Your nearly empty plan book is open in front of you. Next to that is a stack of papers to correct. Your email is overflowing with unanswered emails, and report cards, which you have barely started, are due at the end of the week. On top of that, you are responsible for ordering new science materials for your grade level and you haven’t even started to figure out what needs to be replaced.
It’s your planning period and you know you should not waste it, but as the minutes tick by, you can’t seem to actually do anything but stare at your desk. Your heart is beating too fast. You have a queasy feeling in your stomach, and all you can think about is how there is so much to do and not nearly enough time to do it all.
If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed, it’s not only affecting your ability to get things done in the moment, it also has long term ramifications.
According to Rebecca Zucker at the Harvard Business Review, “The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind or an impaired ability to problem solve. When we have too many demands on our thinking over an extended period of time, cognitive fatigue can also happen, making us more prone to distractions and our thinking less agile.”
Unfortunately, I can’t wave a magic wand to make these feelings of overwhelm and the work that has caused them disappear, but I can recommend some strategies to help you cope.
1. Take a Deep Breath...or Three
I know it is almost a cliché these days to take a deep breath when you are feeling overwhelmed, but it really does help.
When you are feeling anxious because you are overwhelmed, your brain interprets it as a threat and responds by releasing cortisol and other stress hormones into your bloodstream so that you will be ready for action. It’s that old flight-or-fight response kicking in. Of course, this is an unnecessary response when you are sitting safely at your desk in your classroom, but your brain doesn’t know that. Its primary goal is to keep you safe.
When you breathe deeply and relax your body, you are sending your brain the message that there is no need for panic. Your life is not in danger. It can stop shooting all that anxiety-causing cortisol through your body. In addition, taking in more oxygen will help to clear your mind so that you are better equipped to face the task at hand.
2. Clear the Clutter
Take everything that you have to do off your desk and put it all where you won’t see it. I have a shelf behind my desk for all the unfinished papers and projects.
Seeing all those tasks you have yet to do will send your brain hurtling into panic all over again. The only thing you need to see (in addition to things that make you happy like family photos, a potted plant, your favorite coffee cup, and the like) is the task you are working on right now.
3. Prioritize the Things
This step is important, don’t skip it! Make a list of everything you have to do. Decide which things are the most important and most urgent and move them to a new list. Try for as few as possible. Start with these things and don’t worry about the rest, at least not right now.
When you are making your list, think carefully about the word, “urgent.” Sometimes something seems urgent, but when you think about it, you realize it isn’t. For example, emails from parents. Yes, every so often, one requires an immediate response, but in most cases, they can wait. In fact, if you routinely don’t answer your email until the end of the day, after a few weeks, no one will expect to see a response before 4.
4. Do One Thing
Doing one thing can snap you out of overwhelm and help to get you going. It can be an easy thing, but get it done, and then cross it off your list. The crossing it off your list part is important. It tells your brain that you are making progress and gives you that wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Don’t skip it.
Pro Tip #1: If you don’t have any easy things to start with, then break down one of your big things into smaller pieces and do one of the pieces. For example, ordering new science materials starts with figuring out what is needed. Go through just one kit or bin and note what materials need to be replaced. Check it off your list.
Pro Tip #2: Don’t try to save time by multi-tasking. Only a very small percentage of the population can multi-task for real. The rest of us may think we are multitasking, but we are actually just task-switching.
Task-switching is way less efficient than just focusing on one task at a time. Every time you switch from one task to another, your brain has to reorient itself to the other task, which not only wastes time but also sends the message to your brain that there is too much to do – thus causing, you guessed it, more anxiety. Resist the urge to multi-task!
5. Keep Doing the Things
Keep doing things and checking then off your list. This sounds obvious, but often people don’t do this. They get distracted by social media or fun-but-unimportant tasks like creating a new bulletin board. However, you will feel better if you get several tasks checked off your list than if you spend 20 minutes scrolling Facebook or looking at TikTok videos.
6. Stop Doing the Things
Stop working when it is time to go home, or when your brain is mush, or when you are getting hungry, or sleepy, or frustrated.
Working when you are not at your best is not only poor self-care; it’s not even good work behavior. You may think you are going above and beyond, but continuing to work when you can’t focus properly will likely result in slow, painful progress and mistakes you would not normally make.
Quit when it is time to quit and come back with a rested body and a brain that is ready to work again.
If you have a hard deadline and can’t just stop for the day, at least take a break. Get outside for a few minutes, walk around the building, or refill your water bottle. Just like kids, adults need Brain Breaks too.
If you really want to take control of all that work and the feelings that go with it, here are some more strategies to add to your Overwhelm Toolbox.
Can you get parent volunteers to do some of the work? How about some of your past students who still come around to visit? Or your own kids? Can you share more work with your grade level team-mates?
Anything you can delegate is less work for you. Yes, it takes some time to train your volunteers, but it will be totally worth it in the longterm!
Skip or Delay that which is not Essential
It could be that there are things on your list that you want to do because you are an awesome teacher, but that realistically, are just too hard to manage this year.
That’s okay. Your emotional health and time for your own self-care and family are more important than an elaborate art project or handmade Christmas gifts for each student. Let it go, at least for now.
Take Acceptable Short Cuts
Handwritten comments on student papers is certainly optimal, but sometimes a stamp or a sticker is good enough. Can you use self-grading platforms like Boom Learning for test-prep instead of ones that require you to go in and correct them yourself? Can you spend a few dollars to purchase activities on TpT instead of creating them yourself? You don’t have to be Super-Teacher all of the time. Sometimes done is better than perfect.
Build in Small Rewards
If motivation is your issue, build in small rewards. I think these work best if they are based on work accomplished rather than time passed. For example, allow yourself to scroll Instagram for 15 minutes after grading half of your students’ book reports. Or eat a few MMs after each report card you complete. I know food rewards aren’t ideal, but ideal won’t get your report cards done. Sometimes, what works in the moment is the best choice.
Play Calming Music While You Work
There is research to show that playing some kinds of music can actually boost your productivity. Think classical, instrumental (especially from the Baroque period). Stay away fast songs, anything with words, or anything that might put you to sleep.
Bonus: If you are working in an area where you are likely to be interrupted, a big set of headphones (or even earbuds) are a “Do Not Disturb” sign for those who might try to distract you.
Now, take a few deep breaths. Take it one step at a time and remember: Your work is important, but so is your self-care.
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