The Promise and Peril of Productivity Books


I’m happy to say it: I’m a Cal Newport fan.

Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, a blogger, and an author of several books that you can broadly classify under the “productivity” category. I find many useful insights in his shorter writings, and I’ve completed two of his books: Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that valuable work can only produced within conditions that allow for intense concentration and un-distracted focus. By passively yielding to the distractions of personal technology and interruptions from colleagues, we disable ourselves from producing high-quality work. We must recapture a vision for “Deep Work” and protect the conditions in which we can create such work.

Digital Minimalism
The subject matter of Digital Minimalism flows naturally from Newport’s argument in Deep Work. In Digital Minimalism, Newport exhorts us to detach from our personal technology in order to rivet our attention on what Newport classifies as “high-value activities”—work, relationships, and interests that correspond to our deepest-held values.

Smart phones and social media, however, have steadily conditioned our minds to expect diversions from our present tasks and personal engagements. That’s largely due, among other factors, to the reality that major corporations (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) now have a financial interest in keeping and holding our attention for as long as possible. As a result, while our work and relationships suffer, we’ve become largely unaware of how the constant toggling between task and diversion has undermined our ability to think clearly and relate well.

Newport is not against technology per se. Rather, he argues that we should only use technology in a way that provides maximum benefit for whatever is most important to us. It is not enough to embrace a social media platform because it offers some benefit. One could use the “some benefit” principle to allow every conceivable smartphone app, piece of personal technology, and social media platform into our lives. In other words, the “some benefit” principle provides no logical warrant for rejecting any app or piece of personal technology because you can find a modicum of benefit in nearly everything.

The Thirty-Day Digital Detox
In order to determine what technological tools best serve our values and goals, Newport recommends a thirty-day digital detox. To initiate the detox, you must first scrub every app off your phone. You may keep an app if its removal would cause irremediable harm to your work or relationships, but you must not keep an app merely because it provides a little convenience. There is a difference between a necessary tool and a luxurious one, and the digital detoxer must be willing to bear with some inconvenience in order to determine which apps are worthy of a place on one’s phone. In other words, in order for the detox to really work (by producing clarity on what tools are most useful), you must strip down your phone as much as possible.

The detoxer must also be willing to complete the full thirty days. The tug to engage with digital distractions will be intense for the first few days, but the intensity will steadily decrease over the following weeks. A full month of detox provides enough time to experience freedom from the pull of our phones and gain clarity on what tools truly benefit us.

Along with the sloughing smart phone apps, you should also take time to consider what other types of technology are robbing your attention and fragmenting your ability to concentrate. Streaming services, websites, and computer-based tools (e.g., email) should be brought under consideration as “banned technologies.” While it may not be realistic to ban email from your life for thirty days, it may be useful to make email (and web-browsers in general) less accessible on your computer. Instead of keeping web-browsers as a link or app on your desktop, try tucking those resources away in a folder that takes a few clicks to access.

After thirty days, based on the clarity you’ve gained from the fast, Newport suggests slowly reintroducing the apps and technologies you’ve now concluded are most useful to your particular aims and values in life. Most people find that their inability to access their apps for thirty days shows them that they really don’t need most of what’s on their phone or computer. They will have also found that the time they rescued from aimless wandering on social media or the internet has been put to far better use.

My Own Detox
I took Newport’s advice and ventured out on a thirty day digital detox. I scrubbed my phone and reconfigured my MacBook’s tool bar to only include Evernote, Accordance (Bible software), and Microsoft Word. I had no access to email or social media on my phone, and my computer’s web browsers were stuffed deep into application folders which hindered access just enough to significantly decrease my temptation to browse the web for a distraction.

My experience was very similar to what Newport describes in his book. When the detox was complete, I started to add apps back to my phone and computer’s tool bar. I found, however, that I didn’t need most of the apps that took up space on my phone, nor did I really need quick and easy access to the internet on my laptop. Keeping my list of tools at a bare minimum enabled me to remain focused on my work for longer periods of time, and I found that my mind was less fragmented by the constant toggling between task and distraction. Without the constant pull of the phone, I found I was able to focus on my kids better while at home and, when I had free time, put my mind to more useful tasks, like reading, house work, and personal research projects.

Well, at least for a few weeks.

The Problem with “Productivity”
The problem with Newport’s book—a problem that most productivity books share—is that they do not provide the spiritual power or motivation with which to maintain the disciplines they advocate. I don’t blame Newport for this deficiency. He isn’t writing from a Christian perspective. Actually, one of the strengths of the book is that his observations about technology and the allure of distractions are useful to a broad audience precisely because they are true. His aim is to help people manage their technology well so that they can put their energy and time to better use in accordance with their deepest-held values and goals.

The problem with Newport’s book–a problem that most productivity books share–is that they do not provide the spiritual power or motivation with which to maintain the disciplines they advocate.

Newport’s true observations, as a product of God’s common grace, therefore, can be useful to the Christian. But we shouldn’t expect his observations to provide lasting change or enduring motivation unless they are rooted in and guided by the Word of God. While listening to Newport’s book and for a short time afterward, I sensed an excitement to apply the principles I had learned. But a few weeks after I completed the detox, I found myself slipping into old habits, easily yielding to distractions and making access to these diversions easier.

What had happened? Here’s my self-reflective assessment. Because I was leaning on human wisdom and relying less and less on biblical truth to guide and motivate my pursuit of productivity and time management, my faith had weakened. My inward motivation to maintain these disciplines, therefore, was only as strong as the natural incentives Newport provided. Living with less distraction, cultivating greater mental clarity, and producing higher-quality work are all worthy pursuits for the Christian. But each of these pursuits can become a means of self-exaltation if they are pursued for their own sake and not according to divine wisdom. It’s no wonder that I wandered back into my old habits after a few weeks: I lacked inward spiritual energy because my faith was hindered by self-exaltation and human effort (see John 5:44; Gal 3:1-5).

Living with less distraction, cultivating greater mental clarity, and producing higher-quality work are all worthy pursuits for the Christian. But each of these pursuits can become a means of self-exaltation if they are pursued for their own sake and not according to divine wisdom.

For the Christian, observations and recommendations like Newport’s are best utilized when they are brought under the guidance of God’s Word and empowered by the gospel. Christians should have an interest in time management because we are called to redeem the time for Christ’s sake (Eph 5:15). We should be aware of how personal technology can enslave us because we’ve been called to spiritual freedom (1 Cor 6:12). Mental clarity is not, in and of itself, the goal of life. Rather, for the sake of pure worship, genuine obedience, and the ability to teach others with precision, Christians should take note of those items in our life that tend to distract us and hinder mental sharpness (1 Tim 2:7; Mark 4:19; Heb 5:11). The believer should have a desire to produce excellent, high quality work in order to love one’s neighbor (Matt 22:39) and display the glory of God to a watching world (Matt 5:16).

But in order for a Christian to persevere in these endeavors, each one must empowered by God’s Word, not mere human wisdom and natural observation. Ultimately, every good work we engage in must be supported and motivated by free grace (Eph 2:8-10). We don’t pursue greater productivity in order to exalt ourselves before our neighbors or commend ourselves to God. We’ve been made right with God without any reference to our digital minimalism (or lack thereof). You could read Romans 3:28 like this: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from his personal productivity.”

I am grateful for books like Newport’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, and I expect that I will read more productivity books in the future. God’s common grace provides us with many useful resources, and we should not begrudge true observations merely because they come from someone who doesn’t profess faith in Christ. But we hinder the usefulness of these resources and stunt our spiritual growth when we don’t test their principles by the Word of God, apply them for the glory of God, and implement them in light of the gospel.

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