Long-time listeners of my Truth for Teachers podcast have probably heard me talk a lot about strategies for work-life balance and productivity as a teacher. This episode is going to be a little bit different, because it’s basically a personal reflection on what those principles look like in my life right now, in this season of life.
I’ll share five choices I’ve made that are essentially habits now, and they help me to simplify and automate my life. Hopefully, it will give you some ideas about ways that you can do the same. A condensed transcript is below, but check out the audio podcast if you want to hear the entire thing!
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1) I prioritize simplicity in my lifestyle choices.
- I intentionally delayed parenthood and don’t currently have kids. That’s not to say that you can’t ever have balance or get things done when you’re a parent, but your priorities shift. If you don’t have kids yet, this is something to consider; if you do have kids, avoid comparing your lifestyle to people who don’t.
- I have a cat instead of a dog. I used to have Rottweilers, but they were a lot of work, so I made the choice to get a cat when my last dog passed away. It was important to me that my schedule no longer revolves around rushing home after work to let the dog out.
- I don’t commit to a lot of ongoing responsibilities. I do volunteer and participate in social events, but it tends to be one-off things, versus something where I’m required to show up week after week.
- I choose very low-maintenance friends. We’re not always sending each other cards, throwing each other parties, taking each other meals when we’re sick. If that’s important to you, then I’m not by any means saying to loosen your community ties. But personally, I like low-obligation friendships, and I attract people into my life who are easy going in this area.
2) I prioritize simplicity in my daily routines.
- I do basically everything online. It’s extremely rare that I run any kind of errands because I have things delivered to me and handle just about every task over the internet. I do go to the grocery store once a week rather than having groceries delivered, but basically, everything else that can be done online, is.
- I simplify household chores. I’ve been paying a house cleaner to come twice a month for a long time, even when I was single and living on a teaching salary because it just freed up so much time and energy for me. If you have any disposable income at all and you feel stretched for time, paying someone to clean your house for you (even once a month) can be such a weight off of your shoulders. I tidy up daily and keep all the horizontal surfaces clear because that’s the key to making a space look neat. But I have relaxed standards about whether there can be crumbs on the floor or if the bathroom sink has some toothpaste in it, and don’t dedicate time in my schedule to deep cleaning.
- I automate as many things around the house as possible. For example, our cat has a self-cleaning litter box, an automatic feeder, and an automatic water. I only have to deal with her stuff once a week.
- I reduce trips out by batching them. If I have an appointment one day, I’ll try to schedule other appointments and errands before/after so I can knock them out in one trip. This keeps me from feeling like I’m constantly on the go and can’t just unwind at the house.
- I do not wear clothes that need to be dry cleaned. That’s one less chore/trip to think about.
- I workout at home. I use a little collapsible treadmill and some free weights in my house instead of having to go to the gym, and I do yoga, stretching, and pilates in my living room using YouTube videos. I also go for walks just about every day and use that time to listen to audio books and unwind, so it feels like self-care rather than a task I need to check off my list.
- I don’t watch live television. I have “my shows,” but I watch them all online. So, I’m watching without commercials and on my own time, instead of scheduling my life around when a network decides to air a program and doing nothing during endless commercials.
- I keep my meals really simple. Anytime that I cook, I’m just cooking for two people so that helps, but I always make a big pot of something and repurpose the leftovers. I might saute ground turkey, onion, and beans, then use that for chili one night, taco salads the next, and as a topping for baked potatoes or to go inside stuffed peppers the third night. I have about 20 repurposing meal setups like this that my husband and I both like, and we just rotate through them, depending on what I’m in the mood for. So, I’m not spending time hunting for new recipes, figuring out what ingredients I can use up before they go bad, etc.
3) I pay just as much attention to the things I say NO to as the things I say YES to.
If someone asks me to do something, I’m only going to say yes if I feel like I can really add a unique value there. If you’re asking me to do something that basically anyone could do, you could pretty much sub in anyone, I’m not very likely to say yes. But if you’re asking me to do something that is my special skill set or that I know I’m really able to help a lot of people with, I’m more likely to say yes.
That comes to both work obligations and personal obligations. If someone asks, “Can you bring a dish to this party?”, I could, but I’m not one of those people who get true joy from cooking for other people. It brings some people great satisfaction to make a delicious meal, and it’s an expression of love and caring for them. But for me, well, I’m bringing ice or the plates or the napkins. I stay in my wheelhouse. Why say yes to making something from scratch for a party, instead of saying yes to something that I’m much better at and enjoy?
Paying attention to the NO’s lets you shift your mindset from that of the frazzled, rushed, over-scheduled person to the truly productive one. People who struggle with productivity tend to add new tasks and responsibilities to what they’re already doing, and ask themselves, “How can I fit all of this in? How can I possibly have time for all of this?”
Truly productive people look at a new responsibility and ask themselves, “Is this the best and highest use of my time? And if so, what can I eliminate today in order to make time for this?” Productive people are always analyzing whether something is really necessary and whether it’s really necessary right now. They’re always reevaluating their priorities and shifting tasks around.
4) I’m protective of the time I set aside for things that move me toward my goals, and I keep showing up for myself.
I can say yes to the things that matter if I have freed up time by saying no to the less important things. All the little stuff really does add up!
So, I’m very protective of my time. Amy Porterfield (who is an entrepreneur) calls her focused time “tiger time,” meaning that she protects this time like a tiger. No one can take it from her. I’m definitely very tigerish about my time, especially those morning hours because that’s when I’m at my peak and do my best work.
Things pop up during the day that interrupts me and throws me off track, or I get an email with something frustrating or annoying or bad news, and then it throws off my mood and I don’t feel productive. So I want to get my most important work, my creative work, done before any of that kind of stuff can happen.
I set aside this time to work on things that move me toward my goals — I try to show up every single day. Even if I’m not feeling creative or productive, I just keep showing up. That’s the only way I can finish difficult things like a podcast season or a book.
And maybe that’s something you can do, too — pay attention to your high energy times, and try to set some of them aside for getting the most important things done. Schedule it into your calendar, and don’t let anyone else encroach on it. If someone asks you to do something when it’s your tiger time, say, “I’m sorry, I already have a commitment during that time.” Because you do. You’ve made a commitment to yourself.
5) I batch as many things as possible to focus on deep work.
I also do a lot of batching, so I try to focus on deep work. When I’m floating from thing to thing, it feels very meaningless to me and I get frazzled and overwhelmed. I try to just set aside chunks of time where I’m focused on one thing. That’s why I take breaks in between seasons on the podcast because it takes a lot of time and effort.
I cannot make curriculum resources, write books, create courses, send out a weekly email, do a weekly podcast, and share ideas on social media every single day, or even every single week or month. It’s too much. I set aside blocks of time when I focus on one thing and get it done.
For example, I spend usually one day every six weeks and plan out what I’m going to be sharing on my Facebook page. I share one article a day on Facebook, and I make sure it’s something super high quality that my followers there are going to be really interested in. I read through a bunch of articles and find what will spark a great discussion and help them improve their teaching and love their work more.
I spend a couple of hours on that task every six weeks or so, rather than having to ask myself every day, “Okay, what am I going to post on Facebook?” Because that’s how I end up feeling pulled in a million directions, and it’s hard to be strategic.
If you’re planning your life and your teaching day by day, you’re making decisions on the fly. You can batch your lesson plans to work on a unit at a time, or at least a week at a time. You could batch your grading so you can get a holistic overview of what your kids know and are able to do. You could batch your response to email … all of these approaches will allow you to think deeply about the task at hand instead of trying to flit from project to project all the time.
This approach is far less stressful for me, and it creates better outcomes for everyone else that I’m trying to serve. Batching is one of the most critical strategies and I really encourage you to use it.
I know that my lifestyle (with not being in the classroom) is very different from most of yours. I have a great deal more flexibility in my time and schedule than many of you do. But the thing that I most want you to keep in mind here is we all have different seasons of life.
If you have a family member in hospice care, you are in a season where you’re focused on end-of-life issues and grieving. If you have young children at home, you’re in a very long season of pouring a tremendous amount of time and energy into being a caregiver. Becoming a better teacher and everything else you care about will be a priority in another season. You can improve your effectiveness in the classroom at any time, but you cannot get this season of life with your loved ones back ever again.
You’ll find yourself growing frustrated and overwhelmed if you pressure yourself to try to live a life now that could only be accomplished in a different season. It will take twice as much effort and you’ll get half the results.
In this way, simplification and focusing on what matters is not a daily achievement: It is a lifetime achievement. You want to look back at your life many years from now and see that you spent seasons focusing on yourself, on your significant other, on your children, on making a home, on your career, etc. and that was exactly what you were supposed to have done at each point in time.
The goal is not to do everything you CAN each day but everything you SHOULD. Don’t try to fit in more. Instead, think about what season of life you are in and how you can simplify to focus on the biggest priorities right now.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode was sponsored by Brains On, which is an award-winning podcast from American Public Media. It’s dedicated to inspiring kids’ natural curiosity about the world. The Brains On podcast has over 100 episodes covering real science topics, including everything from why people have allergies to how electricity works. Now Brains On is offering free standards-based curriculum and activities for teachers to go with each one of those podcast episodes. You can learn more and download their free teacher resources at Brainson.org/learn.