A Productivity Method for Emergency and Non-Emergency Teaching: Filter, Focus, Function, Repeat!

New and veteran teachers need workable methods for effective productivity during crisis and non-crisis times. 

A few decades ago, I can remember being so tired as a student teacher on most Friday afternoons that I would forget where I left my wallet or checkbook. Almost each week, I’d trace my steps back through town to the gas station, grocery store, or restaurant and find my missing item. Although I came from a hard-working, hands-on, small-business, blue-collar background, teaching is far more demanding mentally, socially, and spiritually than I could have ever imagined. 

Those feelings of tiredness, forgetfulness, and disorientation have returned several times since our face-to-face school closure due to COVID-19. Fortunately, I’m not losing things in these times, partly because I’ve developed better approaches to productivity and partly because we’re under a stay-at-home order. 

Now, I’m especially reflecting on how face-to-face teaching (and learning) in high school during non-crisis times often looks too much like working in the candy factory from the “Job Switching” episode I Love Lucy

It’s Still Like the Candy Factory! 

You’d think that a pleasant side effect of the stay-at-home order would be that teachers have a more stable and sane focus on teaching, even though we’re scrambling a bit to rearrange curriculum and work with online platforms. But, at least for me, it’s been like a mental version of the candy factory clip.  My mental and digital inboxes are flooded with information, ideas, requests for help, and offers to help. There’s also a temptation to think that we need to “speed it up.” 

Here, in my fourth week of emergency remote teaching, I’m working from a dual-sided approach to thinking about my work as a teacher in terms of productivity and effectiveness: 

  1. Focus on the essentials needed for our emergency remote teaching conditions.
  2. Take copious notes about workable improvements that I can develop for non-crisis times too. 

I have heard similar comments from my colleagues about short and long-term planning. On a related note, I notice that typically in our last quarter of each school year, teachers tend to have the wisest insights about the problems and possibilities of teaching; it’s also the time that we are the most tired, so it’s tempting to just focus on making it to the end. Likewise, our current schooling crisis conditions can be a 4th quarter opportunity to explore some wisdom for better productivity–and maybe more sanity.

On Monday morning, as I was wrapping up the work of posting online assignments for students, I was struggling quite a bit with the daunting feeling of working through the flood of needs, ideas, information, and offers to help that have been coming my way. After a surge of getting things done, followed by an extended nap, I got to thinking about the basic patterns that I’ve learned to help me be more productive and helpful even when I feel lousy. I was also thinking about how I’d love to time-travel back to my younger teacher-self and help him cope more effectively.

So, what I had to remember and return to practice during this recent time is basically a four-stage method for productive thinking and action: Filter, Focus, Function, and Repeat!


The essence of filtering is practicing a healthy sense of a one-word sentence: “No!” 

To paraphrase Aristotle, you can have too many friends. It seems that every provider of online resources on the Internet wants to be my friend right now. Up to a point, I like to think through choices and options, but giving friendly attention to all of these choices and options while trying to figure out how to incorporate them in my courses is a recipe for mental illness. There’s too many possibilities even for non-crisis times.

In non-crisis times, when I’m thinking effectively, I’m usually filtering with “No!” in mind, whether in a staff meeting, at a professional development training, or sifting through online resources. In face-to-face interactions, it can be challenging to gently communicate one’s “No!” because it can come across as close-minded, unfriendly, smug, or rude. Sometimes, it’s good to simply say something like, “I just don’t find that helpful for my context.” In Love and Logic terms, it might be good to practice saying that in a friendly, broken-record manner. 

Online, it’s easier to practice “No!” by  deleting solicitation emails or clicking “Unsubscribe” to help clear the clutter from your mailbox and your mind. 

TM2I! = Too Many Ideas & Ideals!

In his poem, “Choruses from the Rock,” T.S. Eliot asks, “Where is the wisdom that we’ve lost in information?” It’s commonplace for us to say, “TMI,” but our problem is even more complicated than “Too Much Information.”

We have “Too Many Ideas and Ideals” (TM2I!). So, it’s not just information that competes for our attention but also multiple frameworks and lenses for paying attention to, sorting through, and interpreting information. 

The late philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler offered a complex but potentially helpful point about ideas: In Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Adler argues that although popular usage of the term “idea” understands an idea mainly as something “that which” we perceive or sense, ideas are even more precisely that “by which” we perceive and interpret information through. So in Adler’s sense, ideas are filters we already have in place, live by, and live through. They can be helpful or unhelpful. We can be aware or unaware of the ways that ideas, in Adler’s sense, are directing our experiences, thoughts, and behaviors. Essentially and practically, ideas have consequences. Adler’s understanding of ideas is also akin to the larger topics of ideologies and worldviews. (This has all sorts of important applications for bigger discussions about sorting through recommendations for teaching that come from research and markets, but I’ll try to come back to that in a future posting.) 

Suffice it to say for now, in Adler’s sense, a person can not only have ideas about productivity, but ideas about productivity can also have a person: Sometimes those ideas about productivity are unhelpful and unhealthy, and they need to be replaced or modified in order for a person to function well and flourish. But change is often messy and difficult. 

Extreme-Pareto Principle for Filtering

With the abundance of online resources at our fingertips, we need something like an Extreme-Pareto Principle to help us sift through ideas and resources. The original Pareto Principle, an economic theory over a century old, is based on an wisely estimated 80/20 ratio for best functioning: 80% of what you can find, think, and do is probably not helpful and not useful. In turn, 20% of what you can find, think about, and do is helpful and useful.

With the proliferation of online resources, I’d say that we need to modify the Pareto Principle to about a 98/2 ratio–hence, the Extreme-Pareto Principle. In so many cases, about 98% of what I find and can think about is not helpful and useful to work with, and about 2%  is. Again, I’ve got to watch my attitude and the ways in which I express this. It is so helpful to think and work this way, but others can find it quite off-putting if you don’t communicate gently. 


The focusing move is the “Yes!” part of productivity. The “Yes!” mode is based on what you’ve learned to be worthwhile and effective from study, experience, trial-and-error, reliable resources, and wise people. If you’re new to teaching, finding your filter and your focus is hard because so many different sources of authority compete for your attention. I’d like to say that it gets really easy to filter and focus after twenty-six years, but challenges still present themselves. 

Thinking of time-traveling again, there are at least four books that I’d like to give my younger self to help him grow better at focusing–what to say “Yes!” to. They’re good for veteran teachers too:The Paideia Proposal, by Mortimer Adler; The Core Six, by Harvey Silver; Focus, by Mike Schmoker; and These Six things, by Dave Stuart. These are good books for new and veteran teachers to revisit in this time of refocusing. 

I probably should also give my younger self a few key books on productivity that relate well to this triad of filtering, focusing, and functioning: First Things First, by Stephen Covey; Getting Things Done, by David Allen; and Master Your Workday Now!, by Michael Linenberger. To anyone in public education, I’d gently recommend Matthew Perman’s What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. Perman is helpful with his well-seasoned experience of working through, modifying, testing, and tweaking David Allen’s and other experts’ approaches to productivity. His wise and realistic adjustments to some features of the Getting Things Done approach are very helpful and practical regardless of your spiritual beliefs. 

Come to think of it, educator preparation programs would do well to make “Methods of Productivity” a central area of study for up-and-coming educators: from new teachers to new administrators. These preparation programs probably should also layer in some sort of Kobayashi Maru simulation for productivity problems, adapted from the Star Trek universe to heighten the realism and effectiveness.  

Function and Repeat! 

Recently, I had to coach myself off my couch and out of anxiety with this sort simple process thinking: filter, focus, function, and repeat! Then, I had to reflect and capture some notes to help me work through the next bout of challenges. The function part is about doing, but I would say with a sense of “Maybe?” No matter how well we plan and prepare, there are always unexpected problems and opportunities. As much as possible, it’s good to keep some sort of note-taking tool handy while teaching and developing plans in order to make notes about adjustments and unforeseen, in-the-moment problems. There’s something about being in the middle of the work that stimulates my thinking, and that’s where notes are helpful. 

“Maybe?” is also a good category for things that might be good to do, but just aren’t right for this time. 

The whole process of filter-focus-function is recursive and not-necessarily linear. Sometimes, I just need to do something (function) before I start realizing what I need to filter. Sometimes, I have a preset focus that gives me immense clarity on what is best to do next. Sometimes, I need to filter out a bunch of clutter before I can even start to focus. 

A Simple Free Tool for Three-Column Planning with Filter, Focus, and Function in Mind

Michael Linneberger offers one of the simplest and most effective models for To-Do lists that I’ve come across with his “One Minute To-Do List” (free pdf). He organizes his three-column planner into “Critical Now,’ “Opportunities Now,” and “Over-the-Horizon.” As Matt Perman notes, David Allen has great insights into productivity, but his approach to making and keeping lists can be overwhelming. Here is my favorite alternative. It’s easy to set this up on paper, in your smartphone, or on your computer for easy processing.  

  • Critical Now: The first column is for things or clusters of things that need done today, which you should try to limit these items to less than ten (I’ve found, with the help of Matt Perman and others, that it’s good to develop routines that you just do and don’t have to put into this sort of column.) 
  • Opportunities Now: This second column is for things that you could do if time frees up. This is a way to help keep the candy-factory-conveyor-belt from overwhelming you. This is a good place for the “Yes!” items that you may or may not be able to get to.  
  • Over-the-Horizon: This is a great place for the “Maybe?” items and the “Yes!” items that you’re wondering about in terms of implementation, feasibility, and effectiveness. 

For Students, too

As we work through this as adults, I increasingly find these skills are needed for students, too. So, whether it’s what I’ve discussed or something else that you find effective, let’s plan on helping students work through problems with productivity for crisis and non-crisis times.

KBO! (Keep buggering on! –Winston Churchill)

Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. Do you have a productivity method that works well for crisis and non-crisis times? 
  2. How does productivity relate to being a good spouse, friend, community member, team player, or citizen? 
  3. What productivity strategies do you most struggle with? 
  4. What productivity help do your students or family members need? 
  5. In crisis times like this, what matters most? How does what matters most now compare to non-crisis times? 

For Further Reading and Reflection: 


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