A Fresh Look at Hard Work: 4 Ways to Be More Productive in 2017

Three years ago I hit a wall. SPLAT. Physically broken with lumbar issues, emotionally wiped out, and just exhausted from years of trying to do too much, changes had to come. Through the help of an amazing wife and some dear friends, I made some fundamental changes.

The biggest change is this: for a couple of years now I’ve focused on–and at times forced myself–to appreciate and embrace the concept of sabbath. It has been life-giving.

In 2017, I’m personally seeking a more ambitious rhythm of life, without trying to fall back into a workaholic state. For those of you who are Type A overachievers, you (we) really don’t have to keep adding stuff to life to find purpose. You can step off the pedal, take time to rest and replenish your soul, and still be pleasing to God. For those of you on the opposite end of the spectrum who find it harder to be motivated to work, let me remind you that work came BEFORE the Fall. Work is not our enemy. Workaholism and slothfulness are enemies who can rob us of joy.

When you work, work hard, and work smart. When you rest, do so purposefully, engaging with God in uninterrupted space. I’m ready to work more and do more, but I don’t want to fall back into workaholism.

Matt Perman’s excellent book What’s Best Next has been particularly helpful as I’ve ventured more into seeking a good rhythm between work and rest for 2017. Here are a few nuggets from his book. Most aren’t new, but all I found helpful.

(1) BE EFFECTIVE, NOT EFFICIENT. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important. We can’t just live life by the “ready, fire, then aim” approach. There are too many options and there’s too much overload available. I start my day thinking of the key 2-3 things I need to accomplish, not 10-14. If I get those done, even if I don’t get to some other, less vital things, it’s been a good day.

(2) Think less of prioritizing your schedule and more of SCHEDULING YOUR PRIORITIES. That’s wisdom from Stephen Covey. Instead of starting my week with a laundry list of stuff to do, I take a little time on Sunday afternoons to reflect on my calling and priorities, and schedule based on that. I’m such a people pleaser I can easily spend the whole week with people, which is not a bad thing, but in so doing fail to do some key things (like writing, for instance). We never have time to do all we want to do or we could do, but we do have time to accomplish what God called us to.

(3) Remember the BIG THREE: Okay, I call these the big three, Perman doesn’t. But they are huge. He has great discussions on all of them.

First, the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, where 80% of our productivity comes from 20% of our tasks. We waste too much time on the 80% of lesser things. Like the time spent on social media, or just hanging out, or whatever.

Second, Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that “a task will generally expand to fill the time allotted for it.” (Perman, What’s Best Next, 236). Determining a realistic amount of time for a task and sticking to it helps to get work done with quality and timeliness. If we spent less time fretting over a task and more time just working on it we would get more done faster and better. This principle is true for money, by the way–if you get a raise, it’s amazing how fast you learn how to spend it.

Third, the Ringing Effect. Ever notice how a crowded interstate will suddenly come to a halt even when there’s been no wreck or construction? Why is that? Because the road was made for roughly 75% capacity. When a road gets to 90% capacity, there’s no margin for effective progress. One or two cars hitting their breaks can stall things for miles. What that means for work is when we pile on too many projects at once, they all suffer. Perman explains:

Here’s what this means: In order to get more projects done (and do them better and faster), you need to reduce the number of projects you are actually working on at once. And for organizations and individuals, the ringing effect comes into play not at 90 percent capacity, but already at about 75 percent of capacity. Thus, as my professor said, “If you schedule projects for 75 percent capacity, you will get more work accomplished.” (p. 235). 

In other words, to get more done, you actually have to choose to do less. This leads to the most important point:

(4) Saying NO based on priorities is the most effective way to get things that matter done. This means a key to working well and working hard correlates to our ability to make good choices. Perman notes how the information age has caused ambiguity and overload to create a crushing effect for many.

I’ve found doing this allows me to get critical work done in less time and more effectively. It’s also allowed me the margin to do things I love (like spending more time with people). This spring I’m back to traveling more than I have in three years, so it’s a test for me. Because a weekly sabbath day is a priority and it’s the first thing to get pushed to the side, I’ve already scheduled those for the entire spring. I’m a little nervous of falling back into just being too busy to the point of doing everything with supreme mediocrity, but I’m wary of the possibility. More than anything, I want this year to be one of glorifying God.




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