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 Facts of Personal Limits

When confronting the question of when you won’t work on your research, it’s helpful to begin with a wider perspective. In particular, human beings don’t have unlimited capacity for work each week.

To function at their peak, adults normally require around 8 hours of sleep each day.3 During that time, you’re obviously not actively researching. At most, you subconscious might be churning things over.

Pencavel’s Study

But even during your waking hours, your capacity to produce valuable work is limited. In a fascinating study of munition workers, John Pencavel concludes that

the output-hours relation is decidedly non-linear: below 49 weekly hours, variations in output are proportional to variations in hours; for those observations corresponding to 49 or more hours, output rises with hours at a decreasing rate and a maximum of output occurs at about 63 hours. Output at 70 hours differs little from output at 56 hours ….4

That is, the amount of time worked in a given week

  • up to 49 hours produces similar output for each hour worked,
  • over 49 and up to 63 hours produces increasingly less output for each hour worked, and
  • over 63 hours actually decreases the amount of output produced.

So, at a workweek of 70 hours, the surveyed workers were just as productive as they were at 56 hours. It just took them 14 more hours during the week to produce that output.

Implications for Biblical Studies

Biblical scholarship isn’t munitions work. And the details of Pencavel’s analysis might have differed if they were performed on a different set of workers or on specialists in a different field.

But based on these findings, you can generally expect to have a number of maximally productive work hours in a week that’s no more than about 45–55.

For various reasons, you might find you have difficulty staying afloat with everything in this time frame. I’ve definitely been there too. But the point of this observation isn’t to lay down a hard-and-fast rule. Rather, it’s to suggest that your best hours for your research will tend to fall within this scope.

So, adding ever more hours in a frantic race to get more done isn’t likely to do much more than stretch the same amount of work into a longer amount of time.

The Value of Boundaries

Within the possibly productive work time you have available each week then, “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.5

Your research project’s deadline is coming—whether that’s a deadline set by you or someone else. 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.6 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.”7

So, when there aren’t clear boundaries around work, it tends to expand until that’s all there’s time for.


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. Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 71–74; Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 91–102; Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (New York: Scribner, 2017). 

  4. John Pencavel, The Productivity of Working Hours, Discussion Paper Series 8129 (Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor, 2014). 

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

  6. 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). 

  7. 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. 

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