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). 

You Need to Stop Redoing the Same Work

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

The Prospects and Problems of Work Habits

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

But as Peter Drucker astutely observes,

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

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

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

The Value of Questioning Work Habits

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


  1. Header image provided by Gryffyn M

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

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

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

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

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish in 2022?

What do you really want to accomplish this year?1

Without clear intentions, you’re liable to get to the end of it having done plenty of things except give enough attention to what you’d otherwise select as most important.

To avoid that, it’s important to take some time to identify what you want to work toward achieving.

How you do that will likely look a bit different from how someone else does it. But if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d like to suggest 5 steps to get you going:2

  1. Reflect on your experience.
  2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.
  3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.
  4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.
  5. Each week, ask how you can move toward one or more of your goals.

1. Reflect on your experience.

At least for me, when I take the time to reflect on what I’ve learned from a prior year, I inevitably pull out some things that help me plan better for the future.

So, before you start planning the year, it might be helpful for you to do some similar reflection. You’ll have your own lessons that you’ve learned, but let me share an example of my own to help get your wheels turning.

I’ve sometimes found myself with one or more goals that’s too large to accomplish in any one time period. (I structure my year into quarters. Semesters work great too, but more on that below.)

That meant larger—but possibly more important—items can get lost in the shuffle. So, in response, I’ve tried to be more mindful about chunking down larger projects into smaller units that can fit into single quarters.

This naturally means a larger project will have more discrete goals that lead up to its completion. But that’s part of the point. Larger projects are larger and will take more to complete.

So, having any given quarterly goal will be pretty achievable within that quarter has been helpful. It gives me a better sense of just how committed the year and its quarters already are. It also helps me see better throughout the year how I’m progressing on larger-scale projects.

This is true whether that larger project is professional or personal. For instance, if I have a goal to take a certain number of days out of the office with my family by the end of the year, it does some good just to plop that goal down into the fourth quarter.

But if that goal is requires meaningful chunks of time in other quarters too, what’s more helpful is again to segment that larger goal down into those major per-quarter chunks.

2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.

You’ll certainly accomplish many more things this year than you can count. But what are the most important things for you to accomplish?

2.1. Make a list.

Make a list of what you think of. Be sure to think both personally and professionally.

It can be easy to think about professional goals and ignore personal ones. But biblical scholarship isn’t about being an academic automaton.

So, it’s important to have a mix of both personal and professional goals that you’re working toward.

Do you want to write an article? Spend more time focused on your family? Take a class? (As a hint, if you’re a student taking a class, completing that class successfully should be one of your goals. 🙂 )

It might take a few minutes for you to get going. But once you do, your list is liable to grow pretty quickly.

Keep brainstorming until you have at least 10 items on your list.

2.2. Subdivide your list.

Once you get to this point, carefully review your list. As you do so, you’re asking one question: What item(s) on your list needs to be subdivided?

Don’t worry about making any of these subdivisions too detailed. All you’re trying to get a handle on are the major component pieces of any larger goals you’re considering putting on your plate.

As an example, you might have on your list “Write my dissertation.” That’s not something you’re going to finish all at one go. Nor is it something you’re going to be able to do all in one quarter or semester.

You’ll want to subdivide this project, and as you do, you’ll start to see your list better reflect the complexity of what writing your dissertation requires.

You might subdivide this project into

  • completing your prospectus,
  • completing each of the individual chapters, and finally
  • editing, proofreading, and submitting your project.

So, for instance, if you have five chapters, “Write my dissertation” could immediately become seven discrete activities (one for each of the chapters, one for the prospectus, and one for final editing).

2.3. Focus your list.

Now, out of your subdivided list, you only get to pick 12 items at most to really work on.

If you only have 10–12 items, that’s great. But what happens if you find yourself with more than 12 items in your brainstormed list (like I have)?

It’s tempting to think you can do it all or fit everything in that you want in the scope of a year. But that’s rarely realistic, and if it is, that probably means your goals weren’t really stretching you to begin with.

The beauty of limiting yourself to no more than 12 major objectives over the coming 12 months is that it helps you feel at the planning stage the strain that these goals will put on your time, attention, and resources as the year moves along.

Anything that goes on this list ultimately means something else can’t be on it. So, to come down to your most important objectives for the coming year, you might need to reflect, write down, scratch out, reorder, and otherwise hash and rehash your list over a few days until you’re satisfied with it.

That’s okay. Whatever doesn’t make the cut for this year you can definitely save for another time. The important thing is to intentionally commit to what will be most important to you this year.

3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.

Once you have your main yearly objectives, take a few minutes to turn them into SCHOLARLY goals that are

Doing so will help you crystalize for yourself exactly what you’re committing to accomplishing by when.

Specific

“Write an article” or “spend more time with my family” are too general. Aiming at them is much like trying to hit anywhere in a target rather than in the bullseye.

“Write an article about the land promise to Abraham” or “Be home by 5:30, and give my full attention to my family the rest of each weekday” are much more specific targets to try to hit.

Challenging

A good goal should be doable but stretch you. For instance, you might have been comfortably writing academic papers at 200 words per hour.

But how would things be different if you tried to stretch that to 300 words per hour? What kind of time would that free up? What steps would you need to take to get that much more focused during your writing time?

Holistic

When you start thinking about goals, your mind probably goes naturally toward academic or professional goals. But because you’re a whole person with a multifaceted life, it’s important that your goals are holistic.

So, some of your goals should come from different areas of life. Goals like “Write my paper for SBL” and “Take X days off by the end of the year” are both worth including.

On Your Calendar

When do you want to have this goal complete? Or how often do you want to do it?

For example, do you want to “Spend two hours a day, five days a week writing my dissertation”? Or do you want to “Finish drafting my last dissertation chapter by 30 June”?

If you’re using a “due by” schedule, you’ll naturally match that time to the part of the year to which you assign that goal.

Linked to Each Other

Your goals shouldn’t pull against each other and make life harder for you. Instead, they should mesh well with and support each other.

For instance, dropping in only one goal to “Finish my dissertation” and then having 9–11 other goals for other projects or other areas of life is bound to create problems. All those other goals don’t sufficiently support your aim of finishing your dissertation because they’re not linked closely enough. “Draft the first chapter of my dissertation,” “draft the second chapter of my dissertation,” and so on do much better.

Actionable

To “be less distracted while reading” is a great idea, but what do you need to do in order to be this way?

Do you need to “Use Freedom to block online distractions during scheduled reading time”? That you can do as you cultivate the habit of deep work.

By clarifying exactly what action you need to take to achieve a given outcome, you’re that much more likely to make good forward progress in that area.

Realistic

If you’re working full time in a non-faculty post outside Europe, have an active family life, and have ongoing commitments in your community, it still might be a lot of fun to “Spend the semester at INTF.”

But it might not be realistic to pull up stakes and start actively moving on this goal in your current circumstances. At the very least, you’d back off this goal to something more preparatory like “Plan a semester abroad at INTF.”

Limited in extent

“Make progress on my dissertation” doesn’t cut it because “progress” is very vague. What counts? How do you know if you’ve successfully achieved the goal?

In principle, one additional character in your dissertation file could count as “progress,” but at that rate, your project will outlive you and still not be finished.

“Submit my prospectus” is much better.

Yielding Important Outcomes

If you look over your goals list and you find something that makes you yawn, ask yourself why.

As you do, consider removing it to concentrate on something more important. Or if it’s something you need to keep, try reframing it in a way highlights why it’s important.

“Spend less time on email” isn’t particularly inspiring. “Recover 30 minutes a day for writing by reducing how long I spend replying to email” clearly shows what the important end game is.

4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.

Academic life typically revolves around quarters or semesters. And that natural structure is something to consider when you think about how to segment your year—whether into 3 or 4 major parts.

Either should work. I’ve found the slightly shorter and more regular quarters to be more helpful. But they sometimes overlap in odd ways with academic semesters. So, choose whatever approach seems most natural and least likely to create friction for you.

In either case, avoid letting your goals slide in either planning or execution. The more of your important objectives get lumped into the very end of the year, the more likely they are to still be incomplete at the start of next year.

Instead, from your list of no more than 12 SCHOLARLY goals for the year, assign

  • No more than 4 to each semester (fall, spring, summer) or
  • No more than 3 to each quarter.

A possible exception is if you’re running a habit goal throughout the year like “Bike for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” In that case, you might need to have that habit goal in each quarter or semester. And you can decide whether the time commitment for that goal is small enough for it to occupy one of your 3 quarterly or 4 semesterly goal slots.

Just like limiting yourself to 12 annual goals, limiting yourself to 3 per quarter or 4 per semester helps you feel the constraints of that time in your planning process.

Reckoning with those constraints ahead of time can be key to helping you avoid larger-scale scheduling crises. After all, your time is actually limited. So, you want to grapple with that as best you can on the front end.

5. Each week, ask how you can move toward one or more of your goals.

If you only have 12–16 weeks to complete 3–4 major goals, you need to be intentional about what you do each week.

So, however works for you, schedule time each week to review your goals for that quarter or semester. Then, ask yourself: “What do I need to do this week toward completing the goals I’ve set?”

You might not be able to work on everything for that quarter or semester in a given week. That’s fine.

The point is to make regular progress, even if its on a small handful of meaningful tasks. Overtime, those small handfuls add up to much larger results.

If you want some ideas about how to structure your time, and your goals in it, see my free guide, How to Budget Your Time: A Guide for Regular, Irregular, and Mixed Schedules.

Conclusion

By the time December rolls around, the year will be too far spent to change much of what it involves. So, don’t wait.

Instead, “begin with the end in mind.”3 Intentionally decide what you’d like to have done this year once it’s at an end.

Then, you’ll be ready to start taking deliberate, well-defined steps toward that end.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. In this post, I’m much indebted to the advice in Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018). I’ve found this guidance hugely helpful for myself. And I’ve tried to supplement and apply it here in a way that addresses some of the specifics of life in biblical studies. 

  3. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 102–53. 

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. 

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.