Productivity, Untangled: Jen Pollock Michel
About the Guest
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Jen Pollock MichelJen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want (winner of Christianity Today’s 2015 Book of the Year), Keeping Place, Surprised by Paradox (winner of Christianity Today’s 2020 Award of Merit for Beautiful Orthodoxy), and A Habit Called Faith. She holds a BA in French from Wheaton College and an MA in Literature from Northwestern University, and she is also a student in Seattle Pacific's MFA program. Jen is a wife and mother of five and hosts the Englewood Review of Books podcast.
Does productivity really make a great life? Whether you’re trying to find time, save it, manage it, or make the most of it, Jen Pollock Michel’s got ideas.
Productivity, Untangled: Jen Pollock Michel
Jen: There's just not enough time. I'm overwhelmed. I'm pressured. There's so much to do. When you think about being in your early years of adulting and all of the things that you're trying to decide between, and it just never feels like there's enough time to do it all and to figure out what all should even be. - And I think about Psalm 90, “Teach us, Lord to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading. I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and I'll be honest, I sometimes have a time management problem. Now I'm actually pretty organized when it comes to structuring my day and calendar, but I always feel like I could use just a little bit of help.
How about you? How can we best structure our time, when we feel like there isn't enough of it? Well, writer, speaker and podcaster, Jen Pollock Michel is with us to help. Jen's new book In Good Time is all about challenging your assumptions about productivity and developing a grounded, healthy life-giving relationship with the clock. Who can't use that?
Well, first Jen and I are going to talk about her coffee bean dilemma, which a lot of people have. Then we'll talk about why fruitfulness might be a better word to use than productivity and how to practically deal with time anxiety. I know this will be a very helpful time with Jen Pollock Michel.
Okay. I'd like to do a couple little get to know you questions before we hop into like the more meatier stuff. One of the questions I wanted to ask you, if you could have an endless supply of any kind of food for free, what would it be?
Jen: I suppose coffee doesn't count. We're going to exclude beverages, so-
Shelby: Well, probably a lot of people would say that like they could not live without coffee and get it for free. It's like, yes, bonus.
Jen: Yes, I am in a bit of a dilemma because I've always loved coffee and I have a particular bean that I like and now I can't buy it when I'm in - now we've just moved from Toronto to Cincinnati, so I can't buy it here. I've been looking for a new bean and I'm just all out of sorts. So, I guess I'm going to have to say coffee beans.
Shelby: Coffee beans. That's a good answer. I know that certain coffee aficionados, we'll call it that. Like maybe snobs is probably the bad word, but aficionados - they really have to get a particular type. And there's such a loyalty to a certain brand and an emotional experience when someone suggests something other than what they prefer like Starbucks coffee.
There's some people like I live and die by Starbucks coffee. And then some people are like, Ugh, it's like burnt water basically. [Laughter] So, what's the brand actually? What's your bean?
Jen: Well, I was buying it in Toronto. Honestly, it was actually just from a local roaster, Anthony's Espresso, if anybody's interested. They have a whole bunch of beans that they roast and it's actually where I used to get my espresso machine serviced. So, this is the big problem, Shelby, if you really want to know, that when you switch beans and the kind of espresso machine that I have, then you have to recalibrate everything. You're weighing; you're changing the grind; the coarseness of the grind; the fineness of the grind, the timing that with which you pull the shot, like it is a production.
Shelby: It is, yes.
Jen: The problem is that I don't have the same beans. So, all of those measures are changing and I still can't find a bean that I really like. So, I'm spending too much time is really the bottom line. [Laughter]
Shelby: Yes, but I appreciate your honesty because everybody's got their thing. That's true. They've got their thing that they want to be very particular about and if somebody comes in and botches it up in any sort of interference, whether that be a friend or a parent or even people in your family - You're like, “Don't touch that. Don't touch that. You're messing things up here.” [Laughter]
Jen: So, exactly.
Shelby: I'm not a coffee person, but I understand why people are coffee people. I can't endure the bitterness. I can't do it. I heard there's a sweetness on the other side of the bitterness, which is a beautiful sermon illustration in there somewhere, - but I can't do the bitterness. It's just not my thing. But I appreciate that you do. So, this podcast is for young people. Young people, I think, are constantly flooded with opportunities to get better at time management.
So, from late high school all the way through college, of course, and then after graduation in the working world, like figuring life out. It's a pretty consistent landscape of change and upheaval for young people.
You've written a book called In Good Time that addresses things like time management, productivity and efficiency. Those things in and of themselves are good, and they get a lot of things right, but they neglect to recognize really our humanness - things like failure and grief and illness, and even death. How should the college student or maybe like 26-year-old listening right now, how should they view productivity in light of life's trials?
Jen: Well, I think the first thing to understand is that productivity actually comes from the factory. We first started using words like productivity and efficiency when we were talking about how many widgets could a factory produce. Like a literal factory. Literally. So that's kind of where it came from, the scientific, just this idea that we can scientifically manage a factory and we can increase the output.
So, I think anybody can sort of see, there's a bit of a problem when we apply that category to human beings and to human bodies. Actually, I feel like I can speak fairly well to this because I had a lot of loss early in my life. I was a freshman in college when my dad died suddenly. He wasn't sick. He by all indications - this was just a complete shock. I get a phone call from my mom, and she says, “Your dad's dead. You need to fly home.” - And I graduate then. Then actually it was my first year out of college when my brother committed suicide. My only brother.
I will tell those stories. I mean, I guess I'm thinking of listeners who have experienced losses like that - or even if they're not losses of that of that kind of magnitude or consequence, we're all very familiar with life's disappointments. So, time management and the productivity kind of category assumes that your body functions like a machine.
Jen: That you don't have good days and bad days. You wake up, like you flip the switch, and your output is the same Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Well, we kind of know that human beings don't work like that. We get sick, we suffer seasons of grief, just maybe we're depressed. Let's talk about mental health issues. I think just to step back and say, wait, productivity is a category for machines. What would be a better term to use? And I think the more biblical term is fruitfulness. We see that term in scripture all throughout scripture, but I would say that fruitfulness allows us a seasonality to life, to the ways that we live and move and inhabit the world and work.
A vineyard isn't constantly producing. It has Winters and it has Falls. So, there's that seasonality, there's a reason why that imagery is there for us in Scripture to say, “Hey, be fruitful.” Jesus says, “I've called you to fruitfulness, not productivity.”
Shelby: Yes. And so much more helpful categories and gives us room for life's interruptions and mistakes that we make and our failures shortcomings. So even this interview, I didn't say this to you before we got started, but like I was on my way home to get prepared to talk to you. A half an hour before we were supposed to log on to the interview and my wife called me and she had car trouble on the side of the road with her tires. So, I had to turn around and go back and help her wondering about whether or not I was going to make this meeting in time. It worked out okay. I was able to help her and get back in time, but it. That's a perfect example of what we're talking about here.
Shelby: Yes, I had a scheduled appointment. We needed to be productive in our time today and life interrupted.
Shelby: Sometimes it doesn't work out where you're able to make your appointment or even, you know, finish - I don't know, did you finish your semester when your father died?
Jen: I did. And you know, in some ways, honestly, the grief for me really sort of surfaced the following fall when I went back to school and I started getting all the syllabi for my classes and I was like, I literally was having panic attacks.
I didn't know that that's what they were at the time. And it took actually visiting somebody, a college professor, his wife, she was the person who said to me, “You're grieving. You're in a season of grief.” - And that was just super helpful just to be able to have a name for that. So, I think whether - it's like I said - it could be a serious grief or just other ways our lives are contingent, we're not in control. And time management is often sort of seducing us into believing we have a lot more control than we do have and we don’t.
Shelby: Yes. That's really good insight there. So, Jen, in your book you identified this thing called time anxiety. Can you describe exactly what that means? And for those of us who experience it on the regular, where can we find comfort and peace when it flares up in our lives?
Jen: Mm-hmm. Well, time anxiety I think is very simply the anxiety, there's just not enough time. It's this idea of I'm overwhelmed. I'm pressured. There's so much to do. When you think about being in your - the early years of adulting and all of the things that you're trying to decide between, and it just never feels like there's enough time.
Jen: You know, to do it all and to figure out what all should even be. There's time anxiety because we don't know the future. When we think about environmental crises, we don't know what the future holds. I think time anxiety can be related to our to-do list. And it can be related to the uncertainty of the world. It can often be related to our own kind of indecision of like, where do I fit? You know, what is God calling me to? And I think about Psalm 90, which is an incredible Psalm, and in Psalm 90:12 is a verse that some people will be familiar with,” teach us Lord to number our days.that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” [Paraphrased] I think asking God to teach us to number our days. This idea, this practice really of numbering our days, there's a “both and” here. On the one hand time is very - it is scarce. We live a mortal life and for mortal time there will come and end to that.
And so, we're not going to get everything done. Our bucket lists are not going to get checked off. We're never going to feel like, “Oh, I took the right path and now I have no like guilt or worry or fear that that was a wrong choice.” No, like I think sometimes you, you get to be our age and you sometimes just think about all the roads you didn't take.
And now you can't because there's not going to be enough time. So, there's, in Psalm 90 - there is this grappling. The boundaries of mortal life. You might be given seventy, eighty years, Moses says. He's the author of that psalm, but then he also contrasts that with the scale of God's ever lastingness. Time is scarce and also time is plentiful. Because God is outside of time, because we're living into the priorities of his kingdom, which that's been happening before our lives. And unless Jesus returns, it's going to continue after our lives. So, I don't have to be so anxious about the span of my life, because it's really wrapped up into the greater scale of what God has been doing from the beginning of the world.
I think the peace then, is to recognize that time is scarce. Time is plentiful in God's economy. And also, I think the piece is really looking to learn the practices and habits of wisdom. Now, we could have a very long conversation about wisdom, and I think this category in the Bible is so incredible because it teaches us to be responsible for our lives and responsive to the fear of the Lord, to God's calling in our lives. And it means that there are going to be fits and starts. You know that I think one time anxiety for us is that we're afraid of wasting time.
Shelby: Sure. Yes.
Jen: --and wasting time can often be about mistakes, right? Or sins or failures like, “oh, well that was a waste.” Well, no, because if you take the framework of wisdom, you know there are fits and starts. There's a process of learning wisdom. You don't get it all at once. It takes time. It actually takes the time of a human life to bear the fruit of wisdom - we hope, right? For people who are committed to practicing the first principle of wisdom, which is the fear of the Lord.
Shelby: Yes. The older that I've gotten, the more I realize that my most valuable resource is not money, it is actually time. Thanks for breaking that down, and thanks for helping us have a framework for really just being at peace, because that's not really how people feel this day, especially when you start talking about time management, productivity, getting things done.
Shelby: We'll get back to the conversation in just a minute, but now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar.
I have a close friend whose older brother is a dentist, and whenever my friend travels back to his home state, he goes to see his brother and get a free dental checkup and a kind of a cleaning. Every time my friend is in the dentist chair, his brother always says to him, “looks like you haven't been flossing on a regular basis.”
I think all of us can relate with that. Well, my friend always admits to his brother that he hasn't - he's honest with him - and then he confesses that he feels guilty for not doing so even though he knows he should. Flossing is never a bad thing and should be done daily for maintaining proper dental hygiene. My friend knows this.
Yet even though my friend regularly acknowledges to his brother that he doesn't do what he should be doing to care for his teeth and gums, his dentist brother always responds gently with, “It's. If you miss a few days flossing, but then remember, just go ahead and floss that day, and if you miss a few weeks and then remember to floss, go ahead and floss. Then even if you miss a whole year, it's okay. Just floss when you remember to do so. Don't let guilt over not flossing, prevent you from flossing.”
In my Christian life, there have been several occasions when I went without spending time in God's word. Sometimes I'd miss a day or two other times I'd go without cracking
open my Bible for like a few weeks. And in my early years as a Christian, I'd always feel guilty for not doing so. I knew it was good for me, but I would let guilt over not reading my Bible, prevent me from reading my Bible. This is kind of foolish, right?
A relationship with God is based purely on the grace he gives to each one of us. Groveling over the fact that I didn't do what I was supposed to do as a quote unquote good Christian was essentially a method I tried to use to earn the very favor God already gave to me for free. I could not buy his acceptance or forgiveness by feeling guilty because if it could be earned, the cross of Jesus Christ would not have been necessary. We should never ask our works to do what only grace is capable of.
So today, Floss, but more importantly, read your Bible. This has been a Shelby Sidebar on Real Life Loading.
Now let's get back to my time with Jen Pollock Michel. We're going to talk about what to do if you never have enough time to get things done and the importance of beginning and joy in both time management and our relationship with God.
I've heard a lot of people say, “I just don't have enough time in the day. I just can't get enough time.” I think we've all been there. What's your response to people, maybe like me, who are struggling to find just more time in the day? It might be a simple question, but I think you have some really good insight into this.
Jen: Yes, it is kind of a simple question as the one that we're all asking. You know, we're all feeling so extraordinarily busy. I think the first thing we need to say is we are not time realistic. I don't think we're very time realistic. I think that technology actually distorts our relationship to time.
So, it gives us the impression everything can be made to be easy and efficient and effortless, and this is not how real-life works, you know? Yes. So, I want to say to people, I'm like, yes, we’ve got to be time realistic. To be a human being moving through the world, it actually is not as efficient and easy and effortless as we think.
Jen: And it's far, we don't have the control that we think. So again, a lot of times you think about yourself in the morning, let's just say most of us probably write our to-do list in the morning - and that's your most aspirational time of day or maybe in the evening. And you're - tomorrow I'm going to kill it. [Laughter]
You write your list and. Well, what do you, when in writing that list, you don't imagine that you know your wife is going to have car trouble. You don't imagine that your friend is going to call you crying. You don't imagine that you're, you know, all of a sudden you realize there is no food in the refrigerator, and I have to go out for at least for cream for my coffee or whatever it is, you know? Human life is just, it's less efficient than we think.
Jen: So, the first thing I think we have to do is, I think we have to get time realistic. I think we also have to get really, really clear on the things that are important. In doing that we also have to get really, really clear on the ways that we give ourselves to distraction.
So, there's a kind of a, the Scriptural frame really is put off, put on. The Apostle Paul in all of his letters, he doesn't say put on compassion. He first, he says, put off anger.
Jen: Put off bitterness. Now put on compassion. Put on love. So, if we want to talk about busyness in our time, I think we're going to have to say, we have to put off distraction. We're intensely distracted.
And then we got to put on what's important and then we also have to be okay with the things that don't get done or maybe that don't get done as perfectly as we want or as you know, I don't know. We just, we're not going to be able to do it all.
Shelby: Yes. What are some of the distractions that you have found to be most prevalent as you've talked with people about this subject? I mean, can I immediately jump to like social media, people on their phones? Are there other things that you feel like maybe people might be blind to when it comes to distractions in their lives because we can't see it? Our blind spots are by nature blind. We need people to point things out to us. Are there any things that maybe come to mind other than social media that might be distracting people?
Jen: I would say consumerism. I would say the amount of time that we spend shopping or thinking about shopping or investigating what we want to buy. Yes, I mean it's not even the buying, it's the researching what we want to buy. I would say that. I would say perfectionism, like just taking too much time to do things.
For somebody else it might be procrastination, just wasting so much time with the fear and anxiety of getting the thing done rather than like getting a start on it. I would also say sometimes you're just busy with the wrong things. Distraction can sometimes be, you think you're doing good. But they're just not actually the things that God wants you to do.
Jen: I've spent a long time in my life doing that. A lot of that is about approval seeking, about wanting people to just think well of me. So, you asked me to do something. I'm likely to do it because I want you to think I'm nice and I want you to think I'm a good person. So those are lots of different examples, I guess.
Shelby: Yes, it's super helpful and again, ones that I don't think people would jump to. Yearbook gets into eight habits of re-imagining productivity. No doubt. You've already talked about some of those things specifically. The first one that you talk about is real simple. It's just begin. So, talk to me and the young person listening about the importance of the simplicity of beginning.
Jen: Mm-hmm. I love this. I think especially if you're a time management person, they're always about like, begin, begin, begin, you know, decide. Your life can be totally different now. But in the Christian gospel we actually know that can be true; that God can write a new beginning on every day of our lives ,on every season of our lives, and I think that's an incredible amount of hope. What the way I talk about it in that chapter is, well, first of all, you could think about mistakes and failures that you've made, that sometimes you think, “That's it. I'm at an end. There's no getting over that particular mistake or shame or sin.” And I just don't think that that's the gospel. I think that God's mercies are new every morning. One of the ways that we practice hope is we begin. We just say to God, “God, I want to risk another beginning. I don't feel worthy of it. I'm worried that that story that's already been written, like it's going to define all the chapters to come,” but trusting that God is always beginning a new thing. Sometimes you just need a beginning because you are coming out of a season of loss. When I think about the grief in my life, It's hard. It's hard to enter into the fragility of this world and to know that you can love somebody and that you can still lose them. - And I think that one of the things that I notice now is that we really want an invulnerable life. We can begin. with hope not because we know how it's going to end. Not because we know the road ahead is going to be free of suffering, but we begin because God's a beginner and because a beginning is really always about hope.
Shelby: Yes. Maybe a lot of people would consider their lives beyond hope. They think they're beyond repair. But like crack open your Bible and read. That's what God is in the business of all the time for thousands of years. He's been in the rubble, in the mess of our lives, helping to rebuild it. I think that if you're listening to this and you're thinking, “I'm beyond repair, there is no hope for me.” That's just not true. Jesus is in the business of repairing people's lives. Thank you so much for sharing that.
Shelby: Another one of the, the habits that you talk about in the book is, so we talked about begin, but you also mentioned in Joy, which I really wanted to highlight this. Where do we see the habit of joy in the scriptures and why? Like is it important for us to fold joy into our lives today?
Jen: Mm-hmm. Well, the whole theme of the Bible, I would say is pretty much joy,
you know? I'm thinking of even Psalm 16, “I have no good apart from You,” is how that Psalm begins and then it ends with, In Your presence there is fullness of joy.”
Shelby: Yes. Yes.
Jen: Joy is just the product of living in the presence of God, living in right relationship with Him, and just receiving the life that He's given to us. So, we have to make room for joy in our life. I mean, truthfully, again, if you go to the productivity mindset, it's like don't waste a single minute. There's just never time to rest, to be with people, to just do something that you enjoy. Some people temperamentally are like more given to like a drivenness than others.
I mean, I'm sure there's some people listening to this podcast like, I have no problem with joy. You know, my whole schedule is leisure. Well, okay, let's talk about that.
Shelby: That's a different problem.
Jen: But the cool thing about joy, and this is just kind of general sociological research, and I think it bears up, is that joy is when time slows down. It's when time actually expands, and we all know that. Because you can think about that last moment when you experienced like a pure joy. You lost track of time. You were not looking at your watch or your phone or whatever. You were lost in the moment. And I think that kind of time lostness is a gift of joy and it's another antidote to time anxiety, I think.
Shelby: Yes, that's great. So, what would you say to a person who feels guilty or ashamed when they don't manage their time well? Like how would you encourage them? Or what do you think Jesus might say to a person like that who just can't manage their time well? We all know someone like that in our lives, maybe multiple people.
Maybe you are that person. What do you think Jesus would say to them?
Jen: I think Jesus’s wisdom is so often to just get curious, get curious and ask some questions. I think that does two things. Number one, it really allows other people to name some things in their own life that they may not even know. So, let's say the question is, well first of all, what do you even mean by wasting your time?
Yes, I'd probably even start there and they say like, well, I'm just not getting things done and I've got this deadline or I'm trying to finish this graduate application for graduate school and I just can't do that. And all I do is like binge watch and Netflix and it's like - well, I wonder if, do you think that's a time problem or do you think that there's some resistance to finishing that application?
Tell me more about that. You know, so I don't think time management is usually the problem. I think the problem is resistance to doing the things that God's calling us to do, everybody does. I have it too? Yes. I have lots of resistance. Like, you know, I'm in a new season of caring for my mother who's aging and has some health problems, and let me tell you, like I have resistance to that. We all feel resistance to being interrupted, to having to serve other people. These are things that don't come naturally to sinful human beings. So, resistance might be a thing to kind of identify, like is there resistance? You know, if you know these are things God's calling you to do, what's causing the resistance?
There also might just be functional barriers for people who don't manage their time well. I was speaking at an event this fall and I had someone come up to me afterwards and just, you know, feeling like, you know, I just don't know the first thing about executive functioning. So, there may be people who just like me, when I was in college. Eighteen, pulled that book off my college roommate’s shelf and started to read how do I keep a calendar?
Jen: Literally, I did not know. I didn't really know how to do that. Or what I should say is that I was growing into a life that was kind of like bigger and fuller. Now I had to manage more things and I just didn't know how to do all that. That book taught me how to do that. So, some people, if someone says to me, I don't manage my time well, I want to know, what do you mean by that?
I want to know, is there resistance to certain things that you feel that are necessary and good, but you're not able to do or you're not moving toward? And then, do you feel like you have like executive functioning skills? Because I've needed that too and here are some things that have helped me. The interesting thing is I think for especially people who spend a lot of time like on social media, there's a lot of practical advice out there, and it's actually really good.
I'm super thankful for people who are just like, here's how you do things, here's how you manage things, you know. Whether it's your closet or your calendar, you know, just whatever. There's a lot of practical advice out there, but it doesn't always drive down to the deeper root issues of like, but why aren't you doing these things? You could have all the practical know-how in the world. But if you don't know why you're resistant, you're probably not going to get over it. And then that's where you're just like, God, help me.
Shelby: Yes. Yes. Yes. And I'm, I'm glad you combined those things with the practicality of like, let's learn how to do some basic things, but also identify the resistance and then ask yourself why the resistance is there?
Shelby: Um, it's almost like a counseling session really. When you go through it—
Jen: It kind of is.
Shelby: Yes, you kind of counsel yourself. And we're not saying that this is going to be the magic bullet for everybody to fix the fact that they're struggling with time management. But I have found, I'm a pretty organized person.
I like to get things done. I keep lists, I check things off the list. I feel better at the end of the day when I've checked off all the boxes on my list. But there have been certain things in my life that I do not want to do, and I let them pile up. And I've more recently asked myself, why do I do that?
Why do I allow these things, when I'm a pretty efficient in a lot of other areas of my life, but why do I resist this specific thing here? As I ask that question, I diagnose it, and then I can go, okay, well how can I address that specifically in order to make sure that those things don't pile up anymore? Or is it not that big of a deal that it's piling up? You know, if it's really not harming me or my schedule or the other people in my life, like what's the big deal?
Shelby: Jen, this has been such a treat to talk to you today. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for writing about this in a way that is gospel focused, because it's such an important part of so many people's lives, and it needs to be filtered through the lens of Scripture and you've done just that. So, thanks so much.
Jen: Hmm. Thanks, Shelby. This was great.
Shelby: There's not a lot that's being talked about when it comes to this topic of time management from a gospel centered perspective, and Jen is making that happen. So grateful for her and her work. If you want to read more about all we talked about today and much more, you can pick up a copy of her book. In Good Time. If this episode with Jen Pollock Michel was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend or a family member, and wherever you get your podcast it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading, if you'd rate and review us.
And it's whoppingly easy - whoppingly easy, not a real word - to find us on our social. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the show notes. I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team. They make it happen. Josh, Kaytlynn, Jarrett, and Chloe. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.
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