Science shows that most us are at our most creative and productive early on a morning. If you aren’t doing anything productive with your time before lessons start, then you’re missing out. Even if you only squeeze in twenty minutes of work at the start of the day however, it sets you up to work efficiently once students leave for the day.
This is also a good time to say that if you skip your lunch break to try and get ahead with work, you may be fooling yourself. I’m a huge fan of everyone taking their proper lunch break.
There’s lots of evidence to show that spending a break with colleagues is beneficial. I spent years eating lunch at my desk, trying to save time later in the day, but only ever checking the news headlines. Get to the staffroom to chat and unwind. Limit the time you spend setting up for afternoon lessons and you’ll feel more refreshed.
It’s far easier to find time for work once lessons finish. The catch – our energy and focus levels slump around the same time. Here are ways to ensure you remain efficient in the second half of the afternoon.
Have a High Value Task Ready to Complete
By high value task, I’m referring to something that makes a real difference to you and the goals you want to achieve. In other words, planning or quality assessment rather than tidying your room, or answering emails.
We should also be using some of our morning time to do something productive, but that time is still going to be limited. By beginning a high value task like planning before school, we have something specific for our focus to return to after lessons finish. After a quick review, we know what we need to do and we’re back to work.
Psychologists believe that our brains prefer completed tasks – the Zeigarnik effect. Whilst a task is incomplete, it remains in our mind – our brain carries on working on it and finds it easy to return to. By the same effect, our brains easily forget completed tasks, allowing us to move on to something else.
Work in Sprints
Most of us are familiar with the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer to work for twenty-five minutes and then take a break before starting again. You may want to experiment with working in longer sprints, say fifty minutes but with a longer break. I find that fifty-minute sprints work best for me when I’m feeling energetic, but switch to twenty-minute Pomodori when I’m tired and losing focus.
Turn Off Your Media
This is essential whenever you’re trying to be productive. However, it’s easier to get distracted when you’re less focused anyway. Try turning off notifications and leaving your phone on the other side of the room.
Do Some Exercise
If you’re a primary school teacher, it’s easy to incorporate a few stretches into afternoon lessons. It’ll help your students stay alert too. If you’re a PE teacher, you’ll be active anyway. For the rest of us, try a few stretches after your students go home. I’ve thought about the realities of stretching and bending in your classroom and decided that students would think little of it; they’re used to seeing us being a little bit “out there.”
Or you might want to do a class on the way home. Exercise will not only wake you up, it helps with focus and when bedtime comes you should sleep better.
Save your Low Value Tasks for When the Real Slump Comes
I’ve already referred to high value tasks – the ones that really help you achieve what’s important in your career. Low value tasks refer to most other things. The tasks you can’t avoid doing but have little benefit. Many people fail to distinguish between high value tasks and low. By pottering away at low value tasks such as replying to emails you can feel productive but you’re using “busyness” to do so.
Save those low value tasks for when your energy levels slump. This is the time when you can give yourself a time limit before going home. You’ll feel productive because you’ve now completed some important tasks and some urgent ones.
Plan Tomorrow’s Work Today
You need to be proactive with work, not reactive. In other words, you need to be proactive in looking at what you need want to achieve and the work you need to do that will get you there. This should stop you reacting to tasks immediately you receive them. Unless something takes a minute or less to complete, figure out how big a priority a task is before deciding when to do it, if at all.
To make sure everything slots into place, spend a few minutes each evening writing a task list for the next day. This should be no more than three high value tasks which will help you achieve your longer-term goals. You might also wish to write a list of urgent but less important tasks, for example, emails that you need to send.
I’m not naïve. I know that at this point you’re likely to be bringing work home too. The same rules apply. Identify the high value tasks and prioritise those. Time limit every task you do. At home this should also apply to other priorities like family time, preparing nutritious meals, exercising and relaxing. Even when teaching is a true vocation, and it should be, you work to live, not the other way around.