Like many educators, I have Yes-itis: the tendency to say Yes to good things, which often disables me from doing great things.
So let me ask you some questions:
- When you get that email about a new opportunity — how do you decide whether or not to take it?
- When your boss says, “Hey, great news: there's an [insert extra job title] vacancy” — how do you choose whether or not to take her up on the offer?
I'm no expert here — just last spring I took on my most recent “This was a poorly considered decision” project — but I do know of one simple, powerful technique for making our yeses much wiser.
And before you dismiss the article, let's be clear: a lot is at stake in what we decide to say Yes to. Realizing our professional dreams is much less about hitting the jackpot — I found the perfect job posting! — than it is about doing the work and thinking and time and deliberate practice it takes to become the kind of educator who realizes their dreams.
The key to being great isn't in some huge choice you'll make this year — it's in hundreds of small, seemingly insignificant choices you'll be faced with.
Last month, I guided you in establishing your Everest. Now, it's time to put some time into Warren Buffett's 25-5 strategy. 
Step 1: List everything you want to accomplish professionally
List off the goals that you have for this year . Try coming up with twenty-five, and don't be afraid to get crazy.
I'll start mine:
- Help my students blow up the national passing rate for freshmen on the AP World History test, which was 41% in the last year I have statistics for. 
- Empower my general ed world history students to take charge of their GPAs (average GPA goal of 2.5 minimum).
- Guide at least one student in writing his/her first book.
- Return all essays within two instructional days.
- Reorganize my desk before going home every day.
- Reassess and study my homework policy.
- Complete the Character Lab research study on pop-up debate and character strengths.
And so on. Some of those are things I've been thinking about for a long time; others just came to me while brainstorming. The only way to get this part “wrong” is to edit yourself during the list-making process.
It's worth saying that, when making my list, I'm not really including things that I need to do as part of my job. For example, grading essays isn't optional for me. However, there is some flexibility in how quickly I get essays back to students; I know quick feedback is the only useful feedback, so increasing my return speed would be a great way for my students and me to grow.
Enough chit chat: sit down and come up with as many as you can, aiming for 25.
Step 2: Pick the 5 most important ones
Now that you've got all your hopes and dreams for the year on a single document, go through and pick the five most important ones. Don't treat this task lightly.
Note: Now is a great time to actually do Steps 1 and 2; reading Step 3 before doing them will likely affect how you complete the task.
Step 3: What to do with your 25 and 5
So here's the classic response at this point in the task (Warren Buffett's pilot, from whose story this strategy originates, allegedly responded like this): So now I just take the list of 5, focus mostly on those, and then, when I have time, chip away at the other 20, right?
Those 20 leftover tasks are now your Avoid Like the Plague list. Seriously: nothing this year will tempt you toward distraction as much as that remaining list of 20 good goals you just brainstormed. Anticipate now how you will avoid pouring more time and effort into those non-top-five goals this school year. Of the items on that non-top-five list that can’t be entirely neglected without losing your job (e.g., grading), brainstorm now how you will complete them as efficiently as possible.
“But I can't get rid of that!”
You can certainly continue trying to achieve dozens of huge goals every school year. I can say that I'm going to become a better grader and also do All The Other Things great, too.
The problem is, with eight years into this career and counting, I know myself enough to say that success comes slowly to those who think they can do it all.
Yet the more I read about success and what it takes to get there — across time periods and disciplines — the more I see a thick, consistent thread: when we decide to aim at less, we end up achieving more. I think our students do, too.
Help yourself focus this school year; go through the 25-5 list today.
- For the full story behind Buffett's strategy, read this article by James Clear.
- While I'm focused in this post on goals for this year, it's even more fun to do this exercise with goals you have for your entire career.
- My school is running its first section of APWH for freshmen next year; guess who gets to teach it!? I'm privileged and daunted.[hr]
Thanks to James Clear, blogger extraordinaire, for the inspiration for this post. His blog is the first place I came across Buffett's 25-5 technique.
Nancy Miller says
Awesome! We don’t consider enough the power of taking something completely off the list.
In looking at the fine print details of your list, what are your best practices for grading essays quickly for timely feedback? What practices have you seen or heard of working well? Thank you! Nancy Miller, HS English Teacher!
Hi Nancy, if you don’t mind taking advice from someone other than Dave, I have found that focusing on what I want to grade cuts my time down a lot. As English teachers it is important to work on a few goals for students writing to improve instead of trying to fix everything each essay.
Just some advice.
1. What Joel said, for sure (thank you, Joel!).
2. Mike Schmoker’s article, “Write More, Grade Less” (which essentially affirms Joel’s advice).
Thank you both!
Darlene Eslinger says
I often say that a lot of our problems in life come from being poor sorters. I try to spend the most energy, money, time, commitment, etc. on the things that enhance my life the most. In order to do this we need to spend some time identifying those things. It is so easy and tempting to live in a way that deals with the urgent and immediate to the detriment of those things that are worthy of our time and energy simply because our priorities are left unexamined and not prioritized. It is not that we are too busy but our time is spent in ways that don’t enhance our lives. The 25-5 system looks like a fantastic way to sort our goals and priorities and solidify our values.
Couldn’t agree more, Darlene — thank you for writing and for sharing. The more voices speaking these truths, the better.