What's Best Next by Matt Perman – Review
The irony about reviewing this particular book on productivity is that I received my copy from the author nearly 200 days ago. Oops.
Now that could mean one of two things: either I really needed to read the book, because I’ve got serious organisational issues.
Alternatively, it could mean I read the book but it was so effective, that in my reorientated-organisational-self I simply prioritised not writing the review until this point.
I’ll leave you hanging on that one.
Suffice to say, that having now finished What’s Best Next, I’m convinced it is an excellent book and will get you well on your way to both thinking biblically about your approach to ‘getting things done’, as well as helping you act wisely as you seek to be more effective. Perman states that his aim is to “reshape the way you think about productivity and then present a practical approach to help you become more effective in your life with less stress and frustration, whatever you are doing”. Boy, does he achieve it.
The sharp rise of knowledge-based industries has meant productivity has increasingly become an in-demand subject. At the heart of the abundance of ‘productivity lit’ has been David Allen’s hugely influential Getting Things Done (GTD), and it is this work that is referenced in What’s Best Next ‘s subtitle: “How the gospel transforms the way you get things done”. However, although the GTD methodology and its variants have their fanboys, there’s also a fair few sceptics of the movement. And so, despite Taylor Swift’s observation that “the haters gonna hate,” a cynic might remark that it was only a matter of time before someone jumped on the bandwagon with a ‘Christian approach’ to productivity. Is this book just going to be a few Bible verses wrenched out of context to support some quasi-Christian self-management tips?
It’s a valid concern, but happily author Matt Perman isn’t guilty of this, and it’s partly the book’s foundational sections that make it so strong. As the former Director of Strategy for Desiring God, Perman is well placed to write such a book. His popular blog regularly reflects on productivity, leadership, theology, and culture, and he’s particularly given a lot of time to thinking about the recent productivity movement through a biblical lens.
For starters, Perman is clear from the outset that productivity is not about efficiency, but about effectiveness. And the minute you bring in a biblical worldview, then this is not a vague effectiveness but becoming effective specifically in the realm of fruitfulness in doing good works, as labours of love prompted by a gospel motivation. This is not about getting lots of the things-I-want-to-do done more quickly, as if it were just for my sake. Neither is Perman oblivious to the messy reality of life and the need to be flexible. Ultimately he is arguing for serving and loving others in all of life; it is about people, not things or tasks.
Even if you agree with Perman up to this point, you might still dismiss the need to examine your own productivity. But Perman perceptively notes that whether we like or not, we all have some sort of approach to getting things done, even if that approach is the absence of any real strategy. And if we’re Christians who are called to be stewards of our lives, gifts, hours, etc, for God and for others, then it’s right that we seek to ‘manage our time well’.
And so, having made his case for effectiveness in serving others, Perman then argues that this needs to translate into personal leadership (knowing what’s most important) and personal management (putting it first and actually doing it). Of course, this idea won’t be groundbreaking to anyone who’s familiar with the likes of David Allen, Peter Drucker or Stephen Covey, and Perman is the first to acknowledge that. In fact he suggests these ‘what’s best next’ approaches are a gift of common grace. The difference lies in that fact that Perman has already spent a third of his book building up a biblical approach to redefining the category of ‘best’, as well as examining our motivations for doing it.
Perman then spends the rest of the book unpacking four key steps for actually becoming more effective, using the acronym D.A.R.E. These stand for Define (knowing what’s most important); Architect (creating a flexible structure); Reduce (freeing up your time for what’s most important); and Execute (doing what’s most important). Throughout these I found myself underlining again and again. Perman writes with the aim of his work being useful for any work situation, but as someone who is in a situation where I am responsible for ordering most of my time it was gold-dust. He argues convincingly for the likes of personal mission statements; setting up your week and creating the right routines; harnessing multitasking, interruptions and procrastination; managing email and workflow; as well as managing larger projects in the midst of the everyday.
What’s Best Next is a treasure trove of general wisdom for working effectively, whilst all the way through compellingly directing one’s overall aim to that of using our lives to serve others, with the gospel as our motivation. It is very easy to read, and Perman’s use of chapter abstracts, summary boxes, and headings ensure one processes the headlines. I can’t think why someone would not benefit from much of this book. I plan on re-reading regularly, confident that each time will gradually sharpen my approach to my ‘getting things done’.
Go get yourself a copy. That’s what’s best next.
Full disclosure: The author sent me a copy of the book for free, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review!
Thanks, for this Robin. I’d not come across this, but a Christian take on GTD is important and interesting.
One area I think where we could do with more wisdom is where we have multiple God-given vocations. For you these include priest/pastor, husband and father. My Bishop suggested in his pre-ordination charge that if God has given multiple vocations to us, then He will also give us the grace to live them all, though obviously they will conflict at times. Does Matt Perman address that at all?
Hi Jonathan. Thanks for the comment, good question about vocations.
I think Matt very much wants us to take the various responsibilities/callings/vocations we each have very seriously, and thus plan/work/structure accordingly. Part of his section on working out our ‘life purpose’ (which will change depending upon season/circumstance), is discerning what those priorities are.
Essentially he communicates a ‘know where you’re meant to be and then be where you are’. If you’ve planned to set aside this evening to spend with your wife, then be all-in on that time with your wife. If it’s the time you’ve set aside to plan the sermon, then make sure you plan the sermon! If it’s time just hanging with friends, because that’s what you’ve decided, then give yourself to that.
I think sometimes the GTD approach can be caricatured as if it’s saying be as efficient as possible, so that you end up checking your mail while you’re in between courses at dinner with the family. But that’s to fail to see what’s best next. Hanging with friends is not a waste of time, if you’ve already decided that’s important. That’s the whole “what’s best next” idea.
And because it is the gospel and living in a manner worthy of the gospel that drives this, then we’ll very much want to live out the various responsibilities/callings God has given to us in whatever particular stage of life we’re at.
For me, that means my “vocation” as a minister should never mean I’m also failing in my responsibility as a husband. If that’s the case, then I think I’ve become pseudo-spiritual which perhaps is one consequence of the “he’ll give us the grace to live them all” approach. I imagine (actually, I *know*) it is pretty easy to idolise ‘ministry’ and so take on too much, and essentially excuse neglect in another area (e.g. family). God has also given me the grace to drop stuff, if it is hindering me carrying out my primary callings, which ultimately I think are as a Christian/husband/father. My ‘ministry calling’ can swamp everything else and it sounds pretty common for ministers to neglect family/themselves, thinking they can just keep on taking on more ‘ministry stuff’ (and I guess that could be rationalised as ‘God will give me the grace…).
What do you think?
I’m pretty sure the sense that the Bishop meant the phrase was not to imply that ministry was automatically more important than the other vocations. He recognised there can — indeed will — be conflict between the demands our multiple vocations make on us and our families, but that overall no vocation need be sacrificed to the others. I think we all agree that ‘ministry’ often lands up dominating for people, particularly those who haven’t thought this particular challenge through.
I for one am pleased that my current diocese and trainer place a high store on not letting the ministry dominate the other parts of life, and want to see us set good habits straight away.
On a related theme, I’m still debating whether to use the language of ‘day off’ or ‘rest day’ to describe my Sabbath day. ‘Day off’ is more common, but there’s a sense in which the ordained are never ‘off’ ministry, and indeed all the laity never have a day off being a Christian. ‘Rest day’ is closer to the institution of the Sabbath, but almost has medical overtones. Thoughts?