Self-Management and Productivity
Danny Rurlander is the Senior Pastor of Moorlands Evangelical Church in Lancaster.
Christians, perhaps more than most people, get stressed about time. This is not surprising, given the combination of the urgency of gospel ministry and the finite length of available time, which we find in passages like this:
"But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." 2 Peter 3:8–9
In response to this, a commonly heard prayer request goes something like this: “please pray I'd have more time for…..” And the sentence ends with one or more of the responsibilities the individual feels they are failing to discharge: “evangelism” / “prayer” / “Bible reading” / “my spouse” / “friends”, and so on.
Because of this constant feeling that – as the 1970’s folk song put it – “there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do,” – we look to time management to help us fit more in, get more done, and somehow relieve us from the sense of permanent busyness, stress and failure, many of us feel.
But there are a number of reasons this might be the wrong place look.
Why time-management is impossible
For a start, the desire to have more time, is clearly impossible to fulfil. Not only has God determined the length of each day, season and year (Genesis 1:14), but he has also numbered the length of our lives (Psalm 90:10). Part of being human, and living in a created world is that we are powerless to stop time, slow time down, gain extra time, or manage time in any meaningful way at all.
Part of being human, and living in a created world is that we are powerless to stop time, slow time down, gain extra time, or manage time in any meaningful way at all.
Furthermore, the quest for time-management may even disguise various sins or failings on our part. Paradoxically, these centre around control on the one hand , and escape on the other.
One reason we might be obsessed with time-management is because we simply want to be in control of our lives and we don’t like the mess of loose ends and the stress of having too much on our plates. Proverbs 14:4 is a brilliant reminder, however, that mess and stress are inevitable by-products of a productive life:
"Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox."
If you don’t want to have to shovel the manure out of the barn every day, don’t keep oxen! But if you don’t keep oxen, don’t expect a harvest. This is a great encouragement – especially to those of us at the obsessive-compulsive end of the personality spectrum! – not to expect to control every minute of the day, tick off every item on our list, close every loop and complete every project. It is a warning not to avoid the opportunities to serve God because of fear of the mess they will create in our schedule – or, for that matter – in our front room!
For this reason, we need to avoid making efficiency an idol, and remember that some good things, such as bringing up children, teaching the Bible deeply and accurately, or discipling someone in the Christian life are hugely “inefficient” in terms of time and effort in human terms, yet exponentially fruitful in God's economy (Mark 4:20)
Indeed, the manic pursuit of activity and the constant fear of “wasting time” might betray a lack of appreciation of the gospel itself, in which we are justified by faith, not works, and where our identity is in Christ, not our performance. Or it might spring from a failure to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human responsibility, in such a way that we tell ourselves that his kingdom cannot advance without our overactivity and burn-out.
On the other hand, the constant focus on time-management might be the symptom of a desire to avoid our God-given responsibilities and escape some of the pain and cost of following Christ.
For example, an over emphasis on task-lists and schedules might disguise a more profound disorganisation, which is rooted in our own lack of discipline. Tim Challies in Do More Better, calls this “busylazy”. Because we are too lazy to get organised we end up running around crazy doing everything at the last minute, and short-changing other people in our lives.
The focus on time-management might also be an ungodly kind of barrier by which we protect ourselves from failure and tiredness by giving us too much permission to say “no” to good things. Instead of giving ourselves sacrificially to ministry and forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones, our task-list and diary can be tools to hold us back from following Jesus’ call to die to self (Mark 8:34-35).
Finally, trying to cram more into the time we have might simply be the result of a worldly search for that perfectly fulfilling lifestyle in which we pursue our bucket list of experiences and achievements for our own selfish satisfaction.
Does this mean we should give up the pursuit of a more productive, fruitful, organised life and just “chill”? Clearly not. Getting more ministry done in the precious window of time God has given us to make Jesus known before the end is surely a good and godly goal to pursue. But self-management, not time-management, is how to do it.
Why self-management is essential
Unlike time-management, self-management is something we can change and learn to improve as we grow in Christian maturity. In fact, time is just one gift God has given us to use for his purposes. He has also given us energy, relationships, skills, personalities, experience, and stage of life, to name just a few. Self-management is about using all of these to maximise gospel work for God's glory.
As Craig Hamilton explains, you are the only person who can manage yourself in the things that matter most, such as motivation and prioritising one thing over another. “You lead yourself in every project and every event. You speak to yourself more than you speak to anyone else. You have constant access to yourself and you influence everything you do – every thought, word and deed. Your leadership of yourself affects your leadership of everyone and everything else.” (Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership, 91).
This is especially important for anyone in a leadership training role because if you can’t lead yourself effectively, how can you lead others? But in the end self-management is for all Christians because it involves such things as self-control, discipline, humility, self-sacrifice, perseverance, other person-centred love. In other words, it’s about basic godly living for Christ in a way that most effectively uses all the gifts God has given us.
Self-management is for all Christians because it involves such things as self-control, discipline, humility, self-sacrifice, perseverance, other person-centred love.
The benefits of self-management are the inverse of the dangers of time-management, helping us to enjoy freedom instead of seeking control, and to face our responsibilities instead of escaping them.
According to 2 Peter 3, the reason time continues at all is because, in his kindness and patience, God has held back the day of judgment, so that people will believe the gospel and repent. This makes it clear that time is not a “commodity” to be “spent” or “wasted” or “saved” for its own sake. Rather the true value of time is what is happening in time, and this is the gradual but certain progress of the gospel throughout the gospel age.
This means that we can sleep at night, and don’t have to be control freaks. Seeds can be sown and we can wait for the harvest. There is a place for being faithful as well as productive. There is time for rest, for recreation, for hobbies and holidays and creativity and building relationships, all for the glory of God. What matters more than being busy is spending our time trusting and obeying God, and revelling in his gospel.
But because God works his gospel purposes out through his people, we’ll want to work hard and spend ourselves for the glory of God, not for the satisfaction of ticking things off our to do lists. And because God's purposes in time are worked out through relationships, productivity is about the whole of life not just what you do when you are officially “at work.” It’s about your relationships, family, friends, godliness, self-control, character etc. It’s about who you are as well as what you do.
There is far more to say about this important subject than space allows here. The books listed below are full of practical wisdom, to help us get better at being more productive in the time before the end. But remember that, for the Christians, time is our friend not our enemy. We’re not afraid of time running out, or life short-changing us, because time is God’s idea.
- Tim Chester, A Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness
- Christopher Ash, Zeal Without Burnout
- Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy
- Tim Challies, Do More Better
- Matt Perman, What’s Best Next?
- Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership
- Mikey Lynch, The Good Life in the Last Days