can do is not have your schedule jam-packed. You need to have white space in your schedule. That's where a lot of the ideas come from. With graphic design, one thing you realize is that white space is a good thing, on the page or onscreen. It's the mark of an amateur to try to cram as much as possible on the page and leave no white space. You don't want to crowd everything you possibly can into every possible moment you have.

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Let's say it's 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and I'm just spinning my wheels at work. I might go home for the day. We have sort of like a results-oriented work environment; the idea is do what you need to do to get the job done. So I'm going to go home and hang out with my kids and go for a walk. Sometimes I might go to a movie. That creates the space for ideas to come. Solutions to hard problems result from that. Then, because I took two hours to just say I'm not going to be productive, I get ideas which might save 20 hours or more later.

Do you have tips for ministry leaders or people who are trying to be effective in their ministry?

Here's one. Put the most important things in your schedule first and do those first. The less important things will find their places, or maybe they shouldn't be done at all. Some advocate an opposite approach, like David Allen's approach [in Getting Things Done]. What I found is that his approach inclined me to do the small things, the sand and the gravel, because I'd have a list with 50 things on it. I looked at that list wondering what are the 20 smallest things I can do to shorten my list? What I found after weeks and months of that was the most important things were sliding because I wanted to get stuff off my list.

Who decides what the most important things are?

You need to have and understand your priorities. This is one of the differences between David Allen and Stephen Covey. Stephen Covey takes a top-down approach. He says figure out your mission—figure out your roles and goals. David Allen wouldn't disagree with that, but he says he finds so many people are immersed in the details that they can't get to the top. So he says, let's start down here and handle this stuff and then climb up.

Jim Collins is a business thinker who talks about something called the hedgehog concept, for a company to decide what issue to focus on. I think something like that is helpful for individuals too. Collins talks about three intersecting circles of what you can be best in the world at. What are you most passionate about? And what drives the economic engine? What am I most passionate about, what am I gifted to do and can be effective in? Where do those three circles overlap? We need to think in terms of all of our vocations in life.

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Are the young restless reformed crowds who are interested in systematic theology more likely to be drawn to these kinds of systematic personal productivity systems?

I do think there's a natural tie. There is a tie between sound doctrine and doing good works, since productivity is about good works, and being part of the reformed mindset naturally leads to be doing good for the sake of others. I don't know what to what extent most people are consciously making that tie. There might be some people inclined to learn about productivity because it can be logical like theology. I would want to even reshape some of the motives because you want to do good, appealing to the emotions just as much as to the reason.

The main tie in the interest in productivity is that sound doctrine leads people to want to do zealous, radical, good works. That's also applicable to the non-reformed people who love God just as much and are just as interested in learning about doing good. The Catalyst movement and Saddleback, I love what those guys are doing.

It does come back to the tie between sound doctrine and right living. The point of William Wilberforce's book was not exhort people to change their behavior but to lay out what the gospel really is, the primary doctrines of Christianity. Sound doctrine causes joy, which is the fuel for obedience and love. I would say, that's the connection between the young restless reformed, who are loving these great doctrines, that creates joy which wants to have an outlet for doing good for our neighbor. Productivity practices are helpful tools to make us more effective in that.

How does technology fit into productivity? Can't it become a burden?

I would say technology amplifies our ability to do good. We have the ability to reach far more people with what we do, to partner with more people and collaborate with more people. Clay Shirky talks about this a little bit in his book Cognitive Surplus—about how the Internet allows us to do these things. We're such a wealthy nation and have so much free time, and because of the Internet we're unhooking from the television, coming together and doing productive things in our spare time. There's also a pitfall. Now we're getting 100 e-mails a day. There are days when I come home and I wasn't able to get my e-mail inbox down to zero before I left. I'm at home with my family, but my mind is distracted because of the way my e-mail [fosters that]. Productivity practice has been helpful to help minimize those ill effects.

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What does that have to do with the gospel?

Ironically, we need to realize that we are accepted by God apart from our productivity, on the basis of what Christ has done through faith. Now that we are accepted by God, the gospel causes us to be productive. I define productivity really as good works. So what happens is the gospel frees us to be able to do good works and drives us to do good works. We are so thrilled about what God has done for us through Christ—so excited about that—that we want to do good to our neighbor. We want to serve our neighbor because of what God has done for us. The gospel causes us to want to engage in a life of good works, which is what productivity is. The specific skills of productivity help amplify our good works.

Are there Christians who have exemplified this?

Two incredible individuals in Christian history who exemplify this are William Carey and William Wilberforce. Wilberforce led a life full of good works. Here's the interesting thing: Wilberforce wrote one book in his lifetime, and it was not on social reform. It was on the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works. He did it because he realized that the way to produce a life of good works and social reform is not to focus first on good works and social reform, but on the source of those good works—which is the gospel. The fact that we are accepted by God apart from works then drives us to do good works because of our gratitude and joy. May all of us be little Wilberforces.

William Carey left his country in order to bring the gospel to people who do not have it, making a radical sacrifice. There's a book called The Legacy of William Carey about everything he did. He brought innovation to their banking system over there. He brought innovation to various social reforms. He was into botany even. He didn't limit his life to the socially spiritual; he was a holistic Christian, and the gospel drove him to be that way.

How does social justice fit into the idea of being productive?

One of the important things about social action is we need to be informed about the way we do it. We need to understand things like economics so we can be informed about what choices we get behind in terms of addressing issues like global poverty. A recent book that talks about the importance of going about social justice in a way that helps is When Helping Hurts.

We need to have an expanded perspective on productivity. Productivity is not simply personal. Social action is really just part of productivity in this larger sense. There's a lot of opposition to addressing needs, things like 52 unanswered e-mails in my inbox when what I really need to do is talk to my neighbor down the street. I need to be able to manage those effectively so I can be meeting the needs of real people. Productivity skills help us overcome obstacles that get in the way of helping people. They also amplify our ability to do good.

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Related Elsewhere:

Matt Perman blogs at on being more effective at doing good in life, work, business, and society.

Previous articles about business management and Christians in the workplace include:

Leaps of Faith | What business execs are learning as they lead Christian nonprofits. (March 7, 2007)
Good to Great's Leadership Model Looks Familiar to Christians | The author of the bestselling business book says his findings on successful leaders led him to the New Testament. (March 1, 2003)
The 50 Best Christian Places to Work | The survey highlights companies that focus on building a culture of trust. (May 1, 2004)