Overwhelm is a huge issue for just about everyone, but particularly for teachers. I want to help you understand an important contributing factor that a lot of people underestimate or just don’t give much thought to.
Once you understand what’s creating or worsening your feeling of being overwhelmed, the solution becomes clear, simple, and pretty straightforward.
- Why is that you don’t mind students calling your name for something off-topic at certain moments, but at other times, you get annoyed and yell at them for interrupting?
- Why is a traffic jam not a huge deal on certain days, but nearly enough to send you into a mental breakdown at other times?
- How come your computer freezing up is something you’re able to calmly troubleshoot at certain times, and other times, you want to throw the device out the window?
A lot of our reaction has to do with how rushed we’re feeling, and how much the interruption is going to interfere with our plan for the day.
- If you’re fully present with your class and focused on engaging them in a well-paced lesson, an off-topic question won’t be quite as annoying as when you have 10 minutes of class time to go over 35 problems.
- The sudden traffic jam will get you more upset if you left the house a few minutes late than if you left a few minutes early.
- The technology setback can send you into panic mode when you only have two minutes to get online and access the information you need, but feels less stressful when you have ten minutes to spare and can afford to troubleshoot for a little while.
By over-scheduling and not leaving ourselves enough buffer time, we raise the stakes for every event in our lives.
Finishing an instructional activity on time, not encountering any traffic, and having fully functional technology become absolutely imperative. There is no room for any error, no space for humans to be human and for life to happen as it often does.
So, if you want to prevent overwhelm and make life’s many small problems and interruptions feel less stressful, you need to stop over-scheduling yourself and instead, create margin.
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Many of us begin our day as if it’s a blank sheet of paper and we try to fill every spot with an activity or accomplishment. Our goal is to completely fill the page and we don’t stop until we’ve run completely out of space.
How would life be different if we intentionally created margin? If we left some blank space on the page, observed boundaries, and worked to make sure we were doing the right things in the right way, instead of cramming every conceivable space with more?
In the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, we often refer to having margin in our lives by building in buffer time. The goal is to intentionally create space in your day so that tasks and obligations don’t just pile up on top of each other with no space between.
I want to clarify right up front that building buffer time into your day is not an optional thing you can try to do only if you have a day that’s not very busy. No teacher has extra time just floating around. You have to MAKE buffer time by building it into your schedule, and the busier you are, the more important it is to plan your time this way.
Let me give you a few examples of how that works.How would life be different if we created margin instead of cramming every minute with MORE? Click To Tweet
Build in buffer minutes
Most teachers plan their day according to an ideal schedule: if things go right, we should have time for X, Y, and Z.
But how often do things actually go right? How often do you get through an entire lesson with no behavioral interruptions, no announcements on the intercom, no fire drills, and so on? Half the time, if you’re lucky? So why continue to plan for the best case scenario, instead of the most likely scenario?
If you constantly feel like you’re rushing students and the class as a whole isn’t finishing their work quickly enough for you to stay on pace, adjust your scheduling by creating buffer time. Be realistic. Make the assumption that all activities will take longer than planned, and plan to accomplish less instead of over-scheduling and being frustrated that you didn’t do enough.
If you think an activity will take 30 minutes, allow 35 or 40 minutes instead. This will allow you to be more responsive to students’ needs and what’s happening in the moment without feeling stressed out because you’re behind.
- Instead of rushing kids to complete and review 10 problems in 15 minutes, have them do five problems, and use the extra time you’ve created to dig deep into problem-solving strategies.
- Instead of planning a complex lab AND a test for the same class period, give the lab and a shorter quiz (or even better, an exit slip) so you have some buffer minutes built in for unexpected interruptions.
- Instead of a week-long project, cut out the portion that benefits students the least and make it a 4-day project so you have a buffer day built in.
The idea here is to do fewer things better.
You’re still going to teach all the same standards at basically the same pace: you’re just going to leave out the activities that are less impactful and stop trying to cram so much into the limited class time you’re allotted.
The same principle of buffer minutes apply to your non-instructional time, too:
- If you think making a set of parent phone calls will take around 10 minutes each, schedule them 15 minutes apart so you have 5 minutes of buffer time.
- If you can drive to the doctor’s office in 20 minutes after school, schedule the appointment for 30 minutes after you’re done for the day to create 10 minutes of buffer time.
Don’t think of the buffer time as a waste that you can’t possibly justify. You’re not going to be sitting around twiddling your thumbs. Most likely the task is going to take longer than you thought it would, and that buffer time will disappear quickly.
It’s not going to be extra time you have to fill; it will simply mean that the when you’re done, you’ll be on schedule instead of behind.
If the task doesn’t take as long as you planned and the buffer time means you have a couple minutes left over, guess what: you’ve now created margin in your life. You have a few moments to finish up another task, or call a family member, or sit and breathe and decompress, or think, or be present in your life and with the people you’re with.
You can even use this margin to get started on the next task early. How much more motivating is it to start a task knowing that you’re beginning early and have extra time? How much stress and pressure are removed when you’re not constantly rushing and feeling behind?
Motivation and productivity are very much a mental game. Being 20 minutes ahead is going to energize you and put you in a good mood; being 20 minutes behind is going to make you panicky and annoyed. So building in just a few minutes of buffer time is a tiny, easy shift that actually becomes a total game changer.
Build in buffer days
In addition to building in buffer minutes for individual tasks, I also recommend having buffer days. Personally, I schedule one buffer day or catch up day per week.
I used to wear myself out with the big tasks during the workday and be too tired to handle the small non-urgent stuff in the evenings. I’d just keep shifting around this list of mundane, dreaded tasks from day to day and they’d always be hanging over my head. Any time I tried to relax, I’d think about all this stuff that still needed to be done and feel pressure to work on them.
These things now get written immediately on Sunday’s to-do list if they’re not totally urgent so I don’t have to devote any time or mental energy to them until my buffer day. Sundays are now my day to tackle all those little annoying tasks that used to clutter my to-do list during the week and overwhelm me:
- I open my snail mail only on Sundays unless I can tell by the envelope it’s urgent: I stack it up in a drawer throughout the week and open it all at once on my buffer day.
- I respond to lengthy, non-urgent emails only on my buffer day: they get moved to a “to do” folder in my email until then so I don’t have to look at them or think about them until the appropriate time.
- I make that phone call to the insurance company, check my bank account balances online and make sure bills are paid.
All of the “adulting” kind of tasks we all hate doing and can’t make time for…that’s what a buffer day is for.
I generally don’t schedule any big work projects or creative tasks on Sundays: I’m handling just my list of mostly minor things and I knock them all out as quickly as possible so I have the rest of the day free. When I’m done, I can give myself permission to rest and relax, or work ahead if I feel like it. If there was an important time-sensitive task that I didn’t get to finish during the week like I’d planned, I have time for that on Sunday, because I haven’t got anything else major on my list. This is the beauty of a buffer day.
If I find that I’ve overscheduled myself and I’m falling behind with my daily to-do lists, I sometimes create a half buffer day mid-week on Wednesday as well. I’ll pull from the time that I’d usually spend relaxing or exercising or working on less important tasks, and clear the evening’s schedule to finish up those little nagging tasks that are hanging over my head. It’s tiring to stack this stuff onto an already full day, but I feel so much more energized afterward, knowing that I don’t have to worry about those things anymore.
You can add buffer days to build margin into your class schedule, too. Once a week, every other week, once a month, or once a quarter, plan for a review day. This is a time in which you can have students work on unfinished projects, or you can re-teach or re-visit specific skills that you didn’t get to cover in-depth due to unexpected interruptions.
It will probably not be an entire school day, but any little bit of buffer time helps. For example, maybe every other Friday, you plan for review and catch up during the last 30 minutes of your ELA block. This is not free time when the kids are doing word searches and playing around. They’re either catching up on any missed and incomplete classwork, or they’re doing review and practice activities for skills you know they haven’t yet mastered, or completing activities that you didn’t have time to do on the day you’d planned because you had a snow day or an assembly or another unexpected interruption.
The purpose of the buffer day or buffer period is so that when you fall one or two days behind in your lesson plans, it doesn’t completely throw off the rest of the month. You need margin in your lesson plans, and creating buffer minutes and buffer days is what makes that margin possible.
You WILL fall behind, so plan for it!
There’s one last important thing that I need you to know about using buffer time to create margin in your life and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. You will fall behind schedule on a regular basis, which means that you can plan for it.
When you fall behind schedule, you must analyze what you can cut out so there’s buffer room.
If you lose a day of school due to your own absence or another unexpected event, don’t try to cram two days’ worth of material into one. We all have activities that we know are less effective than others: toss out the ones that are less impactful, or less important, or that take the longest to complete so that only the most essential skills remain.Unexpected interruptions aren't unexpected. They happen regularly & we can plan for them. Click To Tweet
You don’t have to do everything you’ve written on your to-do list, you don’t have to do everything you wrote down in your lesson plans. Allow yourself some flexibility and be responsive to your own needs and the kids’. Be willing to scratch out some things to make room for more important priorities.
There are many, many ways to address the learning standards you’re required to teach, and you don’t have to implement every good idea you come up with. When you’re behind schedule, you cannot just keep working through a list of activities and hope for a miracle that allows you to do two days worth of things in one day’s time.
You must be ruthless and cut things out. Focus on the stuff that has the greatest positive impact and make time for that. You don’t have to do everything, you have to do the right things.
And if you build buffer time into your schedule, both buffer minutes and buffer days, you will have that bit of margin in your life where you have the time and mental space to figure out which things to eliminate. You’ll be able to look at the bigger picture and make decisions about the best possible use of your personal time and your instructional time so that you and your students keep moving toward your goals.
If you want to dig deeper into these kinds of productivity strategies, and have some support and accountability for implementing better habits for how you use your time, I hope you’ll consider joining us in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.
The club is a yearlong professional development program that will guide you through every season and every aspect of your work as a teacher. The goal isn’t to get down to 40 hours, it’s to work with intentionality, create better balance, and get more done in less time.
The club is only open to new members twice a year, and the next time to join is June 28-July 7th. Sign up below to get free samples of the club materials, sign up for an email reminder when it’s time to join, and learn about a free webinar on teacher productivity I’ll be running in late June.You have to say no to a lot of good things in order to say yes to a lot of great things. Click To Tweet
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 10-15 minute 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!