Have you ever gotten to the end of the day, looked at your to-do list, and realized you may have been more than a little optimistic when you wrote it that morning? Where does the time go? Why is it so hard to actually get things done?
I recently listened to the Freakonomics podcast episode titled “Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late–and What to Do About It.” This is an episode they could release on a monthly basis without it losing relevance. The conversation centers on the to-do list dilemma I mentioned above, the fact that we think we can do more in less time than we actually can. It’s so common it actually has a name: the planning fallacy.
The Freakonomics episode features a cast of experts posing possible antidotes to the planning fallacy:
fighting distraction, and
predicting timelines based on past experience with similar projects or tasks.
All of these strategies can help us accomplish what we set out to do, but they made me wonder what Scripture says about productivity and deadlines. How should I think about that to-do list as a Christian and as a committed employee?
The creation story is the antithesis of the planning fallacy. God has a project–to create the world. He could do it in an instant; instead, he takes his time and does it in seven days. God creates the world in more time than he needs on purpose.
In the beginning, “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen 1:2). That was the initial context for creation. As the creation story unfolds, God addresses each of the problems presented in that initial context.
On the first day, he addresses darkness by creating light, separating it from darkness, and establishing day and night (Gen 1:3-5). Then he moves on to the creation of sky and land during days two and three.
On day four he returns to his work from the first day, creating the sun and moon and stars to govern the day and night (Gen 1:14-19).
Days five and six show him returning to his previous work of sky and land, populating them with birds, fish, animals, and humans.
There is an incremental nature to creation. God creates, then pauses to work on something else, then returns to an aspect of his work, developing it and making it more bountiful and fruitful. In my own work, I’m often tempted to think that a project can only be considered “good” or effective in retrospect. To be effective it must produce results. To be good, it must be done. Completeness is a prerequisite to goodness. However, God steps back after each increment of creation and “saw that it was good” (Gen 1: 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
As humans, we often fall victim to the planning fallacy because of urgency (imposed by ourselves or by external forces) and quantity of work (there’s so much to be done we will simply never be done). When I started my role at Denver Institute two years ago, my knowledge of nonprofit operations and finance was formless, empty, and dark. I had a lot to learn, but I could probably master it by the end of my first quarter, right?
Instead of this hyper-urgent and completionist attitude, God’s approach to creation changes the way I think about my own progress and productivity at work in two ways.
First, it inspires an incremental approach: Do my best on something, then come back to it and make it better with feedback from others. Learn something and deepen that knowledge later on.
An example: In 2023, I created a system for projecting Denver Institute’s cash flow throughout the year, and it really worked. We were above 90% accuracy for our expense and revenue projections over the year. But the backend process was confusing and open to possible mistakes. So this year, I’m streamlining the spreadsheet to improve clarity. Was the process good in 2023? Yes. Will it be good in 2024? Also yes.
Second, God’s approach to creation illustrates the distinction between productivity and fruitfulness.
Productivity, as its name implies, is focused on the product or outcome. It is “artificial and frenetic” in the words of Glenn Packiam. God’s primary concern is not getting things done. He did not complete day one of creation, check it off his to-do list, and say “it is done.” He completed day one of creation and said “it is good.”
Fruitfulness, on the other hand, tells us something about the doer of the work as well as the work itself.
Only healthy trees can be fruitful trees, and their fruit is the result of patient endurance. A fruitful worker first and foremost abides in their Creator. His love for us and delight in us are the prerequisites for everything else: “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). Our work, our fruit, is the result of who we are in Christ, not what we’ve done. In the same way, creation is the reflection of the Creator and because He is good, the work is good.
During the fall of 2023, we launched the FOR Campaign and shared the vision for Denver Institute’s next 5 years. If there was ever a time for peak productivity, this was it. We went through a rebranding process, restructured our website, wrote an email campaign, produced a video, designed a book, and hosted events.
As a team we had never done many of these things before. We also didn’t know if or how the new vision would resonate with others. But the vision campaign wasn’t all about output and impact. Instead, it was an opportunity for us to be faithful to God’s vision for work and workers and trust in his provision for us as an organization. The tasks and projects above were outworkings of our relationship with him.
Glenn Packiam sums up this difference between productivity and fruitfulness:
“Productivity is about the things we want to achieve; fruitfulness is about the person we are becoming.”
I don’t want to ignore the fact that work has real deadlines and pressure for output and outcomes. The planning fallacy is always nipping at our heels. At the same time, the creation story shows us that amid those long to-do lists and over-ambitious timelines, God finds opportunities for incremental fruitfulness. God’s work in Genesis 1 is a reflection of his creativity and proximity to his creation. God’s primary concern is about who we are and who we are becoming as workers made in his image so that our work can be a reflection of him.
Abby serves as the VP of Operations & Finance where she spends her energy making sure things run smoothly and effectively. Before coming to Denver Institute, she spent more than a decade working in public education in Mississippi and Colorado as a teacher, administrator, and human resources leader. Abby is an alum of the 5280 Fellowship, and she is passionate about the Denver restaurant scene–ask her for recommendations.