It's 2 p.m. and you've made no fewer than 100 decisions since you woke up.
You had to decide between two books for the curriculum, between meeting a parent in the morning or the afternoon, between teaching the lesson you've planned or altering it to connect with today's breaking news, between having a sandwich or going to the bathroom, between moving Lexi's seat away from Cya's or letting them work things out. Now you're in a meeting being asked to make five more decisions, and you. Just. Can't.
Say hello to decision fatigue.
Further Reading: 5 Secrets to Increasing and Sustaining Your Teacher Energy
What Is Decision Fatigue?
In their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney define decision fatigue as the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after continuously making decisions. The experts at The Decision Lab agree: they note that the more decisions we make in a day, the worse our decisions usually get.
Decision fatigue has three primary effects: it reduces our ability to distinguish between positive and negative attributes; it causes decision avoidance; and it reduces our willpower, which can influence us to make choices that are against our long-term interests.
Being a teacher means making countless decisions each day—for yourself, for your students, and for your school. With so many decisions to make, how can you mitigate decision fatigue? Here are a few strategies that can help.
Some decisions, such as what to wear, are easy—especially if you stock your closet with comfortable, mix-and-match outfits. (Think Ellen Degeneres.) My students often ask me why I always wear black, but I know that my fashion choices help me in the classroom. Simplifying my wardrobe eliminates a decision from my day. I have more energy to make decisions in the classroom. (Though I suppose I could add a pop of color from time to time.)
Preparing my week's breakfasts and lunches on the weekend is another way to cut down on decision-making during the week. Decide what you're going to eat for the week and be done with it.
Delegating some outcomes cuts down on the number of decisions you have to make and eases the attendant fatigue. I used to want to participate in every single decision my department made. Now I volunteer for just one or two committees and trust my capable colleagues to make the right selections in the others.
Not every decision needs to be made immediately. When you wake up, make a list of what absolutely must be done today. Put what's most important at the top, and train yourself to understand that the stuff at the bottom can wait. Scheduling can really help you see which choices need to be made.
4. Replenish Your Decision-Making Stores
Psychology Today notes that you can replenish your decision-making power throughout the day by taking a walk, catching a nap, or—as Oprah Winfrey does—incorporating little rituals of celebration into your day, such as experiencing fresh air on your face or gazing at the clouds in the sky. I find taking a walk down to my colleague Erin's room and talking about the latest podcast we've listened to or book we've read helps me relax and regroup.
5. Set Rules or "Bright Lines"
The idea of "bright lines" comes from Susan Peirce Thompson, a doctor of brain and cognitive sciences who designed an eating program, Bright Lines Eating, to combat decision fatigue. The core principle of the program is to set bright lines—"clear, unambiguous boundaries we don't cross, just like a non-smoker doesn't smoke, no matter what."
The focus here is to set rules and follow them. Setting teacher bright lines such as not staying in school past 6 p.m. or not joining more than two committees can reduce the number of decisions you make in a day. But the trick is to stick to your rules.
6. Practice Self-Care
Teachers' lives can be hectic, and it's critical that we slow down, rest, and unwind. Sleep is extremely important, as it allows us to recharge our decision-making energy. Exercise can ease daily stress; so can healthy eating. Teachers also tend to think about school even when they're not in the classroom, so visiting with non-school friends, getting a massage, or focusing on a hobby can help ease the stress of teaching—and the fatigue that comes with having to make so many decisions.
Further Reading: 10 Tips and Truths of Living with a Teacher
Incorporating these six strategies into our teaching lives will ease stress and help us make better decisions about things that matter most.