Do you end your school day feeling emotionally and mentally drained? Do you find it is most challenging to have the willpower to stick to your diet late in the evening? There is a reason for this, and it is commonly referred to as decision fatigue. Understanding decision fatigue is particularly relevant for educators, as researchers have estimated some teachers make as many as 5,000 decisions in a school day.
Researchers have found that our body provides a daily, but limited supply, of particular mental energy to make decisions. Regardless of the importance of the choice, every mental action draws from the same energy source. So as the day wears on, our energy source becomes depleted.
By the way, if you ever wondered why you passed out peppermints during standardized tests it’s because the glucose in the mints feeds this energy source. With that said, this hardly supplements a good night’s rest, a brief afternoon nap, daily exercise, and nutritious diet.
President Obama shared with Michael Lewis how he applies these concepts to his own life. President Obama essentially wears the same suit and eats the same thing everyday to avoid wasting decision energy on mundane details. The Harvard Business Review post Boring is Productive further outlines his routines and provides helpful suggestions applicable to all of us.
One of my summer reads was “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind”, a book authored by 20 leading creative minds. Many of the authors were behavioral psychologists, and most of the chapters were applicable to the day-to-day lives of teachers and administrators. Understanding the energy we have to make daily decisions is scarce; the book clearly outlined how we can be more productive in our modern world. The common thread of the book was sharing techniques for overcoming the challenges we face being connected through technology.
Here are five tips I synthesized from the text to help teachers and administrators become more productive so we can focus our mental energy on what matters most.
1. Creative work first, reactive work second
We have 60 to 90 minutes of daily peak mental capacity. Considering our mental energy is limited, save it for what matters most for your students or teachers. Maybe that means grading written or expressive work in the morning instead of at the end of the day when you are tired or during faculty meetings when you are distracted. Maybe that means doing your lesson plans early in the morning or just after a quick afternoon nap. The bottom line is we have 60 to 90 minutes a day to run at our peak, so we need to be conscious of how we are going to use it, and who we are going to give it to.
2. Make email matter
Rather then wasting your valuable energy early in the morning responding to emails set a permanent away message on your email with office hours stating a time later in the day when you return emails and phone calls. This will relieve your stress of having to get back to an email right away. Administrators should note that according research, the average worker spends 28% of their time reading emails. Think about where you want your teachers to spend their time before you send long and multiple school wide emails. They drain our time and energy, leaving very little of it for the kids.
3. Schedule social media too
Texts, emails, Twitter and FaceBook mentions are the modern day marshmallow. If our electronic devices are in plain site with these tools open, resisting the temptation of checking a message draws from the energy source we need to do our jobs. So just as we should schedule email for a narrow part of our day, we should do the same for social media and texting. Furthermore, being a connected educator has great value, so if you use Twitter as a professional development tool be sure to schedule your Twitter time during a period of the day you are most likely to enjoy learning and sharing yourself.
4. Have a good plan for your downtime
Research found that deep and regular breathing helps us be more relaxed. This in turns helps us be creative. Conversely, shallow breathing and breath holding was most commonly recorded while people were reading emails or engaged in emotionally trying desk tasks. This triggers a counterproductive cycle urging our bodies to consume, causing us to peek at every electronic tool we have to check emails, texts, etc. – - adding to anxiety and making us more unproductive.
Be thoughtful of how and who you spend your downtime with. Sometimes the teachers’ lounge can drain away the spirit of your small victories for that day. Surround yourself by people who make you the kind of teacher that students want to be around.
During your break, put yourself in a place where you can relax and surround yourself with people that allow you to reset yourself so your next wave of students is taught by a fresh you.
5. Multitasking is myth, so stick to one task at a time
Banish multitasking because it is a myth. It is really task switching and it makes us less productive. Research not only found that it makes us less productive, but there is a lag time when we need to switch back to the original task. In other words, if you think it’s okay to check your emails real quick while your students are working on a task, think again. Even when you are done the fact is it takes a few minutes before they have your full attention again.
Brian Page (@FinEdChat) was the recipient of the Ohio Department of Education Milken National Educator Award and was a 2012 Money magazine “Money Hero.” He teaches financial education and economics with Reading Community City Schools and also previously served as an outreach director with Cincinnati United.