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Three Prescriptions for Thinking More Clearly about Teaching, Part 1: Consume Fewer Urgent Things

By Dave Stuart Jr.

When you think clearly about teaching, you:

  • Analyze issues in the classroom more quickly and skillfully
  • Depersonalize setbacks and failures so that you can grow from them rather than be crushed by them
  • Design simpler, more powerful lessons
  • Do fewer things, but far better
  • Go home with energy left for your loved ones
  • Enjoy the work more

Lots of promises there, right? But thinking clearly, especially in our time, is hard. It's an earned skill, not a spur of the moment decision. You work toward it.

There are all kinds of ways to start working on this, but let me give you one rule that I've found exceptionally helpful.

Severely constrain your consumption of the urgent

If you'd like students to get better at reading or writing or speaking or designing experiments, what should you have them do? Read, write, speak, or design experiments. Quantity precedes quality. As a person tasked with coaching students to master the game of life, we need to ensure adequate hours of practice.

So let's connect this to ourselves. If we'd like to think more clearly, what might it be good for us to make sure that we do? More thinking.

But there is only so much time! To go back to our students, we make more room for more reading and writing and speaking by eliminating fluff and inefficiencies. For us, we've got to eliminate activities in our days that pull us away from sustained thought.

For example, social media. While there are many benefits, I would argue that nearly all of them are available to those who spend 30 minutes or less on social media each day. As Robert Greene writes in Laws of Human Nature, “[Social media] are not media designed for calm reflection. With their constant presence, we have less and less mental space to step back and think.”

So, if you're struggling with constraining your social media consumption, do what I do: take the social media apps off your phone. Arm your internet browser with extensions like StayFocused so that you only get a set amount of minutes per day.

Email is another one. Here is a medium that rewards us for being quick — Oh, inbox zero, how I crave thee! — and for which our brain's love of dopamine rewards us for checking regularly.

I receive a dozen or so messages from readers of this blog every day. For years, I would read them whenever they came in because email was on my phone. For the past year, I've not been able to do that because I don't have email there. And, guess what? My response times haven't gotten worse — they've not even stayed the same. They've improved. Why? Because I think more clearly about email now. I go in there to read and respond to messages — not for the perpetual promise of dopamine.

(More on my email approaches here and here.)

And finally, let's talk about the news. The business model of news is that there are urgent things you need to know right now. But this week's breaking news is rarely next month's important story. Which is more valuable, then: reading something today that's important for less than a month, or reading something today that might shape your mind and heart for years?

(Here's an article I wrote called “Less News, Better Brain,” and here's a better one from Ryan Holiday.)

Now look: I'm no Luddite. I run a blog, after all, and I make online professional development for teachers. I'm also not anti-social. This whole blog exists to promote long-term flourishing. But I long ago swore away the Any-Benefit Approach to decision-making. We live in an age when marketers have mastered how to create things we want and need. Not bad things — good things. Things that can benefit us. In such an age, the consumer who means to think well must become wiser. Just because there's benefit doesn't mean there's optimal gain.

Take the time you'd normally spend consuming the urgent, and instead do one of two things:

  • Read something that took someone more than a week to write (i.e., a book or a study or a journal article).
  • Write.

6 Responses to Three Prescriptions for Thinking More Clearly about Teaching, Part 1: Consume Fewer Urgent Things

  1. Laura Terry Tenebruso January 1, 2019 at 9:02 am #

    Thanks. This gave me just the right focus and encouragement to diminish the back to school blues and return with positive energy to the work I love.

    • davestuartjr January 3, 2019 at 11:27 am #

      Laura, this is great to hear! Makes my day 🙂

  2. franmcveigh January 2, 2019 at 8:39 am #

    Such wisdom from a “Non-Luddite”! What great advice for beginning the new year. Love the choices for the extra time: read and write!
    Happy New Year!

  3. Julie Johnson January 3, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    Thank you for this post. It’s just what I needed as I get ready to go back to school (as a teacher and student).

  4. Michele January 3, 2019 at 1:23 pm #

    We want our students to read, reflect, and write. Your article just confirms what I’ve been thinking over this break: if I want them to get the benefits of being readers, thinkers, and writers, I need to be engaging in those activities myself. Thanks for the encouragement.

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