I regularly find myself looking for tools to help increase my productivity. Whether they are productivity books, blogs, or apps, I’m always intrigued by the possibility of doing things more efficiently. That’s why when my friend and fellow Forum contributor Matthew Bracey recommended Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, I immediately ordered it and started to read it as soon as it arrived. The book has been extremely helpful for me in many ways, but one of the more fascinating concepts that Newport presents is what he calls the “any-benefit mind-set.”
The any-benefit mind-set isn’t really difficult to wrap your mind around. According to this mindset, if a given thing or “tool” might add any benefit to your life, or if you might miss out on anything by not using said thing, then you are justified in using it.
Let’s consider a practical example: Facebook. If you are like most people, you have a Facebook account. But at some point you didn’t have one and had to decide whether you wanted to sign up for one. Though some decisions require a list of pros and cons, the decision to sign up for Facebook required only the knowledge that your friends and family were already using it.
Yet what you may not have considered prior to signing up for a Facebook account is how much of your time it would consume. Maybe you did not realize then that instead of focusing on family and friends around the dinner table, you might be tempted to scroll through your Facebook feed for any intriguing updates. When you originally signed up for Facebook, you were excited about the benefit of connecting with old or current friends on an exciting social network. Maybe that was benefit enough for you. However, along with the benefit of greater connectivity came the cost of wasted time and potentially less connection to those closest to you.
Don’t allow this example to automatically make you resist the concept of “any benefit” too quickly. Perhaps social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are valuable enough for you to keep using. However, what you ought to consider is not whether a given tool like Facebook has any value at all, but whether the cost of the tool outweighs the potential value that it might provide. Furthermore, the any-benefit mentality doesn’t just apply to social media. The concept can be applied to a host of things related to work, family, and ministry. I want to take what is a critical concept for Newport and expand it to other spheres of life.
The Any-Benefit Mentality at Work
My father-in-law farms for a living, typically raising corn and soybeans. Let’s say that he normally produces seventy bushels of corn per acre but that a particular instrument like irrigation may help him have a ten percent higher yield. Let’s further imagine that the irrigation will cost him $200,000 to install but that the ten percent higher yield only produces, on average, $10,000 more income per year. That means that, while irrigation would permit him to make about $10,000 more a year, it will take twenty years of increased profits to pay for the equipment. Furthermore, that doesn’t include the expense of maintaining the new equipment.
From this scenario it would be easy to conclude that while installing the irrigation system would benefit him to some extent, the cost outweighs the added benefit. If he were to simply adopt the any-benefit mentality, he would install the irrigation tomorrow. But when he weighs the pros and cons of the irrigation system, he can easily conclude that the added benefit is not worth the overall expense.
The Any-benefit Mentality at Home
We could imagine a similar, though not identical, scenario in the home. A family might decide that they need to purchase a new vehicle. Let’s say it’s a family of five, and they decide they need a vehicle with third-row seating. So they start looking at vehicles with three rows of seats. They realize options vary from minivans to crossovers to full-size SUVs. They also notice a wide price range from make to make. Knowing their budget, they may decide that they need to consider used vehicles.
On a whim, however, because their kids are getting older and they don’t want them to be embarrassed by a used minivan, they decide to purchase a brand-new high-end SUV. It may seem that the crisis is averted. However, this is not the case because their oldest daughter starts college in two years, and they had planned on helping her pay her tuition at a state school. Now, though, the $500 a month that they were going to put towards her tuition is going towards a payment on an SUV. Purchasing the vehicle had certain benefits: It was new and would, they hoped, last a long time. The whole family could fit in the vehicle, and the children’s friends would be impressed by the quality of the vehicle. The benefits of purchasing the vehicle, however, came at the cost of not being able to help their daughter with college tuition.
The Any-benefit Mentality at Church
We often take the any-benefit mindset to church as well. I pastor a church plant in a suburb of Nashville, and as do most church plants, we wanted to get the word out about our church and invite people to visit us. We chose a variety of strategies to accomplish this, including a well-designed mailer we sent to many of our neighbors within a certain distance of the church. We sent out thousands of them on multiple occasions, but never had a strong response to them. Although folks visited, the question arose: “Considering the number of people who are visiting because of these mailers, are they worth the amount of money we’re spending to print and mail them? Or should we consider taking those resources and using them in other ways?” The benefit of sending those mailers was that people were visiting our church, but we had to ask if the overall response to those mailers justified the expense.
Sometimes we make decisions, even in the church, based upon the any-benefit mentality. This can be very dangerous. We might decide to add a program or event to our weekly or annual church calendar because it has some benefit. Or we decide to build a new building, or to add a worship service, or to purchase audio-visual equipment, or to hire a staff member because there is some benefit to doing so. But does just “any benefit” justify the expense, change, or hire? We probably know instinctively the answer to that question is “No.” But churches regularly make decisions based upon the any-benefit mentality to their own detriment.
Technology, for example, can be uniquely alluring to churches and pastors. Programs, databases, digital marketing, and A/V equipment are so appealing, and great value can be gained by using such things, even enough to justify the expense. But we should exercise care, especially in the church, that the fear of falling behind or of becoming outdated or irrelevant doesn’t drive us into the any-benefit mentality. We need to take into account not only the financial costs involved but also the unintended consequences that come with technology and technological innovation, particularly in worship.
Conclusion: “The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection”
As far as I know, Cal Newport is not a Christian, and Deep Work is not a Christian manifesto. Yet readers stand to learn something valuable from Newport’s discussion of the any-benefit mentality. Instead of implicitly adopting the any-benefit approach, we need, at work, home, and church, to use what Newport calls “the craftsman approach to tool selection.” Though the principle is pragmatic, it is valuable.
When considering your “tools,” whether they are purchases, church programs and practices, or even social media habits, we need more than an any-benefit mentality. Simply asking whether a given tool adds any benefit to our lives, jobs, or ministry should not suffice. We need to be certain that any given tool is worthy of our time and finances, and that it does not adversely affect our goals, core values, and mission. Therefore, let’s choose our tools thoughtfully and wisely.
Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York, NY: Grand Central, 2016), 186.