Essay / Culture

Down with Random Acts of Kindness (What’s Best Next)

Matt Perman’s book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done is finally available. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, and am glad to report that it lives up to the high hopes I’ve had for it.

The genre of productivity literature is its own little world with its own funny patterns of speech, presuppositions, and style. It’s a subspecies of the self-help genus, of course. The average productivity book has a tone of voice that is not authoritarian but definitely authoritative: “here is advice from someone who has succeeded.” The author has to sound successful, even if he achieves that tone of voice by telling about his failures along the way. There’s myth-busting, key concept summarizing, proven tips, executables, action lists, lifehacks, etc. That’s how they talk. The worst books in the genre are desperately glib and hucksterish, and seem to be invitations to become better and faster at becoming a more thoroughly terrible person. But the best of the lot (Stephen Covey, David Allen) communicate a sense of contributing to real human flourishing; they come across as wanting to help people make the most of their lives, their resources, and their energy.

Frankly, I don’t especially like the genre’s conventions even in their best manifestations –the shadow of Dale Carnegie lays heavy on the entire realm– but I do need help in managing my work, so I read some of them. David Allen’s Getting Things Done was an instant solution for multiple problems, for instance. I’m always reading with a theology filter turned on, so whenever I read productivity lit I am constantly making little adjustments along the way: remembering that I am not accepted by God on the basis of my productivity, remembering my need to keep my attention focused not on my schedule but on the people around me, resisting the urge to boast about success as I read someone who is boasting about success, etc. 

And for some time now I’ve followed Matt Perman’s blog, whatsbestnext.com, for insights and strategies into working more effectively. Perman’s sound theology, keen eye for what works, and clear writing have made his blog a valuable companion in the work week.  This book succeeds in capturing and synthesizing all of that.

It would be too much to say that Perman redeems the genre of productivity lit, but he has accomplished something pretty big here: he has written a productivity book that does most of the theological filtering for me! Instead of needing to supplement my reading with a big dose of the gospel, I find that it’s all already smoothly integrated. Perman has thought through his entire book as a detailed thought project on applying the gospel to the life of work.

So he’s got handy little acronyms like DARE (Define, Architect, Reduce, Execute), and text boxes that summarize the main point of each chapter in case you’re too busy to read the book about being too busy, and perspective-shifting ways of thinking about what you’re doing. As a source of good ideas for being more productive, this book does not disappoint. It can help you.

But my favorite aspect of the book is how serious Perman is about planning, about rationally projecting goals and strategically sequencing your actions to reach those goals. Here is one of the best bits in the whole book, taken not from the more inspirational opening chapters but from the more down-and-dirty-details final chapters:

Get creative about doing good. Being proactive in doing good for others should be implicit in the brainstorming you did based on just reflecting on your week and reviewing your roles, goals, and projects. But it is also important to give special focus to it by asking questions like these:

1. What actions can I take against injustice this week? Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Don’t just leave that at the level of good intentions. Translate it into your life by thinking concretely, on a regular basis, about things you can do to fight injustice and correct oppression.

2. Who is in need, and how might I be able to help?

3. What can I do proactively for the good of my family, my neighbors, my coworkers, and my community?

4. What action can I take, even if small, in the fight against large global problems like extreme poverty, lack of access to clean water, lack of shelter, communicable diseases, and [obstacles to? -editor] the advancement of the gospel?

Write down what comes to mind.

That is the opposite of “Commit Random Acts of Kindness,” an exhortation I never understood anyway. Why not “Make a Plan for Steady, Strategic, Maximally Effective Kindness?” That’s what Perman is in this for. That’s what What’s Best Next is designed to do: to make you more productive of good works, for the sake of the gospel.

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