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Key to life?

I’ve done a great deal of thinking about work-life balance. Over time, I’ve come to reconceptualize this in a different way. It began when I read Chris Brogan’s post Work-Life Balance?  which offered a different take on the concept of work-life balance .

I think the question is part of the problem. I don’t think balance is the goal. I think we seek to thrive. Grant Cardone says that he wants excess in both quadrants: work and home life. Why settle for a balance where you can seek really thriving levels of success with both? And I agree.

I agree. I want to thrive in all areas of my life. To do that I had to reconsider how I was approaching this whole thing and the mindset that I had. The first was to rethink how I was viewing what I was doing. I was categorizing things as work, family, spiritual, body, etc and trying to figure out how to balance each of them. Like many others, it wasn’t working. I was frustrated because I often felt guilty when I spent too much time working on particular projects or would exercise instead of spending time with my family. Instead of finding balance, I was always trying to juggle things so I wasn’t feeling guilty. I’d give up on projects I wanted to do because the things I “needed” to do were crowding them out.

I wasn’t doing well on balancing and I wasn’t getting any further ahead.  I was running faster and harder but making no real progress. Eventually this led to burnout and almost a break down. The cycle repeated itself a few times over the course of my 23 years in education.

I couldn’t continue this.

Change was in order but what? How?

Simplifying

The book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown explores the concept of work/life balance through discerning what is essential. The book begins with a vignette of an executive working in Silicon Valley. At one point, the executive begins to be selective about what he says “Yes” to do and, in doing so, begins to reignite his creativity.

It felt self-indulgent at first. But by being selective he bought himself space, and in that space he found creative freedom. Grep McKeown

Through this story, which could be anyone in a similar position, McKeown introduces the reader to a different way of seeing the things we are doing. Instead of trying to find some sort of balance with all the things that are going on, one seeks to thrive through learning new habits and making decisions that are focused on what is essential.

only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter. … It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” Grep McKeown

This isn’t easy to do. We live in a social period of being constantly connected and plugged in. Social media bombards us with the “perfect” lives of the people around us, showing us what we’re missing. Parents feel pressured to ensure their children have “the ultimate childhood” while the pursuit of keeping up is magnified through the lenses of cameras in everyone’s pocket. We’re inundated with new articles, lists, books and courses, telling us they can help us – In 6 Easy Steps – to reach/do/achieve almost anything. We bite, looking for some way to do/be in order to rush on to the next thing, always worried that we’re falling behind.

Being a Great Teacher

As a teacher, I was always trying to improve, to finally have someone say “he’s a great teacher/principal”. Over time, it drove me … almost almost over the edge. I was trying, reading, implementing, doing – trying to do it all but still driven, in some crazy alternate reality, to find ‘balance’. Deep down I knew it wasn’t going to happen. But it didn’t stop me from continually doing and trying. It wasn’t until I was so frustrated with my work,  emotionally drained, and dissatisfied with the current state of life that I decided it was time to act.

Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload. Greg McKeown.

I didn’t want to find balance, I wanted to THRIVE in what I was doing. I wanted to be able to create, to use my abilities to their potential, to regain my health, both physically and mentally, and share and support others like I glimpsed was possible.

Connected Doesn’t Mean Doing it All

I consider myself to be a connected individual. In the past, I would have said a connected educator but I’ve come to realize I’m more than that – it is only part of who I am. That’s where Chris Brogan’s article really had me begin thinking – I wasn’t looking at the whole me, but as me as separate parts. It wasn’t until I stepped back to view things holistically that I began to understand the depth of the change that needed to happen.

If we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people – our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families – will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is manful and important. Greg McKeown

In learning to say “No”, I have learned to say “Yes” to what is the most important. In discerning what is important, I have been able to slowly move from being ‘busy and seeking balance’ to ‘focused and thriving’. To do this, changing my mindset was so incredibly important.

In Essentialism McKeown outlines three core concepts for an essentialist mindset:

  • Individual choice – we can choose how to spend our energy and time.  This is more true than we often first believe. Deciding to get back in shape wasn’t the hard decision. Following through was the hard part. It meant I had to eliminate habits and change routines which, as many know, is so incredibly hard. In fact, we often fail because we underestimate how hard it is going to be. We don’t account for the triggers and cues that reinforce the habits that undermine our success. Just because we have choice doesn’t mean we’ll be able to follow through if we don’t take time to understand our current position and what needs to change and then take inventor of our current habits and how they affect what we do each day.
  • The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and very few things are exceptionally valuable. Todd Henry calls this Peripheral Paralysis – too often we are too concerned with what else is happening around us and aren’t focusing on our path. Yes, it’s important to see what others are doing but it doesn’t mean doing what they are doing. It also doesn’t mean comparing what you are creating and doing to other’s because they are at different points of the journey than you. To often we compare ourselves to others without knowing the full story of the other. There is so much noise around us we’re distracted, ‘busy’ but lacking focus. Choosing to focus on what is vital and essential is difficult because we are suppose to do it all.
  • The reality of trade-offs” We can’t have it all or do it all. This is hard. I want to do it ALL! But to thrive, I can’t. I need to focus on specific things, to eliminate what isn’t essential and vital.  Saying ‘No’ isn’t just about the mental discipline of discerning what is essential but it’s also about the “emotional discipline necessary to say no to social pressure.”  Using the “Three Whys” that Chip and Dan Heath outline in their book Made to Stick, I  connect what I am doing with why I am doing it at an emotional level. Chip and Dan suggest that once you have decided to do something ask “Why is this important?” three times. So, why do I exercise? Because I want to be healthy. Why do I want to do that? So I can live longer and be active in my old age? Why do I want to do that? Because I want to be able to spend time  with my wife, spend time playing with my kids, be able to see my grandchildren and enjoy my doing things with my family. Yes, exercise is about being healthy but when I drill down to emotions, it connects with my future and what I dream to be able to do.

What does this mean for Educators?

Educators are constantly making decisions. I would suggest that many teachers suffer from decision overload which eventually affects their ability to make future decisions. How many educators are exhausted at the end of the day? Week? Focused on making it until the next break?  Counting down until summer vacation?

By being asked to make more and more decisions, educators are not able to use their energy for the vital/important. Educators want to be creative, to use their energy to creatively engage students and develop engaging learning environments.

How can teachers begin to change this for themselves? Teachers often are asked to do things which, it seems, provide them with little choice. Yet, there are decisions teachers can make about their use of time to determine what is essential and vital.

Areas to Explore

Outcomes/Curriculum – What are the Essential Questions and Big Ideas that can be used to connect outcomes? Are you familiar enough with the curricula to be able to combine Outcomes? Are you using a process such as Understanding by Design to  plan learning events and connect assessments with learning and develop cross-curricular learning?

Assessment/Feedback – Is the focus on assessment or feedback? Are you providing more feedback than assessment? Do you assess everything or just the vital/important? Do you know what is vital/important to assess?

Daily routines/habits – Do you employ daily routines – morning/afternoon/night  which encourage you to focus on what is vital/important? Do you connect what you are doing with your “Why”? Have you taken a habit inventory? Can you identify the triggers and cues for these habits?

Relationships – This is one area that everyone talks about – having relationships with students and families but what does that really mean? This is where the Three Why’s from Chip and Dan Heath can really be useful. Why are relationships with students important? Because they allow educators to connect personally with students. Why is connecting personally with students important? It provides insights into the students lives. Why is this insight important? It allows for trust, caring, and sharing. We share emotional life experiences with the students. This can be done with all relationships. Unfortunately, negative individuals drain us of energy. Do you need to reevaluate the relationships with colleagues?

None of this is easy. Actually, making the decision to change is the easiest part. When things are going easy, one really doesn’t need to be too creative or innovative, things happen. It’s when things aren’t going well and there are challenges that we need creativity, to see what isn’t obvious, to find solutions to the complex, to initiate change that isn’t obvious. There are no 5 Easy Steps or 10 Instant Remedies. But, in order to thrive, developing new habits and focusing on what is vital and important can help us to be our creative best.

I Wonder …. 

What might change if we focus on the vital/important in our lives?

If choice is important, how can teachers be empowered to make choices about what is vital/important?

How can teachers develop and be supported in developing habits that allow them to be creative in the work they do during times of seemingly constant change?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about this topic. Leave me a comment or send my a note on Twitter at @kwhobbes.

Until next Tuesday, seek what is vital, focus on the important; find your own creative voice.

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