J. David Stark: Creating Systems to Prioritize What Matters Most
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Meet J. David Stark.
David is a Freedom user and research professor with over a decade of experience honing his craft craft in biblical studies. J. David Stark is the Winnie and Cecil May Jr. Biblical Research Fellow at Faulkner University’s Kearley Graduate School of Theology. David specializes in Pauline studies and biblical theology. When he’s not teaching, David also runs an educational website (jdavidstark.com) where he helps emerging biblical scholars hone their craft so that they can invest in work and relationships that really matter.
With all of this under his belt and as one of Freedom’s earliest supporters, we decided to sit down with David to learn a little more about how he creates personalized productivity systems to help him remain focused on what matters most.
As a research professor, writer, and biblical scholar what does your daily work flow look like? How did you get into the field/or position you are in today?
Toward the end of my PhD program, I started teaching hybrid classes that had both an in-person and an online component. By that time, I had done a bachelors in information systems and had long had a general interest in computing. So, the online component was a pretty natural fit.
I ended up wrapping up my PhD while the “Great Recession” still very much had a hold of higher education. So, full-time faculty positions being then even scarcer than usual, the timing was less than ideal.
But thankfully, the experience I had teaching the online component of those hybrid classes gave me a skillset I was able to use to pull together online adjunct teaching from several different institutions. (At the peak, I think there were six of them.)
One of those was Faulkner University, where I’d done my BA and MA. So, when they decided to start Faulkner University Online, I was invited to direct that initiative.
On paper, that position’s responsibilities were purely administrative, just like my previous adjunct responsibilities had been purely teaching-oriented. But in those different stages, I tried to keep up at least some modest amount of writing, presenting, and publishing.
The amount I did turned out to be enough that, when my current post opened up, I was invited to move over to Faulkner’s Kearley Graduate School of Theology. In that role, my main responsibilities are now writing and teaching for the school’s online PhD in biblical studies, with of course a dose of administrative work as well.
What that looks like day-to-day changes at different parts of the semester and from one semester to another as life moves along and I try to improve how I do things.
At present, I generally try to give over Monday–Thursday to writing and teaching activities while just keeping up with administrative responsibilities. Then, on Fridays, I’ll tend to take the whole day to address just administrative items.
That doesn’t always work out, especially when there’s a larger administrative project that arises on a closer deadline. But that’s the ballpark I try to stay in or around.
At what point did you realize that tech was taking a toll on your productivity, time, and relationships? When did you know that you had to do something about it?
I think the propensity for technology to create problems started becoming more apparent during my PhD.
In some ways, I had not the greatest relationship with technology for a good while before then. But I think that’s when it started to become clearer to me.
My wife, Carrie, and I got married just before I started my PhD, and we had our first child around the time I started writing my dissertation. Those transitions definitely changed (as they should) the amount of disposable time I had by comparison to when I was single and didn’t have children.
(Over) checking email had been an issue since I was an undergraduate, as had “tinkering” with software to try to do things marginally better. Then, I picked up blogging. That had positive and negative elements to it, but on the negative side, it definitely gave me an additional inlet for distraction.
I suppose I knew from fairly early on that I needed to do “something” to not get overly distracted or to not let distraction leave me with nothing to show for a day’s work at the end of it. But a lot of what I actually did do was to cut sleep and increase coffee consumption to try to fit everything in—not a great combination or a terribly sustainable approach in the long run.
How do you prioritize what gets your time and attention each day?
I generally try to plan the week ahead before it arrives but not much more than that. If it’s an especially busy season where I can see I’m not going to have time to plan for a couple weeks, then I may sketch out a bit farther than just the week ahead.
But the farther out it goes, the more tentative the plan is. So, the main value of planning farther than just one week out is that I can rework that plan more effectively in the constraints of whatever that following week(s) has in it.
When planning a week, I’ll look first at what I have that has to get done that week. If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower matrix, these are the “important and urgent” items.
That’s often things like grading assignments (since I tell my students they’ll have their grades back to them within 7 days of the date the assignments are due). Or it might be reviewing the copy edits on a manuscript that’s been accepted for publication, or it might be a committee assignment or administrative project.
Whatever it is, if it has to get done that week, then that goes on the calendar first. Around those items, I’ll then plan the “important and not urgent” items. That might be revising a class’s syllabus, drafting a new article, or planning a session for an upcoming conference.
These are things that either don’t have deadlines per se or that I’m trying to prevent from ever becoming really urgent by getting them done sufficiently far in advance.
Things that are “urgent and not important” I then try to clear out at least on a daily basis and keep constrained to the very end of the day before I knock off.
That way, I’ve already tackled the higher priority items earlier in the day. And what’s left doesn’t present a distraction that keeps running in the background of my mind while I’m trying to do higher-leverage work.
Then, anything else that’s slightly less urgent but still needs to get done can happen on a day that’s focused on administrative work anyhow.
Things that are both “not urgent and not important,” I try to ignore as best I can to keep them from becoming something I devote attention to. I don’t always succeed in this effort. But I try to keep enough perspective so that I’m aware when something fits this category.
What time-management techniques or tools do you use to meet deadlines and finish projects?
Like I already mentioned, I find the Eisenhower matrix a really helpful holistic. The general workflow and principles in David Allen’s Getting Things Done are also hugely helpful.
I don’t apply GTD strictly as it’s described in the book. Instead, I’ve taken Allen’s thoughts as a point of departure for creating habits, practices, and systems that make sense to me—not least for getting things out of my head into a trusted repository so that I can focus on whatever really needs my attention.
For me, that trusted system is largely Todoist with a couple caveats for specific kinds of things that have other “inboxes” that work better (e.g., scanning documents directly to my Downloads folder on OneDrive). I tend to date things pretty regularly in Todoist if they have a specific deadline.
When I’m doing my weekly planning, I’ll then pull onto the calendar from the items dated for that week those “important and urgent” tasks I need to complete.
For the past couple years, I’ve also found it very helpful to have more developed quarterly plans. In particular, these help me make clearer to myself how short a year really is and how quickly it fills up.
For quarterly planning, I generally follow the structure that you’ll find in Michael Hyatt’s “Full Focus Planner,” although I don’t use that particular planner. (Being rather an Excel nerd, I do my quarterly planning in a spreadsheet. :-)) But it’s this quarterly planning document that I’ll then almost always pull from for the “important but not urgent” items that I prioritize in a given week.
Tasks supporting these objectives then go into Todoist and from there (via the Google Calendar integration) onto Google Calendar where I can time block and see the space they’re going to occupy.
When time blocking, I’m trying to remember to multiply by about 1.5 or 2.0 how much time I estimate a given activity will take (thanks to Greg McKeown’s Essentialism for this metric). Things frequently do take longer than I initially estimate, and something in that range seems to be a pretty good corrective for getting a better estimate.
In terms of email, I practice a version of “Inbox Zero.” I don’t check email compulsively or try to do other work on other projects with it open in the background (unless of course I’m in administrative time when I’m in and out of email regularly anyhow). But when I do open my email, I clear out everything that’s come in since I last checked.
There are really two ways I do this. For as much as I can do quickly I go ahead and write responses to (e.g., within Allen’s suggested 2-minute rule). But sometimes, a single email—even if it’s fairly short—actually includes a larger, more complex, or multi-part request that will take longer to handle.
In those cases, I’ll create one or more corresponding tasks in Todoist. I’ll then archive that email to get it out of my inbox and keep working through until I get to the end, knowing that Todoist has everything I actually need to do to address the archived message.
The various steps to address any more complex message, I’ll then either come back and do if I have time during that email session. Or I’ll schedule them to complete at a different time.
Do you have a pre-work ritual or routine that helps you get focused and in the zone?
First thing in the morning on workdays, I typically spend some time bicycling, whether that’s to campus to work there or in a big circle back home to work from there. I didn’t start that for anything like “clearing my head” reasons. But I found pretty quickly that it did help with that.
Once I sit down at my desk, my morning routine falls into roughly two halves. The first half is more administrative and consists of a checklist, or a series of short tasks.
These include things like setting my cell phone on do-not-disturb but turning the ringer on (so the only way it’s going to ring is if Carrie calls), clearing out my Todoist inbox, adjusting my plan for day on the calendar as needed around anything that’s come up, scheduling any Freedom sessions I want to plan during the day, and doing a short, 1-minute concentration exercise.
The second half involves reading some biblical text in Hebrew or Greek. Since I teach biblical studies, this is an exercise my students and I do to stay in the text and keep up with its primary languages.
How do you optimize your environment for productivity and focus? How do you incorporate Freedom into your schedule?
In terms of my work environment, I try to make especially small repetitive things as frictionless as possible. Ever-optimizing can be its own kind of distraction. But I mainly try to be aware of things that seem like they’re taking longer or consuming more attention than they should. And then I try to automate those activities or at least reduce how much time and attention they occupy.
If I’m working on a task and think of something else I should do that doesn’t relate, I try just to drop that into my Todoist inbox to process later. That doesn’t always happen. And sometimes I end up doing the thing I’ve thought of instead (even when it takes longer than Allen’s suggested 2 minutes).
But as with so much else, Freedom has been the single biggest help in this regard. Freedom allows me to set priorities beforehand. Then, when I’m “in the moment,” and think of another task that I do want to do but is really a distraction at the moment, I’ve already decided to stop myself from going off on that tangent. All that’s left is to get back to what I’ve decided to prioritize (after dropping a note to myself into Todoist so I don’t have to think about not forgetting what I’ve thought of).
I might be a bit odd in this regard, but I’m pretty much always running a Freedom session. I mentioned earlier how challenging it’s been for me to have a healthy relationship with email.
Freedom is what finally allowed me to stop compulsively checking email after hours (and while at work for that matter). I normally work from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm. So, at 4:30 pm every day, a Freedom session kicks off to block email on my phone. That runs until 5:30 am (yes, the next morning).
On weekends, I have another Freedom session run to block email on my phone from 5:30 am until 4:30 pm, when the next overnight session picks up. That way, in the evenings and on the weekends, I can have my phone with me—not least to consult and drop things into Todoist—without it being tempted to open email.
On weekdays, my overnight Freedom session runs until 5:30 am when another session kicks off to block social media, email, and a few other things until 8:30 am.
By 8:30 am, I’ve then normally scheduled a Freedom session for the bulk of the day with blocklists that vary based on what I’m working on that day and how much access I’ll need (or need to avoid) to different kinds of Internet content. I’ll set that session to end at the time I want to do my daily clearing out of my email inbox. Though, if it’s an administrative day, I’ll not schedule an additional session since I assume I’m going to need to get in and out of email and other sites throughout the day.
All of this might seem a bit excessive. But for me it’s hugely helpful to be able to make one decision about setting up a Freedom session that then eliminates the need to make all the other decisions about what I might be liable to be distracted by otherwise.
It’s just one way of eliminating something from the list of things that my mind might attach to and start thinking about when I really want to be putting my full attention into something else.
What projects are you currently most excited about?
It’s been a busy few months. With my co-editor, Daniel Oden (Harding University), I’m excited to see the release of our new book, Scripture First: Biblical Interpretation That Fosters Christian Unity (ACU Press). We’ve been working with the other contributors on that project for the past few years. It’s wonderful to see it now ready to get into people’s hands, and we hope it will prove to be a helpful resource.
I’ve just finished writing and self-publishing a textbook on the ins and outs of using Microsoft Word. There’s a huge gap between what’s covered in general computer applications classes or guides to Word and what’s commonly required in my academic field of biblical studies. I’m hopeful this guide will be useful to bridge that gap for students so they can save themselves a mountain of legwork, ad hoc learning, and fussing with the software—and instead focus on their writing or other priorities.
I have an ongoing project about the character of the audience in the book of Romans from the New Testament. I had a rough draft of an article-length piece on that topic earlier in the fall. So, I decided to take it as a special challenge to up my focus game and see if I could revise that draft into something I thought might be publishable in about a week. As often happens, it did take longer than that, but I still got it revised in about three weeks. That’s now under review, and I’m hopeful to have some good news about it in the next few months.
Next on the docket is probably some work on the book of Deuteronomy from the Old Testament. That’s less of an area of focus for me. But it’s something I use in a class I teach on textual criticism. And I’m interested to see if some observations I think I’ve made while teaching that class actually pan out on more thorough analysis.
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay healthy and productive?
Other than what I’ve already mentioned, in mid-2019, I was diagnosed with normal-pressure glaucoma, which we’ve determined was being driven by sleep apnea (which I didn’t know I had). So, especially since then, trying to get good sleep has been a bigger priority.
After Carrie and I get the kids to bed, I have an alarm that buzzes when it’s time for me to actually turn in so that I get around 8 hours of sleep. Most of the time, that mechanism works reasonably well, and I hit or am pretty close to that sleep target.
Later this past summer, I also found I might have the beginnings of an ulcer. Since then, I’ve been trying to avoid processed foods, added sugar, dairy, etc. and make other food choices that are better for my body as well.
What advice would you give your younger self in regard to staying focused and motivated on what matters most?
To my younger self, I think I might say two things (which I also try to have my present self keep in mind).
First, time is a zero-sum game. Saying yes to anything with it automatically means saying no to everything else.
Sure, you might be able to check email while “playing” with your kids. You might be able to do a low-priority activity in time you’d planned to devote to high-leverage work.
But by making that choice, part of the “not anything else than this” that you’re choosing is not fully engaged presence in that play or work, which is the kind of presence that makes times memorable and work productive.
Second, to quote Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which I mentioned earlier, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will” (p. 10).
You don’t want to live a life ruled by the whims of priorities from other people that might not mesh with your own. So, focus your few and fleeting days on what will really count at the end.
How that “focusing” happens requires constant readjustment and is different for everyone. But I’ve tried to suggest several big-picture options in my free guide How to Budget Your Time: A Guide for Regular, Irregular, and Mixed Schedules.
Where are you currently based?
My family and I live in Montgomery, Alabama, and I teach at Faulkner University’s Kearley Graduate School of Theology.
To learn more about J. David Stark, his work, or books you can visit his site at jdavidstark.com.