3 ways Essentialism can help teachers approach decision-making

Discover the principal of Essentialism

"You can do anything but you can’t do everything!"

These wise words are written by Greg McKeown, the author of ‘Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less’. I read this book a few months ago after multiple suggestions from my Essentialist husband.

This book opened my eyes to the consequences of the habitual choices we make every day. The choices we make without really thinking – they have become habit, you make them automatically and they have become ‘you’. The book forces the reader to think about the benefits of being more selective and strict about how they approach decision-making – thus pursuing the disciplined approach of an ‘Essentialist’. It addresses the harsh realities of not stopping to think about why you do what you do. Throughout reading this book, I found myself wishing I had read it years earlier. So I decided to share my most valuable discoveries with other teachers, who will hopefully reap the rewards in all areas of their lives:

1. Less but better

Being an Essentialist is not about vowing to say no more – it is about regularly asking yourself “Am I investing in the right activities”? As teachers, we have so much choice about how to run our lessons or what resources to use – but if we spend an hour preparing jazzy resources for a 45 minute lesson (we have all done this!) instead of marking those assessments, is that really better for our students and ourselves? Does the output justify the input?

McKeown writes about schools and asks what if they removed what he calls ‘busywork’ and replaced it with projects that make a difference to everyone? What if everyone in the school community was able to consider their highest point of contribution and act on it?

Less but better.

2. If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.

Yes, you do important work. Yes, you are responsible for planning and delivering lessons that will inspire, motivate and engage. Yes, you must ensure that all students make appropriate levels of progress. Yes, you are aiming to reduce the achievement gap and address social mobility. Yes, yes and yes to all of that responsibility you feel weighing on your shoulders. The more we know about how valuable our work is; the more we learn about what we could do differently, or better, or more of. We know that what we do makes a huge difference to the futures of our young people. It is important to do it well.

But nothing, is more important than your health, wellbeing, family, friends and living well. McKeown writes about the day his daughter was born. This was when he was still a ‘Non-Essentialist’. He writes about how this should have been one of the happiest days of his life, but was actually filled with tension and stress. Instead of spending time with his new family, he was emailing and calling work colleagues and subsequently left to go to a client meeting a few hours after her birth.

He called it a fool’s bargain and has learned a valuable lesson from it. Some of you may be shocked by his decision and are tut tutting as you read but this personal story resonated hugely with me. A few years ago I had a serious health scare and was admitted to hospital for ten days. Instead of focusing on recovery, I insisted on getting my laptop to respond to ‘urgent’ emails and completing work that was on a deadline. When I think about it now, I tut tut myself! But this behaviour is more common than you might think. I know of many colleagues and teacher friends with similar stories who have felt guilt and pressure when they have been unwell or going through difficult personal circumstances. This may be self-imposed or otherwise. Either way, the moral of the story is if you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will.

3. Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

Over the years, I have been part of many working parties and meetings where long lists of priorities were discussed and agreed on. I have been part of staff briefings where multiple priorities we had as a school were shared; outlining to us all the many balls we had to try and juggle, expertly. I had never really thought about the irony of that until I read McKeown’s book. How can you do everything at expert level if you are prioritising everything? As the title says ‘You can do anything but you can’t do everything’!

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400’s and was singular – it meant the very first thing. Some of the comparable words for priority include urgency, significance, main concern, right of way. In the 1990’s it became plural. McKeown writes about how, now, it is expected that we should have multiple ‘first things’. By not truly prioritising, we lose the ability to focus on what is important and use our energy in that area. If we have multiple priorities, it can actually jeopardize the value of work being done.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

There is enormous pressure on schools and teachers to perform, and excel in all areas. The more we learn, the more we feel we should be doing better. Essentialism is a disciplined approach to protecting you so that you can offer the best you can to what you do – and it can feel unforgiving to begin with! McKeown claims that anything that is not essential should be carved out and that can be uncomfortable to act on at the beginning. However, as Victor Hugo quotes “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, and the time of Essentialism has most definitely come.

Ciara McGuane is an education consultant with Tes Institute and Rathú Ireland. She runs wellbeing workshops to support teachers managing their workload. You can follow or contact her on Twitter @ciaramcguane.