Friday, March 07, 2014

An Interview with Matt Perman about "What's Best Next"

It's a privilege to have Matt Perman answer a few questions today about his brand new book: What's Best Next.

As I said yesterday in introducing our WBN giveaway contest, I've been a avid reader of Matt's blog and have been waiting a looooong time for his book to come out. I was excited to see the book finally launch this week--and almost immediately reach #250 on the Amazon Bestseller list!

Here are 8 key questions about What's Best Next:

1.  What does the title, What's Best Next, mean?  Is that a statement or a question or both? 

It’s first of all a statement. This book is about that which is best next, which is doing the will of the Lord (Ephesians 5:15-17).

So, what is the will of the Lord? We all know that what Jesus wants from us is love. So that’s what’s best next—love—and that’s the heart of the book. All of our productivity needs to be grounded in love—first, in terms of our motive (the good of the other person) but also in terms of how we make decisions at all.

And that’s what’s often overlooked: love is not just our motive in what we do, but is also supposed to be the guiding principle by which we decide what to do. What is best for the other person? That’s the question love asks, and therefore that’s the guiding principle of productivity. You don’t make choices based on what’s best for yourself next, but you make the welfare of the other person the motive and criterion for deciding what to do.

And so “what’s best next” is, second of all, also a question as well. We have so many things coming our way today. We have almost limitless options and opportunities now, and a massive amount of information to deal with every day. How do we make good decisions in the midst of this age of unlimited options? “What’s best next” is a question we can use to help guide us. The point is: you don’t need to do everything that’s next. You just need to do what’s best next.

The core principle of productivity is to do what’s most important first. So when you have a thousand things to do, stop and ask “what’s best next?” Then do that. Likewise, don’t do what’s easiest next; do what’s best next. This is a question we can continually use to guide us.

2. How does What’s Best Next relate to Christian discipleship and sanctification?

Since being productive is ultimately about love, it therefore follows that time management is actually a component of our sanctification. I think that’s what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 5:15-17 (the core NT passage on time management), and thus that’s ultimately the reason I titled the book What’s Best Next.

In this passage, Paul commands us to “make the best use of the time.” And he shows that this doesn’t come from following a bunch of rules, but from walking as “wise” people who “understand what the will of the Lord is.”

God doesn’t drop his will down from heaven directly to us, whispering in our ear what decision to make in every situation. That’s like cheating. You don’t grow that way! We have to decide, based upon biblical principles. That’s what maturity is about. But the freedom of the Christian is a structured freedom, rooted in God’s truth and character. Hence, what we choose is an expression of character. The choices we make reveal something about us and shape us, and thus are an outworking of our sanctification.

This is also why character is at the root of true productivity, not techniques and tools (as cool and important as they are). For, as Paul conceives it, character is the source of our ability to make good decisions (that is, know what’s best next; see also Philippians 1:9-10 and Colossians 1:9-11, where Paul roots our ability to make good decisions not just in wisdom but also in love).

3.  I can tell that you are a fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done.  What is the relationship between Allen's GTD and your approach, Gospel Driven Productivity (GDP)? How are they different? 

Yes, I love GTD! Two of the most helpful books I’ve read on productivity are David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Stephen Covey’s First Things First. Covey is strongest at the higher levels (mission and vision, roles and goals), whereas Allen excels at the lower levels (managing projects and actions).

What I found I needed in my life was a system that was strong at both levels. Covey does a great job on how to create a mission and know your roles, but he doesn’t go into much detail on how to handle all the complexities of managing workflow and projects. Likewise, Allen does a great job of showing how to process workflow and just plain manage your work, but he doesn’t go much into how to identify a good vision for your life, or clarify your roles. And neither approach is seeking to show how all of this connects to God.

So I set out to develop a system that seeks to bring together the strengths of each, while doing so within a biblical framework (where the Bible comes first, rather than existing to justify ideas we already came up with on our own). That’s what Gospel-Driven Productivity is. It seeks to be strong at both levels, showing you how to develop a good vision for your life based on what God says is most important, and then make things happen and get things done in accord with this vision and these principles, down to the level of managing email and to-do lists.

4. To explore the differences with GTD a bit more, what does the gospel have to do with getting things done?

The gospel shows us that getting things done is about love. Being productive is first of all a loving thing to do, because it serves others.

Second, love is also the way to be most productive—which is something incredible that the best business thinkers are beginning to show (such as Tim Sanders in his excellent book Love is the Killer App).

Getting Things Done doesn’t talk about that. I don’t fault it for that—that’s not it’s goal! But it’s my goal, because as a Christian, I believe it doesn’t matter how good our workflow systems are if we aren’t executing our workflow out of love, for Paul tells us to “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). Without this, the things that we do have no ultimate, eternal significance (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). (And note that this includes love for God as well as love for other people.)

God does not look down on secular books and secular thinking. They are a manifestation of his common grace (James 1:17). When they speak the truth and are helpful, we are to learn from them, and even admire them (1 Peter 2:17). That’s why I think the enthusiasm for GTD is warranted and right. I’m a huge fan. But as Christians, we are also to go a step further, and understand all of this specifically in relation to a Christian worldview.

3.  I've seen you say publicly that this book was very difficult for you to write. Why was that? This seems to be your central message and you love sharing it. Why was it so hard to produce a book on productivity?

This is a great question—and, of course, many have had a good laugh at how ironic it is that it took me so long to write a book on productivity!

I think the reason it was so difficult to write was precisely because it is my core message. I wanted to make sure I truly understood these things deeply, and that takes time and refinement. Though I teach on a wide scope of biblical and practical subjects, I actually test everything I say very carefully (through biblical reflection, a study of church history, and discussion with others) before I teach it. I want to make sure that the things I teach are true and reliable, all the way down to the bottom.

It was also a challenge to write because there is almost nothing on this from a biblical perspective. I found it ten times easier, for example, to come to understand how divine sovereignty and human accountability fit together than to understand biblical productivity. The reason is that there are some amazing, incredible resources to look to on the sovereignty of God, as well as most other central Christian doctrines. But on this, there was almost nothing.

So I had to go to some unconventional places to root my thinking, like Jonathan Edwards book on love, Charity and Its Fruits, and Tim Keller’s excellent book Ministries of Mercy. At first, it seems like these books have nothing to do with productivity. But since, as we saw above, productivity is actually above love, in reality they have everything to do with productivity.

But making the connections was not something that comes immediately and directly. I had to think hard to understand how the biblical teaching on love and justice and mercy relates to getting things done, doing our work, doing email, and fulfilling all of our other callings in life in the midst of this very busy technological, modern era.

The third reason the book took so long is that I was cognizant of the fact that, since there are so few books on the gospel and productivity, it was especially important that I get this right for people. For if I blew it, where else could they turn?

There are other reasons—for example, I got laid off in the middle of writing it due to a leadership change at my organization!—but these are some of the main ones. (Its hard to write a book, by the way, after getting laid off!)

4.  Would What's Best Next be helpful to non-leader-types?  I would imagine many of your readers will be executives, business people, pastors, leaders.  Is this a book for just anyone?

Yes, absolutely! This book certainly is for leaders and I believe it will help them immensely. But it is also for everyone, because all of us have to deal with productivity every day. I want this book to be as helpful to the stay-at-home mom running a busy household as it is to the busy executive running a corporation or non-profit or ministry. And many of the principles are the same, because they are universal.

This book was written for business leaders, creative professionals, managers, entrepreneurs, missionaries, non-profit leaders, and on and on. It is for anyone who cares about what they are doing and wants to do good work—not just in their professional lives, but also in their communities and personal lives.

5.  What are some of the things, in a nutshell, that you're trying to teach in What's Best Next?

The biggest thing I am trying to teach is that love is to be the guiding principle for our productivity—and that means at work, not just in our personal lives.

It’s easy to think “love, oh, yeah—that applies at church and at home.” But I’m saying it also applies at work. What does that mean? I seek to show it in the book. Don’t let your work be some area of your life that you rope off from the commands of God and example of Christ. Follow Christ’s example at work, too, which means that instead of seeking to crush others to get ahead, or make the error of an HR professional I knew once who refused to ever smile lest she seem “unprofessional,” you should seek to succeed in your work through generosity and kindness. Generosity is at the heart of a truly productive workplace, as well as a productive life.

Then I seek to provide a framework for organizing your life around this principle (loving others, to the glory of God) and actually get things done. This framework is summarized by the acronym D-A-R-E.

Define. This is about setting a God-centered direction for your life by creating a mission and vision for your life that actually works (it is possible!)

Architect. Even if you have the most amazing mission statement in the world, it’s not going to happen unless you weave it into the structure of your life. So that’s what the second step, architect, is about. This means identify your roles, and then creating a basic framework, or time map, for your week that integrates them all and gives you time slots to actually do the things that are most important in your life.

Reduce. Often when we create a time map for ourselves it quickly falls apart. This is because we are trying to put too much into it! As a result, it’s critical to know how to reduce. Here I introduce another acronym to help us: D-E-A-D. This is about killing the less important things from our lives (or things that just aren’t for us to do, given our unique gifting and calling) through delegating, eliminating, automating, and deferring.

Execute. This is where the rubber meets the road—it’s about getting things done in the moment. This is where we talk about processing workflow, how to get your email inbox to zero every day, how to manage projects effectively through simple project plans, planning your week, and going about your day on the basis of sound principles of effectiveness.

Note also that the “D-A-R-E” acronym also reminds us again of the principle of love all over again—namely, that love includes having a sense of adventure and creativity, as well as competence, in doing good for others.

The final section of the book, then, is about the results of Gospel-Driven Productivity. We see that as we are productive in a gospel-centered way, God transforms our cities and societies socially, economically, and spiritually. In other words, God changes the world through our work. That is an exciting thing.

6.  In the introduction, you say that there is a connection between "justice, mercy, faithfulness, and work."  Intriguing! What is that connection?

Yes, there absolutely is a connection! This is all about justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Often times, we have this strange notion that God’s commands to do justice and show mercy apply in some never land out in the woods, or on mission trips to Africa, or at soup kitchens, as opposed to also applying to all the things we do every day in every area of life.

God’s commands are meant to govern everything we do, not just some things we do. Being generous in your work—whether by being a manager who actually gives good raises to his employees (it matters!) or an individual contributor who is generous with encouragement—is a form of mercy (and, in the case of raises, also justice). Creating good products is also a form of mercy and justice, because it serves people to do good work.

So often, people reduce the Christian ethic down to “work hard and be honest.” That’s boring! And insufficient. Those things matter immensely, but the Christian ethic of work is so much more than that. It is about loving others, and love is proactive in seeking the good of others.

Hence, we need to understand justice and mercy in order to understand what it really means to do good work, because our work is one of the areas in which God intends for us to live out his commands to be just and merciful. And, again, this is about more than just business ethics. People deserve to receive encouragement and be treated well. When you are treating your employees and coworkers well, you are being a just and merciful person.

8.  Could you give us any tips for how to read What's Best Next for maximum benefit?

Absolutely. I wrote this book so that people could feel productive in reading it. I think that’s pretty important for a book on productivity!

So I wrote it so that you can engage with it at multiple levels. If you just have a few minutes, I have gray boxes throughout the book that you can turn to in order to get quick productivity tips at a glance that you can immediately apply. There are also lots of headings so that you can pre-process the material more quickly; there is a summary box at the end of each chapter; and at the beginning of each chapter there is a single statement summarizing the main point or key thing we will learn.

The book is ultimately written to be read at a deep level, and something you can turn to again and again. That’s the best way to read it. But it’s also written so that if you just have a few minutes, you can still find helpful, interesting things. And so that when you go back to it, it will also be able to find the key ideas again.

Thanks, Matt! I appreciate your thorough and wise answers. I look forward to reading the whole book soon. I think that's what would be best next for me.


For more information about What's Best Next check out Matt's blog where you can read the foreword by John Piper (yes, that John Piper) as well as the preface, introduction, first chapter, table of contents, and tons of other helpful material. Matt is very generous!

And don't forget to enter our contest for a free hardback copy.