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. 

Why You Need to Block Your Time

Time goes quickly.1 So, if you’re going to make the most of it for what really matters, you need to have a clear plan for it.

Where your schedule is pretty regular, one of the best methods for planning it is time blocking.

A Blank Calendar Is a Problem

If you’re at all accustomed to a knowledge work environment that involves meetings, you’re probably familiar with meeting requests that come to your calendar and take time out of your day.

When Blank Is Your Calendar’s Normal State …

In these environments, its easy to start with a day as a blank slate. In especially hectic periods, this blank slate might be pretty far into the future. But the normal state of your calendar is “empty” or “available.”

To this blank slate, you can then add meetings and other appointments. And in the white space that remains on a given day, you can try to make progress on your most important projects and goals or invest in key relationships.

If you take this approach, however, meetings, appointments, and urgent requests are likely to expand to fill the time allotted to them.2 And since your calendar is blank by default, you’re allotting all the time you have.

You’re Asking Other People to Plan Your Time

You’re liable to find yourself wishing you had more time for exactly these priority projects and relationships that you’re squeezing into the remaining white space. And your calendar largely becomes a record of other people’s priorities, which might fail to support or even conflict with your own.

As Greg McKeown observes,

When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.3

The problem with a blank calendar is that it doesn’t actually mean you’re free. Yes, it has whitespace. But you’re probably already needing to use that whitespace for different purposes.

The whitespace on your blank calendar is probably already spoken for. But a blank calendar makes it look like you’re free—both to others and to yourself.

If you receive a request that fits into whitespace on your calendar, you’re liable not to immediately call up everything you’d implicitly hoped to do during a given time slot.

Sometimes you might. But that probably won’t be before you’re so overwhelmed you know you can’t add anything else to your plate.

And that kind of overwhelm is clearly not a great place from which to live or to work on your most demanding projects.

Time Blocks Are Appointments

But you don’t have to succumb to the default of a blank calendar. Instead of letting your calendar fill and investing in your key projects and relationships with the time remaining, you can proactively block out time on your calendar.

You Can Make Appointments with Yourself

This “time blocking” adds to your calendar even appointments you make with yourself for particular activities. And it stands on its head the default “blank” calendar approach.

Rather than waiting to see what fills the calendar and making use of the time that remains, time blocking asks you to proactively schedule time to invest in your major projects and relationships. You then let other things filter in around that.

Once your time is gone, it’s gone. Less essential items have to be eliminated, roll forward until there’s time for them, or get handled some other way. Meanwhile, you’re being careful to devote your attention to what matters most.

Even if you’re the only one who sees your calendar, it’s still helpful for you to see that you’re busy. Time blocking removes whitespace from your calendar. By removing this whitespace, your calendar will reflect the demands on your time that your current commitments call for.

This reflection is particularly helpful when new opportunities present themselves. If your calendar is clear, you might agree quite easily. But a calendar that reflects a full plate can help you be more cautious about agreeing to new requests.

Knowing You’re Busy Can Help Others Schedule Meetings

If others look at your calendar to send you meeting requests, it can be helpful if your time blocked calendar shows you as “busy” during the times you’ve already set aside. That will help others know when they can connect with you in ways that won’t impinge on more important commitments.

Of course, blocking your calendar and showing yourself as busy will reduce the times you look like you’re available. But that’s the point—if your attention needs to be elsewhere, you’re already not available at that same time for something else.

(If you feel the least bit bad about this, remember that being “busy” means being “occupied,” and there are a whole host of other—often more productive—ways to be “occupied” than by being in a meeting.)

Conclusion

Like creating a financial budget by spending money on paper before a month begins, time blocking your calendar encourages you to spend time in your calendar before you actually get to it. This way, you set aside time to give attention to your most important projects and relationships.

Time blocking helps you avoid being driven along by whatever is most urgent and wondering where the time went. There are several strategies for effective time blocking, but there isn’t one “right” approach.

So, start somewhere, even if it’s small. Learn what works and what doesn’t for you. And from what you learn, you can better steward the time in your calendar and how it gets spent.


  1. Header image provided by Djim Loic

  2. This principle is sometimes, albeit slightly inaccurately, called “Parkinson’s Law.” 

  3. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 16. 

How Todoist Can Support Your Work and Life

There are a myriad of productivity tools available.1 Each has its own distinctives and claims to being better than its peers.

Ultimately, all of them need some kind of method in their use to really be helpful. And you should choose whatever methods and tools work for you.

After all, you got into biblical studies because you were interested in the biblical text. You didn’t get into biblical studies because your key interest lay in productivity tools and methods.

Tools and methods are only means to an end, and you should treat them as such. But because they are means, they can support for your progress toward the goals you’re trying to reach.

For me for the past few years, this has largely involved Todoist used broadly according to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology.2

You might already have a different system that works well for you. If so, that’s great. Keep it going!

As Stephen Covey puts it,

Your planning tool should be your servant, never your master. Since it has to work for you, it should be tailored to your style, your needs, your particular ways.3

So, if you don’t have a solid system or you’re tired of fighting with the one you have, there are 8 reasons Todoist might be the tool for you. In particular, Todoist has

  1. Enough flexibility and simplicity to handle work, school, and personal material,
  2. A feature-full free version,
  3. Labels,
  4. Filters,
  5. Flexible scheduling options for recurring tasks,
  6. Integrations with Gmail,
  7. Integrations with Google Calendar, and
  8. A cost-effective Pro version.

1. Enough flexibility and simplicity to handle work, school, and personal material

The more systems you have the more questions you have about where something might be. Then, the whole bundle of systems becomes more complex and time consuming. And it’s costs start to outweigh its benefits.

So when you’re deciding on how to manage your commitments, it helps to condense everything as simply as possible into as few places as possible.

You can probably think of a time when you forgot something like “Get bread at the grocery store.” Then you had to make a second trip. While on that second trip to the store, you lost time to use to “Write the literature review.”

Or maybe “Get bread” wasn’t it. Maybe it was “Rotate the tires.” You missed that repeatedly and then got to spend time replacing tires instead of preparing for class.

Or maybe you didn’t have a complete inventory of your school obligations. So you got “surprised” by a deadline you actually knew about much earlier.

You then had to cram it in last minute. As a result, you ended up being less present with your family or missing an opportunity to serve someone else.

Because we’re whole people, our personal and academic lives are deeply intertwined. What affects one affects the other.

So if you can remove clutter, complexity, and confusion in either sphere, you’ll be doing a favor for the other as well. Todoist can help you accomplish this.

2. A feature-full free version

Like many apps, Todoist is available on a “freemium” basis. You get certain features for free just by signing up. Other features you get when you become a “pro” subscriber.

The free version of Todoist allows however many installations you want on your different devices.4 It also allows up to 5 current projects, file attachments up to 5 megabytes, up to 3 saved searches (or “filters”), labels, wide flexibility in scheduling recurring tasks, Google Calendar integration, and some helpful Gmail integration (more on these last three below).

In the past, Todoist held certain features (e.g., labels) back to distinguish the free and paid plans. But the free plan now includes just about all the features the “Pro” plan does (reminders being the main exception).

This change puts the main difference between the free and Pro plans in terms of quantity. A key example may be how the Pro plan allows for up to 300 active projects, but the free plan only allows up to 5.

Though, on the free plan, you can still create 20 “sections” inside each project, which alone gives you up to 100 different buckets to sort your commitments into.5 And for a sense of scale, I have under 40 active projects and could probably even stand to condense them some.

All of this means that Todoist’s free version gives you a very wide range of features just for signing up. So, if you don’t already use Todoist, you should definitely dip your toe in with the free version to see first-hand how Todoist might work for you.

3. Labels

In Todoist, each task goes in exactly one project. But each task can have multiple labels.

So labels can be a good way of pulling together different kinds of similar work across their various projects.

For instance, I use a Todoist label as a way of keeping a “waiting for” list. These things I need to not forget but can’t act on again yet. I’m waiting for something from someone else (e.g., in an email reply) to be able to take a next action.6

So I have an “@Waiting_for” label in Todoist that I apply to these items. This allows me to review them regularly, see what has or hasn’t come in, and follow up where needed.

More importantly, this label helps me ensure I don’t drop the ball on something just because I forgot about that commitment while I was waiting for something I needed to continue working to complete it.

4. Filters

In Todoist, a “filter” is essentially a saved search. Filters allow you to pull together custom lists of tasks with different criteria.

You can structure filters however you like. But as an example, I have an @Home label that I add to personal things I need to do when I’m away from the office.

With that label, I can then use the not operator (!) in the filter today & !@Home to give me a comprehensive list of everything I need to do on a given day before I leave the office (i.e., when I’m not at home).

Todoist’s free plan limits you to 3 filters. But you can still search Todoist in more than three combinations (not unlike how you can add multiple sections inside each of the free plan’s maximum of 5 projects).7

For instance, if you have an @Home label that you use like I do, you can search Todoist with the query today & !@Home. Once you run the search, you’ll see everything that’s due today and doesn’t have the @Home label.

You can then bookmark that page in your browser. Or you can copy and paste the URL (which should be something like https://todoist.com/app/search/today%20%26%20!%40Home) into a comment in Todoist.

The workflow’s not as smooth as using the built-in filter feature, but it can gets the job done.

5. Flexible scheduling options for recurring tasks

This one might be a bit geeky. But there are several things I want to do remind myself to do on a certain day of the week in a month.

It’s curiously hard, however, to find task managers that will give you the proper dates for things that occur on a specific day of the week but a different date in a given month.

For instance, you might want to

  • Check the car’s tire pressure every month on the second Saturday. Or
  • Every first Friday in November, communicate about my plans for the annual SBL meeting.

Besides Todoist, there are definitely other solutions that allow you to do this. But I’ve been surprised how few there are.

For me, it’s an important one to have to minimize the need to regularly reschedule things manually that come up on the wrong day.

6. Integrations with Gmail

Gmail includes a “snooze” feature that can be immensely helpful when you want to get a message out of your inbox for now but bring it back at a later time.8

Taking this functionality one level farther, Todoist integrates with Gmail in two ways.9 The first is a Gmail extension (Chrome, Edge) that allows you to add a Gmail message to any Todoist project. There’s also a Google Workspace Add-on that works in other browsers and mobile devices (except iPad).

Using either extension, Todoist can create a task that will link you directly back to the relevant Gmail conversation.

In addition, Todoist now also allows you to forward messages from any email client and have them attached to a particular Todoist task or project, even if you’re on the free plan.10

Each of these features can be a helpful way of stacking the deck so your email will return you the most benefit for the least amount of effort spent managing it.

7. Integrations with Google Calendar

Google of course has its own Tasks and Reminders features that integrate with Calendar. But these are pretty limited and so for me haven’t proven as useful as Todoist.

So it’s nice that Todoist also integrates with Google Calendar so that you can see your calendar and Todoist tasks all in one place.11 (Again, simpler and fewer places to look is better.)

For instance, Google Calendar integration makes it easier to see the time blocks I’m dedicating to certain specific tasks.

Having a time slot set aside for “research” is good. But it’s also easy to assign more to a time block like that than you can really accomplish.

Putting specific tasks on your calendar might help you see better where you’re inadvertently doing this.

Depending on how you set it up, the Google Calendar integration can also help you keep a running log of what you’ve done. That way, you can occasionally look back and see whether you invested too much or too little time in various activities.

8. A cost-effective Pro version

If you want the additional features behind Todoist’s subscription wall, current pricing for Todoist Pro is $36 per year, or $4 per month (US). This means Todoist Pro is quite cost effective by comparison with the subscription plans of similar tools.

For instance, reminders aren’t available on Todoist’s free plan. But I’ve started to find them increasingly helpful to surface things at particular times—even if those things don’t exactly need to be done at those times.12

If you decide to try Todoist Pro and sign up through this link, you’ll get a free two-month trial of Todoist premium.

Again, if a free or already-fully-paid-for solution works well for you, that’s great. But next to that, Todoist’s comparatively low annual subscription rate is definitely a plus.

Conclusion

However you manage your commitments, you need to use the tools and processes that work for you.

One of the standout features in the “Pro Tips” series is just how simple are the systems of some of the most productive biblical scholars.

You don’t need anything fancy. And you definitely don’t need something just because it’s a shiny app that has gotten great reviews.

You just need a system that helps you keep up with your commitments and then gets out of your way.

If you’re still searching for what this may be for you, definitely consider giving Todoist a try. Sign up is free, as is the “Pro” feature set for the first two months.13


  1. Header image provided by TechCrunch

  2. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015). 

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

  4. Here and below, I’m primarily digesting the content of “Pricing,” Todoist, n.d. 

  5. What’s Included in the New Free Plan?,” Todoist, n.d. 

  6. For further discussion, see Allen, Getting Things Done, 153–54. 

  7. For details about searching Todoist, see “Introduction to: Filters,” Todoist, n.d. 

  8. Snooze Emails until Later,” Gmail Help, n.d. 

  9. Use Gmail with Todoist,” Todoist, n.d. 

  10. The New Free Plan.” At the time that I’m writing this, the main related help article still shows email forwarding as reserved for Pro and Business plan customers, “Forwarding Emails to Todoist,” Todoist, n.d. But that page will doubtless get updated in due course. 

  11. Use Google Calendar with Todoist,” Todoist, n.d. For information on Todoist’s more limited “feed” integration for Google and other calendar providers, see “Use Todoist with Your Calendar,” Todoist, n.d. 

  12. Though, as with much else, the free plan gives you what you need to assemble similar functions yourself. For instance, with reminders, you could use something like Google Calendar to prompt you about items in Todoist. 

  13. For further suggestions for ways Todoist can help you, see also Fadeke Adegbuyi, “A Student’s Guide to Todoist,” Ambition & Balance, n.d.; Fadeke Adegbuyi, “An Educator’s Guide to Todoist,” Ambition & Balance, n.d. 

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish in 2021?

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 what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

1. Reflect on your experience.

Before you start making plans for the year, it might be helpful for you to reflect on what you’ve learned from the last year.

At least for me, when I do this, I inevitably pull out some things that help me plan better for the future.

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 those larger—but possibly more important—items could 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 going to require meaningful chunks of time in other quarters too, what’s still 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” immediately becomes 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.

What do you do 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 this 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. And whatever doesn’t make the cut for this year you can definitely save as ideas for another time.

The important thing is make space to think and 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 SMARTER 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.

Measurable

“Make progress on my dissertation” doesn’t cut it because “progress” is very vague.

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

“Draft my first dissertation chapter” is 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.

Realistically Risky

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?

Time-keyed

By 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” time key, you’ll naturally match that time key to the part of the year to which you assign that goal.

Exciting

Whether a goal is exciting can be related to how much it stretches you, or it might be something you just simply enjoy doing. So, this criterion has more to do with the topic of the goal than with how you frame it.

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 that piques your interest.

Relevant

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.”

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 do 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, the point is to avoid letting 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’ll be still incomplete at the start of next year.

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

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

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.

5. Each week, ask what you can do to 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” of what you’d like to have done this year once it is at an end.4

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. 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 not to occupy one of these 3 quarterly or 4 semesterly slots. 

  4. 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.