What’s Most Important about What’s Important?

When you feel like what’s important is too much just by itself, sometimes you need to tighten the scope of what makes something important.1

Or it might help to recognize that there are ultimately degrees of importance. Those different degrees prioritize different things in different contexts.

What doesn’t fit in the limits of life in one context might still be important. You might just have to put off prioritizing it.

But there’s another strategy you can adopt when a life full of just the important things feels overly full. That is, you can recognize that not everything about what’s important is equally important.

What’s Important Sometimes Contains What Isn’t

In your research, for example, you need to interact with good sources and document them well. A guide like the SBL Handbook of Style might tell you what “documented … well” looks like. But how you get your documentation into that shape is secondary.

So, you could type each footnote one by one and meticulously check that formatting against your style guide. If you do so, your effort has exactly a 1 to 1 correspondence with your results. One footnote typed and meticulously checked gets you … the chance to do exactly the same thing with the next footnote.

Or you could invest a bit of effort into learning a citation manager like Zotero. That’s a bit more complex than typing, so there’s some overhead in getting started.

To cite a source, you can create and meticulously check one Zotero record. But once that record is there and structured properly, Zotero can prepare corresponding footnotes without limit. And it can automatically edit your footnotes if you need to change from one style (e.g., SBL) to another (e.g., Chicago).

What’s essential about good documentation isn’t your method in preparing your footnotes. It’s the copiousness, clarity, and consistency of those notes. And you can make what’s important (e.g., good documentation) less burdensome by optimizing for what’s important about it (e.g., the final product).

Just because something is important doesn’t mean it has to be burdensome. As Greg McKeown helpfully ponders,

What could happen in your life if … the essential things became easier?2

And a prime way they can become easier is by focusing on what’s essential about them.


Sometimes, everything in life all together can just get to be too much. Separating yourself from what’s urgent but not important can help.

But if you find yourself having too much that’s important, focusing on what’s important about it can help lighten the load. It can help you discern where the unimportant or unessential might live inside the important or the essential.

The questions you ask determine the answers you can get. So, as you hone your focus still more on what exactly is important about essential things, you may well encounter answers that make those essential things also more doable.

  1. Header image provided by Bekky Bekks

  2. Greg McKeown, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (New York: Currency, 2021), 14. This core theme runs throughout Effortless in different iterations in the book’s various chapters. 

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You Need to Recognize Importance Isn’t Binary

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

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

Recognize degrees of importance.

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

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

Respect your limits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

  1. Header image provided by Benjamin Salvatore

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Why You Need to Get Time Away during the Holidays

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

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

There’s More to Your Craft than Academic Work

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

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

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

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

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

Setting Aside Academic Work Requires Skill Too

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

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

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


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

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

  1. Header image provided by Jude Beck. 

How to Have Your Best Academic Conference

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

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

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

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

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

Whether You’re Attending Online or in Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Come to learn, and come to contribute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Focus on the sessions you attend.

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

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

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

What Multitasking Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Take notes.

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

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

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

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

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

If You’re Attending in Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Observe the appropriate public health protocols.

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

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

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

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

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

If You’re Attending Online

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

8. Have your software and hardware ready.

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

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

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

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

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

9. Connect early.

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

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

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

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

10. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Don’t hog the line.

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

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

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

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


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

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

  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre and Product School

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Do When Too Much Feels Important?

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

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

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

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

When what’s important feels like too much …

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

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

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

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

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

Watch for importance creep.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

  1. Header image provided by Elisa Ventur

  2. 2 Sam 22:30; Ps 18:29 ESV. 

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

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How to Say No to the Urgent But Not Important

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

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

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

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

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

Saying “No” Isn’t an End in Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Start in the Art of “No”

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

1. Pause or Clarify

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

2. Check Your Calendar

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

3. Say “No … But …”

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

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

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

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

4. Highlight the Tradeoffs

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

5. Consider Pruning Existing Commitments

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

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


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

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

  1. Header image provided by Florian Schmetz

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

  3. McKeown, Essentialism, 139. 

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