How to Quickly Create a Dynamic Table of Contents

Creating a table of contents manually can be a pain and consume much more time and attention than it should.1

Fortunately, you can let Word do the heavy lifting by creating a dynamic table of contents that updates automatically with your document.

1. Prepare your document.

Word can manage a table of contents multiple ways. Rather than discussing all of these, I’m going to describe what seems the simplest method.

So for the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going to assume two things:2

  1. You’re using heading styles to format the headings within your document.
  2. You’ve set up the page numbers for your table of contents in Word as described in the Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style.

If either of these isn’t true, update your document accordingly.3 Then come back here, and go through the steps in the next section to add your table of contents.

2. Add your table of contents.

Once you have your document prepared:

2.1. Create your contents page header.

Place your cursor at the start of the page in your document where you want to insert your table of contents (e.g., the page numbered “ii”).

2.1.1. What SBL Style Requires

Then, type “Contents” at the top of this page. SBL style wants you to

  1. place this term one inch from the top edge of the page,
  2. center this heading across the page,
  3. have the word “Contents” in all uppercase letters, and
  4. have two blank lines between this heading and the start of your table of contents.4

2.1.2. How to Produce What SBL Style Requires

From this list, especially items 2–4 follow what SBL style asks for with your document’s primary headings (e.g., “Heading 1”).5 But you shouldn’t use your primary heading style to format the “Contents” heading. If you do, your automated table of contents will make its first entry “Contents.” 😛

To avoid this issue, however, you can format the “Contents” heading with the “TOC Heading” style. And just like any other style, you can adjust this style’s formatting to meet the requirements of SBL style. That way, it’ll be ready and waiting for you when you need to use it in a new project.

After you’ve typed and formatted this heading, place your cursor on the next line available for text below the heading.

Contents Page Header

2.2. Start inserting your table of contents.

Go to the “References” tab, find the “Table of Contents” section, and click the “Table of Contents” button.

Word has a few different tables of contents predefined. But it’ll probably be easiest for you to use the “Custom Table of Contents…” option at the bottom of the “Table of Contents” button menu.

This will open the “Table of Contents” tab in the “Table of Contents” dialog box. (The names are quite creative, aren’t they?)

2.3. Set the basic formatting for your table of contents.

Where you see “Tab leader,” change the option from “……” to “none.”

(If you’re following the Student Supplement, you’ll have the dotted leader only for your primary headings.6 So it’s easiest just to add them there rather than remove them everywhere else.)

Still on the “Table of Contents” tab in the “Table of Contents” dialog box, also find the “Show levels” option. Increase this number to “9.”

You may not have that many heading levels (and probably shouldn’t). But per the Student Supplement, the table of contents should include “every element of the paper that follows.”7

Increasing this number to the maximum now should prevent you from having to change it later or miss headings out of your table of contents.

Click “OK” to create your table of contents.

2.4 Review your initial table of contents.

At this point, you should see a table of contents in your document that looks something like the sample below.

Of course, what the table actually shows will depend on the headings you’ve included in your document.

If you don’t see what you were expecting, double check that you’ve used heading styles in the appropriate places and at the appropriate levels in the body of your document.

Add or change these where necessary (e.g., from “Heading 3” to “Heading 2”).

Also note that the casing for each line in the table of contents will be as it is in that heading, even though the heading might be formatted in all caps.

If you see capitals or lowercase where you were expecting the other, retype that heading in the body of your document, with the proper casing.

Your table of contents will update automatically at different times. But to force an update at any point, right click inside the table, and choose “Update Field,” then “Update entire table,” and click “OK.”

The individual lines of the table of contents are also linked to the corresponding places in your document. So to jump there, just Ctrl + click on a given line in the table.

Conclusion

At this point, you’re saving yourself a huge amount of time and effort managing your table of contents. You’re also able to use the table in Word to skip easily to different parts of your document.

But you may notice that the formatting of the table of contents isn’t yet quite what the Student Supplement is asking for.8 So you’ll want to take careful stock of how the formatting needs to be adjusted, which can be done with styles as well.


Tired of fighting with Word? Want to be done with frustrated hours fussing over how to get the formatting you need?

My new guide shows you how to bypass all of this so you can let Word work for you while you focus on your research.

Garrett Thompson (PhD)

For students in any graduate program, mastering the full range of available research tools is crucial for efficient and consistent productivity. Dr. Stark has mastered these tools—the most important of which is Microsoft Word…. Students eager to take their work to the next level would do well to follow Dr. Stark’s in-depth guidance.


  1. Header image provided by Kaitlyn Baker

  2. I’m also assuming you have a current version of Word via Office 365. These instructions are based on v16.0.12430.20046. They should work on other recent versions as well. But you’ll notice greater differences in the process if you have an older version of Word. 

  3. If you need to paginate your table of contents differently, however, simply substitute your requirements in the appropriate steps below. 

  4. The first three requirements are clear from Melanie Greer Nogalski et al., Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style, Second Edition, ed. Joel M. LeMon and Brennan W. Breed, rev. ed. (Atlanta: SBL, 2015), §3.2. The fourth isn’t explicitly specified in the student supplement. So, in this case, SBL style defers to the authorities for Chicago style. And the spacing between the table of contents heading and the table itself is specified in Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, ed. Wayne C. Booth et al., 9th ed., Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), §A.2.1.7. 

  5. Cf. Nogalski et al., Student Supplement, §2.6. 

  6. Nogalski et al., Student Supplement, §3.2. 

  7. Nogalski et al., Student Supplement, §3.2. 

  8. Nogalski et al., Student Supplement, §3.2. 

10 Reasons You Need to Read Your Bible

Academic biblical studies requires spending quite a lot of time in an array of primary and secondary sources.1

And among these sources, the Bible itself is the most primary. So, it’s important to maintain a regular habit of reading it for at least 9 reasons—namely, to

  1. Remind yourself that biblical studies is about the Bible.
  2. Remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.
  3. Understand the biblical authors’ worldviews.
  4. See things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
  5. Correct your reading of one passage against another.
  6. Focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.
  7. Sharpen your languages.
  8. Find things you won’t in translation.
  9. Notice scribal errors.
  10. Learn vocabulary.

Of these, the first 6 apply whatever language you’re reading in. The last 4 are special benefits if you’re reading the Bible in its primary languages.

1. Remind yourself that biblical studies is about the Bible.

A lot of academic biblical studies has to do with thinking critically about the biblical text. It has to do with bringing preconceptions into question and making judgments like historians. It has to do with looking closely at the text again and again.

This work is good and important. Nothing can substitute for this kind of detailed, careful attention to a particular book, a given passage, or even a single verse.

But with this kind of close attention also comes the danger of paying so much attention to the individual trees that the forest fades from view.

There’s a risk of increasing knowledge of a small slice of the biblical literature at the cost of increasing unfamiliarity with other parts.

To counteract this tendency toward unfamiliarity, it’s helpful to cultivate a regular habit of Bible reading.

2. Remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.

Not all biblical scholars claim membership in a particular faith community—especially one they see as relevant to their scholarship.

But biblical scholarship is a coherent discipline only because of the faith communities within which biblical texts emerged.

In practice, “Bible” might mean quite a lot of different things. It might be

  • A “Hebrew Bible” without a New Testament,
  • A “New American Standard Bible” with a New Testament but no apocrypha, or
  • A “New Jerusalem Bible” with both a New Testament and apocrypha.2

But whatever its specific content, speaking of a “Bible” as such inevitably requires reckoning with a text that has been deeply embedded in the faith and practice of the communities that have cherished it.

Ignoring this history is then precisely a historical oversight. And critical biblical scholarship undertakes precisely the task of avoiding historical oversights.

In addition, if you come to the biblical text from one of its communities, reading the text for its own sake can help remind you to cherish it—whatever else you also then do with it, either analytically or critically.

3. Understand the biblical authors’ worldviews.

H.-G. Gadamer helpfully reflects on what it means really to understand an author, saying,

We can set aside Schleiermacher’s ideas on subjective interpretation. When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author’s mind [in die seelische Verfassung des Authors] but, if one wants to use this terminology, we try to transpose ourselves into the perspective within which he has formed his views [in die Perspective, unter der der andere seine Meinung gewonnen hat]. But this simply means that we try to understand how what he is saying could be right. If we want to understand, we will try to make his arguments even stronger.3

Understanding “how what [another person] is saying could be right” can be a tall order even toward those who share our same cultural contexts, or our own homes. And if this kind of understanding of the “perspective within which [another person] has formed his[ or her] views” can take such consistent time and effort, it’s certainly to be expected that similarly sustained effort will be required to understand the biblical authors.

4. See things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.

Specialists in any given book or corpus have a real tendency toward functional ignorance of other books and corpora.

Specialization can be logical. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of not knowing other primary literature that might also prove relevant.

For instance, Luke and Paul shouldn’t be confused. Still, they’re at least both very early witnesses to the memory, faith, and practice of the Jesus movement.

So, these texts might, in principle, have just as much to say about each other as would Josephus or Philo. Readings of Luke might then feasibly enrich readings of Paul, just as much as would readings of Josephus or Philo, and vice versa.

But literature you don’t know the contents of can’t help you. So, it’s helpful to read widely across the biblical text, as also in other primary literature beyond it.

5. Correct your reading of one passage against another.

Related to the prior benefit is the fact that seeing things you won’t by reading only isolated passages can help you correct your interpretation of one passage against another.

Everyone understands some things better than others. And the more widely and carefully you read, the more the text has a chance to “push back” against interpretations you may have that are less than fully adequate.

Insight from Gadamer

Gadamer usefully reflects on this dynamic as well, asking,

How do we discover that there is a difference between our own customary usage and that of the text?

I think we must say that generally we do so in the experience of being pulled up short by the text. Either it does not yield any meaning at all or its meaning is not compatible with what we had expected. This is what brings us up short and alerts us to a possible difference in usage.



A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the texts alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither “neutrality” with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.4

A Personal Example

A personal example of this would be in my reading of 1 Cor 15:3a. In this text, Paul says he communicated to the Corinthians “ὃ … παρέλαβ[ε]ν” (“what [he] received”), but the text doesn’t there specify from whom he received it.

What I’ve Suggested Previously

In my essay in Scripture First, I comment in passing that the reception is “from others who also preached” the same message as Paul.5 In particular, I suggest that “part of what Paul likely received is a summary of the key components of the message that he rehearses in 1 Corinthians 15:3b–5.”6

That kind of interpretation is reasonably common for 1 Cor 15:3a.7 And it allows a few options for how one might understand 1 Cor 15:3 as consistent with Gal 1:12 and 2:1–10.

Options for Integrating 1 Corinthians 15:3 with Galatians 1:12 and 2:1–10

Among these are that,

  1. Both passages refer to the same core gospel, but they speak about Paul’s reception of it in different ways and at different times. Galatians stresses his initial reception of the gospel from Jesus; 1 Corinthians mentions how Paul later had this same message echoed back to him by others besides Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:3, 11; Gal 2:2, 6–10).
  2. Galatians refers to the essential content of the gospel, which Paul received from Jesus. But 1 Corinthians is concerned with the specific form of the condensation of this gospel that appears in 15:3b–5, which Paul may have received from others besides Jesus.
  3. Galatians refers to the essential content of the gospel, which Paul received from Jesus. But 1 Corinthians is concerned with additional information about Jesus (e.g., details of his post-resurrection appearances) that Paul might not have been privy to the details of previously but that also didn’t pertain to the core message he preached (15:6–7).

What I’m Now Pondering

That said, in 1 Cor 11:23a, Paul says that he “παρέλαβ[ε]ν ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου” (“received from the Lord”) information specific to the Eucharist’s institution (see 1 Cor 11:23b–25). That specificity makes me wonder afresh about the source Paul implies for “what [he] received” in 1 Cor 15:3a.8

Resolving this reopened loop will take some more work. But it’s a good thing that it’s reopened. And at least in the interim, that reopening will cause me to downgrade the “receiving from others besides Jesus” interpretation of 1 Cor 15:3a from “likely” to merely possible or to re-entertain the idea that both Jesus and others are included.

6. Focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.

When you think of Bible reading, you might tend to think of silent reading. But reading the text aloud can be beneficial too.

In a group, reading aloud helps everyone follow along at the same place. If you’re reading aloud to yourself, that’s not such an upside. You always know where you are.

But if you read the text aloud—even by yourself—you engage another sense in the reading experience. By doing so, you push yourself that much more into the experience of reading.

Do you ever get distracted when “reading” a page silently? You then suddenly realize you have no idea what you’ve supposedly just seen while your mind was wandering.

By contrast, if you’re reading aloud, you’ll probably realize much quicker that your mind has started to wander when you run out of words coming out of your mouth.

Engaging another sense also gives you another chance to make connections in the text that you might read right over on paper but pick up when hearing yourself repeat the same phrase.

7. Sharpen your languages.

When you read the biblical text in its primary languages, you can hone your ability to work with these languages. You’ll get a better feel for the languages by experiencing them first hand rather than only reading about them in a grammar.

Grammars do, of course, make very profitable reading on their own. 🙂 But they can’t substitute for deep, first-hand familiarity with the literature they try to describe.

If you’re reading in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, you can even take the opportunity to read the text aloud too. That way, you can practice your pronunciation and develop your “ear” for the language.

Don’t worry if it sounds bad or halting. And don’t worry too much about your choice of a pronunciation system.

As a child, that roughness was part of your learning process for your first language. It will be here too.

But gradually, you’ll find yourself making progress. You might even see things in the text that you’ve previously missed because you heard yourself saying the text aloud.

8. Find things you won’t in translation.

To communicate some things in whatever language, translators inevitably have to obscure others. This fact is wonderfully encapsulated in the Italian proverb “traduttore traditore​”—”a translator is a traitor.”9

From an English translation, you might well learn about a time when a ruler of Egypt dreamed about cows. But English simply isn’t able to communicate the humorous irony involved in having פרעה (paroh) dream about פרות (paroth; Gen 41:1–2).

Many translations do a great job with rendering the core of what a passage communicates. But for the fine details both within and across passages, there’s no substitute for reading the original text.

Here also, your lack of familiarity with a biblical text’s primary language can sometimes be an asset. In translation, you might well read the text too quickly and so gloss over important elements within it. But by reading the text in a primary language, you might pause long enough to consider it more deeply.

9. Notice scribal errors.

One way to notice scribal errors is, of course, to read the apparatus in your critical biblical text. But by reading the biblical text itself, you can also notice scribal errors—namely, your own scribal errors.

For me, reading aloud particularly helps in this regard. I’ll hear myself say something. I’ll then realize what I just read aloud is related to what’s in the text but isn’t exactly the same.

These differences are often examples of well-known kinds of errors that copyists might make during their work. And making them for myself gives me a more first-hand appreciation for when and how these errors might arise.

That better appreciation for possible pitfalls in reading a given text can prove helpful in several ways—not least in helping me be a more aware reader the next time around.

10. Learn vocabulary.

When you learn biblical languages, you learn a certain amount of vocabulary that occurs frequently. But even with this under your belt, there is still a huge amount of vocabulary you don’t know.

Continuing to drill larger sets of vocabulary cards might have a place. On the other hand, you may well remember the language better by seeing and learning new words in context.

You’ll also learn new usages, meanings, and functions for the vocabulary you thought you knew. You may have learned a small handful of glosses for a word. But you’ll start seeing how that term might have a much wider range of possible meanings than the glosses you memorized.

Don’t Settle for the Cliché

Unfortunately, biblical scholars who don’t have a regular discipline of Bible reading are common enough to be cliché.

Whether you find yourself in this boat or whether you’d just like to join others who are actively in the text, I’d like to invite you to join my students and me this term in our readings of the biblical text.

Every term, my students and I do a daily Bible reading exercise together. If you’re working in the original languages, I’ve scaled the readings to be short enough to complete without taking too much time out of your day. But the reading plan will work whether you’re using a translation or working from the biblical text in its original languages.

It would be wonderful to have you join us. To get started, just drop your name and email in the form below.

You’ll then get an email delivering this term’s readings. And you’ll be ready to pick up in the biblical text right where my students and I are.

Looking forward to reading with you!


  1. Header image provided by Kelly Sikkema

  2. For further discussion, see my “Rewriting Prophets in the Corinthian Correspondence: A Window on Paul’s Hermeneutic,” BBR 22.2 (2012): 226–27. 

  3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1989; repr., London: Continuum, 2006), 292; Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 303; italics added. The German insertions are drawn from Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960), 297. 

  4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 280, 282. 

  5. J. David Stark, “Understanding Scripture through Apostolic Proclamation,” in Scripture First: Biblical Interpretation That Fosters Christian Unity, ed. Daniel B. Oden and J. David Stark (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2020), 56. For more about Scripture First, see “6 Ways to Make Scripture First.” For more about my essay, see “Behind the Scenes of ‘Understanding Scripture through Apostolic Proclamation’.” 

  6. Stark, “Apostolic Proclamation,” 56. 

  7. E.g., Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PilNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 745; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 32 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 545–46; Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 254–55; Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians, ed. William P. Dickson, trans. D. Douglas Bannerman and David Hunter, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1879), 2:42; cf. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 88–89; A. T. Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2nd ed., ICC (1914; repr., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1929), 333. 

  8. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, BNTC (London: Continuum, 1968), 337; John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, 2 vols., Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1848–1849), 2:9. 

  9. For making me aware of this proverb, I’m grateful to Moisés Silva. 

How to Put More Focus beyond Email

Focusing is like balancing.1 It’s not something you do once but continually. And amid conflicting demands on your attention, focusing more on what actually matters takes the form of four steps:

  1. Eliminate what is not important and not urgent (Quadrant 4).
  2. Separate yourself from what is urgent but not important (Quadrant 3).
  3. Abbreviate the impact of things that are both urgent and important (Quadrant 1).
  4. Concentrate on what is important but not urgent (Quadrant 2).

To make these 4 steps more concrete, however, let’s take the example of email.

Email as an Example

For good or ill (or some of both), email is ubiquitous in biblical studies.

Sometimes, important things happen in email like submitting a journal article or responding to reviewers’ comments about it. But nobody gets into biblical studies from a desire to read and write email. So, it’s a good candidate to walk through the 4 steps with.

For each step, I’m not suggesting that you should only deal with email that falls into that bucket. This is especially true with email from Quadrant 1 (important and urgent) and Quadrant 2 (important and not urgent).

You particularly need to address the former because it’s there pressing for a response. You need to address the latter so that it doesn’t become urgent.

So, the 4 steps aren’t necessarily sequential chronologically. You might toggle back and forth among them depending on what email you have. But the steps are logically sequential if you want to get the focus-improving snowball working for you as it rolls downhill.

Quadrant 4: Eliminate email that’s not important and not urgent.

Over the years, you’ve probably gotten onto more email lists than you can remember. But how many of them do you actually find valuable? How many of them just clutter your inbox with offers and information you’re better off ignoring?

Where that’s the case, it’s okay to unsubscribe from those lists. Not only is it okay, but you have a responsibility to unsubscribe. You have a responsibility to avoid letting this kind of email pull your attention away from where it needs to be.

But maybe you can’t unsubscribe fully because it’s an email list managed by your church or institution. Even in that case, though, your email client probably has a filter (Gmail) or rules (Outlook) feature.

For Quadrant 4 email that you can’t unsubscribe from, use this feature so you never have to interact with it again. That way, unless you just go looking through your archived or deleted items, you’ll be just as free of these Quadrant 4 messages as if you had unsubscribed.

Quadrant 3: Separate yourself from email that’s urgent but not important.

You can separate yourself from Quadrant 3 email in two ways—automation or delegation.

Separation by Automation

Automation can mean various things. It might mean putting a process on autopilot so it runs without human involvement. Or it might mean creating a standard process sequence, checklist, or template.2 In this case, when someone does the activity, the sequence, checklist, or template helps him or her move through it more efficiently.

To leverage automation for your Quadrant 3 emails, think about the process that ends up producing those emails. Can parts of that produce email be put on autopilot? Or can you help document workflows or create templates that answer questions ahead of time and eliminate the need for the extra emails?

Separation by Delegation

If you just happen to have someone reporting to you whom can pass email off to, that’s certainly an option for delegating it. But there are other ways to delegate that don’t require you to have this resource.

Perhaps you’re involved in a monthly process with a coworker, and email currently drives that process. You get an email, you do the thing, you respond in another email.

But there’s probably nothing necessary about that email-driven workflow. So, you could have a conversation, decide that you’ll deliver the thing unprompted by x date every month. There’s then no need for you to get the email that used to trigger the process because you’ve delegated the function of that email to a better process.3

Or maybe you’re nominally involved in a given working group. But you don’t normally have much meaningful to contribute to its efforts. In this case, you might help the group be more effective if you stepped back. (Smaller teams can often move with more agility.) So, you could help the whole group by trusting its core members to press ahead without needing to be sure they keep you in the loop as well.

Quadrant 1: Abbreviate email that is both urgent and important.

To abbreviate email, you might not necessarily need to write shorter messages, although that might be helpful as well.4 The point is to abbreviate the number and complexity of the messages you receive that fall into this category.

Decreasing the number of urgent cries for your attention that land in your inbox has obvious advantages. But decreasing their complexity is also an important way of abbreviating these messages’ impact.

A Quadrant 1 message requiring only a concise, clear-cut “yes” or “no” response presents a much lower impact than does a more complex question, perhaps with strong emotional entanglements.

As you look to abbreviate your Quadrant 1 email either in its amount or in its complexity, you’re again looking for what’s unclear or broken behind those emails that made them seem necessary. The messages are important, but what steps weren’t taken (or what missteps were) such that whatever important issues have now also become urgent?

Do you need clearer patterns for resolving thorny issues (e.g., having a live conversation rather than firing emails back and forth)? Do you need better planning for things you know are coming down the road? Or do you need larger buffers so that, when the unexpected happens, you’re still able to tend to what’s important without things going sideways?

Quadrant 2: Concentrate on email that’s important and not urgent.

There are two sides of Quadrant 2 as it applies to email.

More Focus on More Important Emails

The first is that, as you whittle down the imprint of email from Quadrants 4, 3, and 1, you’re left with less email. So, you can focus more on the messages that are more important.

According to the Pareto principle, only about 20% of your emails account for about 80% of what’s actually important in your inbox.5 So, the more focus you can bring to that 20%, the better results you’ll get on that correspondence.

More Focus on More Important Work outside Email

But the second side is even more important and comes back to the idea that nobody gets into biblical studies in order to do email. If you’re concentrating only on email that’s important and not urgent and if you don’t have less of that to begin with, then you’ll have more bandwidth to put your focus on things outside email.

Email is part of academic life, but it’s not the most important part. On the whole, email doesn’t fall in the 20% of activities that will get 80% of the results in moving the needle on your scholarship (though some individual messages could).

So, the goal of working on your email process (or whatever else) temporarily is to decrease it’s footprint, to get it out of the way. That way, you have more space to put your focus on the 20% of activities that will move the needle.

Conclusion

Email’s ubiquity makes it a useful example of how make the space to put your focus more where you need it to be. But it’s just that, an example.

For you, the lowest hanging fruit might be elsewhere as you seek to put your focus where you need it. Wherever that is, however, the four key responses to the four quadrants can help you gradually bring that target into clearer view.


  1. Header image provided by Zachary Keimig

  2. For suggesting these various kinds of automation, I’m grateful to Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 117–38. 

  3. On the power of better processes to reduce email load, see Cal Newport, A World without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021), 135–214. 

  4. See Newport, World without Email, 205–8. 

  5. For an introduction, see Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less (1999; repr., New York: Doubleday, 2008). 

How to Put More Focus Where You Need It

Life in general contains a lot of noise.1 That’s no less true for academic life.

All of the noise can make it hard to know where to put your focus. And if you do identify where you need to focus, it can be still harder to put your attention there and actually focus.

Focusing Is Like Balancing

To some extent, there’s no avoiding this challenge. Like balancing, focusing isn’t a one-and-done effort. Having focus in your work means focusing “the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.”2

But optical focus happens naturally and without thinking about it. In academic life, there’s no such automatic process. So, the question becomes,

How do you put your focus where you need it to be among the ambiguities and often-conflicting demands of academic life?

Answering this question can be challenging in theory and sometimes more so in practice. But there’s a clear, 4-step process to help you grapple with it.

Four Steps to More Focus

The 4 steps to help you put your focus more where you need it emerge from the four quadrants of the “Eisenhower Matrix.”3

These quadrants, their characteristics and their appropriate responses are as follows:

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantQuadrant 1
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Response: Abbreviate
Quadrant 2
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
Response: Concentrate
Not ImportantQuadrant 3
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Response: Separate
Quadrant 4
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important
Response: Eliminate

The 4 steps to put your focus more where you need it then begin with the response to Quadrant 4 and work clockwise through the responses for the remaining quadrants.4

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin improving your focus by starting with Quadrant 4. But the point is that the very existence of Quadrant 4 items drains focus away from what falls into the other quadrants.

So, by starting in Quadrant 4, you get the clearest gains as you eliminate the “focus leaches” that lie there. Then, as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, you can focus more on each successive step in the process with ultimate goal of concentrating more fully on Quadrant 2 work—the important things that all too easily get swept aside by the urgent.

Conclusion

Focusing means adapting. Amid the swarming demands of academic life, it can feel disorienting as you look for where to even begin.

But there’s a 4-step process that you can work consistently over time with, for example, something like email (which I’ll discuss next week). And as you do so, you can gradually find yourself able to put more of your focus beyond the minutiae and on what actually matters.


  1. Header image provided by Zachary Keimig

  2. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 66. 

  3. For this framework, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 154–92; see also Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 91–158; McKeown, Essentialism, 215–24. 

  4. This way of using the Eisenhower Matrix then becomes essentially identical to the alternative “focus funnel” metaphor developed by Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (New York: Perigee, 2015). 

You Need to Stop Redoing the Same Work

It’s no fun to go around in circles, redoing work you’ve already done.1 But it’s all too easy to do just that—to follow the comfortable grooves of habit and continue working in ways that pass unquestioned.

The Prospects and Problems of Work Habits

Such habits can be helpful. They keep you from having to decide any number of things afresh each time you prepare for class, write a paper, or check your inbox. And by lifting need for those decisions, those habits can help you work more efficiently.

But as Peter Drucker astutely observes,

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.2

In the moment, it’s almost always easier to run along a well-worn, comfortable path toward a certain outcome. The only problem is that, if you simply follow your existing work habits, you’ll then need to follow them again and again.

You’ll be bypassing the work of improving your process, of honing your craft.

The Value of Questioning Work Habits

But what would happen if you recognized how parts of some habits are actually things you shouldn’t be doing? What would happen if you could automate them or, better yet, eliminate them entirely while still achieving the same outcome?

In short, what would happen if you consistently asked the question

What could I do today that would give me more time tomorrow?3

Whatever you might decide to do doesn’t have to be big. It could be quite small and constitute, say, a 1% improvement. But if you adopt it as a daily practice, the results will compound over time.4

Conclusion

So, don’t keep redoing the same work without thinking about how you’re doing it. Don’t begin with the assumption that how you do what you do is the best way you could ever do it.

Instead, look for how you can simplify, streamline, or automate how you do what you do. You shouldn’t try to overhaul everything at once.

But if you make gradual improvements over time, bit by bit, you’ll find you’re freer to focus and make progress on what really matters.5


  1. Header image provided by Gryffyn M

  2. Peter F. Drucker, “Managing for Business Effectiveness,” Harvard Business Review 41.3 (1963): 53–60. 

  3. For articulating this general principle, if not the precise question, I’m grateful to Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (New York: Perigee, 2015). 

  4. E.g., see James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York: Avery, 2018). 

  5. See also Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019). 

How to Actually Fix Windows Language List Keyboard Shortcuts

In biblical studies, if you’re writing anything at all technical, you’re going to need to type text in different languages.1 That’s much easier now than it has been thanks to the wonderful invention of Unicode.

You can now have multiple different input language keymaps for one physical keyboard. So, you can use the keys lo/gos to type λόγος.

And you can specify keyboard shortcuts for switching among the different input languages. For example, you might use

  • Alt+Shift+2 to start typing in Greek,
  • Alt+Shift+3 to start typing in Hebrew, and
  • Alt+Shift+1 to start typing in English.

The only problem is that, if you’re working on Windows 10 (and possibly still in Windows 11), Windows has a propensity to “forget” which keyboard shortcuts you’ve selected.

You can still change input languages in other ways, so it’s not a huge deal when it happens. But given the number of times you’ll change the language you’re typing over the course of a given document, degree program, or career, it’s helpful to make this change as frictionless as possible.

Fortunately, it’s comparatively simple—though not at all obvious—to get Windows to remember what shortcuts you want to use. To do so, you’ll

  • select what keyboard shortcuts you want to use to change input languages and then
  • save those in an additional place so Windows will continue using the same shortcuts.

Select Your Keyboard Shortcuts

To select your keyboard shortcuts to change input languages,

  1. Open the Start menu, type “Advanced keyboard settings,” and open that window.
  2. Click the link for “Input language hot keys.”
  3. Choose the input language you want to assign a shortcut to, and click “Change Key Sequence ….”
  4. Repeat this process for all the input languages you want to assign a shortcut to.
  5. When you’re done, click “OK.”

Save Your Shortcuts in One More Place

Then, to keep Windows from forgetting what to do with these shortcuts,2

  1. Open the Start menu, type “Control Panel,” and open the Control Panel.
  2. Click the link to “Change date, time, or number formats.” The Region dialog box will then display.
  3. On the Administrative tab of the Region dialog box, choose to “Copy settings …” under “Welcome screen and new user accounts.” The Welcome screen and new user accounts settings dialog box will then display.
  4. At the bottom of this dialog box, choose to copy current settings to both “Welcome screen and system accounts” and “New user accounts.”
  5. Click “OK,” and then click “OK” in the Region dialog box.

That’s it. Windows will now let you use the keyboard shortcuts you’ve chosen whenever you’d like and won’t act like it’s forgotten them.

Something to Be Aware Of

The one hitch is that, if you go back to where you specified the keyboard shortcuts, you might find that Windows says that there isn’t a keyboard shortcut assigned—even though it acts like there is.

That issue won’t affect how the shortcuts function. But if you want to change one of your shortcuts, you may have to set them all up again.

You’ll probably only want to change shortcuts right at the beginning as you’re starting to use them and figuring out what’s most natural for you. After that, you’ll want to stick with the same ones so that your “muscle memory” can work for you.

But the fact that Windows might make it look like it’s forgotten your shortcuts—even though it actually remembers them—is something to be aware of if you do need to change these shortcuts at some point.

Conclusion

Keyboard shortcuts can make the process of changing input languages still easier than it already is. Windows might take some extra coaxing so that it remembers your shortcuts properly. But for a task you’ll perform thousands of times, it’s well worth taking a few seconds to streamline it as much as possible.


  1. Header image provided by NordWood Themes

  2. For this process, I’m grateful to the discussion at “Windows 10 Loses Settings of Keyboard Layout Shortcuts (Hotkeys for Input Languages),” forum, Stack Exchange, 6 August 2016. 

Published
Categorized as Weblog