The Challenges of Rest in an Age of Productivity

Confession: I’ve been called a GTD Disciple. That is, I’ve adopted the David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology to help me be more productive with less stress. Allen taught me how to close loops, keep track of multiple projects, and how to write things down rather than trying to remember them. In the words of Field Notes Brand, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later; I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Allen taught me that trying to keep everything in mind hurts both creativity and productivity. He writes in Getting Things Done,

“For example, in the past few minutes, has your mind wandered off into some area that doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re reading here? Probably. And most likely where your mind went was to some open loop, some incomplete situation that you have an investment in. That situation merely reared up out of the RAM part of your brain and yelled at you internally. And what did you do about it? Unless you wrote it down and put it in a trust collection tool that you know you’ll review appropriately something soon, more than likely you worried, or at least reinforced some unresolved tension, about it. Not the most effective behavior: no progress was made, and stress increased.”[1]

I eventually merged Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method with GTD into a tool that I call Mission Control (a GTD-modified template adopting Carroll’s symbols in Leuchtturm1917 journals). As with any tool or methodology, mine is only as effective as its use, which is to say, on and off but better than nothing. I can testify that when I’m “on,” I less often wake in the middle of the night with my thoughts racing and my brain yelling at me, “WHY ARE YOU ASLEEP??”

Cal Newport, assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, has become a leading voice in modifying productivity in the digital age in books like Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email. In the latter he argues a worker’s inability to control the daily onslaught of emails actually hinders productivity. From his blog:

“Email…creates a setting in which these conversations arrive faster than we can keep up, as demonstrated by our ever-growing inboxes. To our ancient social circuits this is an emergency, leading to a gnawing sense of impending, amorphous danger.”

One accompanying effect of the pursuit of productivity can be the elevation of productivity to near Fruit of the Spirit status.

One accompanying effect of the pursuit of productivity can be the elevation of productivity to near Fruit of the Spirit status.

Whether productivity ideology causes this elevation or correlates to it, many find themselves unable to stop trying to accomplish more, more effectively. To squeeze one more drop of blood from the turnip, injecting blood into the vegetable first if need be. Rest is too often the thing that doesn’t make the calendar. Productivity aided by ubiquitous technology, has made it possible to work all the time, fulfilling Postman’s assertion that “[e]very technology is both a burden and a blessing.”[2]

Talk about the curse of The Fall.

Add to that the guilt many productivity-oriented people feel when then aren’t producing, then we have the ingredients necessary for workaholism, constant fatigue, brain drain, and loss of spiritual vitality.

Our era of technology-aided productivity did not catch God by surprise, though. In fact, he’d already set the example by his creation pattern: a sabbath rest is necessary. In an era when people spent all day herding and growing crops, when sustenance depended on one’s personal investment of labor, God legislated a Sabbath (one day of rest every seven days, Exodus 20:8­–10). Notice: God not only offers rest; he mandates it. How then to we turn from a productivity mindset to a rest mindset? Can we flip working smarter to resting better? Here are a few ideas.

1. Remember that rest is as necessary to health as food.

It’s been a long time since I could eat anything I wanted and never gain weight and it’s been a long time since I could burn the candle at both ends without setting aflame the curtains and carpet. Folks today are paying attention to their diet, but too few are paying attention to rest. INTEGRIS Health reminds us, “Rest is vital for better mental health, increased concentration and memory, a healthier immune system, reduced stress, improved mood and even a better metabolism.”

This holds true—perhaps especially so—for those in ministry. The needs are many, the hours are few, and we often justify overextending ourselves on that basis. But a sickly or dead shepherd is of little value to the flock. Without rest your body is constantly discharging, like a phone persistently flashing the 10% warning but no outlet nearby. We should learn to recharge rather face than the dreaded dark-screen.

2. Remember that rest is godly.

Jesus wept, we remember, but often forget that Jesus slept, too (John 11:35; Mark 4:38–40). As fully-divine yet fully-human, Jesus experienced the gamut of human needs including hunger, thirst, fatigue, and the need for rest. Preachers will sometimes riff, “If Jesus needed sleep then you do, too,” which is correct. But we rarely couch it as part of Jesus overall, total obedience to the Father. Resting when he needed to rest was a display of godliness and it is for us as well.

3. Remember that rest is a type of service to God.

Ask the average believer what it means to serve God and they’ll rattle of the list every pastor knows: read their Bible, pray, find a place of ministry in church, give generously, help the hurting, and the like. Few will name resting or observing Sabbath. If serving God is the same as obedience, however, then rest is a way that we serve God. Specifically, resting communicates to God and others our trust that he is in control when we are inactive.

Specifically, resting communicates to God and others our trust that he is in control when we are inactive.

We trust him enough to rest. Paul Tripp notes, “You see, the stewardship of our physical body is not an addition to our gospel ministry; it is a significant part of it.”[3]

Recognizing rest as a way to serve God helps deliver us from the guilt that often comes when we attempt to sabbath. It is not unusual when I take a full day of rest for Productivity to tempt me with, “It’ll only take a few minutes…” And while some things can interrupt and are unavoidable (“Honey, can you run to the store?” “Dad, I have a flat tire.”), God can help us keep something that can wait from taking on the tyranny of the urgent.

4. Don’t only limit “work” to a certain time of the day, but limit productivity, too.

Pastors and church leaders seem to have taken more steps to limit their work outside of the office (or “office hours”). Disengaging from emails and phone calls and limiting evening meetings are goals leaders pursue, so their evenings with family are uninterrupted as much as possible. This is a good thing.

The urge to be productive, however, can push the same leader to continue writing, emailing, planning, or otherwise “being productive” causing them to be distant from their family while in the same house. Productivity, as well as the job, needs to be turned off to ensure rest.

5. Acknowledge the need for both sleep and rest.

People’s actual needs for sleep and rest differ, but most adults have a good idea how much sleep they need regularly. The challenge is the intentional effort to get that amount of sleep nightly.

We often need rest outside nightly sleep. A Saturday or Sunday relaxing on the couch, or a drive in the mountains or country, a recreational activity that allows our minds to rest while our body is engaged, or a 20-minute nap, often provide us with restorative rest. Rest is good. Rest is needed. And rest is godly. Don’t let the drive to be productive rob you of the rest God gives us in service to him.

[1] - David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 25.

[2] - Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 5. Postman warns against viewing technology as only positive or in terms of what it can do, without acknowledging what it can undo. He calls people who do so Technophiles.

[3] - Paul David Tripp, Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 81.

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