We are a chronically overworked generation. Teachers are one of the worst examples of this, but all the advice I’m going to give today could equally apply to other overworked professionals.
In the United Kingdom, primary school teachers are now averaging a working week of just under sixty hours. That doesn’t leave too much time for everything else.
This is in the face of research which shows that a thirty-five-hour working week is the best for optimum productivity. Once we work more, the amount we achieve goes down not up.
It’s unlikely that your line manager will simply decrease your workload so that you can start putting in fewer hours. The answer is to work smarter. Unfortunately, this phrase gets thrown around a lot without anyone explaining how it’s done.
Dealing with your mountain of work means attacking it from several sides; optimising your health and energy levels, spending time on other important parts of your life and developing efficient strategies to tackle your workload – a to-do list just doesn’t do it any longer.
Put Yourself First
Do you work to live or live to work? Even if you love your job (and you should) there will be other things that you love as much or more. No boss should be controlling what you do twenty-four seven. If your workload has taken over your life then you need to get it back.
You should not feel guilty about putting yourself first. In fact, it’s essential that you look after yourself, your health and your happiness if you want to do the best in your career. Waiting for a promotion, or a pay rise to start being happy doesn’t work.
If you’re a teacher it’s simple. Happy students need a happy teacher. If you’ve been working yourself into the ground then a change in mindset is essential.
Find your Non-negotiables
To be the very best version of yourself you need to identify what matters to you. These are your non-negotiables. You might even want to write them down.
Your non-negotiables list should include things which are important to you professionally and personally. These then become the things that you do no matter what.
It might be essential that you give lesson planning your utmost attention. Make it non-negotiable that you complete it when you’re most alert and focused. Likewise eating dinner with your family might be an imperative. Make sure that you keep it that way.
For me, yoga is a non-negotiable. If I don’t practise each week I feel miserable. I’m a member of a studio with open bookings and daily classes. So long as I plan ahead, I can ensure that I fit at least one class in each week, regardless of what else is going on.
Struggling to see the link back to workload? Just remember that you’re more focused and more efficient when you feel happier about yourself.
Spend Time with Family and Friends
I’ve met so many teachers who tell me that they give up time with their own children to complete planning, preparation and assessment tasks. If education means putting children first, then this is nonsense.
Not only do your children, your family and your friends need time with you, you need them too. Previously, it was thought impossible to quantify and analyse happiness. Now that we can study happiness we know that time with the people we love and care about is essential to our wellbeing.
Can’t figure out how this revolves back to your work commitments? Well studies also show that we need to be happy to work at our best. Instead of waiting to get a promotion or get to the next set of holidays, we will perform better at work if we’re already feeling pretty pleased about life.
Surely, we all know that exercise lowers our risk of heart attack, type II diabetes and cancer by up to fifty percent? Our risk of an early death is also lowered. The trouble is, when we work up to sixty hours a week, we’re more likely to drop our regular exercise or not take it up in the first place. This means your body stops running as efficiently as it should and your workload takes longer to complete.
To stay healthy, adults should be undertaking around 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week as well as twice weekly strength building routines. For a long time, I didn’t exercise enough because I hadn’t founded any sport I enjoyed.
It’s essential to keep looking for a sport you like and do it regularly enough to make it a habit. If you find commitment to your chosen sport difficult then join a team or group. You’re more likely to turn up if you want to avoid letting others down.
Exercise is also vital for good mental health. It enables us to sleep better, feel more connected to our environment and improve low mood. In turn, we are better able to tackle heavy workload as well as keep a perspective on our working life.
Meditation and mindfulness are slowly making their way into the mainstream. In Western society, they were dismissed for decades as flaky. Bangor University in Wales even has a department studying mindfulness. The research is there to show that it works.
Mindfulness helps you deal with demanding situations, improves your mental health and reduces stress. It leaves you better placed to tackle a demanding workload, and to take a step back from it.
In addition, meditation and mindfulness can improve your focus and productivity, meaning you tackle tasks faster. It does this by increasing the neural connections in your brain. Meditating regularly can leave you feeling refreshed and better able to tackle a larger task.
It may seem illogical to take ourselves away from our work but meditation really does help keep us going longer and more efficiently.
Manage your Procrastination
We know that everyone procrastinates. Worrying about it won’t help but recognising when it’s happening means that we can use it to our advantage.
Chances are, you already use some pretty good methods to avoid doing what you don’t want to do. Do you tackle some housework? Clear your email inbox? Set yourself a minimal time to get started on a task so you know you’ve made a start?
These methods work because you’re actually doing one task that needs doing in order to avoid another. The trick is to keep an eye on the time you’re spending on each task and use other methods, detailed below to ensure that everything which needs to get done, does get done.
Rip Up Your To-Do List
I’m not suggesting that you just wing it and hope for the best here. What I’m after is a more focussed and intuitive way of categorising and prioritising your workload.
A “shopping list” style to do list allows us to get a little hit of dopamine every time we cross something off it. That’s why some of us end up putting everything on there.
We need something more intelligent, and that means something realistic and time focused.
I’d suggest you simply start by prioritising the things that normally go onto your to-do list. Then schedule time for those in your day. Every task should have an amount of time allotted to it. If not, then we end up spending all the time we have available on some tasks.
Once you’re aware of how much better you can do than a basic to-do list you can start investigating other productivity hacks for yourself. I’d suggest you start with bullet journalling, the Pomodoro technique and the Eisenhower matrix.
Limit your Social Media Time
Have you calculated how long you spend each day on social media?
Chances are you wouldn’t care to find out. But as estimates suggest we check email anywhere from forty-six to eighty times a day, chances are that when we add in our time on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, our phones swallow up a large part of our attention and day.
If we just look at how that affects our efficiency, we can be sure that we want to wean ourselves off internet browsing and updating our status as we work. Try placing your phone in a different room, or rewarding yourself with two minutes browsing online for every twenty minutes of work we’ve completed.
There are also apps, including Moment which can block our internet use or app use if you really need to be firm with yourself.
Get Enough Sleep
Missing out on sleep remains a badge of honour for many people. If that is you it’s time to get real about the effects of sleep deprivation. It causes daytime lethargy and clumsiness. It can cause obesity and heart disease. Then reasons behind a lack of sleep can include stress, overwork and too much exposure to technology. It’s a vicious circle which needs to be broken.
If you’re not sleeping well enough, then take steps straight away to improve. Try to limit your screen time on an evening, keep your room cooler, go to bed exactly seven and a half hours before you plan to get up.
If you’re doing the other things in this article to help you cope with your heavy workload then you should also see your sleep improve as your stress levels and fatigue decrease. You’ll be in an upwards spiral not a downwards one.