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). 

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