On Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less

This blog post summarises the highlights of an interview between Michael Hyatt and  Greg McKeown, bestselling author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less . You can listen to the podcast  here. I found it really inspiring. Micheal Hyatt’s podcast This is Your Life is one of a select few I listen to regularly.

The goal of ‘Essentialism’ is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the right time. Our overstuffed lives are so full of activities and commitments, there’s no space to think about what the very best and highest use of ourselves is. This can lead to what Jim Collins has called the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” as we try to cram more and more into an already packed life. Before long, we have no margin, no space to breathe.

The antidote to this problem of the undisciplined pursuit of more is the disciplined pursuit of less but better.  It is the very work of our lives to figure out what’s important now and be willing to eliminate anything that isn’t the answer to that question.

Wendy-Lyn-Phillips-photo-messy-closet-267x336McKeown uses a metaphor of a closet to help us picture the problem of our overstuffed lives. The scenario is, we have far too much stuff in our wardrobes so we half-heartedly set about decluttering  –  but actually, we only remove one or two items. So then we think the solution is to get a bigger wardrobe! But it isn’t. The bigger wardrobe will become just as crammed and cluttered in no time at all. We need to reassess every item that is hanging in there and pare it down to the most important and valuable items. And it’s not just our stuff hanging in there, other people come along and hang their stuff in our ‘wardrobes’ (other people’s meetings, tasks and priorities ‘hanging’ in the limited space of the ‘wardrobe’ that is your schedule).

McKeown diagnoses the disease of our culture as the idea that if you can fit it all in, you can have it all. The problem with that idea is that it’s not true.

Part of the solution is to hold a “personal quarterly off-site” – to create some space to think, to ask the hard questions, the big questions. Every 90 days, you take a day. You evaluate what you’ve been doing during the last 90 days. It’s an opportunity for you to poke your head above the clouds and kind of get some perspective about your life and where it’s going. McKeown recommends turning off all electronic distractions. It’s a thinking day.  (For New Zealand teachers, our four term year provides us with the chance to do some of this thinking in our holidays.) Among other questions, he recommends you ask, what am I already committed to? Are these the things that really are essential, or are they no longer the things I should be doing?

Then it’s time to un-commit to things. McKeown talks about negotiating out of non-essential commitments: “You know what? I signed up for this. But I don’t think I could do a great job for you. I could do it, but I think it’s not the very best way for me to be able to help you. What I can do instead is this…” Or, “This person could help instead.” Or you can just say, “It’s just no longer a fit for me.”

McKeown acknowledges that this does create a withdrawal in the relationship. But there’s a cost regardless. Either you risk upsetting the person or you carry on using your valuable time for something non-essential. And that’s time you are not spending on your real priorities – The Big Rocks: Family, relationships, sleep, exercise… So either way, you pay – but you’re choosing which bill you’re going to acquire. We can’t just pretend there are no trade-offs and say yes to everything and hope that will be fine. So now the choice is, “What are the right trade-offs to make?”

Interviewer Michael Hyatt raises the issue of integrity. “I don’t have any problem with trying to negotiate out of it or providing an alternative, but if the other person says, ‘No, I really want you do to it,’ and I’ve committed to it, and they’ve planned on that, then I feel like I have to follow through. Next time I’ll be smarter, but I have to fulfill the commitment.”

I agree.

The key is that every time someone asks us to do something, we put in a buffer. “Let me get back to you. Let me think about that.” Then we get good at preparing and going back to people and saying, “Look, it’s a great opportunity. It’s a wonderful thing you’ve asked me to do, and I’m very honored, but I just don’t think I can sign up for it right now. I don’t think I can do a great job for you on this right now. There are other commitments I already have.” McKeown recommends memorising a go-to phrase when you get a request: “Let me check my calendar, and I’ll get back to you.” You can still decide to say yes, just give yourself time to pause first – don’t say yes right away.

Figure out a gentle but firm way of saying no, when you need to. Angela Watson suggests using the phrase, “I can’t say yes” to soften the blow. She uses the example of a passenger asking the air hostess whether they could use the bathroom. The air hostess replies, I can’t say yes because the seat belt sign is still on.” Another valid way of saying no, is to say you already have a regular commitment at that time. And of course,  you can schedule exercise, family time, sleep (The Big Rocks ) into your diary as “appointments” to keep.

Bear in mind the ‘planning fallacy’. This is well established in the literaturecite-wguw5hre as an almost universal human weakness: we underestimate the time things will take to do. Think of how rare is it that you take on a project, a task, or a request, and it is completed faster than you thought it would be. Things almost always take longer than expected.

It’s not simply about saying no to certain things, it’s about being very clear about what we want to say yes to.

Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends, and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.” ―Brian Dyson, former vice chairman and COO of Coca-Cola

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who gathered a set of interviews from terminal patients. What was the number one regret of the dying? It was living a life that others expected of them rather than a life that was true to the voice within. The number two regret was spending too much time at work and not enough time with family and those who mattered most.




May I have your attention?

It’s easy to think that time management is going to solve our problems and help us get more done. But actually, time management, as a concept, is so 1985.

The real issue today, is attention management.

In the eighties, when the time management  movement was at its height, we didn’t have notifications popping up on our phones. We didn’t have a thousand emails overflowing our inbox. We didn’t have Facebook, or Candy Crush, or Pinterest, or my personal weakness – Monster Busters Hexablast.

Our attention is constantly being lured away –  by anything from trivial time wasters like Facebook, to the 24/7 work week that email has spawned. And these electronic distractions are actually addictive. Our brains receive a little hit of dopamine every time that notification pings.


So how do we manage our attention? How do we find focus?

First, we need to ask ourselves, how many hours do we really work at school? There’s a difference between the time spent on focused and productive work and the number of hours we spend simply AT work – but chatting to colleagues,  procrastinating, making coffee, checking social media …

We have a similar problem when we need to spend a couple of hours in the weekend or evenings working at home. Angela Watson puts it this way:

“Spending your time halfway in work mode and halfway in home mode will only prolong the amount of time you perceive yourself as working. Before you know it, the whole day will be gone and you’ll be moaning about how all you did was work when the truth is that you only truly worked for an hour or two.”

Her advice is to tell your family [or tell yourself] : “I’d rather spend two hours holed up in the bedroom working single-mindedly and have the rest of the day to enjoy with you [or on my leisure activity], than spend four hours half way present with you in front of TV”.

Then use that limited time as motivation to maximise what you get done. When your allotted time is up: STOP. Go do whanau stuff. 

Knowing you will stick to the allotted time, and stop when it’s up makes it easier to focus – you’re not tempted to check Facebook or play Monster Busters because you know you can do those things guilt free when time is up.

Here are a couple of practical strategies to help you manage your attention and stay focused when you want to be working.

First up, the Pomodoro technique. I am using this right now as I blog in my non-contact period. And I find it particularly helpful when I need to force myself to do marking. Basically it involves focusing for 25 minutes and using a timer, then taking a short break for 3-4 minutes (walking around if possible) then repeat. After four of these 25 minute focused work slots (‘Pomodoros’), you are supposed to take a longer break.

There’s a kind of purist approach where the 25 minute chunk is considered indivisible and a bit sacrosanct. If you get interrupted, it doesn’t count as a Pomodoro and you have to restart the timer. I don’t take it that seriously, but I do use a timer. I don’t use this technique all the time, I just use it when I am struggling with motivation or doing an unpleasant task. My worst interrupt-er is myself, anyway. But having the timer seems to block that temptation.

You can check it out  here to find out more details such as the link between the Pomodoro technique and tomatoes! 

A similar idea comes from the free Kindle book Work Smarter Not Harder by Timo Kiander. It’s the “52-17 Rule”. The idea is you do focused work for 52 minutes and then have a 17 minute break. Apparently, this is the ideal work length/break ratio according to a study conducted by the Draugiem Group, using DeskTime, an app for tracking work habits. This result is based on the habits of the top 10% most productive employees.

At the other extreme, a truly magic technique I picked up somewhere is the “Seven Minute Rule”. This is for adults (and students) who know they have to do something they really dislike. I teach it as a study motivation strategy for students revising for exams, but I’ve certainly used it on myself.

It goes like this. You pick the one topic you detest revising for – because it’s boring and you’ve probably been failing at it – and you tell yourself that you only have to do it for seven minutes. And you set a timer. Then you do it. And more often than not, because you’ve got all the gear out and made a start, you might actually get into the flow of it. And when the timer beeps, you could  just think, eh, I might as well keep going a bit longer. And hey presto – you’ve done 45 minutes on something you really struggle with! So you’ve kind of tricked yourself.

But selves are not always  easy to trick – so the magic that makes this method work is this: when the timer goes off after seven minutes, you really are allowed to stop. No guilt. You can always do another seven minute block later and get through the task in minuscule chunks.

So just to link in with last week’s blog, I think I’ll finish with a list…



Where do I begin?

Sometimes we have so much to do, we don’t know where to start, and it feels a bit paralysing. Or we faff around doing the first tasks that occur to us and then realise there was something more important we should have prioritised.

There are obviously lots of ways of managing a list, but it’s essential we find and use a system that suits us.

My own system is super low tech and I’ve done it since a colleague introduced me to it right back in my first year.

  • Write down everything you need to do as it occurs to you.
  • I do it in the notes column of my NZ Teacher’s Planner (the column after Friday)
  • Whenever it feels too full/too overwhelming/I’m not sure where to start: I go through and write A, B, or C next to each item I want to prioritise. If a task gets an A, I probably need to get it done today.
  • Then I circle back over and determine the order of the A items (A1, A2, A3,) and then the B’s and C’s.
  • This way I know exactly where to start. And what to do next. And so on – end of paralysis.
  • At the end of the week, I transfer unfinished things to the next page/week.
  • Sometimes I put things on the next page/week because that’s when they need doing.
  • As new things crop up (when I already have a numbered list going) I don’t always put them last. I’ve been known to code a new item as A2.5 (i.e. I’m wedging it in between A2 and A3!) or even A2= (as in, I have two equally ranked items at A2)


In any system like this, the goal is to create alignment between your priorities and how you spend your time – to keep on top of the urgent and important stuff (quadrant one) while trying to get into the non urgent but still important tasks of the elusive quadrant two. (See previous blog post  The Big Rocks)

Angela Watson has a great article addressing this very issue of feeling so overwhelmed that you don’t know what to tackle first:  7 Ways to prioritise teaching tasks when EVERYTHING seems urgent.

Many experts on productivity recommend figuring out the single most important task and doing that first – some even recommend doing the most difficult/unpleasant task first (often referred to as “eat that frog” or “slay your dragon”). I always picture these people as having about 5 medium sized things on their to-do list. As a teacher, juggling so many balls, my list can be 20-30 items long – many of them small and quick but needing actioning immediately. So this idea doesn’t quite resonate with me.


Last year, I heard the most game-changing quote from The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papsan. It is the premise of their entire book:

What ONE thing can you do this week, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?

I ruminated on this as I went for my after school walk. And it changed my year (2016). I had a year 10 Literacy class. Before any learning could be tackled, behaviour had to be managed. And there was a lot of it. The answer to the question about my ONE thing was this:

I need to spend some time, outside of class, not merely reacting to behaviour as it happens, but coming up with a proactive strategy in advance.

I always think of my non-contacts as being for marking and planning. But in this mind-shifting, light bulb moment,  I recognised that I needed to invest some of my non contact time into sorting out the behaviour of this challenging group. It would cost me some time up front, but save me a great deal of hassle and stress in the long run. And lead to much more learning.

Using my non contacts to address behavior, looked like two things.

  • One was strategy – with a clear head (not in the heat of the moment) – creating a PLAN.
  • The other was talking to kids, one on one – away from their peers – about their behaviour going forward, and letting them know my plan. I wanted them to understand that the whole point was to get the learning atmosphere working for them and for the rest of the class.

Here is the plan I scribbled down:


It’s quick and scruffy but my point here is, I stepped back and did a very “quadrant two” thing that made a huge difference in the long run.

So, coming back to where I started in the title: Where do I begin?

  • Do you have a to-do list system of your own? Do you write everything down?
  • Do you have a way of ranking or ordering your tasks?
  • Is there a “big picture ONE thing” you can do this week, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?




The Big Rocks

When people ask me how I am, I often find myself defaulting to the phrase, “Busy, but good.” It’s as if “busy” is some kind of badge of honour or measure of importance. What’s the deal with that?

You can be busy and accomplish very little. You can be running around like a headless chook, lurching from one crisis to another with no time to stop and think about what you are actually doing or why you’re doing it. No time to stop and check whether the way you are spending your time aligns with your values. Spending. That’s the word. Time is a valuable currency; it’s ours to spend. And it’s not just our time we’re spending, it’s our lives. So day follows day, and choice follows choice – or are we even choosing? Are we simply reacting to things?


We need to create some headspace to examine what we are doing and develop some intentionality about how we spend our days. We need to put some guard rails around our time. Sometimes we need to say no to some people and to some (good) things, in order to say yes to our closest people and to the best things.

We may need to edit our lives.

Steven Covey tells a story about coming across a guy who was trying to cut down a tree and was swearing and cursing as he laboured in vain.

“What’s the problem?”  he asked the man.

“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly,” the lumberjack responded.

“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop sawing, and I don’t have time to stop,” said the lumberjack.

We need to create some thinking space in order to step off this treadmill of high activity and low accomplishment. To sharpen the saw.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the saw.”

First, we need to distinguish between what is urgent and what is really important.


It’s that quadrant 2 that is so difficult to get into but so tremendously valuable when we get there. Too often we live our lives in quadrant 1. Where the stress is.


Covey tells another story about a professor who illustrated a time management idea with her students. She began with a large glass container and filled it with big rocks. Then she asked the class, “Is the container full?”

“Yes,” they replied.

But then the professor proved them wrong by pouring pebbles in. The pebbles found their way into the spaces around the rocks. Again she asked, “Is the container full?” Hesitant this time, the class answered, “Yes?” Shaking her head, the professor poured in sand, which filtered into the tiny cracks between the pebbles. Then she poured in water. Then salt.

Finally, she declared the container full.

The professor asked her students how they thought this demonstration applied to time management.  Someone came up with the answer, “It proves that no matter how busy you are, you can always fit something more in.”

But this is exactly the wrong way to look at it.

This is the problem with our “busy = important” mentality.

“The moral of the story”, the professor told her class, “is to put the big rocks in first.”

The big rocks are the things that matter to us, our priorities. It might be family time, friendships, relationships. It might be exercise, meditation, reading. In my work as a teacher, it might be developing a new unit, upskilling myself with ICT, creating a behaviour management strategy for a challenging class. All these things are quadrant two – they are important, but not deadline driven. They simply aren’t …urgent. We can exercise any time. But unless we schedule these big rocks in to our diaries first – they will get crowded out by the sand and pebbles.

My goal is not to improve my time management and productivity so that I can fit more in. My goal is to take some time – regularly – to step back and ask, am I fitting the right things in? To create space in the container of my life – not for more work, but for better work, the right work, and more of what matters outside of work.



Holiday thinking on productivity.

This is a great time of the year to do a bit of reading and I found a few free resources that might just boost your productivity in 2017.

1. A free Kindle book: Work Smarter Not Harder by Timo Kiander. This is a quick read – it’s not specific to teachers but it has a good selection of productivity tips and reminders. I really liked the infographic on Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets.

2. An e-book, the optimistically named: Shave 10 Hours Off Your Work Week, by Michael Hyatt. Quite a bit of overlap here with number 1 – but some of you might appreciate the e-book format. I like the idea of the 4 quadrants on page 22. To download it, click on this link: Shave 10 Hours Off Your Work Week, then you have to sign up for his newsletter to get the e-book. You can always unsubscribe later…

3. A great podcast to listen to while you walk round (up?) the Mount: How to trim an hour or more off your workweek NOW by Angela Watson. She’s American and primary trained but I absolutely love her podcast. I have been trialling a large number of educational podcasts over the summer and she’s a real favourite.

Not sure how to listen to podcasts? You can download iTunes and subscribe from there. Or, on your (android) smart phone, you can go to the Playstore and get BeyondPod (free) or Pocket Casts ($3.99 and very user friendly).

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something we love is called passion.”
Simon Sinek