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The Problem with Our Productivity Obsession

“Do work that matters!” That’s the call of many productivity books written in the past two decades. To aid our pursuit of efficiency, books like Deep Work (still my favorite) and How to Have a Good Day suggest writing a life mission statement, single-tasking, blocking space on your calendar for focused work, task-batching, and much more. I admit, I was hooked. And I benefited from many of their methods.

Due to the influence of productivity literature, I’ve been able to take on increased responsibilities at work, finish my master of divinity, earn a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, join a nonprofit board, complete a pastoral internship, and serve as a bivocational pastor in two different churches.

Without making progress in my personal efficiency, I likely wouldn’t have been able to do all that. And I still practice daily the disciplines I’ve learned. Yet, despite all the benefits, I’ve begun to see the dangers of productivity obsession in my life and in some Christian circles.

Warning Signs

I’ll never forget confidently declaring to a pastor friend, “Time is the most precious resource I have. I need to make the most of it.” He looked at me like I had two heads. “No it’s not,” he replied. “What about your health? Your family? Your faith and knowledge of the Scriptures?” Oh, right. That stuff.

After our brief exchange, I realized I’d taken the good goal of productivity and made it my highest value. Such an obsession is a warning sign you’re taking efficiency too seriously.

Another sign is spending more time optimizing life than appreciating it. I was frequently more excited about planning projects for the year than considering how to lead my family spiritually. That’s a problem. The amount of mental energy we spend on efficiency shouldn’t be greater than what we give toward loving the Lord, our families, and our churches.

Then I noticed my inability to be still. When I had free time, I thought, Now I can sit down and read that book or work on that sermon. Or maybe I’ll simply rest. Then, five minutes later, my mind would race to a new task. My desire for efficiency limited my ability to do deep, focused work—or even to enjoy life. Learning to be still is surprisingly hard in our hurried age, but resting from our labors and trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross is essential to the Christian life.

Learning to be still is surprisingly hard in our hurried age.

Controlling Time

The well-known poem about time from Ecclesiastes 3:2–8 (thanks, Byrds) showcases life’s various seasons One of the thrusts of that passage is that human beings are at the mercy of time. We can’t control birth or death, planting or reaping, wars or peace. But God isn’t at the mercy of time. He made it and controls it.

This can be frustrating for us as humans. We want to know the meaning and purpose of our days. We desperately desire to conquer and control time. We strive to be captains of our own ships. But when you realize you can’t control life—much less your time—it can lead to questions like the one in Ecclesiastes 3:9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?”

In our quest to find meaning in life, productivity can become a go-to source for purpose. A cottage industry promises satisfaction if we maximize efficiency and work. We must beware of this cultural solution. Efficiency and excellence are good aims, but they can’t provide ultimate meaning. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can.

More practically, human beings can’t be perfectly efficient. No matter how much we optimize. No matter how early we go to bed and how early we rise. No matter how many cups of coffee we drink. Ultimately, we have no control over the times we live in. No control over traffic jams, job changes, or illnesses. You and I will never be ultraefficient machines. We weren’t meant to be.

Efficiency Redeemed

Once I acknowledge the potential dangers of pursuing efficiency as an ultimate end, the sluggard in me can say, Nice, let’s just do nothing. This isn’t the solution. Scripture repeatedly warns against our lazy instincts (e.g., Prov. 6:6–9). In a world filled with distractions, laziness is a real temptation. Screens and social media give us countless opportunities to waste time. But there’s nothing Christ-honoring in mindless scrolling. The answer to productivity obsession isn’t inefficiency or inactivity; it’s efficiency redeemed.

In our quest to find meaning in life, productivity can become a go-to source for purpose.

In Ephesians 5:15–17, Paul writes, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” In context, Paul’s instruction to make the best use of our time isn’t about productivity but about living wisely. We’re to live according to the Lord’s will: pursuing holiness, building up the church, worshiping God, and loving one another.

Redeeming efficiency requires us to understand our human limitations. We can’t optimize our lives to do it all. We should do what’s of highest value and work our way down God’s priority list. As a result, tasks on our lists will occasionally be left undone. Yes, we can plan days and prioritize tasks. But our greater goal should be to live wisely within our limitations.

My worry for Christians like me who love efficiency and productivity is that we’ll labor under the delusion that if we maximize a bit more, we can control our lives and complete all our work. But this is a rejection of our status as creatures. We aren’t meant to be perfectly efficient. Sleep isn’t efficient, but God made us in such a way that we require it.

I’ll still try to steward my time and talents as best I can and I’ll still read productivity articles and books to help me do that. I want my work to glorify the Lord. But I hope to do that with humility. We’re not the planners of the universe, and that’s a good thing. So let’s rest in the One who holds time in his hands and submit our plans—even our efficiency—to his good will.

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