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. 

How to Budget Your Time If It’s Irregular

For the parts of your schedule that are pretty regular, budgeting that time is comparatively straightforward.1

From the amount of time you have available to “spend,” you subtract the time you think you’ll need for a given commitment. You’re done budgeting when you’ve run out of time to spend. In this way, you work with a variable list of commitments against a fixed amount of time.

But your schedule might not be fully regular. In some parts, it might be fully irregular.2 And even if it’s normally regular, some seasons of life might introduce more irregularity than usual.

With this kind of irregularity, the idea of budgeting your time doesn’t go out the window. But it does take a different shape.

Rather than working with a known schedule and seeing what commitments you want to address in that time, you need to reverse the process. You’ll instead work with a variable schedule against a fixed list of commitments.

An Example of Irregular Time

For instance, small humans aren’t known for their self-sufficiency or ability to keep invariably to a set schedule. So, if you have kids and you are your childcare plan (either normally or because another childcare plan has gotten paused), you now have a pretty irregular schedule.

In that time, your kids may need you at more or less random intervals for more or less random periods of time. Your plans for that time will need to take shape accordingly.3

If what you’re facing is a seasonal, temporary shift, you might decide to postpone everything and enjoy the time with your kids. If you have the buffer in your work and school commitments to be able to do this, it’s a great option.4

To extend the metaphor of the financial budget, buffer in your schedule serves the function of an “emergency fund.”5 A monetary emergency fund provides a cushion against unknown expenses. Similarly, maintaining buffer in your schedule can help cushion the impact of unexpected events and give you more options for addressing them.

But let’s say the irregularity you’re facing in your schedule isn’t temporary. Or it’s at least long-term enough that certain commitments still need attention. In this case, you need to somehow fold work on these other commitments into the irregular times you have to work on them.

How to Budget Irregular Time

If you try to stack up in your calendar a nice, neat tower of time blocks, you’ll pretty soon find it knocked over. And if you try to stack it up again, you’ll be in for a repeat of the same experience.

So, instead of going around that frustration-building cycle, take a couple seconds to consider what commitments you need to address. As you do so, try to classify them into the four buckets of the “Eisenhower Matrix.”6

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

This classification then becomes your budget for your irregular time.

How to Use an Irregular Time Budget

When your schedule’s irregular, you don’t know what time you will have to tackle these commitments or when you’ll have it. But whatever you have whenever you have it, you can then “spend” working down through these quadrants in numerical order.

You want to

  • Abbreviate the activities in Quadrant 1. You can do so by completing these items fully, completing them well enough so they’re no longer urgent, or taking advance action to prevent urgency from arising.
  • Concentrate your attention on the activities that fall into Quadrant 2.
  • Separate yourself from activities in Quadrant 3. To do so, consider whether you can perhaps automate or delegate these commitments.
  • Eliminate from as much as possible the activities that fall into Quadrant 4.

When time is up, unplug, and go hug your kiddos.—You might even thank them for whatever time they ended up giving you whenever they gave it to you.

Let what you haven’t gotten done roll forward to another time slot. But if you’ve spent your irregular time on what was most urgent and most important, you already know what that is. And what you’re rolling forward will be what can best keep until later anyway.

Conclusion

Whether it’s caring for kids, juggling a busy season of appointments, or something else, lots of things can contribute to giving you an irregular schedule.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t budget your time. It just means you need to be especially intentional about spending the time you have on addressing your most important commitments.


  1. Header image provided by NeONBRAND

  2. As a basis for these categories, I’m drawing on thinking like that described in “How to Make a Zero-Based Budget,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  3. Here, I’m intentionally giving a somewhat extreme example. On the other hand, your schedule might be pretty variable but still allow you to know in advance what time you’ll have to address different commitments. In that case, you might find value in blocking your variable time with the journalistic approach

  4. See Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 175–84 

  5. Rachel Cruze, “A Quick Guide to Your Emergency Fund,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  6. 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. 

To Be Productive, You Need to Be Adaptable

Adaptability is central to productivity.1

You can find all manner of helpful advice about how to be more effective and productive. But not all of this advice is equally good for everyone at all times.

Any number of general principles might help you be more productive. But you can’t necessarily know in advance which ones those are and how helpful they’ll be.

Consequently, force-fitting some guru’s advice onto your situation may not give you the best results. Instead, part of what’s required to hone your craft as a biblical scholar is your own creativity and adaptability to your individual situation.

Of course, it can sometimes be tricky in the moment to determine what’s best now.2 But putting adaptability at the heart of productivity affords the opportunity to be open to a wide variety of answers to that question—even if they’re a bit more “outside the box.”

What Normally Works

For instance, I time block my schedule so I can batch similar kinds of activities together.

Those activities might be research. They might be grading. They might be email.

For me in a “normal” week, discrete batching tends to work well. I focus on one kind of activity for however long. And as needed, I use Freedom to help avoid “quick check” distractions that dilute that focus.

When Circumstances Require Adaptability

But not all weeks are “normal,” let alone all days or months. This fact has been even more obvious than usual amid recent efforts across the globe to address COVID-19. But I’d like to share a different story.

The Circumstances

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic made itself known in our neck of the woods, my wife, Carrie, had an x-ray that showed she had a broken collar bone.

That meant she couldn’t lift anything with either arm, including our 18-month-old. And when you have an 18-month-old, you do a lot of lifting.

You might not think you do. But when you suddenly have restrictions on lifting, it’s surprising how many things you notice require lifting. 😉

All of this meant I was going to be home with Carrie and the kids rather than at the office.

It would have been best to have enough margin in my schedule so I didn’t have to worry about working while I was home with them.3 But that wasn’t the case.

There were still deadlines to met and projects to finish. But what was normally an 8–9 hour continuous workday instantly became 2–4 hours very much spread out into pretty small slices through the day.

This restructuring of my normal work day meant that my usual time blocking approach became pretty useless since

  1. I didn’t know in advance when I would have blocks of work time or
  2. when I did have these blocks, how long they would last.

Thankfully, neither of these factors really bothered me. Being there for Carrie and the girls was an infinitely higher priority than anything else I had on tap for school. But there were still things that had to get done for school.

The Adaptability

It took me a couple days. But I soon realized the best approach for me in those particular circumstances would be to rank my Todoist tasks for the day strictly in terms of priority—highest to lowest.

Whenever I had some time to work, I’d start at the top of the list and work down for however long until I needed to stop.

Whatever didn’t get done by the end of that day had to roll forward to a future day. But working from highest to lowest priority helped ensure that the things that didn’t get done were the things that were comparatively less important anyhow.

This story’s twist is that about a week after the x-ray that showed Carrie had a broken collar bone, an MRI showed her collar bone was fine.

Instead, the problem was an inflamed shoulder joint. And she could start moving her shoulder and lifting again as much as she felt like until her shoulder got back to normal.

Two Lessons

From this story, I’d like to draw a couple lessons on the importance of adaptability to productivity.

1. Be Creatively Adaptable

First, productivity requires adaptability. You have to look for what works for you in your particular circumstances.

Stephen Covey articulates this dynamic with a wonderful juxtaposition between the advice “not to prioritize what’s on your schedule[] but to schedule your priorities” and the counsel that, at the same time, “your planning tool[s] should be your servant, never your master.”4 The same goes for other systems or commitments.

So, for instance, if you find yourself suddenly needing to work from home while also taking care of kids, put it to yourself as an open question how you can creatively combine the two. Don’t assume they’re in conflict.

Sure, you can only put your attention on one thing at a time. But you’ll be more productive (not to mention, in this example, a better parent) if you take this situation as a challenge for your personal creativity rather than as an invitation to bemoan how competing obligations don’t allow you to fully focus.

2. Be a Whole Person

Second, recognize that you’re a whole person and need to live life as such. You’re a spouse, a parent, a student, a teacher, a ministry leader in your church, and more.

Your life is complex. And because it’s complex, you might well be able to envision how your contributions in one area (e.g., school, church) could be better than you’re able to make them given everything else that’s also in your life.

It’s always good to prune lesser responsibilities that pull you away from those that are more important. Even once you’ve done that, though, you’ll still have a multi-faceted and complex life.—And that’s a good thing.

Give yourself the grace to strive to do the best you can with the responsibilities in your life as a whole. And this may mean that one or some responsibilities don’t get everything you could imagine giving them in other circumstances.

But if you’ve pruned down to what’s really essential, “other circumstances” by definition means cutting or shirking something you consider essential. And long term, that’s a great recipe for regret and not sustained productivity and a rich personal life.

Conclusion

So know what’s essential for you, and prune what isn’t. And amid the complexities of what’s essential and the surprises life brings your way, stay adaptable and open.

Ask yourself the question “What’s best now?” And keep asking that question and being open to adjusting your answer to what your circumstances require.


  1. Header image provided by Joshua Oluwagbemiga

  2. Cf. Matt Perman, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014). 

  3. See Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 175–84. 

  4. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 170. 

How to Time Block with Todoist and Google Calendar

If you’re looking for a good way to organize your time, “time blocking” can be in incredibly helpful approach.1 As the name suggests, it normally involves visual “blocks” that show how you’ve decided to budget your time.

And if you use Google Calendar, you can start time blocking right there with Todoist and a little initial setup.

1. What Parts of Your Schedule to Time Block

For parts of your schedule that need to be highly variable, time blocking won’t prove as helpful. If you try to create a stack of time blocks that highly variable time, it’ll just get knocked over.

That said, even in highly variable parts of your schedule, you still need to budget your time. You just need to do it using a different method besides time blocking.

Where you do have a known amount of time to budget, though, time blocking can prove hugely valuable. For instance, you might have part of a day that you know you can regularly devote to professional pursuits. If so, that part of your schedule a good candidate for time blocking.

Time blocking can help you get the most out of the time you have. It can also help you see when you might be planning too much activity for too little time.

Time blocking isn’t tied to a specific tool. You can time block quite well on paper. Or if you use a digital calendar, you might want to time block there. At a basic level, that’s as simple as creating an appointment with yourself.

2. Why Not to Time Block with Google Calendar Alone

That’s what I did in Google Calendar for a good while. But I found two downsides to having time blocks in Google Calendar while keeping my tasks for those blocks in Todoist:

  1. I had time blocks on my Google Calendar that didn’t reflect well what was in my Todoist task list. Often, that meant I had too much to do for the time I’d allotted.
  2. I found myself doing duplicate work to show on Google Calendar what I already had in Todoist. That helped with the over commitment. But it also required time managing the system that could have been spent doing what needed to get done.

For me, a great solution turned out to be having Todoist put tasks on my Google Calendar. Then, I could see on my calendar the impact of setting a certain task for a given day. And I only had to manage tasks (and their blocks) in one place.

(If you don’t already use Todoist, you can try the premium version for 2 months for free.)

3. How to Start Time Blocking on Google Calendar with Todoist

Todoist’s Google Calendar integration allows for different preferences in how you want to use the two together. To start, I’ve found it helpful is create a new calendar inside your Google Calendar account (e.g., “Todoist (Active)”).

Then, in Todoist’s guide for setting up a Google Calendar integration,

  1. Follow steps 1–8.1.
  2. When you get to step 8.2, choose to sync tasks from “All projects.” This way, no matter where you file a task in Todoist, it can still show up on your Google Calendar.
  3. For step 8.3, choose to have tasks you create on Google Calendar go to your Todoist Inbox. Google Calendar won’t know what projects you have in Todoist. So, it’s easiest just to send tasks created in Google Calendar to the Todoist Inbox and sort them into projects from there. That said, you can ignore this feature and add your tasks in Todoist only. If you do so, you get the added benefit that, whenever a Todoist task appears in Google Calendar, it will have a link back to that task in Todoist (on the words “View source” at the bottom of the calendar event). That link makes it even easier to reference, modify, or complete the task from your Google Calendar.
  4. For steps 8.4–8.7, I find the following settings a good place to start.

Of course, you can choose different preferences or come back later to tweak them.

Once you have an initial setup for the integration, though, click “Connect” in Todoist (step 8) to complete the process.

4. What You’ll Get after Integrating Todoist and Google Calendar

With these settings,

  • Any time you add a due time to a task in Todoist, you’ll also see that task on your Google Calendar. The due time in Todoist will be the event’s start time in Google Calendar.
  • You won’t sync to your Google Calendar any tasks without a due time (which they’ll all have, by definition, if you’re using them to time block).
  • You can easily change a task’s duration in Google Calendar. That will give you a visual representation of the block of time that task should take to complete.
  • Completed tasks will automatically leave your Google Calendar.

This will leave you with a Todoist task layer that you can then show or hide in your Google Calendar to help what you want to do when. And just as important, it can help you plan what not to do in order to devote more adequate time to higher priority activities.

The settings I’ve recommended above are great if you want to budget the current day or some day(s) in the future. You can still look at your completed tasks in Todoist if you want to see how you’ve been spending your time.

But you might find it helpful to have that record on your calendar. That way, you can more easily look back to see whether any particular project or kind of activity is consuming more of your time than it should.

5. How to Preserve Past Tasks on Your Calendar

If you want to preserve historical time blocks on your calendar, you have a couple options.

  1. You can change the Todoist-Google Calendar integration so that “Completed Todoist tasks” shows that they will “Stay on Google Calendar.” When you complete a task, you can then move that task’s event to a different Google Calendar (e.g., “Todoist (Complete)”) or change its color to distinguish it from the active Todoist tasks on your calendar.
  2. Still have Todoist remove events from Google Calendar when those tasks are completed. And instead, you can use another integration with an automation service like IFTTT or Zapier. These services can watch for when new Todoist events start on your Google Calendar and then automatically copy that event to a different Google Calendar (e.g., “Todoist (Complete)”). Then, when you complete the active task, it will fall off your calendar, leaving just the copied record of your completed task.

I’ve generally found the second method to be the easiest to work with once it’s set up. But the first could work just fine, especially if you do use a separate calendar for your completed tasks and not just a different color on your Todoist Google Calendar.

The issue with using a different event color only is that I’ve found that the integration between Todoist and Google Calendar very occasionally breaks. If you have all your tasks—active and completed—on a single calendar, it can prove harder to set the integration back up without importing numerous tasks into Todoist that already exist on Google Calendar. So, keeping things on separate calendars just helps give you some insurance against further problems in the event you do need to reset the integration at some point.

Conclusion

To reap the benefits of time blocking, you don’t have to use a specific calendar tool or list manager. But Google Calendar and Todoist are both really good at what they do. And using them together can be a great way to time block so that you can take control of your schedule while expending as little effort as possible manipulating your tools.


  1. Header image provided by Android Community

6 Steps to Block Your Time for More Focus in a Digital Workspace

Time blocking is a great way of budgeting time because it shows when you’ve spent time and whether you’ve spent it on what’s important.1

And whatever approach you adopt to how you block your time, there are 6 simple steps you can take to make that process pretty seamless in a digital workspace.

  1. Identify your main types of commitments.
  2. Decide how much time to spend on different types of commitments.
  3. Build a default weekly schedule.
  4. Roll with the punches.
  5. Condense multiple calendars.
  6. Protect your focus.

Or should you use a paper calendar?

Before I get to those 6 steps, however, I should stress that time blocking doesn’t require anything digital. That includes a digital calendar.

If you prefer to keep a paper calendar, however, you can definitely still block your calendar and reap the rewards of budgeting your time.2

Every approach has its upsides and downsides. And time blocking isn’t something to do for its own sake but for the sake of what it enables.

For me, a digital approach centered around Google Calendar is simplest and easiest to maintain. These factors have gone a long way in guiding my choice of tools. But even if your selection differs, you should still find some of the ideas here helpful and adaptable to your preferred toolset.

1. Identify your main types of commitments.

For most people, time blocking probably shouldn’t replace a task list. Routinely spending time to block out 15 minutes here, 7 minutes there, and so on for smaller tasks would use up more time than it would be worth.

So, to start time blocking, identify the main types of commitments you have. What are the big “buckets” in which your commitments sit?

For example, during the workweek, I boil most of these down into “focused work” (which includes activities related to teaching and research) and “administration.” If you’re a student who’s also involved in full-time church work, your main buckets might be “study” and “church.”

Use however many buckets with whatever labels you need to capture your commitments. But don’t use more than you need. Doing so will just make your time blocking more complex without any extra benefit. And over time, you might want to change what buckets you’re using.

For instance, in the past, I’ve tried to have “preparation” and “grading” blocks for class. But it’s proven simpler just to include these activities under the one heading of “focused work.”

2. Decide how much time to spend on different types of commitments.

Once you’ve identified what your main types of commitments are, you’ll want to identify how much total time to devote to each type.

As you do so, remember that you have a limited amount of productive work in you each week. So, whatever work you do in excess of 50 hours per week tends to be increasingly less productive.3

How you go apportion this productive working time will vary depending on your context. For example,

  • If you’re solely a full-time student, you could start by roughly dividing your time among the courses you’re working on. You might then give a bit larger proportion to one that might seem more intensive. Or you could start by dividing your time according to emphases laid out for you in your performance review forms. Or
  • If you’re negotiating academics with work outside the academy, you may simply need to budget 40 hours in the week for your regular job and then determine how much school can fit around that. Or it might be helpful to talk with your work stakeholders (e.g., church leadership) to work out how should apportion your time.

As you start working on this schedule, you’re sure to find things that need adjustment. That’s a good thing. It means you’re learning how your reality differs from your prior understanding of it. So, make the necessary adjustments, and press ahead.

3. Build a default weekly schedule.

A default weekly schedule is simply a plan for how you would want a typical week to go if you could fully control everything in it.4

3.1. Use the time blocking approach that works for you.

For this step, you’ll need to have decided on a particular approach to blocking your time. If you opt for the journalistic approach, you might not have set times for particular activities within your default weekly schedule. But you should know how much of that activity you want your week to include.

To illustrate, you might allocate 10 hours per week to the class you’re taking. In a standard workweek, you could get to this number by working

  • 2 hours per day from 8:00–10:00 am (a rhythmic arrangement),
  • 8:00–9:45 Monday morning before staff meeting, 3:00–5:00 Monday afternoon, and 8:30–2:45 on Tuesday after your breakfast meeting (a journalistic arrangement),
  • 8:00 am–5:00 pm Monday (9 hours) and 8:00–9:00 am Tuesday (1 hour, a bimodal or combination arrangement), or
  • whatever else works with your schedule.

3.2. Make and arrange the appointments you need with yourself.

As you decide how you want to spend your time, create corresponding appointments for yourself. If your calendar is shared with others, be sure you mark yourself as “busy” during these times to show what time is already spoken for.

In this process, you’ll probably need to move or resize some blocks more than once. That’s to be expected. One advantage of time blocking on a digital calendar is that you can move blocks around more easily than on paper.

Work through your calendar layering in your different types of commitments identified under step 1 above. If you’re using a non-journalistic approach to time blocking, also set up your blocks to repeat every week. That way, your default weekly schedule will roll forward with you from one week to the next.

4. Roll with the punches.

Having a default weekly schedule doesn’t necessarily mean you have to rigidly enforce it. Instead, it gives you a starting point, or home base, from which you can tackle whatever one-off demands a given week might contain.

So, unless you’ve adopted a “monastic” approach to time blocking, feel free to work out from this home base to accommodate the demands you have in any particular actual week.

5. Condense multiple calendars.

If you have multiple calendars that you need to manage, you can often manage them together. For instance, you might

  • Invite yourself to your time blocks. If your main calendar is under your personal Google account, but you also want your school calendar to show a time block, just invite your school email address to the time block you create. Doing this will also update your invited calendar whenever you change a time block on your main calendar.
  • Use Zapier or IFTTT to copy meeting requests from one calendar to another. Inevitably, you’ll get a meeting request in one account that your other account isn’t invited to. Rather than copying these events manually, set up a “zap” or “recipe” to copy these requests automatically to another calendar. The events won’t be linked. So, if a meeting time changes, you’ll need to update your other calendar separately. But this kind of automation can still help reduce the time you spend keeping multiple calendars in sync.
  • Use Todoist’s Google Calendar integration to pull onto your calendar the specific tasks you’re wanting to complete in a given larger bucket. This integration provides a convenient way for you to layer particular activities on top of your default weekly schedule blocks. Once set up, you can see and manage everything from one place.

6. Protect your focus.

When budgeting your finances, it does little good to create a written plan and then not to live by it. The same is true with your time.

Of course, you do need to roll with the punches as in step 4 above. But this means being intentionally flexible to accommodate how life doesn’t always conform to a predefined plan. What you want to avoid getting unintentionally distracted from what you’ve committed yourself to in a given time block.

If you think of something you need to handle that’s unrelated to your current time block, write it down, and keep moving. After that block is done, come back to the things you’ve jotted down, and arrange how you’ll address them later.

To avoid getting distracted by software, try using Freedom to schedule digital discipline for you that coincides with your time blocks for the day.

For instance, I currently have a Freedom session that runs every weekday morning, 5:30–8:30.5 Somewhere during this time, I look over my calendar for the day and schedule any additional Freedom sessions I want to run that day based on the kind of work I’m doing.

Conclusion

In the end, you want to get the most out of your time that you can. That starts with planning your days, living by that plan, and discerning when and how it needs to change.

Whether you work digitally or on paper, time blocking can help ensure every minute counts. That way, you can look back in satisfaction on how you spent your days rather than wondering where they went.


  1. Header image provided by Zan

  2. For thoughts on how to time block on a paper calendar, see Cal Newport, “Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day,” weblog, Cal Newport, 21 December 2013 or the Full Focus Planner

  3. Bob Sullivan, “Memo to Work Martyrs: Long Hours Make You Less Productive,” CNBC, 26 January 2015. 

  4. For this reason, Michael Hyatt dubs the concept an “ideal week.” Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 161–82. 

  5. For instructions on creating a recurring Freedom session, see “Start Later and Recurring Sessions,” Freedom Help Center, n.d. 

5 Ways You Can Block Your Time to Focus on What Really Matters

Especially in knowledge work contexts like biblical studies, what is and isn’t actually on your plate can easily bleed together.1

Day to day, there can be a hectic scrum of incoming requests and possible opportunities. Amid all of this, time blocking can help you ensure you’re prioritizing what matters to you. There isn’t one right way to block your time, but there are five basic ways you can approach it.2

  1. Monastic
  2. Bimodal
  3. Rhythmic
  4. Journalistic
  5. Combination

And with some thought and experimentation, you can find what approach works best for you.

1. Monastic

In a monastic approach, the main idea is to eliminate everything except focused work. You avoid anything that doesn’t fall in a very specific, narrow range of activities (e.g., writing).

This approach is possible for some. But it’s not particularly feasible if you have a broader slate of essential responsibilities.

Somewhat ironically too, time blocking is probably a less useful technique under a monastic approach. Your calendar only ever has one activity, and others know you don’t allow interruptions to this schedule.

So, actually blocking your calendar may be more trouble than it’s worth. The monastic approach blocks your calendar simply by adopting it.

2. Bimodal

The bimodal approach is like the monastic strategy in periods you devote to focused work. But if you block time bimodally, you’ll deliberately intersperse other periods specifically to address less demanding activities.

The idea in the bimodal philosophy is to batch focused work together into larger chunks, to do the same with work that requires less focus, and to keep the two quite separate. In this way, you get the efficiencies that come with longer, uninterrupted stretches of a particular kind of activity. But you also don’t commit yourself to ignoring everything else.

On the scale of a week if you’re a student who’s also in full-time church work, this might look like having

  • Mondays blocked out for class reading,
  • Tuesdays assigned to writing papers,
  • Wednesdays allocated to hospital visits,
  • Thursdays reserved for meetings, and
  • Fridays set aside for sermon preparation.

Then, when you’re doing a specific kind of work, you try to push aside other responsibilities.

3. Rhythmic

The rhythmic approach is similar to the bimodal strategy, but it involves more frequent alternation among different kinds of activities. So, for instance, within a given day, you might do the same activity at the same time each day or on specific days of the week.

With this structure, the rhythmic approach allows times for different kinds of activities to come up more regularly. So, this approach may be helpful if you don’t think it best to batch different kinds of work as strictly as you would in the bimodal approach.

4. Journalistic

The journalistic approach operates by “fit[ting] deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”3

Thus, in this case, you might leave mostly white space on your calendar leading up to a given week. But once you come to planning that week, you allocate your remaining time to accomplish the focused work you have to do.

This strategy imposes the least structure on your calendar ahead of time. That can be good if you need that flexibility to accommodate irregularity in your schedule. But the more of your calendar you leave blank, the more you’re inviting that whitespace to find something to occupy it.

So, if you’re going to use a journalistic approach to time blocking, you might want to set yourself a “budget” for how much of a specific kind of activity you’ll allow in a given period.

For instance, you might decide you’ll allow eight hours of meetings per week. After those hours are spent in a given week—wherever in that week they occur—other meetings have to find a place in a following week.

By capping how much of a given activity you’ll include, you ensure you still have the time you need for other commitments. But you can stay flexible with exactly when you address them.

5. Combination

Of course, there isn’t a “purist police” for time blocking approaches that allow you to use only one of them. What’s important is to time block in a way that helps you focus on what matters most.

For instance, the basic approach I’ve used for about a good while involves elements of each of the bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic strategies:

  • As in the rhythmic approach, each workday begins with a startup routine that includes primary literature reading—mostly Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament—and ends with a shutdown routine that includes email and administrative activities.4
  • As in the bimodal approach, I block the bulk of any given day into as large a chunk as I can (e.g., devoting those hours to teaching, class preparation, or writing on any given day).
  • As in the journalistic approach, I don’t hold rigidly to the same schedule every day. Instead, I’ll adjust as necessary to accommodate other essential activities that come up.

Do You Need to Block All Your Time?

To this point, I’ve discussed time blocking primarily in a professional context. But what about your personal time? Do you need to block that too?

In short, yes. You need to block all your regularly occurring time, but you don’t need to block it all in the same way or to the same degree.

To take another personal example, when I’m at work, I have a pretty detailed plan for those hours. When I’m at home, however, that’s not the case, but the time is still blocked.

It’s likely just blocked in large chucks of “with family,” “at church,” “sleep,” and so on. What those large general blocks contain could vary quite a bit from day to day or on the spur of the moment.

If these blocks are firmly ingrained as habits for you, you might not need to put them on your calendar. Simply by seeing 6:30 pm on Tuesday, you know what that block holds.

The important thing, though, is to visually block on your calendar anything commitments that are softer and more liable to get bumped by less important things.

For instance, if I’m in the middle of something at the end of a workday, it’s all to easy to spend “just a few more minutes” tying up the loose ends. But those “few more minutes” quickly eat into time I’d planned to spend elsewhere.

So, while I don’t have explicit “family time” or “sleep” blocks on my calendar, I do have a block for “Leave the Office” to help ensure that happens when it’s supposed to.

Conclusion

In the end, whatever time blocking approach you adopt, the important thing is how time blocking helps you spend your time deliberately.

Even (and especially) if you have too much on your plate, you can’t afford to have what’s most important at the mercy of what’s simply latest and loudest.


  1. Header image provided by STIL

  2. Cal Newport discusses the first four of these strategies under the rubric of “deep work philosophies.” Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 100–17. I’m here focusing on these general ideologies in terms of the specific time blocking practices they imply. 

  3. Newport, Deep Work, 115. 

  4. On “workday startup” and “workday shutdown” routines, see Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 116–21.