At Work & Theology 101

How to Be Productive

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The Bible speaks very highly of planning. For example, Proverbs tells us to “commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3) and that “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5).

Likewise, Paul planned (Romans 15:20-28), Jesus planned (Luke 9:51), and God plans (Isaiah 46:9-10; Ephesians 1:9-11; Acts 2:23). If we are going to reflect God’s image and glory in the world, we can’t run our lives on the fly. Like God, we need to plan.

There is a problem, though: the process of planning is often cumbersome and overwhelming. At one point several years ago, when I was new to the process of planning, I had something like fifty goals I was trying to keep in motion. That was way too much!

In addition to this, many people make New Year’s resolutions, only to cast them aside within just a few weeks. Research indicates that 81% of people who set New Year’s resolutions fail to accomplish them.

How can we take advantage of the “new start” of a new year to set goals and create plans that we won’t ditch right out of the gate?

I would suggest the key lies in simplicity. It’s impossible to keep fifty goals in front of you, but it is possible to keep three goals in front of you. If you add to this the discipline of reviewing your goals and updating them regularly, then with prayer, discipline, and creativity, it is possible to make your goals happen.

With that in mind, here’s what I call the “3-3-4” system for setting goals for the year that you can actually accomplish.

1. Set three goals for the year.

That’s what the first “three” in the name stands for: three goals for the year. One should pertain to your professional life, one to your personal life, and one should be a learning goal.

For example, my learning goal for this year is to learn in more detail about ending extreme poverty. It may sound slightly audacious to think that’s even possible, but as many have pointed out (such as Scott Todd of Compassion International’s Live58 initiative), it is indeed possible to end extreme poverty in our generation. I’ve been learning about this for a while, but I have fifteen books left that I want to read on this subject. I’ve made it a goal for the year to get through them.

2. Break your three goals into smaller pieces.

Specifically, break each goal down into a sub-goal that you can accomplish in the next three months. This is the second “three” in the system—take your three overarching goals for the year and break them down into three goals for the first quarter of the year. With my learning goal, for example, that might mean my goal for the first quarter is to read five of the books on ending poverty by the end of March.

3. Review your goals and create sub-goals for the next quarter.

At the end of each quarter, review your yearly goals and break off another piece, creating it as a sub-goal for the next quarter.

For example, with my learning goal, the goal for the second quarter would probably become “read the next five books.” Or, if I hadn’t accomplished my objective of getting the first five books read yet, the goal might become “read ten books this quarter.”

Alternatively, I might realize that fifteen books is too many (unlikely!), and realize I have to modify my goal for the year. This is the beauty of the system: it allows you to set concrete objectives while adapting and remaining flexible—which is at the essence of effective planning.

You then repeat this process each quarter, which is the number “four” in the “3-3-4” system: do this for each of the four quarters of the year.

In other words, since there are four quarters in a year, you set three goals for the year (the first “3”), break them down into three sub-goals for the first quarter (the second “3”), and repeat this for each of the four quarters of the year (the “4”).

Before you start planning…

The last thing to remember here is that, even with the best planning and discipline, our goals might not always turn out the way we hoped. Even Paul, the most effective church planter in history and a model of planning and setting goals (Romans 1:10-13; 15:20-33), apparently did not accomplish his goal of reaching Spain. But the plans he made were nonetheless an essential component through which God brought about what he had planned for Paul.

God often will bless our plans and cause them to happen (Proverbs 16:3). But we must ever remain flexible and do our planning in complete dependence on God, realizing that “it is heaven that rules” (Daniel 4:26)—not us.

This doesn’t make our planning irrelevant, but it does mean that we should expect some twists and turns. God sometimes will do some amazing things that may seem like setbacks. but in fact are going to take us quite far beyond anything we might have planned or imagined (Ephesians 3:20).

And, I would suggest, it is precisely the planning that we do which equips us and makes us ready for those surprising opportunities God brings our way.

Editor’s note: We hope that you found this post helpful! If you want to learn more about why our work is important to God and how we as Christians can better steward our time, resources, and opportunities to serve him and other people, check out Hugh Whelchel’s book, How Then Should We Work?, by visiting our bookstore.  

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  • Prajish Prasad

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the post. This plan looks doable and effective. Will give it a shot.
    A quick question. What would a personal goal look like? Does it mean working on a certain weakness I have? And how do I create sub goals for a personal goal?

    • Matt Perman

      Great question! A personal goal can be anything from “lose 20 pounds by the end of April” to “identify and move in to a new house by the end of the year” to “identify and implement 3 ways to become more involved in my community.” The key is to realize that our personal lives deserve just as much intentionality and planning as our professional lives. I would recommend that the personal goal be something significant and important which helps move your life forward in a significant way.

      I’d then break the personal goal down in the same way as I recommended for the example of the knowledge goal. If the goal is to lose weight, for example, I’d actually break that down monthly, into “lose 8 pounds in January,” “lose 8 pounds in February,” etc. (Obviously that goal would not take the whole year.) Or if it’s to move into a new house, the goal for the first quarter might be to save a certain amount of money to get your down payment where you want it to be (assuming you don’t have a super long way to go), the goal for the second quarter might be to identify the neighborhood, the goal for the third quarter to identify the house and purchase it, the goal for the fourth quarter to move in. Obviously you can speed up the process as desired–you don’t have to wait to move on the next phase of a goal just because the current quarter isn’t over, if you don’t want.

      One thing I would caution against is making the goal something about improving your weaknesses. I believe that we are most effective when we focus on building our strengths (the things that strengthen us and we excel at), rather than minimizing our weaknesses. Thus, while a goal to improve a weakness would likely not yield a great return, a goal of building a certain strength further (through the addition of knowledge or building of skill to an area where you already naturally exhibit a certain talent and affinity) would be a great goal.

  • Nucreashun78

    Hey Matt,
    Thanks for the great suggestion for goals in 2014. Do you happen to have a written example of what this would look like on paper…?

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