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
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.
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
- I didn’t know in advance when I would have blocks of work time or
- 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.
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.
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.
Cf. Matt Perman, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014). ↩
Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 170. ↩