Look Up from Your Lists

Letter to My 30-Year-Old Self

You alone will be exalted in that day.
And worthless goals will be exposed
As idols that we’ve made. (“All Is for Your Glory”)

It was a common pre-employment test in the days when a desktop was actually the top of a desk.

At one corner of the desk was something that looked like a leather cake pan stacked to overflowing with hardcopy documents: letters, memoranda, recently received mail, newspapers, magazines, government notices, invoices, statements, personal written requests, “While You Were Out” phone message slips — all pre-digital forms of information that flowed into a tangible “In Basket.”

“Zeal for efficiency and productivity is a viciously enslaving idol.”

A prospective managerial employee would be asked, “Show me how you would handle this basket.” In more instances than not, the eager young job prospect would dive in and dispose of matters in serial fashion, one document at time, until the test proctor (less sensitive in those days to a job-seeker’s self-esteem) would interrupt with, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

Those who passed this test would, rather than undertaking serial disposition of the documents, render serial judgment by immediately dividing the larger stack of documents into smaller stacks based on the relative importance and urgency of action required. The prodigious recruit then would say, “I would start here,” and the recruiter would say, “When can you start?”

People over Productivity

“Time management” was a practice that commanded my attention nearly all of my thirty-year career in business and politics. I read every guru and embraced every new tool. I graduated from to-do lists on legal pads, to photocopied planner pages of my own design, to the still-available Executive ScanCard system, to the Franklin Planner, and then — “Katy, bar the door” — to a years-long parade of new software, online apps, and cloud-based solutions. I was not unlike a fellow executive who once said, “All that I learned about time management, I learned by copying my tasks into a new to-do app.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I now discern that the integration of digital-age work tools with our collaborators, social networks — indeed with all of the world’s information that Google sought to organize and make universally accessible — worked like an opioid on my heart, causing an addiction to tasks that starved and depleted my relationship accounts of more capital than efficiency or productivity ever deposited.

Addicted to Tasks

It isn’t just about devices. The gadgets are only accelerants of a species of sin. I can remember a moment in marriage, pre-smartphone, when debriefing with my wife about my own day’s productivity and the immediate plans that I had for moving forward in my work. It became such a detached soliloquy that I looked up to find her, whom I professed to love, waving her hands and saying, “Hello, do you even remember that I am sitting here?”

Focus on tasks had become more than just enthusiasm for my work. It is when I began to discern that zeal for efficiency and productivity, especially in our service and information-based economy, is a viciously enslaving idol.

The object of our work is not the task; it is God and other people. How often with blinders on, head down, on task did I fuss and grumble when someone dared to interrupt my work? Assigned by God to tend sheep, I mowed right over them in zeal to trim the pasture — and I left bloody wool all over the place. I so often needed to look up from my lists.

Task of Tasks

There are two great commissions in Scripture. The first is found in Genesis 1:28 where we are told, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over [it].” The second, of course, is found in Matthew 28:19–20, where Jesus tells us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Were every one of the tasks required to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the to-do lists that would be crafted, by believers and unbelievers. But when pressed for a Greatest Commandment, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39).

“If I could do it all over, people would become the unrivaled objects of my fascination and service in my work.”

Nowhere did he propose a Great Commissions Scorecard with reported metrics of fruitfulness, multiplication, filling, subduing, dominance, disciple-making, baptisms, or lesson plans. There may be all manner of tasks, but work is aimed by God, at God, and at other people. And that work is love — not productivity, not efficiency, not accomplishment, renown, awards, championships, publications, profits, patents, or promotions.

We who have received him and believed in his name will never run out of time, but will exhaust our momentary opportunity to reach those who have not.

You Work Among Immortals

Even if the greatest earthly accomplishments did not pass away, as we are promised they will, they would be little more than a pie-slice-sized sliver from a period at the end of a footnote at the bottom of one page in one volume of the infinite library of the story of God’s redemptive work in the world. The work that reverberates from here to eternity’s most distant moments is the worship and love that we show God, and the love we extend to other people.

Had I the chance to do it all over, I would heed more carefully C.S. Lewis’s suggestion, and people would become the unrivaled objects of my fascination and service in all of my work.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. (The Weight of Glory)

There is still time for me to finish, if not well, at least better in this regard. As I do so, I am grateful for a letter to my 61-year-old self from a 91-year-old friend:

First, live for God one day at a time. Whatever long-term plans we may have, we need to get into the habit of planning each day’s business in advance, either first thing each morning or (better, I think) the day before. Glorifying God should be our constant goal, and to that end we need to acquire the further habit of reviewing before God as each day closes how far we have done as we planned, or whether and why and how far we changed the plan to fit new circumstances and fresh insights, and in any case how far we did the best we could for our God, and how far we fell short of doing that. (J.I. Packer, Finishing Our Course with Joy)