“The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”

“The reality of trade-offs”

My father likes to give people self-improvement books, and he’s discerning enough that they tend to be worth reading. The latest is Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. It’s about not just simplifying and de-cluttering, but developing both the skill and the constant habit of identifying and pursuing what is important, which, McKeown says, is much less than most people think. McKeown has some pointed questions for us, such as “What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measure of importance?”

As usual, I’m trying to apply the ideas to my roles as teacher and learner. Here are the fundamental ideas on which the book is based, with a few comments from me about how they might relate to issues facing language teachers and learners.


The Way of the Essentialist

McKeown’s process depends on three axioms (p. 20).

  1. Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.”
  2. The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.”
  3. The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all.”

McKeown suggests taking these axioms seriously by applying this cyclical three-step process:

  1. Explore – Discerning the trivial many from the vital few”
  2. Eliminate – Cutting out the trivial many”
  3. Execute – Removing obstacles and making execution effortless”

McKeown points out that, because the “essentialist” intends to eliminate more, she has time and reason to explore more options, and thus discover better options, than someone who will be less ruthless in eliminating options. And, because the essentialist chooses only a few essentials from among many options, she can execute with greater focus and energy. The bulk of the book is about how to explore, eliminate, and execute effectively.


Comments and Questions for Teachers and Learners
  • Most teachers’ situations place limits on teachers’ choices. But let’s still ask ourselves—and maybe our colleagues and superiors: What are my options? Do I really have to do X? Do I really have to do X this way? Am I doing X, and doing it this way, because it’s the best way (the healthiest way, the most joyful way, the most efficient way…) or because I think I have to? Again, you may have to do X in order to keep your job.
  • Even if there are things about which I have little or no choice, there are lots of things I do that constitute “noise” that no one is forcing me to do. Am I doing these things for the joy of it—and is this particular joy, as opposed to some other joy, worth it—or because I lack discipline?
  • How do I tend to decide what is “exceptionally valuable”? What are my criteria, and are these good criteria?
  • In the “reality of trade-offs,” what are the non-essentials that I have the most trouble trading off? Why do I hold on to these things?
  • In matters that another entity (e.g., my employer) considers essential, but I do not consider essential, what role can I play in helping the other entity reconsider? (It’s possible, of course, that I’m wrong in considering something non-essential.)


Areas of Choice

Here are some areas to which teachers and learners might apply these questions:

  • Resources and tools (language-learning books, websites, apps, etc.)
  • Classroom activities
  • Strands of research about language or about teaching and learning
  • Types (and existence) of homework assignments
  • Ways of assessing growth
  • Professional development opportunities
  • Habits (how much/how long/what kinds of things we read, watch, listen to, study, etc.)


Closing Thoughts

I’ll close with two concepts I see recurring in the book:

  • McKeown recommends letting others—colleagues, employers, family—know explicitly about our attempts to eliminate noise and pursue the exceptionally valuable.
  • McKeown says that he has consistently found that people who cut down to essentials, although they initially fear that they will be considered lazy or uncommitted, end up actually garnering greater respect from colleagues and employers.



I’ve been pursuing a type of essentialism in my teaching for several years. Here are some details about how I do it, and here are a bunch of lesson plans/activities that might help you “pursue less.”

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