Can You Be Too Productive?

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Sweet is the sleep of a laborer

Ecclesiastes 5:12a

I’ve been interviewed on probably over 100 podcasts in the past three years, and I cannot remember a time when a host has not asked me some version of “How much productivity is too much?” or “Can a believer be too productive?”

There seems to be a tension in the way people view productivity these days. On the one side, there is the push to do more, be more efficient, work harder. But in the last few years, another view has grown in popularity. On this side is the pull to slow down, do less, and get more rest.

This push and pull is often cast as a binary choice between the path of burnout or the path of laziness. Classic productivity gets pejoratively labeled “hustle culture,” and those calling us to slow down get called “the anti-productivity movement.”

So let’s try and answer the question: Can you be too productive?

The Spectre of Burnout

Behind this question is the very legitimate fear of burnout. If I polled my readers, I’d wager that most of you would say you feel more overworked, exhausted, and overwhelmed in the past few years. And from this perspective, some well-meaning productivity nerd popping in to tell you, “Here are seven tips to help you get more done!” can seem just a tad out of touch, like a lifeguard offering a glass of water to a drowning man.

But surely the solution to the danger of burnout cannot be to stop trying altogether, to abandon the pursuit of good and godly work, to give up on seeking to be productive.

If you’ve ever tried that, you know it doesn’t last long. Because if you have even an ounce of godly ambition, you quickly discover that an unproductive life is not a very fulfilling one.

We all intuitively know the solution to burnout can’t be to simply give up. That wouldn’t be right. And that wouldn’t honor God.

So what should we do?

Not an Either/Or

My guess is that, like me, some weeks you’re eager to plan, organize, and execute. You want to get stuff done! But other weeks—the ones where you’re feeling exhausted—you might catch yourself googling how to join the local monastery. That anti-productivity can start to sound really appealing.

When we vacillate between the extremes of overwork and lying flat on our backs it means we’ve been caught up in the overcommitment cycle. But my point here is that some degree of working hard followed by resting hard is to be expected. It’s actually part of God’s design for us. And a Christian view of productivity should encompass both.

Think of your life as if you are a coach managing a sports team. Sometimes, a coach needs to push his team to hustle harder and give it their all. Sometimes, he needs to call a time-out to give his guys a breather. The problem with “hustle culture” is it never gives the team a break, it drives them to exhaustion. The problem with the “anti-productivity movement” is their solution to the guys feeling winded or burnt out is to tell the whole team to retire.

The problem with both extremes is a failure to see the role of both hard work and rest in the bigger picture.

Strategic Rest

Both the coach’s pushing the team hard and his calling them back for a time-out are tactics. Both hustle and rest are parts of his larger strategy, the purpose of which is to win the game. It should be the same with how a Christian views hard work and rest.

For the believer, productivity isn’t just about work, it’s about being faithful stewards of our entire lives. Viewed this way, rest is just as much a responsibility as work. In other words, recreation is not in competition with vocation; they are complementary. Both are responsibilities to be stewarded well toward our ultimate purpose of glorifying God with our lives. And the tools of productivity can help us to be faithful in both.

I’m convinced adequate rest is not even possible apart from giving attention to productivity. As Burk Parsons explains​, only those who plan well are truly able to rest well.

We are living in a generation that doesn’t rest well because it doesn’t know what it really means to work hard, plan well, and say no to various opportunities and activities.

Burk Parsons

So to answer the question I posed at the beginning: No, you cannot be too productive. But you can view productivity the wrong way.

It’s not productivity vs. rest. It’s that both rest and work are parts of our larger mission to lead God-glorifying lives. So the solution to burnout isn’t to abandon productivity; it’s to be more productive in planning for work and rest.

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