Your Research Is Important, but It’s Not All-Important

You might have a great idea for your next research project.1 That idea might be based on a question that’s clearly compelling to your audience—or one that you’re willing to make compelling.

But if you never make time for your research, your idea will go nowhere and help no one. The question is: When can you work on it? As Stephen Covey observes,

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.2

And the process of scheduling your research priorities starts with planning when not to work on your project.

When Not to Do Your Research

It might be counter-intuitive to start assessing when you can do your research by considering when you won’t.

But as important as your research is, it’s easy to forget that other things are more important. So, when you’re “schedul[ing] your priorities,” some things take precedence.

To take a personal example, while I was writing my dissertation, there were a lot of long days between that project and the jobs I had at the time. During that time, we also had our first child.

Between work and school, there wasn’t a lot of “family time.” But, largely to my wife’s credit, we made it a priority for me to at least be the one to put our daughter down to bed.

In a way, it would have been very easy to invest that time in the dissertation or other work. But I’m so grateful we didn’t let that happen. Instead, we set a firm boundary that school and work demands weren’t allowed to cross.

That’s just a small example. And arguably, it would have done me even more good to have even stronger boundaries around other times wasn’t allowed to happen.

The Value of Boundaries

As Cal Newport calls it, “fixed-schedule productivity” improves your productivity when you are working on a project because it commits you to clear boundaries for when that work can happen.3

The project’s deadline is coming. If you’re going to get it done on time, you don’t have infinite sway before the deadline to push everything else in life to the side. So, you had better make the most of the time you have to work on it.

The point is that you’re a whole person. And as a whole person, some things are more important than your research. Both you and those closest to you should expect that to be the case.

Very often, the things that are more important aren’t the one’s that are most urgent at the time. They’re not the meetings, requests, emails, and deadlines that so easily fill the day. But they’re the things that, at the end, you’ll want to be sure you’ve deeply invested yourself in.

A Cautionary Tale

A powerful negative example is George Ladd, as recounted by John D’Elia.4 As much good as Ladd’s scholarship did, he didn’t contextualize that scholarship in the frame of other things in life that should have taken priority over it—not least, his family.

Not only didn’t he keep his research in perspective, according to D’Elia’s picture, Ladd seems to have actively prioritized his research over things that, in principle, ought to have been more important.

Ladd might not have intended that to be the case, but that’s the problem. According to the “commonplace” cited by Northcote Parkinson, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”5 So, when there aren’t clear boundaries around work, it tends to expand until that’s all there’s time for.

Conclusion

So, yes, it’s important to identify clearly when you’ll do your research. But that process has to begin with deciding what’s more important than your research.

Doing so will fix the boundaries within which you can then get creative about how you structure your work—without reversing priorities and sacrificing to your research something that should take priority over it.


  1. Header image provided by STIL

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

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

  4. John A. D’Elia, A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 

  5. Parkinson’s Law,” Economist, 19 November 1955. This principle is sometimes called “Parkinson’s Law.” But Parkinson’s Law, as Parkinson explains it, is not so much about the expansion of work to fill the time available for it as it is about the multiplication of administrative officials within a system. 

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 & [email protected] 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 & [email protected]. 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.


  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. 

You Need to Scale Up Your Research Project Timeline

If you know how quickly different research projects have gone in the past and the scope of your upcoming project, you have some of the key information you need to estimate how long you’ll need to complete that next project.1

That said, you’ll probably underestimate how long your next project will take if you don’t scale that estimate up. This tendency results from

  1. inaccuracies in small samples,
  2. differences between projects, and
  3. the planning fallacy.

1. Inaccuracies in Small Samples

Especially when you’ve just begun tracking how long your projects take, the information you gather won’t be very helpful.

That’s because you’ll have such a small sample. And the smaller the sample is, the more wildly it’s likely to diverge from representing what’s “normal” for you.2

That said, you won’t ever collect a meaningful amount of information about yourself and your research habits if you never start by having a small amount. So, the fact that you have have a small amount of information isn’t a knock against your having it. It just represents a reason to scale your estimates up even more at the beginning.

2. Differences between Projects

Your current understanding of your “typical” or “average” output might be based on a body of work with a different difficulty level than you’re about to tackle.3 If that previous work was easier, your next project will probably go slower by comparison, and vice versa.

Because projects differ from each other, you can also focus on previous projects that are more similar to the one you’re about to start. By excluding projects that are less similar, you can get a better sense of how long you’ve previously spent on the kind of work you’re about to undertake.

3. The Planning Fallacy

Third, people—including you and me—often have a “tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.” This error in judgment is called “the planning fallacy.”4

So, your estimate of how long a project will take is likely to be overly optimistic. That’s especially likely when you have to communicate that estimate to someone else because then social pressure enters to encourage a more optimistic estimate.5

To account for the planning fallacy, you can be mindful of when you feel social pressure urging you to set a timeline that’s too optimistic for reality.

Scale Up Your Timeline

These challenges that help us underestimate how long projects will actually take need to be borne in mind. They shouldn’t be minimized. But they can be mitigated with strategies like I’ve mentioned above.

In addition, consider scaling up your initial estimate. Projects almost always take longer than you think they will at the start. So, you can get a closer estimate by allowing yourself some extra leeway for when “life happens” or a project moves more slowly other reasons.

The question then becomes: How much should you scale up your initial estimate? Greg McKeown suggests multiplying your original estimate by 1.5 times.6

That’s a good starting point, but the larger, newer, and more complex your project is, the more opportunities there will be for delays to add up. Anecdotally, I often find a multiple of 2 times is closer to the mark by the time the dust completely settles on a project.

Conclusion

Over the course of a research project, any number of things can conspire together to make that project take longer.

The unexpected will happen. You just can’t know in advance what it will look like.

But you can do your best to reckon with small samples, differences between projects, and the planning fallacy. And you can scale up your estimate of how long a project will take to complete.

With these adjustments, your estimate still won’t be perfect. But it’ll be a lot more likely to be a lot closer. And it’ll give you a much better basis for planning how you’ll bring your project to completion.


  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

  2. Daniel Kahneman discusses this principle as the “law of small numbers” in Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). 

  3. On not noticing these kinds of differences, see Kahneman, Thinking

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 182. 

  5. McKeown, Essentialism, 182–83. 

  6. McKeown, Essentialism, 183. 

How Long Will Your Research Project Really Take?

If you had no constraints on your research, how long the project will take to complete might not be that important a question.1

As soon as you have to complete a research project under specific constraints, answering the question of how long the project will take becomes more pressing.

One constraint might be the opportunity cost of what you’re not doing while you complete your project. Another might be the deadline you have for the project set by your professor, a contract, or a process like tenure review.

As constraints accumulate, it becomes increasingly helpful to have a sense of how long your project is going to take. That way, you can plan the time you need as you work to complete your project on time.

Memories of the past are imperfect. Forecasts for the future are more so. But there are 3 principles that can help you grapple with how long your project is likely to take so that you can plan accordingly.

These principles are to

  1. Track your progress,
  2. Set your scope, and
  3. Scale your timeline.

The first two I’ll discuss here. The last one has several sub-parts. So, I’ll go into detail on that next week.

1. Track Your Progress

If you’ve been around financial people, you’ve probably heard a disclaimer like “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But of course, past performance is a key ingredient in the process of forecasting future results.

You might have a sense of some unusual bumps in the road that lie ahead. But if you don’t know how you’ve done in the past, you won’t have any basis from which to adjust your future expectations up or down.

You can avoid this situation by tracking your progress as you work through a project. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You could just keep a simple log of how long you spent working and how many words or pages you wrote.

As you gather a larger amount of information about your own writing process, you’ll get a better sense of where your typical baseline is for how quickly you move through different kinds of projects.

2. Set Your Scope

When your project is done, how long should it be? How many words or pages should it have?

Without a definite scope, you can’t say when your project might be done. It might just continue growing in size as you continue spending more time on it.

Having a clear end goal is one of the constraints that’s helpful in giving you a sense of how long your project might take. The fuzzier your idea of your final project’s scope, the harder it will be to estimate how long it will take.

Conclusion

If you know your typical output and how long your final project needs to be, some simple division should tell you how long your project will take, right?

Not quite, you still need to scale your timeline up because it’s probably underestimating how long your project will take.


  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

Who Is Your Research Question Good For?

When you’re trying to choose a good research topic, there’s no silver bullet.1 But a fruitful search begins with your working to “see what is questionable.”2

Your research question can be one of two types: known or unknown. And at this point, the first-who principle raises its head yet again.

That is, your question is known or unknown according to whether it’s known or unknown by your audience.

Questions for Whom?

If your audience doesn’t know of your question as a question, they might think it’s already been resolved. Or they might consider it a non-issue.

In any case, if a question isn’t known by your audience, it falls into the category of unknown questions. Unknown questions can be some of the most exciting to ask and seek to answer.

But they do come with the added burden of clearly showing why they’re worth asking. If your research is answering a question that’s unknown by your audience, it’s up to you to demonstrate why your question is askable.

Why is it something that requires an answer for your audience? (And no, because you need to choose a topic isn’t a sufficient reason. 🙂 )

Helping Questions Arise

Once you answer that question for your audience, you’ll have created the room you need to show them the answer to the question they now know. You’ll have created what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “rhetorical exigence”:

Prior to the creation and presentation of discourse, there are three constituents of any rhetorical situation: the first is the exigence…. An exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something wanting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.… An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse.3

An exigence is a key ingredient of any rhetorical situation that exists among you, your audience, and the constraints in which you make your argument.4

It’s a question that demands an answer. And it demands that answer not only to give you an opportunity to present an argument but also to satisfy your audience’s concern for the exigence’s resolution.

What this means is that—to whatever degree your question is unknown by your audience—you need to help your audience have the problem your question expresses.

Otherwise, they aren’t going to know your question as a question, as an exigence that demands a solution. And if your audience doesn’t see your research as addressing an exigence, you’ll have a hard time keeping their attention—let alone persuading them of your answer to a question they don’t think needs to be asked.

Conclusion

Once you settle on a research question, the first-who principle still applies. If your audience recognizes that you’re answering an exigent question, you’re good to go.

But if they don’t, you may need to do some preliminary groundwork to show why your audience should find your new question pressing.


  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 13. 

  3. Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 6–7; italics original. 

  4. Bitzer, “Rhetorical Situation,” 6; see also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 370–87. 

Focus on Writing While Zotero Does Even More Formatting

Zotero is a free tool for managing bibliographies and citations.1 It’s now even more useful for researchers in biblical studies.

That’s particularly true if you’re using the styles for either the Catholic Biblical Association (CBA) or the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).

Catholic Biblical Association

The style for the CBA is what you’ll see if you read a Catholic Biblical Quarterly article.

Zotero has supported CBA style for some time. But per CBA’s current guidelines, the style now

  • Supports custom citations specified by CBA and stored in Extra via the annote variable (e.g., annote: BDF),
  • Allows series abbreviations to be stored in Extra via the collection-title-short variable (e.g., collection-title-short: NIGTC),
  • Truncates page ranges per the guidance of the Chicago Manual of Style (e.g., 115-116 becomes 115-16),2
  • Capitalizes English titles stored in sentence or lower case in “headline” style,
  • Gives citations with a “sub verbo” locator the “s.v.” notation and those with a “section” locator the § symbol,3
  • Overrides Chicago’s en dash with a hyphen when delimiting page ranges, and
  • Includes a period at the end of a citation.

The updated style now also corrects a few bugs in the prior version. These include

  • Correcting the output of a work cited with only editors as responsible parties from “, ed. [name(s)]” to “[name], ed.” or “[names], eds.”,
  • Correcting the delimitation and spacing with volume-page citations (e.g., “1:105”), and
  • Lowercasing “rev. ed.” and, if it appears other than at the start of a sentence, “ibid.”

Society of Biblical Literature

Like CBA, SBL style requires you to cite a number of resources by specific abbreviations.

I’ve previously discussed how you could modify the SBL style in order to store and cite by these abbreviations. That was pretty messy, but you could install a customized style file where I’d already made that change.

That worked, but it meant that you didn’t receive updates as quickly. It also meant that I had to keep re-producing the modified style every time an update came out. Or neither you nor I would benefit from the corrections that that update included.

Now, however, annote-based citations are supported in the SBL style that’s in the Zotero repository.

In addition, for some time, citations with section locators have had a space after § or §§ that shouldn’t have been there (thus, e.g., “§ 105” rather than “§105”). That’s now fixed too.

So, if you cite a grammar, you can just choose “section” as the locator type. You don’t any longer need to drop in § or §§ as the first characters in the locator field.

Just choose a “section” locator, and enter the sections you’re citing. Zotero will take care of the rest.((These comments pertain to the note-bibliography version of Zotero’s SBL style. If you use the parenthetical citation-reference list version, the behavior may differ.)

Conclusion

Citing sources is important work. And no matter how good software gets, you still have to know the style you’re writing in because you’re responsible for the final product.

That responsibility doesn’t shift when it’s challenging. But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything by hand.

Careful use of tools like Zotero will go a long way in helping you keep your citations in order while also clearing your way to focus on the substance of your research and writing.


  1. Header image provided by Zotero via Twitter

  2. If you specify the locator type as “section” rather than “page,” however, Chicago-style truncation doesn’t currently happen. 

  3. The style should be able to output § when you cite only one section and §§ when you cite multiple sections. But it currently uses § even when you cite multiple sections.