Inner MOT Part 2 – the Deep Clean For the busy teacher / school leader. Practical ways to boost your sense of mastery, productivity, and wellbeing.
SO this edition is dedicated to teachers in the final weeks before the start of term and extends from talks I do for older students – about setting and achieving authentic and intrinsically motivated goals in ways that work. We are right not at that tipping point where the holiday starts to look ahead to the new school year – in secondary schools and sixth forms, more senior teachers will be starting to take a deep dive into the fall-outs of the upcoming results days which will drive agendas for growth and focus in the coming year. Before all that starts to happen, I am hoping to intrude – in a helpful way – into the calm before the start of the school year to ask and explore with you how YOU might go for growth in your practice as an educator in one of the most important caring professions that has been under INTENSE pressure and scrutiny during the pandemic. For me – when I am going for growth in my work, I must acknowledge that when it I have never been a multitasker. I have always been drawn to work requiring a deep focus and concentration. And – to an extent, I need to be able to go into that spiral of layered focus and energy… When I don’t get enough time to sheer off into my own mental space and either learn or create something that is connected to my purpose and work, I get antsy. So my family will tend to notice that from time to time during family holiday time, I will sneak off early in the morning to do something in that vein by myself (like this newsletter) and then come back to them later lighter of step and mood.
I know when my head isn’t in the right space when I am not able to access that mode. And there has been so much about the way of being in the home / office space over the past year that has made it difficult to dive deeply into productivity. Often, everywhere I turn, I will notice felted dust nestling in the crevices of the furniture, some machine or other that wants decanting or stoking. Washing that needs sorting, putting away etc etc.
I could never, ever claim to be houseproud – but somehow when you work in the shared living space it seems even more important that things are clean, clear, and orderly. And when My workspace / home space is more cluttered with people, that seems an even greater imperative! So it seems ironic that the access to that deep-dive working / thinking / doing experience seems so distant – at the end of an obstacle course of ‘things that need doing’ We know, that down the centuries great iconic figures, thinkers, movers and shakers, have all leaned heavily – some might say relentlessly and obsessively – on their use of focus. From Einstein’s sacrifice of 3 years from 1912-1915 to the Theory of Relativity (which allegedly whitened his hair and nearly wrecked his marriage), to Steve Jobs’ famous personal ‘uniform’ policy that formed part of streamlining of all other low-level decision making and facilitate a laser-like focus and commitment to business strategy & performance. To steal from Billy Bragg, there is not only power in a Union, there is power in a unity of mind and purpose.
Now what I am NOT saying is that we should all be like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs! Imagine that – being taught by a staff of polo-necked Einsteins… How catastrophic would THAT be for one’s sense of self…What I am exploring is the capacity – as a teacher or a school leader or anyone in education (apart from the DfE who do not count)…I mean people doing the real work in schools -to hold on to their sense of self, their purpose, their mojo in their work by being able to truly focus on doing things well and getting better at it…of feeling satisfaction and mastery in the progress of their work. I remember well how every year of my 25 year teaching career, I would bounce up at the start of September with energy, vigour, joy at being reunited with colleagues. Full of ideas…only to feel overwhelmed by the sheer tsunami-like force of new updates, imperatives, guidelines to read and sign as understood. The INSET days stuffed full of information – all of it important, urgent, the sheer sensory overload of being stuffed with content before immediately having to start cramming the kids in their turn… How can we hold on – and stay grounded in who we are as teachers, how we want to show up, what we want to achieve so that we can feel well and do good – both on the field in the classroom and backstage with colleagues, and for ourselves and those we love on the home front?
In pursuing ideas about how we can preserve our sense of focus, I have been looking at Cal Newport’s book: “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. Here he expands on the benefits of what he calls the ‘Einstein principle’. Indeed Susan Cain wrote about similar in ‘Quiet – the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. Like Newport, she provides Einstein’s single, solitary focus as a leading example of creativity along with other introverted creatives, like Steve Wozniak. Cain refers to the work of Anders Eriksson, the psychologist who studied the power of Deliberate Practice – working on tasks that will make the most difference to the individual’s progress as being crucial to developing expertise or ‘mastery’. Learning about this gave me the choice and the chance to tweak my approach to setting tasks in class – and embedding more opportunities for my pupils to have quiet individual time on certain elements of focused learning – time to think, embed, nutshell, articulate, formulate questions – rather than me constantly holding court and having interaction after interaction…And that had the dual purpose of enabling me to have points of rest and refocus from within the ‘theatre’ of my lessons and give my pupils the chance to engage with the material on an individual basis. Levelling the playing field for introverts, and challenging the extrovert ‘talkers’ to have bite-sized test-like challenge to engage with silent reflection. As a coach, this comes in the discipline of asking powerful questions, and letting the silence do the work, rather than filling the gaps… Now of course, in a perfect world, we’d all be able to double down and give exclusive attention to what our own learning & development needs are. But of course the life of a teacher or a school leader tends to have so many different dimensions. You start a lesson with the intention of focusing on one skill or other (no matter whether it’s your skill or their skill you’re hoping to target) – and something or other gets in the way and it could be anything – from a knowledge or skills gap emerging – to the firebell going off. So it’s no wonder, like Einstein, the achievement of progress can tend to be at personal cost and cost of family / personal time…All of this pushes us out of the ‘eu-stress’ sweet spot of the Yerkes Dodson curve for performance…where the level of stress is in pace with the ability to perform…and towards the ‘distress’ zone -where the level of stress exceeds our capacity to deliver.
Lately – over the ups and downs of the pandemic we’ve had notable examples of this derailment of focus through pandemic-related uncertainty, change and role stretch…Take the start of term in January 2021. Derailed. Teachers hastily trained to stretch to administering lateral flow testing regimes, start of term training abandoned…only to have the lockdown announced at the 11th hour…Happy New Year. Having a purpose and strategy – and then crucially the ability to act – enables the fulfilment of aims, the building of satisfaction and mastery that are one of our 3 core psychological needs (safety, satisfaction, connection). My point is we’re never really doing one thing at a time as we teach…From the fundamental point of we are teaching people AND teaching a subject at the same time. And increasingly we’re experiencing the intrusion of multitasking in a technological sense – whether that’s in the hybrid learning where long term absentees or self-isolating students are attending remotely…or even in the way in which email can intrude…Previously it was taboo to look at email whilst in class, but more recently emails fly around in vast quantities through the day – some with a clear expectation of immediate attention… logging and tracking missing students etc. Similarly school leaders – who ostensibly appear to be in a position of control and power – are often powerless to the way their day can be derailed by events – whether they are updates from the DofE, a complaint, a disclosure…When I was a Deputy Head, the moments when I felt most truly secure and grounded, and in the driving seat – were when I was in class, teaching. Everything else was a movable feast – and often at the mercy of other agendas…so it was always a struggle to fit in anything like deliberate practice on what I needed to do in my work, or in the service of strategic aims…unless I did it in the evenings, weekends, or holidays…And working on these elements as a life coach with professionals is so important to help identify the path to burn-out – disconnection, dissatisfaction, loss of purpose and fulfilment… So how can we do a deep-clean towards productivity and mastery…when so much about school life can seem to work against us?
How can we deep-clean our focus?
How do we ensure we stay on track so that we can find and feel achievement in a high pressure and changeable work environment?
• Set your intentions. Write them down. Go for it with openness and curiosity. Chart 3 areas of focus: professional, extracurricular, and personal. List your key aims / objectives / intentions under each – what you wish for yourself in order to feel connection and achievement.
• Prioritise the top 2 under each heading. And identify WHY they are so important. What gives them precedence. What would the impact be if you were able to master those? This is about spending less time and energy on the unnecessary, and really committing to guarding the space to achieve your goals.
• What comes further down the list? Purge what you can feasibly put on the back burner without having a detrimental impact. Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the good. To do lists are only really helpful if they are short and well-focused.
• Look again at the mid-ranking intentions…Consider how you might make ‘good enough’ progress on those. Put a time limit on how long you’ll take on those, and sequence the order in which you’ll do them and put them to bed.
• Resist taking on anything else new in the first half term that will be to the detriment of your top priorities. Guard the space that will allow you to reach them…and only give way to something new if it’s really unmissable. Guard against FOMO, and priority thieves…Key powerful questions: What if I do? What if I don’t…
Deep clean focus & mastery hacks.
Let it go…
Look at your old to-do lists. Update and let go of what’s now irrelevant, or there for show… Use a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix to declutter.
Interrogate and reset your routine for maximum impact.
Life by design, not by default. My coaching mantra…Routines are great- the familiar pattern provides safety and structure. But consider the effectiveness of your routine. Being on autopilot might feel streamlined…but to what extent are you true to your course…
• Do you allocate your best time in terms of energy and focus to low-level tasks – eg email?
• Notice how much time you spend on ‘throat-clearing’ activities that are meant to build you up to facing more challenging tasks…
• What aspects of your routine can you usefully re-allocate or delegate elsewhere? Eg housework tasks stealing into the calm, clear start to the day? Summer time is a great time to work on this with your home-crew…If you need others to pull more of the weight there, it takes time and energy to delegate and train up… That’s why we never do it during term time…
• Where do you preserve time in each day to step back, recharge and refuel?…And I am not talking chocolate.
• How can you include your priorities in your schedule – to paraphrase Stephen Covey?
Streamline your work-space & resources. Do your digital dusting.
• Organize both paper and digital files so that they’re not on your desktop. Delete the junk – literally and metaphorically. Lesson plans from 5 years ago…SERIOUSLY?
• Organise your work space so that you can find what you need with minimum friction. Physical files, books, resources. Digital resources. Key correspondence details…
• Make sure you keep certain core information ready and easy to find. Contracts, salary details, pensions information, policies, accreditations.
• Identify optimal spaces and conditions for certain types of work – work that requires deep focus, reading and note taking work, learning, listening to podcasts…make sure there’s variety. And capitalise on different environments. Eg I find that if I listen to podcasts at my desk, I get tempted to write really detailed notes. If I listen to podcasts whilst on a walk, I can then jot down the most salient parts when I get back in. The exercise turbocharges the learning, and the restriction on my perfectionist tendencies with note-taking mean I record more selectively and effectively.
Avoid information overload
• How many articles, papers, magazines, online links and wormholes do you dive into? Just as all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…same goes for input input input and minimal scope to digest.
• Accept that your ability to focus is limited in the same way that there’s no blank cheque when it comes to time. Where do you have time to reset your focus, or to direct your focus to creativity.
• Delete the unread emails you’re never actually going to read. Or re-read.
• Curate your subscriptions
Do a Kondo
• Does it bring you joy? If what you’re doing doesn’t uplift you -minimise it. We have a duty to omit what does not uplift.•
• Identify what does bring you joy and bring that to the forefront.
Do a stress audit. We can’t have a life free of stress. We can’t control the external factors that will add to the pressures of life. But we can have some say and influence on how we react to them.
• Identify your triggers so that you can remove or minimise them.
• Take good care of yourself and what contributes to your resiliency – sleep, movement / fitness, eating well, hobbies, quality time to connect with friends / family.
• Have a calming practice. Micro-exercises that can re-center you and bring your mind back to balance.
• Learn how to check-in with yourself and recognise when irritation, overwhelm, or disconnection are on the rise…know what strategies work for you to decant, slow, or reverse that build-up. You need effective ways to create a fire-break when your mind is marinading in the petrol of anger, resentment, negativity. What might they look like for you? DO the me-search. So you can ACT on this when you feel it build.
I hope that some of the ideas here may resonate with you – and whilst you are in the ‘rest and digest’ mode of holiday – time, you can take some opportunities to do both those things with as much traction as possible….to last you beyond the end of the shattering impact of week 1 and maybe even to half term and beyond! All the best to you.With love, gratitude…focus, and fulfilment,Emma.P.S. If you are interested in CPD webinars or 1:1 coaching, or wellbeing and performance talks for colleagues, or pupils, do get in touch…http://email@example.com