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The Whirlwind

By Dave Stuart Jr.

For the past two weeks, I've been meaning to write down every task I complete as I prepare for, teach, and then reflect on my lessons each day. In all the days I've tried this, I've never gotten further than an hour or so. Once teaching starts, I just can't seem to find a way to do the work well and record everything that it entails. There are hundreds of micro-tasks that make up my teaching hours and dozens more that just have to be done during the snippets of time between classes, before school starts, and during my lunch hour.

You're no different, I'm sure. It's a job that requires all of our focus.

The trouble, of course, is that in that rush of micro-work, I'm unlikely to create the time and space it takes to reach intellectual breakthroughs [1], or follow-through on goals I set for myself at the start of the year, or continue pushing my limits in one of the six areas of high-leverage work I laid out in These 6 Things.

It's darned if you do, darned if you don't — I need to do the myriad of micro-tasks that make up my day job, but I've got to carve out time for the important, long-term, strategic work, too. That's really what the “secret skills of master teachers” series was about — how do we make decisions today that yield mastery eventually?

Today, I'd like to share a term I found recently that perfectly describes the urgent stuff. In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, authors McChesney, Covey, and Huling call it the whirlwind.

The fundamental problem with execution had always been right in front of us. We hadn't seen it because it was everywhere, hiding in plain sight… The real enemy of execution is your day job! We call it the whirlwind. It's the massive amount of energy that's necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis; and, ironically, it's also the thing that makes it so hard to execute anything new. The whirlwind robs from you the focus required to move… forward.

[Strategic goals and the whirlwind] compete relentlessly for time, resources, energy, and attention. We don't have to tell you which will usually win this fight…

The whirlwind is urgent and it acts on you and everyone working for you every minute of every day. The goals you've set for moving forward are important, but when urgency and importance clash, urgency will win every time. Once you become aware of this struggle, you will see it playing out everywhere, in any team that is trying to execute anything new.

Administrators, take note — the whirlwind is real! Leaders, according to the 4 Disciplines, are the folks most likely to underestimate the time and energy that the whirlwind demands. The solution, of course, is to make all strategies with the whirlwind clearly in view and create professional development sessions solely on how to manage the whirlwind in a better and saner fashion.

This blog, I hope, helps.


1. If you're curious about what my non-whirlwind activities are right now, they're reading a boatload of confusing, often-contradictory, buzzword-laden articles and books on student motivation and trying to figure out how to communicate the essence of this research — the five key beliefs — better. Why? I'm more and more convinced that much of what burns us out and keeps us going has to do with student ownership, which is built on student motivation. If we all taught kids who owned their education, then I don't think as many of us would leave — either literally by quitting or essentially by disengaging with our hearts and minds from the work.

Getting clearer about this, then, is what the authors of 4 Disciplines call “wildly important goals,” or WIGs.

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