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#52 Priorities and Productivity

April 14, 2008

Dr. Craig,

Your productivity suggests you have the energy of five men. Are there some practical tips you can give a young Christian philosopher who is trying to be as productive as you? How do you study and write so productively, as well as attend to your wife? Where do you find the time?


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Dr. craig’s response


With the 52nd Question of the Week we arrive at the one-year anniversary of the launch of our Reasonable Faith website. What a marvelous experience it has been! The remarkable variety of features on the site and the freshness of the materials featured here each week have helped to make the site a dream come true for me. We have been so encouraged by the constantly mounting number of unique visitors every month from across the globe, as well as by the many e-mails and letters expressing how a podcast or an article or a debate or a book has been a help to someone.

As we reflect on our first anniversary, I thought it appropriate to step back and take a more personal question this week. I’m flattered by the question, but I do think it also raises some serious issues.

The question reminds us that as Christian thinkers we must lead a life that balances our ministry with our personal commitments (not to mention our spiritual life!). If we throw ourselves into our work to the neglect of our families, then we may wind up very productive but divorced (or miserable), bringing shame upon Christ’s name and injury to those whom God has entrusted to us to love and protect. So the question concerns both priorities and productivity. There’s much to be said here, but let me make a few practical suggestions that have been of help to me.

1. Set Priorities. With all there is to do, we must begin by having a clear sense of our priorities. These will determine how we allot our time and energy. The top priority will be our personal walk with God. This will include time spent alone with Him as well as time for corporate worship and service in a local church. Jan and I observe the sabbath principle of setting one day aside each week for worship and rest, and so I do not study on Sundays. My second priority is Jan and our children. When Jan and I first embarked on graduate study in seminary, I told her that if the strain ever became too much or she was feeling neglected, she had but to say the word and I would drop out of school. She knew I meant it, and that gave her strength to endure the stress of my graduate studies. I also made the pledge to her that I would not study evenings or weekends; that time would be hers. Keeping that commitment to her (which I still observe) impelled me to early morning rising and a very disciplined daily schedule, as you might imagine! God has honored that commitment. I have a wife who would go to the ends of the earth for me (and has!). A scholar who is happily married will naturally be more productive than one who is miserable and depressed. As the Bible says, “He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5. 28). Truer words were never spoken!

2. Single-mindedness. Having acquired a clear grasp of your priorities, it’s very important to cultivate the personal character trait of single-mindedness. By that I mean the ability to discern the difference between the good and the best and not to let the good become the enemy of the best. There are so many distractions in life, and many of them are genuinely good things. But if our desire is be as productive as we can, then we must learn to shun the good for the sake of the goal on which we’re focused. In seminary, for example, I didn’t attend daily chapel or hang out with the guys because I knew that I had to get all my work done before I went home each evening. Knowing where my priorities lay, I was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. Often in my research I’ll come across some really interesting philosophical article that isn’t related to my current research project. Rather than be distracted by it, I just make a note of the bibliographical data on it so that in the future I may be able to come back to it.

3. Time-management. I realized long ago that time is more valuable than money, for while you can always get money back again, time, once it’s gone, is lost forever. So we need to invest our time to the fullest. This means knowing how to manage your time. I’ve learned over the years to lead a pretty disciplined life. I get up at 5:30 a.m. each day to spend an hour in personal devotions, and then I go downstairs to exercise for about an hour. After showering, I have breakfast with Jan and talk about our day. I then study until around 1:00 p.m., when she has lunch prepared for me. (Yes, she’s a great cook and homemaker!) I then do lighter study or reading until about 5:00. Finally, when my brain is too tired to think, I do the e-mail from 5:00 to 6:00. Then Jan and I enjoy supper and the rest of the evening together. She helped me work out this routine, and I’ve found it’s quite practicable. Of course, when I’m traveling, things get all discombobulated! But I still try to exercise on the road, and I bring light reading along with me.

4. Work as to the Lord. When I entered seminary, our Dean Kenneth Kantzer enjoined us students, “Look at your studies as service to Christ.” What a different perspective that gives one’s studies! No one would want to offer the Lord half-hearted or defective service. You would want to give Him only your very best. While in seminary, Jan bought me a little cardboard plaque, which I stuck on my desk lamp so that every time I sat down to study I would see it. On the plaque were printed the words of Col. 3. 23: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men.” This inspires me in all that I do. It will give you the motivation and zeal to do your work well even when things get hard.

5. The turtle method. Do you remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? The hare was a sprinter, who started the race with a bang, whereas the turtle was a plodder. After a while the hare got tired and lay down to rest. By the time he woke up the steadily plodding tortoise was crossing the finish line ahead of him. I’ve been amazed at how slow, steady, incremental work builds up until after a while you look back and are surprised at what’s been accomplished. My Dad exemplified this virtue. When I was a boy, he would order truckloads of fill dirt or stone to be dumped in our yard, and then after work or on the weekends he would go out and with a shovel and wheelbarrow begin single-handedly to move the mountain of material. It seemed like a hopeless task. But after several months, all the dirt was gone or a stone wall had been built. It just amazed me how steady plodding is the way to get things accomplished. Jan and I call this way of working “the turtle method.” A few years ago she bought me a brass turtle which now graces my nightstand to remind me of this truth.

6. Study habits. You should develop various study habits to make you more productive. When you study, pick a quiet place without visual distractions and sit in a straightback chair at a desk or table with a well-lit surface. Discipline yourself to read for longer and longer intervals, so that you’re not always popping up to get a cup of coffee or talk to someone. When it comes to writing, don’t be a perfectionist. Just get it out on paper and you can revise later. Perfectionism leads to paralysis. Here are two very important tips: (i) Take notes on what you read. If you don’t take notes on what you read, you’ll forget almost everything you read soon after putting the book back on the shelf. Taking notes will not only help you to retain what you read but will also give you a record of what you’ve read. I keep notebooks in my office labeled Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Systematic Theology, NT Studies, etc., where I file away my notes on everything I read. (I guess you could do this on a computer, too, but I started before there were personal computers, and there are great advantages of hard copies when it comes to accessibility and comparing notes.) (ii) Take a course in speed reading. Taking notes will slow you down. But speed reading can help to offset this to some degree. I used to think that speed reading was just skimming, and that seemed of no value to me. But I discovered that speed reading isn’t skimming: you still read every word, but you just read faster! I found that we all have lots of bad habits when we read (like sub-vocalizing) that slow us down but which speed reading can get rid of. So I’d encourage you to take a qualified speed reading course.

7. Double up. When you do begin to write, get as much mileage as you can out of the same piece of research. For example, if you’ve followed my work, you know that I typically will write a scholarly book, like God, Time and Eternity, published by an academic press, and then I’ll re-write the same material in the form of a popular level book, like Time and Eternity, for the layman. In addition, before the books come out, I’ll publish some of the chapters in the form of articles in professional journals. Thus, out of the same body of research comes a variety of publications.

Well, as you can see, I’m just full of advice. I hope that some of it will be helpful to you. I know that it has sure worked for me!

Thank you to all of you who have helped to make our first year of Reasonable Faith a marvelous success!

- William Lane Craig