You Need to Stop Redoing the Same Work

Reading time: 3 minutes

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


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). 

To Be Productive, You Need to Be Adaptable

Reading time: 6 minutes

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.


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. 

Daily Gleanings: Working (24 December 2019)

Reading time: < 1 minutesMichael Hyatt and Megan Hyatt Miller reflect on some “reasons you can’t stop working.”

They cite three in particular that I’ll summarize below with some expansion and adaptation for our context:

  1. You haven’t set boundaries for your school or work to ensure it doesn’t engulf more of life than it should.
  2. You haven’t culled your calendar and your task list to remove things (perhaps even good things) that aren’t the best things for you to be spending time on.
  3. You haven’t cultivated other interests for things to engage and enjoy outside school or work.

If any of these resonate with you, there’s no better time than the present to start taking steps in different directions.

For Michael and Megan’s full comments and some helpful other ones besides, see the full discussion.

Daily Gleanings: Productivity (5 December 2019)

Reading time: < 1 minutes

Jory MacKay discusses productivity shame and strategies for coping with it.

MacKay defines productivity shame as the sense that you’ve not gotten “enough” done.

In a whole host of areas, completely finishing work is a state that never materializes. There is always more to do.

So to avoid feeling the shame of having not done enough of the endless work you have in front of you, MacKay recommends five strategies:

  1. Refocus away from getting more things done and toward “being decisive and confident with how you’re spending your time” on what’s most important.
  2. Divide your work into manageable chunks that are completable so that you can see your regular progress.
  3. Set up support systems for yourself using whatever tools or processes you find helpful (e.g., RescueTime, Todoist, GTD).
  4. Disconnect from work at the end of your workday.
  5. Reflect on what getting “enough” done would really look like for you so that you can strategize about how to set yourself up for success in the future.

For more, see MacKay’s full discussion on the Doist blog.

Daily Gleanings: Conversations (18 November 2019)

Reading time: < 1 minutesPotentially helpful for professional networking settings like SBL is Brett McKay and Don Gabor’s recent discussion on “how to start and sustain conversations.” If you’ve been to any number of professional meetings, you’ve probably been part of a conversation that could have gone better. In this discussion, Gabor gives some good advice about how to be a better conversationalist in such settings in the future, whether that means starting, keeping up, or even ending a conversation courteously.

Daily Gleanings: Freedom (7 November 2019)

Reading time: < 1 minutes

Via a Chrome extension, Freedom adds support for Chrome OS and Linux devices.

Of course, for Linux users, the Chrome extension won’t allow Freedom to run a session that blocks sites in other browsers like Firefox.

But for instance, if you

have a Chromebook, an iPhone, and an Android tablet. You know each device offers its own set of tempting distractions.

Add those distractions to a blocklist on the Freedom dashboard, choose your devices, and with a single click of the “Start” button, all the selected devices are actively blocking the selected distractions.

For more information about Freedom of Chrome OS and Linux, see Freedom’s full blog post.

For more about using Freedom to support your priorities, see this post.