The Catholic Productivity Book that You've Never Heard Of

You can't min-max the value of true craftsmanship…

The Catholic Productivity Book that You've Never Heard Of
My copy of The Intellectual Life, by A.G. Sertillanges

Productivity culture is killing your ability to do real work.

And mine too, for the record. Our modern obsession with the newest note taking app or best todo system is shredding our efficiency, distracting us from actual work, and promoting a culture of performance guilt about how much we achieve on a given day.

I've learned this through hard experience.

I've enjoyed watching Youtube "time-saving" videos, reading all the best books on habit-building, and listening to work-focused podcasts as much as the next guy.

And some of it is good. Like I said a couple of posts back, the Theme System from the Cortex podcast has really helped me in a lot of ways. But it's a diamond among coals.

Instead of helping me steadily improve my productivity performance and progressing toward my goals, focusing on being "1% better every day"1 sent me into an occupational crisis that spiraled into a motivation killer for a long time.

All said I don't think the impulse that drives many of us to this type of media is bad.

We all want to be better at what we do, and that's a great desire. But no one2 really seems keen to actually expend much effort to actually make the work we do good.

But as the wise author we'll discuss today once wrote3:

To get something without paying for it is the universal desire; but it is the desire of cowardly hearts and weak brains.

Lessons from The Intellectual Life.

I first heard about The Intellectual Life from Jared Henderson, who's done his own share of content on toxic productivity.4

The recommendation came at just the perfect moment, and really help me re-orient myself out of the productivity pit I found myself in.

I'm actually in the middle of rereading it and I'm learning a lot more this time around.

A bit about the book.

The Intellectual Life was written by Dominican friar A. G. Sertillanges in the first half of the 1900s, though the copy I'm reading was republished in 1998.5 And despite our introduction today, it's not primarily written as a productivity book.

It was written as a reclamation of vocation. Specifically the contemplative and creative vocations. It's a treatise to those called to a certain kind of labor in life.

That said, it does cover very practical topics like:

  • Advice on what and how to research.
  • Note-taking.
  • Time management.
  • How to properly balance a study life and social life.

Looking at work through the right lens.

None of this is discussed purely for the sake of "optimization" or short-cutting, however. In fact, Sertillanges is all about taking the proper time to pour over our work:

Do you want to have a share in perpetuating wisdom among men, in gathering up the inheritance of the ages...? That is the lot reserved for you. it is surely worth a little extra sacrifice.6

It's lofty language for sure, but it strikes the heart of what Sertillanges wants to communicate right from the outset: You can't min-max the value of true craftsmanship.

Occupation in vocation.

As we said before, The Intellectual Life, is a book about reclaiming the idea of vocation, not about landing your dream six-figure job. Our occupation ought to serve our vocative duty in life.

We don't work to live the dream, we have a call we work to see achieved.

That call is the centerpiece of our work, and for Catholic creatives7, our Dominican guide would see that we are called to serve truth, and communicate it in a multiplicity of ways:

No one thinks…without calling up a whole complex of images, emotions, sensations which are the culture medium of the idea.8

Getting further, even in failure.

And while he warns against the vainglory of trying to make a name for ourselves, A.G. Sertillanges doesn't see vocation as diminishing our working aims.

Rather he sees everything, when treated properly, as furthering us towards them.

…as Foch said 'It is with remainders that battles are won.' You have failed in something now, which will prepare you to succeed in something else — to succeed, in short, as everyone who is worth anything, and tries, is sure to do.9

A big theme I'm noticing in the book on this read is that the quality of the work we do is way more valuable than the quantity of content we can produce in any given amount of time.

Setillanges wants us to make good use of the little time we have:

Have you two hours a day? Can you undertake to keep them jealously, to use them ardently...If so, have confidence. Nay, rest in quiet certainty.10

Two whole hours.

Two hours can be an easy or a monumental ask depending on where you are in life. But The Intellectual Life would encourage you to keep them set aside for your vocative work.

For me, I keep these set aside for times of active and passive work in terms of my writing. Whether I'm reading, researching, outlining, drafting, etc. I'm trying to do what needs to be done in these two hours each day.

With my ADHD keeping singular focused for two whole hours can be quite the struggle, though, and this is where that productivity-impulse kind of comes in to help. I use the Pomodoro method to break up my work into solid chunks before letting my mind rest a bit.

Healing the head, cheering the heart.

This is why I think A.G. Sertillanges' The Intellectual Life is the best productivity book Catholic creatives have never heard of.

Its take on productivity through the lens of vocation helps heal us of our modernist obsession with optimization and actually encourages us to put heart into the work we know we are meant to do.

It's showing me again and again that though the work I do may not be perfect, though I may not meet all my goals overnight11, if I put the time aside for real vocation-worthy work into things that are good, that matters.

Maybe not to everyone else, but it still matters.

Ora et Labora.

To close out, I'll leave us with a comment Sertillanges makes while quoting Auguste Gratry as an encouragement for each of us to find that call and work toward its fruition.

"We pray before the crucifix," says Gratry — we must also work before the crucifix — "but the true cross is not isolated from the earth." 12


  1. This is a concept taken from James Clear's book Atomic Habits. To be fair to James' use of the idea, he used the British Cycling team as an example of how and when to apply it, which makes sense since the Law of Diminishing Returns is actually at play there.
  2. Myself included.
  3. The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges, p. 12.
  4. Jared's whole channel is worth a look, really, and I've been a fan of his for a long while.
  5. The year I was born, funny enough.
  6. This quotation starts on p. 11 of the main text.
  7. I would contend, despite the name, this book is a should-read for all those creatives in the Church who wish to properly orient their work towards virtue.
  8. p. 34.
  9. This quote is from the preface, p. xxvii
  10. p. 11 again.
  11. Though really, who does?
  12. p. 13