You Need to Recognize Importance Isn’t Binary

As you separate from or eliminate the unimportant, even what remains can be a challenge.1 You can start addressing that challenge by distinguishing interest from importance and focusing on what you can influence.

Beyond that, you can recognizing that there are degrees of importance and that you have some very clear limits. Doing so will help you discern differences in layers of importance in different contexts.

Recognize degrees of importance.

The fact that some things are closer to or farther from being important implies that importance itself isn’t a binary. “Important” and “not important” are helpful core categories. But each of them contains a gradation.

It might be “important” for you to be writing a paper. But when you go into labor—or your spouse does—it becomes very clear very fast that a new baby is more important than a new page of writing.

Respect your limits.

You only have 168 hours in a week. For a good amount of that time, you have a physiological need to be unconscious.

The same was true even for Jesus. Being finite, having limits is part of what it means to be human.

Just because you judge something to be important doesn’t mean you have the bandwidth to invest in it. And if you find you don’t, you may need to recalibrate and tighten up your sense of what it means for something to qualify as important.

As you do, you may find that some things were only just apparently important. But on closer inspection, they’re actually not important.

That status of “not important” might be permanent. You might recognize that you don’t actually need something in your life that you thought you did.

Or the status of “not important” might not be absolute but might, in a bigger picture, just mean “less important.” For example, if your writing a paper gets interrupted by a new baby’s birth, the paper will—at some point—cycle back into being important.

“Important” doesn’t just mean “worthwhile.” Something is important or has more importance only when it’s worthwhile and deserves priority.

You might not be able to give something priority even if you recognize that it’s worthwhile in principle.

If you had no limits, you wouldn’t have to make that distinction. But because you do have limits, what you decide to prioritize has to fit within those limits. Otherwise, you’re back in for the downward spiral of “importance creep.”

Conclusion

Life can easily get quite full. If you’re discerning about including what’s important and excluding what isn’t, that can help ensure everything fits together at the end of the week.

But sometimes “life happens” in larger ways, and even just what’s important can all feel like too much. In these cases, recognizing both the relative importance of different things and the different limits that you have can help you discern and emphasize what’s most important amid everything else.


  1. Header image provided by Benjamin Salvatore

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Why You Need to Get Time Away during the Holidays

As the year comes to a close, you may have any number of loose ends.1 Some of them you’ll need or want to tie up in the coming days. Others you might put off for a bit.

But there’s more to life than your current work demands, your next project, or that last assignment that needs attention before the semester fully ends.

There’s More to Your Craft than Academic Work

Honing your craft as a biblical scholar goes beyond effectiveness in these domains. It also means getting better at integrating other life domains that are just as or more important.

You’re a whole person with a multifaceted life—and those multiple facets are part of what make life rich. So, a core skill you need to hone is how you live as an academic in order to integrate the domains of your life that stretch beyond the academy.

That’s easy to overlook, but it’s hugely significant in the long term. It’s what makes the difference between a life that only has academic results and one that’s rich and full in every domain across the spectrum.

But in academic life, it’s all too easy to continue pressing ahead and leaning forward into what’s coming next. And for that reason, unplugging from that work to invest yourself fully elsewhere takes skill too.

Being away is a part of academic life. And it’s a part that’s worth doing well.

Setting Aside Academic Work Requires Skill Too

You might find other ways of approaching and enjoying time away too, but there are 8 steps that will give you a great start. To summarize, these are to

  1. Recognize there’s more to life than work.
  2. Start planning early. But if you find yourself a bit behind on your end of the year plans, just begin from you are.
  3. Clarify how long you’ll be away and what you’ll be away from. As you do so, especially involve your spouse in this discussion and, as appropriate, your kids.
  4. Identify stakeholders who may need something from you while you’re away.
  5. Communicate with any stakeholders who might need something from you while you’re away, and address their needs ahead of time. Where this might not be feasible, try to negotiate a timeline for completing that request long enough after you’re back so that you don’t have to sacrifice your time away.
  6. Plan for your time away. You probably shouldn’t try to time block Thanksgiving day or Christmas morning. But you don’t want to unplug without any plans so suddenly that it takes time away that you should be enjoying just to get your head out of “productive biblical scholar mode.”
  7. Set an email autoresponder.
  8. Keep your commitment to being away. Don’t be overly ready to “just check” or “only do a little of.” It can wait. And if something comes up that genuinely can’t, negotiate with those it will affect when and how you’ll address that unexpected, pressing concern.

And if you want to dig deeper into these suggestions, check out my much fuller discussion of them elsewhere.

Conclusion

Just like other parts of the craft of biblical scholarship, your ability to unplug from academics and focus on other life domains is also something you can hone over time.

Do it a few times with intention, and you’ll notice yourself gradually getting better at being not just whatever your school or work demands require, but also someone who lives a full life as a whole person.


  1. Header image provided by Jude Beck. 

How to Have Your Best Academic Conference

Every year, the week before Thanksgiving week sees several major conferences for biblical studies and related disciplines.1 Not the least of these is the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Especially given the scale of SBL, it can be a challenging meeting to navigate well. And continuing atop that usual challenge are all the additional factors that go along with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For 2021, SBL is happening in person. But for now a second year running, the pandemic is requiring required some adaptations to long-standing patterns surrounding the conference. And among those adaptations are the inclusion of some online sessions alongside the in-person sessions.

All of this means that we’re very much still all re-learning as we go to varying degrees.

Some of what it means to do the conference well will be the same whether you’re attending in person or online or some of both. Other practices will depend on that mode or mixture in which you’re attending. But however that is, the following steps can help make your conference the best it can be.

Whether You’re Attending Online or in Person

Some practices will dramatically improve your conference experience, whether you’re attending online or in person.

1. Plan in advance what sessions you will attend and when you’ll have other meetings.

At just about any conference—and especially at the larger ones—there’s always too much to take it all in. And just because you can fit a session into your schedule doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, be choosey. Use the conference program or planner to find the sessions most pertinent for you. Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty to do.

But by being choosey about the sessions you attend, you’ll be able to go all in on the few that most align with your interests.

In addition, an academic conference offers a great opportunity to connect or reconnect with others. Simply by virtue of attending, everyone who is attending is somewhat out of their usual day-to-day routines.

So, during the general time frame of the conference can be a great time to catch up, collaborate on current projects, or pitch new ideas.

2. Come to learn, and come to contribute.

Whether you’re giving a paper or listening to one, come to learn and contribute.

Come to learn from the presenters about their work and contribute to the discussion of it. Or come to contribute to and learn from the audience about yours.

In addition, if you come to learn and contribute rather than to impress, you’re likely to do more of both while also lessening the time you’ll spend faced with imposter syndrome.

Particularly if you’re attending a session, recognize that “contributing” doesn’t mean being the know-it-all who “asks a question” that turns into a monologue that scarcely leaves the presenter time to respond or others in the audience time to ask their questions. It means asking a question or making a comment that

  • might help the presenter refine his or her argument or
  • highlights a topic you’d genuinely like to hear more about.

And “hearing more about” it means that you’re hearing while the presenter is talking. If you want to have a fuller conversation, ask or try to catch the presenter after the session.

But even there, recognize that good academic interchange isn’t about strutting or “winning” while someone else “loses.” It’s about cooperative creativity where, even if differences remain (as they likely will), both sides walk away with something gained.2

3. Focus on the sessions you attend.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take attending many academic conference sessions in person before you notice something. During the session, some portion of the audience will be focused on … their email, Facebook, Twitter, the program book, or really anything besides the session they’re physically attending.

Maybe, they’re “multitasking.” But even if they are, studies show they’re not really paying attention.

I’ve been guilty of this practice in the past too, particularly later in a conference when sleep deprivation has tended to set in. But while this kind of distraction help with staying awake, getting adequate sleep is a much better approach that will also help you pay closer attention to the sessions you choose to attend.

What Multitasking Means

As you “multitask” between two or more increasingly complex tasks, your ability to track with either at the same pace drops precipitously. You’ll typically need to elongate the time you spend on the multiple tasks you tried to bundle.3

By contrast, habitual tasks that require very little attention can be more successfully combined with other tasks that require more attention (e.g., folding laundry while listening to a podcast). For this reason, Greg McKeown suggests a helpful distinction between multitasking and multifocusing.4

Why You Shouldn’t Try to Multitask in a Conference Session

But problems naturally arise when you try to combine two incredibly complex and language-intensive tasks like listening to an academic paper and checking your email or social media.

In addition, the easier you make it for your brain to “escape” an academic paper into the world of your email or social media, the more difficult you make it to maintain focus the next time around on a different paper or cognitively demanding activity.5

Plus, if you craft for yourself a very selective conference schedule to start with, you’ll already have biased your schedule toward the sessions that you find more worth attending. And if they’re more worth attending, they’re more worth attending to while you’re in them.

4. Take notes.

Taking notes in a session is a great way to help keep your mind from wandering off—let alone wanting to seek out distracting stimuli like email or social media.

It’s also a good way of helping you retain the content of the papers you attend, whether or not you look at your notes again afterward.

You may have some electronic device with you during a session. (If you’re attending virtually, you certainly will.) So, you may be inclined to take your notes digitally on that same device.

If that works for you, that’s great. But handwriting notes can provide benefits you don’t get if you’re taking notes by typing.6

And if you want to store notes digitally after your conference, Rocketbook has a great notebook-scanner app pairing that makes digitizing handwritten pages very easy.

If You’re Attending in Person

If you’re attending a conference in person, you can substantially upgrade your conference experience in several ways.

5. Budget adequate time to get from place to place.

Especially at a bigger conference venue, it can take a long time to get from place to place. Even if both places are technically in the same building, it wouldn’t be unusual for it to take 15–30 minutes to get between the two.

So, be sure you plan this transit time into your schedule. For instance, I’ll often try to leave 30–45 minutes ahead of time.

And as a bonus tip, if at all possible, wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll thank yourself after several days of getting in more than your usual step count.

6. Enjoy the book exhibit and the serendipity of spontaneous meetings.

Two things that an in-person conference facilitates really well are book exhibits and spontaneous meetings—often in the same space.

These features are another reason that, if you’re attending in person, you want to be choosey about which sessions you attend. The program doesn’t have a slot for “go through the book exhibit, find what’s been published that you hadn’t seen yet, meet new people, and bump into old acquaintances you’ve lost touch with.”

But both of all of those activities are part of what makes an in-person conference something you can leave feeling satisfied about when it’s done. So, make the most of these kinds of opportunities during the conference.

7. Observe the appropriate public health protocols.

The whole guild of biblical studies will breathe a collective sigh of great relief when COVID-19 is behind us and the “public health” measures necessary on a regular basis go back to things that go without saying.

But for the time being, it will improve your in-person attendance if you follow the pertinent guidance about masking, distancing, and the like.

It will help keep you healthy. And even if that’s not particularly a concern for you, it will help keep you from picking something up that you then unknowingly spread to other attendees. And those other attendees not falling ill will definitely help optimize your own conference experience too.

Of course, masking and distancing make in-person meetings rather more awkward. But the burden of asking for those measures shouldn’t have to fall on other attendees.

Instead, take the responsibility on yourself to do what you can to ensure a safe and healthy meeting for everyone. And take that responsibility not grudgingly but charitably and as a way of exercising good, polite neighborliness to the others who are attending in person with you.7

If You’re Attending Online

If you’re attending a conference online, there are also some specific steps you can take to enhance that experience.

8. Have your software and hardware ready.

Well before your first session, be sure to install (or update) and test any software as needed, like Zoom. Also, test your speakers and your microphone.

By getting all of your technology set up early, you’ll avoid last-minute troubleshooting frustrations or delays immediately before a session.

Also, if you’re presenting or otherwise likely to speak during the session, try to use a headset or dedicated microphone.

The microphone built into your webcam, laptop, or mobile device can do in a pinch. But the audio will be much better for the rest of the attendees if you use a dedicated microphone.

If you’re moderating an online session, you might also want to take a few minutes to put together a simple timer background for your webcam.

9. Connect early.

In my first fully online conference, I was scheduled to presented a paper. The morning of my paper, I got on to connect to my session in what I thought was enough time.

It just so happened, however, that my computer also decided that it needed to reboot to install an update that had just come in that morning too. 😐

I ended up still connecting to the session on time even after rebooting and even though I was a bit tighter on the time than I would have liked. But if I hadn’t had the buffer provided by trying to connect to the session early, I could easily have been late for my own paper.

Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, connect ahead of a given session with enough buffer to handle any last-minute issues that arise.

10. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.

“Zoom rooms” and the like do a great job facilitating the structured interaction that occurs in person during paper presentations and discussion times. For the unstructured times before and after a conference session convenes, virtual rooms introduce some special awkwardness.

When you attend a conference in-person, the room allows any number of things to happen before and after the session.

You can sit quietly by yourself. Or you can converse with one or a few other attendees in that session. There might be still more people in the room sitting by themselves or talking in their own groups.

But in a virtual room, everyone attending the session is all in the same group. That can make interaction before and after the session pretty awkward.

If you’re talking to one other person, all the rest of the attendees are listening to your conversation. But the alternative is for you all to sit around staring at each other while you stare into your webcams.

Any way you slice it, the unstructured time before or after a session is going to be awkward. So, try your best not to worry about it.

If everyone’s having a staring contest, feel free to do the same. But also don’t be afraid to break the ice by making some light small talk, especially if you know someone else in the session.

You’ll get to catch up with a colleague. And if anyone else jumps into the conversation, you might meet someone new too.

11. Don’t hog the line.

At the same time, there’s another principle that goes closely along with the fact that you can break the ice. And that is that you shouldn’t hog the line.

A virtual meeting room is a shared communication space. So, in one way, that room is simply another iteration of the concept of “party line” telephone service.

Given that similarity, similar etiquette applies. If you break the ice, be sure also to leave enough space between or after you do so so that others can chime in if they want to as well.

And particularly before the session, it should go without saying that the small talk needs to give way immediately and easily to the moderator when it’s time to bring the session to order.

Conclusion

It can take some work to get the most from an academic conference. That’s true whether you’re attending in-person, online, or some mixture of the two.

But with some forethought and preparation, conferences can provide great opportunities for you to hone your craft as a biblical scholar.


  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre and Product School

  2. For further discussion of this kind of dynamic see, Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 193–296. 

  3. Multitasking: Switching Costs,” American Psychological Association, 20 March 2006. 

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 219–20; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  5. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 157–59. 

  6. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159–68. 

  7. Similarly, see also Martin Luther’s Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, reproduced with permission in 2020 by Christianity Today

What Do You Do When Too Much Feels Important?

Simply asking what’s important can help you see when some things clearly aren’t.1 This status becomes still clearer when you look more closely at things like quantity, duration, context, and interest or agency.

For all that, though, what do you do if “what’s important” is still too much?

You’re already avoiding what’s neither important nor urgent. And you’re making headway on saying “no” to what’s merely urgent but not important.

But what do you do if you’re still in a place where there’s too much that you find important to do it all justice?

When what’s important feels like too much …

It’s a good time to pray. As the psalmist says, “by my God I can leap over a wall.”2

But that should go without saying, and it should be a regular part of your spiritual life even when things don’t feel like they’re too much. The reality is that life can go from manageable to overwhelming both slowly and instantaneously. So, you need to navigate the whole prayerfully.

In addition, laborare est orare, “work is prayer.” And here I’ll focus on the kind of work you can prayerfully do when even the comparatively few truly important things get to be too much.

In this context, several particular strategies can help. The first one I discuss more below, and the remaining ones I’ll address in coming weeks.

  • Watching for importance creep helps you distinguish grey areas at the border of the important and the unimportant.
  • Recognizing degrees of importance and respecting your limits allows you to discern differences in layers of importance in different contexts. And
  • Focusing on what’s important about what’s important helps you see when things that are actually important sometimes have things that aren’t nestled inside.

Watch for importance creep.

Asking better questions can give you a clearer picture of what’s actually important. But sometimes, the dividing line between “important” and “not important” can still appear blurry.

This blurriness can make us feel that some things are important, even when they actually aren’t. This dynamic is “importance creep.”

Importance creep comes from unexamined bleed over from “interest” into “importance.” It causes you to focus on areas of concern that stretch beyond what you actually have control over—your areas of influence.3

Unfortunately, the more effort you spend spinning your wheels in this margin, the less you’ll be able put into the things you can control.

The result is that your area of influence shrinks and the disparity between your areas of concern and your areas of influence grows. Or you might shrink your areas of concern to match the shrinking in your ability to affect them.

Either one is a downward spiral. So, you need to watch for when you might be considering something as important that almost has that status, but not quite.

Conclusion

Even when you prioritize what’s important and cut what isn’t, life can be overly full. Sometimes, that over-fullness comes about because interest can feel like importance.

But learning to distinguish the two and focus on what you have influence over can help clarify your definition of what importance really looks like.


  1. Header image provided by Elisa Ventur

  2. 2 Sam 22:30; Ps 18:29 ESV. 

  3. For these categories and a helpful description of the basic dynamics among them, see Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 88–101. 

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How to Say No to the Urgent But Not Important

Some things are urgent.1 Some are important. Some are both. Some are neither.

As you consider these possibilities, it’s pretty clear that you want to invest yourself into what’s important—not just what’s urgent.

That’s not so hard for things that are neither urgent nor important. They’re not significant like they would be if they were important. They also don’t press themselves upon you like they would if they were urgent.

So, things that are neither urgent nor important can—and should—fall by the wayside pretty easily.

But the same isn’t true for unimportant things that have urgency attached to them. It’s these things that press for more attention than they’re worth. And it’s these things that require you to develop the discipline to say “no” well.

Saying “No” Isn’t an End in Itself

But saying “no” isn’t an end in itself. Your goal shouldn’t be to have the most curmudgeonly, miserly disposition. That’s not what saying “no” well is about.

Saying “no” well stems from a recognition that “yes” and “no” are inevitably intertwined. “No” entails and enables “yes”; “yes” invites and requires “no.”

So, even if you say “yes,” that very “yes” is also a saying of “no.” And the key is neither to avoid nor to perpetually be saying “no.” Rather, it’s to say “no” at the right times, to the right things, and in the right ways to support the important things that you really need and want to say “yes” to.

As you work to identify what these important things are, questions like the following can be helpful:

  1. How much does something matter?
  2. For how long does something matter?
  3. In what context does something matter?
  4. To whom does something matter?

Still, once you identify what’s important and what isn’t, it can be especially hard to say “no” to the unimportant things that remain urgent. That’s why it can be helpful to a student of the art of saying “no” well.

Making a Start in the Art of “No”

A “no” can take any number of forms. But as you’re learning to say it better, you might find some of the following approaches helpful.2

1. Pause or Clarify

Pause or ask for clarification before responding to a new request. The additional information you receive because someone fills the pause or answers your question may help you craft a better “no.”

2. Check Your Calendar

Offer to respond after checking your calendar promptly. Doing so can relieve some pressure for an immediate “yes,” and particularly if you time block, you can also take better stock of how full your current slate of commitments is.

3. Say “No … But …”

Instead of saying “no” alone, say “no … but ….”

This formula can take several forms. You might use it when something isn’t important now but will be important later. In this case, with “no … but …,” you can communicate that you can’t commit yourself to something in one time frame but you can at some discrete point in the future.

I say “discrete point” because you want to avoid the disingenuousness of using “no … but …” to imply a future “yes” that you don’t actually intend to follow through on. As Greg McKeown correctly observes, “Being vague is not the same thing as being graceful, and delaying the eventual ‘no’ will only make it that much harder—and the recipient that much more resentful.”3

Or for something that doesn’t rise to the level of importance (whether now or later), you might use “no … but …” to communicate that you can’t commit in one way but you can in another. Or you might use “no … but …” to communicate that you can’t commit but you know of someone else who might be able to help or another way of resolving the request.

4. Highlight the Tradeoffs

Highlight the tradeoffs of agreeing, and ask whether those are worth resolving. Sometimes, you may receive a request from someone who might not fully understand what the request entails. Once that’s communicated, the request might no longer appear worth while.

5. Consider Pruning Existing Commitments

Explore the possibility of pruning existing commitments. As you do so, you want to clearly do right by the individuals who will be impacted by your stepping back. It’s your commitment, so it’s your job to resolve it and not leave someone else in the lurch or feeling like they let you off the hook under duress.

“Resolving it” might mean giving significant advance notice or negotiating an alternative solution that’s just as good or better for the other party. Or it well mean following through with your prior “yes” to an acknowledged point of completion and being more careful about what you say “yes” to in the future.

Conclusion

Saying “no” is never an end in itself. It’s a means to a different end. But it’s also an indispensable means.

Without saying “no” in a way that corresponds to and supports the “yes” that you wan to say, your days are likely to get filled with the urgent—but not necessarily with the important.


  1. Header image provided by Florian Schmetz

  2. For the basic suggestions that I’ve summarized here, I’m grateful to Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 108–10; Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 140–54. 

  3. McKeown, Essentialism, 139. 

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How to Take Time Away That You Actually Enjoy

It’s hard to believe, but another year is nearing its end.1 There’s a good bit to do before it comes to a close. But with the end of the year comes the holiday season. So, it’s an opportune time to reflect on how you can be really good at taking time away.

There’s more to life than your current work demands, your next upcoming project, or that last assignment that needs attention before the semester fully ends.

Honing your craft as a biblical scholar means getting really good at this kind of work. But it’s not limited to that. It also means getting better at integrating other life important domains as well.

You’re a whole person with a multifaceted life—and those multiple facets are part of what make life rich. So, although it’s often overlooked, a core skill you need to hone for the long haul is how you live as an academic in order to integrate the areas of your life that stretch beyond the academy.

The Craft of Enjoying Time Away

With that in mind, I’d like to offer 8 steps you can take to set yourself up for some enriching time away from the regular beat of academic life over the holidays.

  1. Recognize there’s more to life than work.
  2. Start preparing early.
  3. Clarify how long you’ll be away and what you’ll be away from.
  4. Identify stakeholders who may need something from you while you’re away.
  5. Communicate with any stakeholders who might need something from you while you’re away, and address those needs.
  6. Plan for your time away.
  7. Set an email autoresponder.
  8. Keep your commitment to being away.

Being away provides a valuable chance to spend time with loved ones, invest in other interests, pursue other projects, or any variety of other possibilities. Whatever the case, these steps will help you make the most of your time away.

1. Recognize there’s more to life than work.

Life doesn’t stop. That includes academic life. So, you’ll likely always have plenty enough to keep you busy for more than one lifetime. And sometimes, the best use of time in the margins is to prepare for and get ahead of what’s coming next.

But always leaning into the future can also easily leave us always leaving and unmindful of the present. It can leave us pushing forward at a frenetic pace. And that pace can easily just perpetuate itself, rather than allowing a natural rhythm for rest, reflection, and reorientation.

So, it’s important to push back on the tendency to use life’s margins only for yet more work. By doing so, you make sure you preserve space for those other aspects of life that can all too easily get pushed aside.

2. Start preparing early.

In my experience, taking time away on shorter notice hasn’t normally worked very well. That’s especially true if you’re wanting to be away for what you feel is a comparatively longer time.

When taking time away, I’ve tended to carry with me mentally whatever research, teaching, studying, or administrative activities I currently have on my plate.

I’ve also tended to forget about at least a few loose ends then feel compelled to work on tying them up during what was supposed to be the time away.

And any of this “carrying with” or “forgetting about” or “tying up” ends up subtracting some of the enjoyment from the time away.

On the other hand, if you start preparing early, you can minimize the open loops you have as your time away approaches.

Two Questions to Start Preparing

So, you want to “begin with the end in mind.”2. Start writing down answers to the question “What would have to be true for you to truly unplug during your time away?”3

Your written record will help you minimize anything you may otherwise forget amid everything that’s vying for your attention as you move forward.

Similarly, you’ll want to ask yourself “Are you on track now to be able to unplug while you’re away? Or if you go about ‘business as usual,’ are you likely to leave some loose ends that will short change time away?”

Hopefully you’ll find yourself on a good pace ahead of your time away. And if so, that’s great.

But if you’re even a little unsure, it’s likely you’re overestimating how tidy things will be before your time away. That’s because of a principle called “the planning fallacy.”

What Is the Planning Fallacy?

The “planning fallacy” is the “tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.”4

That’s especially true when we’re faced with more pressure for that activity to be completed on time.

For example, if we’re in conversation with others or if we’re mentally contemplating such conversations we’re more liable to give overly optimistic assessments of how much we can do in a given amount of time.5

How Do You Adjust for the Planning Fallacy?

That doesn’t need to be bad news, though. It just means you’re now aware that you might need to adjust your expectations for the coming days.

You can counter the effects of the planning fallacy by adding 50% to how much time you think it will take to complete a project.6 Or to be still safer, you can try doubling your estimate.

With these updated estimates of how long it will take to complete what’s on your plate, you may find you also need to further triage what really needs to get done before your time away. You might find that some of that can easily wait until you get back.

3. Clarify how long you’ll be away and what you’ll be away from.

Next, you’ll want to decide how long you want to be away and what you want to be away from.

In doing so, you obviously need to be realistic and plan within whatever constraints you may have (e.g., the number of untaken personal days you’ve accrued at work).

But while you’re being realistic, also don’t shortchange your time away. If you have a spouse, involve him or her in clarifying these key questions.

For instance, my wife, Carrie, and I went through this process before our youngest daughter was born. After she arrived, Carrie and I decided we wanted me to be able to be out of the office for the next few weeks.

Around the time of her due date, however, I also had classes I was scheduled to teach. As it happened, these classes were either just going to be ending or they were ones that I’d taught previously. So, we were thankful for that.

We decided on a 30-day window when I’d be out of the office and completely unplugged. The only exceptions would be actions I had to take because they were necessary for teaching those classes. That said, I wasn’t entirely successful in disengaging to this extent (more about that below).

But having a clear intention made it much easier to unplug when the time came. And what I learned from that experience has definitely helped me do a better job since when it comes time to disconnect for time away. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a craft to being away, and that craft is something that’s well worth honing.

4. Identify stakeholders who may need something from you while you’re away.

Once you’ve made some reasonable plans, you need to identify the stakeholders who might normally need something from you and not able to get it because of your time away.

If you’re going to be away only very briefly, this list is probably pretty short (or maybe even completely empty). But the longer you’re going to be away, the more people might be impacted by your time away.

From past experience, you probably know who’s likely to have an urgent request for you at the 11th hour before your time away. So, future “surprises” shouldn’t actually be surprising. Instead, include them in your list of stakeholders as appropriate.

And as you’re thinking about who might be impacted, push yourself to cast the net a bit wider than you’re initially inclined to.

For instance, before our youngest daughter’s birth, I submitted an essay for an edited volume. And I did so well ahead of when I was going to be away.

I then moved to other projects. So, I forgot to notify the volume’s principal editor about my upcoming time away.

Sure enough, while I was away, I got an email about copy editing the essay. Those questions were fairly urgent, as they often are.

So, since I hadn’t given the editor the notice needed to accommodate my time away, I felt I needed to accommodate the tight copy editing deadline.

Thankfully, it didn’t take that long to work through the editor’s questions. But in preparing for that time away, I should have taken fuller stock of not just what was on my plate but also what was going to come back on my plate.

Had I done so, I would have recognized this editor as potentially falling into the group of stakeholders who would be impacted by my time away.

5. Communicate with any stakeholders who might need something from you while you’re away, and address those needs.

Once you have a clear picture of when and how you want to be away and who might be impacted by it, you need to communicate with those stakeholders.

General Considerations

In reaching out to your stakeholders, you want to clearly indicate when you’ll be away and what you won’t be doing during that time.

Ask your stakeholders to give you any requests they foresee in time for you to complete those requests before you’ll be away.

Because you might have multiple incoming requests, you might need to your stakeholders a date several days ahead of your time away to send these requests. That way, you can have adequate time to complete them before you head out.

In this communication, you need to articulate clearly that any requests made after your time away starts won’t be able to get handled until after you return.

Send this notification or start this communication early enough to give your stakeholders adequate time to respond.

It’s probably also good to send a reminder to your stakeholders as your time away gets a bit closer. That way, they have a fresh prompt both about your openness to receiving and addressing their requests and about the boundaries you have around your time away.

Asking for Work Can Save Work

Reaching out to these individuals directly might seem counterintuitive. After all, things have a habit of taking longer than expected. And I just suggested you might need to triage what you can get done before your time away.

If you reach out to others asking for requests from them, you might be more likely to get things added to your plate.

All of that’s true. But the alternative is simply not knowing what your stakeholders might need while you’re away. And that’s not good for them or for you.

If you take that route, you’re setting yourself up for a series of 11th-hour decisions about what requests to cram in. And you’re also likely to have comparatively tenser discussions around requests that you’d prefer to handle after your time away.

Instead of leaving yourself and your stakeholders open for such problems, be proactive.7 Contact in good time those who might need something from you. Let them know that you’ll be happy to field requests from them before or after your time away. But also communicate clearly how you’ll be unavailable during that time.

By doing so, you’re being courteous to those stakeholders, who frankly might be trying to plan some time away themselves. And your reaching out provides an opportunity to negotiate a mutually satisfactory plan for when you’ll get what to whom.

Considerations for Your Upline

If you work under someone’s supervision, you should your upline constitutes a special class of stakeholders who might be impacted by your being away.

And if your work culture is such that you sometimes get requests from someone in your boss’s upline, you might need to consider including them in your list as well.

Among your stakeholders, your upline is particularly important because they have a special ability to either support or hinder your time away.

So, especially if you’re wanting to be away for longer, it’s best to start having conversations with your upline well in advance.

Whether you’re in an academic, church, or other work situation, talk with your leadership. Clearly communicate when you’re wanting to be away and what you’re wanting to do and not do during that time.

Use these discussions to identify and negotiate around concerns that your leaders may have. As you do so, you may find you need to alter your plans for your time away. If that’s the case, be sure to include your family (if applicable) in deciding what those changes entail.

That said, also don’t be too quick to modify your plans for your time away. Don’t accept “win-lose” agreements that are easy in the moment but less satisfying in the long run. Instead, work at finding a “win-win” solution to any concerns.8

6. Plan for your time away.

Don’t walk into your time away cold. You might not want to plan it in as much detail as you do a normal workweek. That’s perfectly fine.

But your time away is valuable, as are the people you’ll spend it with. So, what you want to do with that time away deserves some careful thought.

Even something as simple as a couple short conversations leading up to your time away can help clarify how you can make the most of it.9 It can also help you avoid the temptation to dilute your time away with things that can wait until you’re back at work.

7. Set an email autoresponder.

When your time away begins, set an out-of-office reply or other automated bounce back on your email or other communication channels. (You might actually want to do this a little in advance of when you need to start disengaging. That way, you won’t have requests come in that you don’t have time to respond to.)

A Couple Examples

In the automated reply, you don’t need to give a lot of detail. But do inform the person who’s contacted you when you’ll be able to get back with them.

If you’re taking a comparatively shorter hiatus, something like the following should work:

Thank you very much for your email. I am currently away and unable to respond to your message until [date you’ll start responding normally again]. Please anticipate a response to your message as appropriate after this time.

Or if you’ll be away for longer, you might consider something like this:

Please resend your message on or after [date you’ll start responding normally again] if it is still relevant and you would like me to respond.

I am out of the office [dates you’re away]. When I return, I will be mass archiving email that has arrived during these dates in order to begin responding to pertinent correspondence again as promptly as possible.

Thank you very much.

If you have exceptions to the “please resend this later” request (see step 3 above), you can add something like “The only exception is ….” For instance, when I was away after our daughter’s birth but still needing to manage a few classes, I had the autoresponse indicate that I would respond to an email if the sender was a student in one of my classes or someone with a time-sensitive request about a student in one of my classes (e.g., needing attendance information).

Considerations for Requesting That Messages Be Resent

This second method of structuring the autoresponse may be a bit abrupt. But it helps remove from you the burden of taking the time to reply to possibly outdated requests after your time away.10

An autoresponse like this one also clearly states what action the person making the request should take to get input from you if that’s still needed after your time away.

When I was away for our youngest daughter’s birth, I used an autoresponse like the second one above. But the request to resend the message appeared lower in the autoresponse, and I hadn’t bolded it.

So, it was easier to miss, although the information was all there. And on returning to the office, I did have one case where a critical request wasn’t resent to me. I then needed to handle that request quite urgently.

That was still better than spending the time to sift through a month’s worth of mostly irrelevant email. But stressing at the start of the autoresponse the request to resend an email to obtain a response seems to be helpful in ensuring it’s clear what to do when you return if a response is needed from you on something.

I used this same autoresponse with these updates when I was away for a couple weeks more recently. After my time away, a couple folks did follow up, and I was able to address their requests before they became urgent.

8. Keep your commitment to being away.

If you have some exceptions like the example I’ve mentioned, you’ll still need to check in on those while you’re other wise away.

Saying “Yes” Also Means Saying “No”

As you do so, just remember that “inside ‘yes’ is ‘no.'” If you engage more on these fronts than you’d intended, you’ll automatically be saying “no” to engaging with something else.

Be especially wary if part of this “something else” is family with whom you’ve committed to be present during this downtime (e.g., in step 3 above).

Your time away will go faster than you think it will. You don’t want to look back at the end of it and see that you essentially worked from home, from the beach, or wherever and missed the opportunity to disengage for a bit.

Instead, be fully present with the people and activities for whom you’ve set aside this time to disengage. As you do, a tool like Freedom might help protect what you’ve decided to prioritize during your time away.11

What to Do If Things Come Up

If you find your preparations weren’t full enough, try to avoid squeezing school or work activity back in around the margins. And if something comes up claiming it can’t wait, don’t be too ready to agree with that assessment.

You can make the choice to address these pressing items that might come up. Just be aware that saying “yes” to that automatically means saying “no” to those you’d otherwise be giving your time, attention, and presence to during that time.

You shouldn’t underestimate the relational cost of that “no,” especially if it’s a cost that repeats. That said, if you really think something can’t wait, start by talking through it with those who will be affected by your plugging back in.

Negotiate with them how to move forward from where you are (even if that isn’t where you ideally wanted to be). Then, take away from your experience the lessons that will help you better disconnect during your next time to be away.

Conclusion

The scope and content of time away is different for everyone. It might be a half day at home or several weeks at the beach.

But it’s important for us all to create space to live life as fully in non-academic ways as we do in our academic pursuits. Doing so can definitely be challenging, but it’s well worth the effort.

So, with the steps above, hopefully you can plan some good, enjoyable time away in the not-too-distant future. That time away will then allow you to reengage with academic life even more energetically afterward.

Just like other parts of the craft of biblical scholarship, your ability to unplug from academics and focus on other life domains is also something you can hone over time.

As you do it more and with more intention, you’ll notice yourself gradually getting better at being not just whatever your school or work demands require. You’ll also find yourself getting better at really enjoying the time you spend focusing on other life domains too.


  1. Header image provided by Jude Beck. 

  2. See Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 73–101 

  3. For this way of framing the issue, I’m grateful to Michael Hyatt, “Make Progress on Goals in Only 5 Minutes,” Michael Hyatt & Co., 21 September 2020. 

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 182; italics original; see also Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). 

  5. Cf. McKeown, Essentialism, 181–83. 

  6. McKeown, Essentialism, 181–83. 

  7. Cf. Covey, Effective People, 73–101. 

  8. For discussion of this principle, see Covey, Effective People, 215–46. 

  9. For this suggestion, I’m particularly grateful to Michael Hyatt and Megan Hyatt Miller, “How to Rejuvenate with a Staycation,” Lead to Win, 25 August 2020. 

  10. For this excellent suggestion, I’m particularly indebted to Michael Hyatt and Michele Cushatt’s discussion, “How to Vacation Like a Pro: 7 Steps for Recharging with Intention.” Sadly, it appears this discussion is no longer openly available online. 

  11. For more about how I use Freedom, see Alexandra Dempsey, “J. David Stark: Creating Systems to Prioritize What Matters Most,” weblog, Freedom Matters, 18 November 2020.